Almost everyone has heard about NASCAR in one way or another; it has become one of the most significant automotive events and has attracted fans and drivers alike from all over the world. From its roots in moonshine running to its high stakes action, NASCAR has brought many folk heroes to light, but one, in particular, stands out from the rest.
Henry "Smokey" Yunick was an American race car mechanic, designer, innovator, and sometimes cheater. With a legendary past, known as one of the biggest rule breakers in NASCAR history. Fans shared tall tales of his achievements years after he retired. Smokey was constantly pushing the envelope with regards to motorsport from the time he began racing until he passed away in 2001. From stories of scaling racecars down for before competition in his tiny Florida shop, lovingly named the "Best Damn Garage in Town" to using feet of extra fuel lines to hold more fuel during the race than a regulation gas tank would allow. Smokey was always trying to find new ways to push the envelope of design, ingenuity, and often cheating. To Smokey, the rule book was more for seeing what wasn't in the rules than what was. Smokey felt he would always find a way to work that to his team's advantage, much to the annoyance of the tech inspectors.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Henry Yunick, grew up on a small farm in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and had to drop out of high school to help run the family farm at age 16, after the death of his father. However, this allowed Henry to exercise his skills for improvising and optimizing machines. He filled his free time with constructing a tractor from the remains of a junked car along with building and racing motorcycles; this is where young Henry Yunick got his nickname, "Smokey," that he obtained from the behavior of one of his ill running motorcycles.
When America joined World War 2, Henry enlisted into the Army Air Corps in 1941 and piloted a B-17 Flying Fortress that he named "Smokey and his Firemen." Smokey severed with the 97th Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force at Amendola Airfield, Italy. Smokey and his crew flew on more than 50 missions over Europe; before being transferred to the war's Pacific theater after victory had been declared on the European front in 1946. Following the end of World War 2, Smokey Yunick married and moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, because "it was warm and looked good" when he had flown over it on training missions.
After moving to Daytona Beach, Florida, Henry opened his shop, "Smokey's Best Damn Garage in Town." Smokey opened the garage in 1947; the shop focused on repairing trucks and other automobiles until 1987 when Smokey decided to close his shop, claiming that "there were no more good mechanics." From his corncob pipe and flattened ten-gallon cowboy hat to his blunt personality; Too many, Smokey was rough around the edges and unpolished in his honesty. Still, he was thoroughly respected in his field of work and for his creative ability to solve challenging problems with simple answers.
As Yunick's reputation as an outstanding mechanic spread through Daytona Beach, Marshall Teague, a local stock car race team owner, offered Smokey a job on the race team. Yunick accepted, despite being unfamiliar with stock car racing. Yunick worked hard preparing a Hudson Hornet for driver Herb Thomas for the second running of the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina, which, thanks to Smokey's profound machinal skill, won the race.
Smokey changed open-wheel racing permanently when he mounted a wing on Jim Rathmann's Simoniz Vista Special Watson Roadster. Designed to increase downforce, allowing Rathmann to reach cornering speeds never before witnessed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but created so much drag that it actually caused the car to put down slower lap times. The United States Automobile Club (USAC) immediately banned the use of wings. Still, they soon began to appear on vehicles competing in Can-Am and Formula One, and by 1972, USAC once again allowed their use.
Yunick's racing career brought him into contact with representatives of the automotive industry, and he became Chevrolet's unofficial factory race team, as well as heading NASCAR efforts for Ford and Pontiac. Much of the high-performance development of the Chevrolet Small-Block engine involved Yunick in its design and testing. With Pontiac, Smokey became the first team owner to win the Daytona 500 twice in 1961 and 1962, along with the first to put a driver, his close friend Fireball Roberts, on the pole three times. Following Fireball Roberts' 1964 crash at Charlotte, he tragically passed away after 40 days in the hospital. Yunick began a campaign for safety modifications to prevent a repeat of such disasters. After being overruled repeatedly by NASCAR's owner, Bill France Sr, Smokey left NASCAR in 1970. Yunick went on to designed the first "safe wall" race track barrier in the early 1980s using old tires between sheets of plywood, but NASCAR did not adopt his idea.
As with most successful racers, Smokey was a master of bending the rules or sometimes breaking them. Possibly his most famous exploit was his Number 13, 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle, driven by Curtis Turner. The car was so much faster than the competition during testing that people were sure that cheating was involved; some strongly suspected aerodynamic enhancement, but the car's profile seemed to be entirely stock, as the rules required. It was later discovered that Yunick had lowered and modified the roof and windows and raised the floor, which lowered the production car's body. Since Smokey bent the rules, NASCAR has required each race car's roof, hood, and trunk to fit templates representing the production car's specific profile.
Smokey was always up to something; he famously got around the regulations specifying a maximum size for the fuel tank, by using 11-foot coils of 2-inch diameter tubing for the fuel line that added about 1.5 US gallons to the car's fuel capacity. Once, NASCAR officials came up with a list of nine items for Yunick to fix before the car would be allowed on the track. The suspicious NASCAR officials had removed the tank for inspection. Yunick started the car with no gas tank and said, "Better make it ten," and drove it back to the pits. He put a basketball in the fuel tank that could be inflated when the car's fuel capacity was checked and deflated before the race allowing him to carry more fuel.
Yunick frequently bent the rules in lots of other areas besides the fuel system; offset chassis, raised floors, roof spoilers, nitrous oxide injection, and lots of other modifications that barely fit within the letters of the rule book. Yunick showed up for a race with stock rear fenders that partially covered the big rear tires of his Chevelle. The other teams laughed and wondered how he would change the tires during pit stops. After qualifying, Yunick promptly cut out the rear fender openings. The other crews complained to NASCAR, but Smokey said, "The rules say that I CAN cut out the rear fenders, but it doesn't say WHEN I can cut them."
Yunick wrote in his autobiography, "All those other guys were cheatin' ten times worse than us, so it was just self-defense."
Along with Smokeys famous Chevy Chevelle, he also built a 1968 Camaro for Trans-Am racing. Although Yunick set several speed and endurance records with the car at Bonneville Speedway, with both a 302 cubic inch and a 396 cubic inch engine, it never won a race while Yunick owned it. It was later sold to Don Yenko, who did win several races. In typical Yunick fashion, the car, although outwardly a stock Camaro, the car had acid-dipped body panels and thinner window glass to reduce weight, the front end of the body tilted downwards, and the windshield set back for aerodynamics, all four fenders widened, and the floor pan moved up to lower the car and numerous other detailed modifications. A connector to the engine oil system was extended into the car's interior to allow the driver to add oil from a pressurized hose during pit stops. In order to enable the driver enough movement, the shoulder harness was changed to incorporate a cable-ratch
et mechanism from a military helicopter. In 1993, Vic Edelbrock Jr. purchased and restored the famous Camaro.
In 1990, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame inducted Smokey, praising him as the ''sly mechanical genius whose reputation as one of the premier mechanics in Nascar hasn't diminished over the years.''
Sadly at 77, Henny (Smokey) Yunick passed away of leukemia on May 9, 2001, at his home in Daytona Beach, Florida. However, his legend continues to live as one of the biggest influencers in NASCAR.