In remembrance of "The Best Damn Garage In Town" burning down, I thought I'd share this excerpt from my book, "Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed."
Like all truly great American heroes, Smokey Yunick was someone you couldn’t invent, a man whose accomplishments dwarf even his formidable, larger-than-life mystique. In the annals of NASCAR history, he stands firmly where legend and fact collide, leaving onlookers to judge his impact for themselves.
A war hero who combined the brains of an engineer with a penchant for hard living and bacchanalian excess, Yunick was one of the most outspoken characters in NASCAR’s history. He was by turns brilliant, profane, controversial, outrageous and charming, a man who loved to stir things up and despised authority figures. He was one of the best and most honored mechanics in the history of stock-car racing and a pioneer in creative rules interpretation, a man who, along with Junior Johnson, reigned as an outlaw genius, rebel, and perpetual thorn in Bill France’s side.
“Smokey was the worst or best, I’m not sure what you’d call it,” said Ray Fox, who drove stock cars in the 1950s and was later a car owner and a NASCAR official. “He was always trying to get away with something. I think Smokey had the idea [that] if you could have four things wrong and get one through, that was good.”
In the half century of NASCAR’s existence, Yunick stories have become the sanctioning body’s equivalent of urban legends, wild tales some claim are gospel truth, while others dismiss them as apocryphal.
In short, he was an American original, someone the likes of whom we’ve not seen before nor will ever again. One hundred years from now, it’s easy to imagine his ghost still walking through the Winston Cup garage, dressed in his trademark flattop Stetson and white overalls bearing a simple logo that reads “Best Damn Garage in Town.”
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Henry “Smokey” Yunick was born in Tennessee in 1923 and grew up in the outskirts of Philadelphia, where he dropped out of school in the 10th grade to support his mother and sister.
According to NASCAR historian Gene Granger, Yunick took up motorcycle racing in the late 1930s and got into aviation at about the same time. Both racing and flying would prove to be lifelong passions for Yunick. In fact, Yunick’s nickname came from his early racing days, when his motorcycle began spewing smoke and the track announcer forgot his name and simply started calling him “Smokey.”
When World War II broke out, Yunick became a B-17 pilot in the Army Air Corps, a stint that like many parts of his life would combine equal measures of achievement and controversy.
In a 1992 interview for American Racing Classics, Yunick recounted his first misadventure with the armed forces. “I went to the state fair in Memphis while I was stationed at Dyersburg [Tennessee],” he said. “I got drunk and came back for high-altitude formation. While I was up around 30,000 feet my appendix burst, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew I needed to get on the ground in a hurry. After [the co-pilot] tried to land it two or three times and he couldn’t, I came to long enough to get it on the ground. If I hadn’t, we would all have been dead.”
He recovered and became a highly decorated pilot, flying 52 bombing missions in Africa, Europe, Indochina, Burma, the Philippines, and Okinawa. He was wounded once and shot down over Poland on another occasion.
“I was in every World War II battle from Africa to Japan, every single one,” Yunick said, though he conceded that maybe he wasn’t quite suited to military life. “I was kind of a bad boy. I did about the same there as I did in NASCAR.”
And a bad boy he was once he got back home from the war. Frustrated by the cold weather during a brief stint as a mechanic in southern New Jersey, Yunick hooked up his house trailer to his car and headed for warmer weather, following a remarkably similar path to NASCAR founder Bill France.
Yunick, like France, ended up in Daytona Beach, Florida, where each opened his own business: France a gas station and Yunick a repair shop known as “The Best Damn Garage in Town.” Rivals in the auto-repair business, the men would soon butt heads in the racing world as well. It was a turbulent era and a time when Florida was known more as a rural frontier than a tourist mecca.
“If in 1947, I killed a guy in Daytona, unless he had five eyewitnesses, they wouldn't have bothered me,” said Yunick, whose father-in-law was a district attorney in the area for a time. “I would have never even been arrested, ’cause I was wired in politically. They liked racers, and anything they could do for you they would.
“If a cop caught me in Georgia speeding and I could get away from him, I would never pay the damn speeding ticket and you could send all the telegrams and everything you want to Florida to get me extradited, and they'd just laugh about it, tear it up, and throw it away.”
The heady days of the late 1940s and 1950s weren’t quite as all-American as some historians would have you believe. According to Yunick, the racers raced hard and lived harder, partying with groupies he called “fence bunnies.”
“As a rule, fence bunnies had a car, and they would circle our hotel like Indians circling a wagon train," Yunick said in an interview with reporter Juliet Macur of the Orlando Sentinel. “It wasn't uncommon for 10 or 15 couples to have sex in one room. If AIDS was around back then, we'd all be dead right now. … I'm not proud of what I did back then, but if a woman looked good, we didn't really abide by the Ten Commandments.”
On the track, Yunick was as brilliant as he was wild off it. With Yunick preparing the cars, Herb Thomas won NASCAR Grand National (now Winston Cup) championships in 1951 and 1953, in addition to finishing runner-up twice. With Yunick as his mechanic and car builder, Thomas won 39 races over four years.
General Motors hired Yunick away in 1955 to help develop the legendary Chevrolet small-block V-8, an engine still in production today, albeit in a much modified form.
In the mid-1950s, Yunick began competing as an owner/crew chief in a limited schedule of NASCAR Grand National races. His most notable success came at Daytona, where he won four of the first eight major stock-car races at the famed speedway after it opened in February 1959. Fireball Roberts was the winning driver for three of those four races, including the 1962 Daytona 500. Yunick also dabbled successfully in open-wheel racing, winning the Indy 500 in 1960, when he served as Jim Rathmann’s mechanic.
But Yunick’s legend was built around his creative rules interpretation. He didn’t just stretch the rule book, he bent it, broke it, and threw it out the window. And not only did he not like France, he had no use for NASCAR’s chief technical inspectors, Norris Friel, Bill Gazaway, or Dick Beaty.
“Gazaway and his brother ran the inspections. The very best thing you could say for the both of them was they were first-class gas station attendants. I mean you're stretching it there,” Yunick said. “Bill Gazaway was the chief inspector. If he had any claim to fame of any kind, it's that he was the finest reader of comic books there was in the United States. He had every issue of Superman and Spiderman and all that. To get in good with him, we used to go over there and get the latest comic books and throw them on his desk. He didn't know his ass from a hole in the ground.
“What was Friel's claim to fame? The best Model T mechanic in Washington, D.C. What was Dick Beaty's claim to fame? Dick Beaty was the best go-fer and odd-job guy that Eastern Airlines ever had in Charlotte. Not hardly a doctor in thermodynamics or anything, you know what I'm saying,” said Yunick. “The people they chose to be inspectors were not qualified. And nobody who was qualified would have took the job because it didn't pay enough.”
Yunick was equally blunt about how he stretched the rules. In fact, he claimed to have run an illegal supercharger for several years in the late 1950s, one of his most successful periods as a racer. “As far as cheating goes, they'll never stop it. There will always be some guy that'll think of something that's a little smarter than the average cat, but the reason there ain't any more of it on a big scale is that the only way it can be done successfully, only one person can know about it. And if there's only one person to know about it, like I was running supercharged Pontiacs and nobody knew about it. Nobody who worked for me knew it, had no idea that the engine was supercharged,” Yunick said.
“And that's the only way you could get away with it. But what happened is it about goddamn killed me working day and night. I had to work on it when the other guys went home. Well, they didn't go home until one or two in the morning. Then I would start on building the stuff to supercharge the engines.
“The only reason the world never knew about it was I decided to stop doing it. I figured I'd used up all the good luck I had and got by with it for a couple of years, and figured, well, sooner or later somebody's going to figure out what happened. So I abandoned it before I ever got caught,” he said. “I made it to run off the flywheel and pressure plate. It's easy to make the pressure plate the compressor wheel, and it was inside a housing. It was easy to close it, and with urethane it was easy to get it down to a minimum size and so on. I'm not going to describe the whole thing to you, but it really was no big deal. It was something I thought about for years and years.”
It’s hard to imagine that Yunick actually ran this device without detection for a period of years. The purpose of a supercharger is to dramatically compress the flow of air through an engine, thereby sharply boosting horsepower.
Even hidden in a bellhousing and run off a flywheel, the supercharger would have to have some way to direct air flow through the engine’s intake system, something that surely should have been detectable to inspectors or, more likely, other competitors.
On the other hand, Yunick was so creative with other parts of the car that it’s impossible to completely dismiss the story. His fellow competitors, for example, said Yunick was one of the first mechanics to really understand the relationship between the shape of a car’s body and the effects of wind resistance at high speed.
Aerodynamics, in fact, were probably his true to claim to fame on the scofflaw front. “Smokey was so far ahead of all of us in the aerodynamic downforce part of it. He could take a car and cut it all to pieces and work on it,” said his contemporary Bud Moore. “There’s no way we could have done some of the stuff he did.”
“Smokey was real good. He did all kinds of stuff. He was smart,” agreed David Pearson, the man who trails only Richard Petty in career NASCAR victories. “He had a little spoiler put on top of it [his car] to keep air from getting down on it. You could see it, but you had to look at it close. It was back there at the rear window on the roof.”
“You’d have to say Smokey Yunick was the best at the pre-1960 period. A lot of his was more innovation maybe than cheating. He knew where the gaps in the rules were, particularly as they related to engines,” said Humpy Wheeler. “People used to say that Smokey couldn’t make a car handle. Well, he could. The reason he got the handling rap was that his cars were going in the corners so much faster than everybody else. And it took a certain type of driver to drive for him because it was pretty intimidating. You couldn’t come in and say, ‘I don’t have enough power.’”
“Some of the great [aerodynamic] innovations in those regards came from Smokey,” said NASCAR historian Bob Latford. “Smokey was … running about a 15/16-scale car, just downsized so it made a smaller hole through the wind and therefore would be quicker. He used to take a half-inch out here and a quarter-inch out there and the car looks about the same until it's parked right next to another one that's actual [size].”
Like many of his peers, Yunick took umbrage at the term “cheating” even many years after his retirement.
“If you go back to 1950, you had the whole goddamn car to so-called be creative with. All right, now we've had 50 years of racing, 50 years of refining it, which are the collective efforts of all the smart people in the United States. And now the things that I would get disqualified for cheating are absolutely legal today,” said Yunick.
“The cheating thing is just like the law business. It depends on who's in power, the Democrats or the Republicans, and what part of the 19th or 20th or 21st century it is, because the laws are more and more abused the further we go. The lawyers are learning ways to circumvent the rules that we had yesterday. The same thing's happening in races.
“Ninety percent of the so-called cheating that was innovated, it wasn't cheating,” Yunick said, citing as an example a Chevrolet he entered at the Daytona 500 in 1968. “There was no rule on how big the gas line could be. Everyone else ran a 5/8-inch gas line. That was adequate to supply the race engine with gas, no question about it. I chose to run a two-inch gas line, which was obviously much too big, but it was 11 feet long and it held five gallons of gas. Nobody ever [specified size]. A week after the race, the gas line couldn't be over a half-inch in diameter. The day that I did it, it was not illegal. That's how most all these innovations—so-called cheating—was not cheating the day it was done.”
Still, he remained resolutely unconvinced that innovating can ever be effectively controlled by NASCAR. “They will find out there is no way to police creativity. No way in hell. There's always some guy who comes along like Ray Evernham that's smarter than the average cat, and he's going to figure out a way to get around it,” said Yunick. “The difference between Gary Nelson's ability to think and Ray Evernham's — well, probably there's not a lot of difference in their IQs, but Evernham concentrates on engines and certain areas with a lot of expensive, very educated help. For 60 hours a week, he's studying new stuff to beat the rules. Gary Nelson is spending 50 hours a week trying to enforce the rules that were made yesterday. They're not even in the same game.
“The first inspector NASCAR ever had that even had a clue on what was going on is the guy they got now [Gary Nelson]. He's quite knowledgeable and should certainly be capable of doing a good job. But one of the problems is, and it's a very specific problem that will never go away, is that if he had, say four good assistants that are very knowledgeable and so forth, they're up against 100 mechanics factory-educated to like the third level, almost like doctors, you know what I mean?”
In their heydays, Yunick and Gazaway butted heads on many occasions, most notably at the 1968 Daytona 500, when Yunick was purported to have driven his race car away from inspection after NASCAR officials had removed the fuel tank.
The truth of what happened, to this day, remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, if only because Yunick has told and retold the story several different ways. But this much seems certain: Curtis Turner won the pole for the 1967 Daytona 500 in one of Yunick’s Chevrolets, at a time when General Motors was not officially in racing, but rivals Ford and Chrysler were.
The pole victory for the unsponsored Chevrolet infuriated Ford and Chrysler, which at the time were pouring millions of dollars into racing, while GM’s factory efforts had been curtailed.
“Smokey had been out of NASCAR for some period of time. He was primarily at Indianapolis, winning the race in 1960 with Jim Rathmann. He came back to Daytona in 1967,” recalled Wheeler, who was there when it happened. “This was at the absolute height of the Ford-Chrysler factory wars, also between Firestone and Goodyear. In ’65 and ’66, Ford and Chrysler had boycotted, each one year. In ’67 at Daytona they all were back. Chrysler had the mighty hemi, Ford had the 427 engine that was so good. Of course, there were no Chevrolets, hadn’t been for some time, at least none of consequence on the big tracks. Smokey shows up with a ’67 Chevrolet Chevelle with Curtis Turner driving. It was two renegades coming into Daytona, neither could care less about what anybody thought of them. All of a sudden, the first time I saw the car, I thought, the car is awful small. The Chevelle, an intermediate-sized production car, was smaller than the full-size Ford Galaxie and the Dodges and Plymouths that were running. But Smokey’s car didn’t look like it was as big as the Chevelles I’d seen.
“In practice it didn’t really do much. Here comes pole day, and he wins the pole. This would be like a Peugeot coming in and winning the pole today in a stock-car race. It was such a shock. It was so embarrassing to the factory teams. I have never seen longer faces in my life at a racetrack, other than when somebody’s killed, than at Daytona that day. NASCAR scrambled all around trying to find out who did what to whom, how did that damn thing get on the pole? It comes time for the qualifying races. Curtis on the pole and they drop the flag. He developed a mysterious smoke coming out of the car on the first lap. I guess Smokey said it was a blown engine or a leaky oil line. I suspect that he didn’t want to show his hand. He knew that NASCAR was after him big time. The car didn’t win the race, but probably in the history of stock-car racing there was never a bigger upset than what happened that day.”
Ironically, because of rampant aerodynamic massaging by teams in 1965 and 1966, NASCAR brought templates to Daytona for the first time in 1967. These ran lengthwise from the car’s hood to trunk and fit over the roof to make sure the trunk/roof/hood line was identical to production models.
Yunick found an obvious loophole: NASCAR didn’t measure how wide the car was, so he narrowed it. A narrower car pushes less air and, all other things being equal, it will be faster than a wider car.
“What did Smokey do with the car? He just made a small Chevelle out of it and took advantage of something nobody paid much attention to in those days, and that was aerodynamics,’ said Wheeler. “It was less to move through the air. He had the fabulous ability to get more horsepower out of an engine than anybody else on Earth could. So the combination was earth shattering. As a matter of fact, that car was held in such high esteem as the ultimate cheater that it was sold for way up in the six figures at a collector car auction in Phoenix a couple of years ago. Somehow or other it miraculously showed up. Smokey verified to me that that was the Daytona car. It would be interesting to get that car and find out what size it really was.”
Under pressure from France, Yunick agreed not to run the car for the pole in 1968, but would instead attempt to be the fastest second-round qualifier, which would still earn him prize money from a contingency sponsor. Yunick claims he cut the deal with France, which, in effect, would guarantee either Ford or Chrysler the pole for the season’s most important race.
But the trouble started when Yunick showed up at tech inspection with his black-and-gold No. 13 Chevrolet Chevelle, which was now driven by Johnny Rutherford.
“That had a rubber fuel cell in it which was the legitimate size. They had it out about four times. It's a deal that had nothing to do with gas tanks. It had to do with Chrysler and Ford Motor Company telling France there wasn't going to be no unsponsored General Motors car sitting on the pole was what it was all about. So how do you want to approach that?” Yunick said at Charlotte in October 2000.
“The real story is a very complex story that had to do with politics and nothing to do with gas tanks. See, the year before that, I was an unsponsored car and it was a GM car. And it came out of nowhere and sat on the pole by about 4 miles per hour, OK? Which, apparently, they took as an embarrassment, Ford and Chrysler. General Motors still hadn't come back in the thing in ’68. And so the deal still went: There won't be a GM car on the pole. That's what happened. There's a lot more to the story. The car never ran. Nobody knows whether it would have sat on the pole or not. And in June, Firestone wanted to do a tire test at Daytona and they hired me to do it. Five days before the tire test, when NASCAR discovered that Firestone was going to use my car for the tire test, they banned it. They said, ‘You can't do no tire test here, either.’ That was it.”
Well, most of it anyway. There was an angry confrontation in tech inspection.
“We had the gas tank checked, and we were in inspection. They checked me and thought I had a secret gas tank someplace. Then they said, ‘You gotta go back to the chief inspector.’ He had a list of 11 things that had to be fixed before the car could run. Item number one was replace homemade frame with stock frame. Now, you've got an hour and a half left, then you've got 10 more things.
“So, I said, 'Well, you've got about 10 minutes to decide if you're really serious about this thing, because 10 minutes from now, if you don't come over and tell me the car was passed in inspection, I'm leaving.’ They never came over.
“And then when I went to leave, I wanted to drive the car out and I wanted to put gas in it. And the inspector said, ‘You can't move this car, ’cause we're not done inspecting it.’
“I said, ‘Don't make any difference, I'm leaving.’ Well, I wasn't having any luck with him, so I knocked him on his ass, went and got in the car, and let my boys tow me back, and then I decided to go round the track one time with the car. Then I had that big rope on it and I thought, no that won't work, I'm liable to run over that damn thing. So we just took it home. That's all there was to it.”
Except, of course, for the fact that the black-and-gold Chevrolet had a two-inch, 11-foot-long fuel line that held five gallons of gas, a feature that would be outlawed a week later.
“Smokey was a genius in his time. He was as good as anybody was during his time,” said Charlie Gray, a retired engineer who was Ford Motor Company’s program coordinator for stock-car racing from the early 1960s through 1970. “He was a great power in his day. He certainly made his mark, and he deserved every bit of the recognition he got.”
“Smokey was an extremely talented, highly educated mechanic,” agreed car owner Leonard Wood, co-owner of the legendary Wood Brothers racing team. “He used a lot of common sense and was innovative.”
* * *
But for all his technical brilliance, the fiery Yunick had a hard time coping with the politics of automobile racing and the politics of the automobile manufacturers. And that led to his retirement from NASCAR in 1971.
“The politics were a big part of it. When we got going in the 1950s, [France] in his head wanted to keep the cars absolutely stock, which was totally impossible for safety reasons, not speed reasons. That's how the cheating got started, to keep from getting killed.”
The weakest link in the 1950s stock car was the front-end spindle, which held on the wheel assembly and connected it to the steering and suspension. As speeds began to increase, the g forces and loads on the spindles increased, too. Eventually the spindles would fail, and the result would be wrecks, sometimes with catastrophic results. “He forced us to cheat in the beginning to make heavier spindles,” Yunick said of France’s attempt to keep the cars strictly stock. “The factories at that time, they would make a bigger [spindle] for you.”
Yunick knew that France held all the cards and there was little anyone could do, least of all a renegade car owner who openly voiced his displeasure with NASCAR’s boss.
“If he wanted to disqualify the car, he could. It was his outfit, and nobody made me run in the thing, so if he abused what I thought was his power, I figured, well, it's his outfit, and if I can't handle the heat, I need to go somewhere else,” Yunick explained.
“I ran the Ford Torino Talladega [a limited production model] in 1970 at Daytona, and they forced me to run a Ford that was four inches higher than the other ones. They knew where the cheating was going on and they watched everybody else and they caught everything on mine, and you could see my car was sitting that much higher up in the air.
“I said, ‘Well, you only get to do that one time.’ And I told them before the race I said, ‘You make me race this way, this'll be the last time I ever race in the South.’
“He [France] said, ‘Ah, you'll be back.’
“I said, ‘If you don't think I'm gone, you count the days till I get back.’ And I said, ‘If I see you first, I'll get on the other side of the street, and if you see me, you get the fuck on the other side of the street. You want to know what time of day it is, it'll cost you 100 bucks. That's the way he left it. When I left, Junior Johnson was the next one that got my place, and they worked his ass off till they run him off. You can only take that so long.”
Yunick never again would compete as a car owner or mechanic at a NASCAR race. Although he frequently showed up at races in the years ahead, he battled bone cancer and a host of other ailments and was absent from the scene for most of the 2000 season, until showing up at Charlotte in October for the UAW-GM Quality 500.
“I was diagnosed with everything but pregnancy,” Yunick said with a raspy laugh as he sat in the infield media center at Charlotte in October 2000. “Finally, about a month ago, I took all the medicine there was and threw it in the trash can, told the doctor, ‘I'm done with this shit. If I'm going to die, I'm going to die. Don't even talk to me about it anymore.’ I picked up horsepower, about 70 percent. I feel 100 percent better. I came away from wheelchairs, those things you push, canes. Now I'm walking by myself—all that in 20 days.
“I just went up and down. I didn't know what was happening. I was so weak I couldn't do nothing. I really didn't want to live because I couldn't do nothing. I'm starting to get back in the ball game. I may be going to drop dead because I won't take the medicine, but I ain't taking no more. If I'm going to die, let's get it over with. I'm headed for 78 now, and I've had enough of everything, with no regrets. I had a good life.”
And just as he refused to obey authority in the military or NASCAR, Yunick wasn’t about to take a doctor’s word on how to live. He lived his entire life on his own terms and vowed to finish it the same way. He died May 9, 2001.
“I think he was years ahead of his time in some of the aerodynamic things,” said Barry Dodson. “One of the Chevelles he had is up in Richard Childress's museum now, and every time I go over there I take time to look at that car. I think how could anybody have that mind and that ingenuity 20 years before anybody else, before we had the use of the wind tunnels and all the data that we have from the manufacturers? He was way, way ahead of his time.”