25/5/1923 - 9/5/2001
Record updated 24-May-06
Henry "Smokey" Yunick was born somewhere around Maryville, Tennessee, was a mechanic and car designer associated with motorsports in the United States. Yunick was deeply involved in the early years of NASCAR, and is probably most associated with that form of racing. He participated as a racer, designer, and other jobs relating to the sport but was best-known as a mechanic, builder, and crew chief. He was renowned as a crotchety, crusty, opinionated character who "was about as good as there ever was on engines," according to Marvin Panch, who drove stock cars for Smokey and won the 1961 Daytona 500. His trademark white uniform and battered cowboy hat, together with a cigar or corncob pipe, were a familiar sight in the pits of almost every NASCAR or Indianapolis 500 race for over twenty years.
Smokey ran "Smokey's Best Damn Garage in Town" on Beach Street in Daytona Beach, Florida from 1947, when he opened the garage repairing trucks, until 1987 when he closed it, claiming that there were no more good mechanics.
Smokey grew up on a farm in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania and had to drop out of school to run the farm at age 16, upon the death of his father. This, however, gave him an opportunity to exercise his talents for improvising and optimizing mechanical solutions; for instance, constructing a tractor from the remains of a junked car. In his spare time, he built and raced motorcycles, where he got his nickname, Smokey, derived from the behavior of one of his bikes.
When World War II broke out, Yunick joined the Army Air Corps, piloting B-17 bombers in more than 50 missions over Europe, then getting transferred to the Pacific theater. In 1946, Yunick married and moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, because it had looked good when he had flown over it on training missions.
When Smokey's reputation as a good mechanic spread through the town, Marshall Teague, a local stock car race team owner, invited him to join the team and Smokey accepted, despite being completely unfamiliar with stock car racing. He prepared a Hudson Hornet for driver Herb Thomas for the second running of the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina, which won the race. By the end of his racing career, Yunick's teams would have included 50 of the most famous drivers in the sport, winning 57 races, two Grand National championships, and twice NASCAR mechanic of the year.
Between 1958 and 1973, Yunick also participated in Indianapolis 500 racing, his car winning the 1960 race. His innovations here included the "Reverse Torque Special" of 1959, with the engine running inverted, and a car with the engine mounted "sidesaddle" in 1964. He also participated in drag racing.
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 consulting for Ford and Pontiac. Much of the high-performance development of the Chevrolet small block V8 involved Yunick in design, testing, or both. Yunick raced Chevrolets in 1955 and 1956, Fords in 1957 and 1958, and Pontiacs from 1959 through 1963. It was with Pontiac Smokey became the first team owner to win the Daytona 500 twice (1961 and 1962), and first to put a driver, his close friend Fireball Roberts, on the pole three times (1960-1962); this also made Pontiac the first manufacturer to do so.
Following the death of Fireball Roberts at Charlotte in 1964, after 40 days in pain from burns sustained in a fire caused when he crashed his car, 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.; in 1970 Yunick left NASCAR.
As with most successful racers, Yunick was a master of the gray area straddling the rules. Perhaps his most famous exploit was his number 13 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle, driven by Curtis Turner. The car was so much faster than the competition during testing that they were certain that cheating was involved; some sort of aerodynamic enhancement was strongly suspected, but the car's profile seemed to be entirely stock, as the rules required. It was eventually discovered that what Yunick had built was an exact 7/8 scale replica of the production car. Since then, NASCAR has required roofs, hoods, and trunks of cars to fit actual templates with the exact profile cut out of them.
Another Yunick innovation was getting around the regulations specifying a maximum size for the fuel tank, by using coils of eleven feet of two inch diameter tubing for the fuel line to add about 1.5 gallons to the car's fuel capacity. After suspicious NASCAR officials removed the tank for inspection, Yunick started the car with no gas tank and drove it back to the pits. Yunick also utilized such innovations as offset chassis, raised floors, roof spoilers, a balloon in the fuel tank which could be inflated when the car's fuel capacity was checked and deflated for the race, nitrous oxide injection, and other modifications often within the letter of the rulebook, if not the spirit. "All those other guys were cheatin' 10 times worse than us," Yunick wrote in his autobiography, "so it was just self-defense." Yunick's success was also due to his expertise in the aerodynamics of racing cars.
Yunick also built a 1968 Camaro for Trans Am racing. Although Yunick set several speed and endurance records with the car at Bonneville, 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 superficially a stock appearing Camaro, had acid-dipped body panels and thinner glass to reduce weight, the front end of the body tilted downwards and the windshield laid back for aerodynamics, all four fenders widened, the front subframe Z'ed and the floorpan moved up to lower the car, and many other details. The driprails were even brought closer to the body for a tiny aerodynamic improvement. 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 allow the driver enough freedom of movement, the shoulder harness was modified to include a cable-ratchet mechanism from a military helicopter. The car was purchased and restored in 1993 by Vic Edelbrock, Jr..
Aside from racing, Yunick's innovations include variable ratio power steering, the extended tip spark plug, reverse flow cooling systems, a high efficiency vapor carburetor, a high efficiency adiabatic engine, various engine testing devices, and a safety wall for racetracks, made of discarded tires, which France had refused to consider. He was granted twelve patents. He also experimented with synthetic oil and alternative energy sources such as hydrogen, natural gas, windmills, solar panels, as well as involving himself in developing the gold mining and petroleum industries in Ecuador.
His column "Say, Smokey" was a staple of Popular Science magazine in the 1960s and 1970s; it consisted of his responses to letters sent to him by readers regarding mechanical conditions affecting their cars and technical questions about how automotive performance could be improved. He also wrote for Circle Track magazine, and published his autobiography "Best Damn Garage in Town" in January, 2001.
Smokey died of leukemia in 2001.
After his death, the contents of his shop were auctioned off, according to his wishes. He had witnessed his friend Don Garlits' difficulties developing and maintaining a museum and did not want either his family to be saddled with such a burden, or a "high roller" to gain control of his reputation. Instead, he preferred that his tools, equipment, cars, engines, and parts go to people who would use them, and before his death he undertook to restore as much of it as possible to working condition. The proceeds of the auction went to a foundation to fund innovations in motorsports.