Smokey Yunick: NASCAR’s Most Clever Car Man

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smokey   So the NFL is getting its boxers in a wad over deflated footballs? Ah, isn't that cute! In NASCAR, chicanery is a science. Heck, right in the very first ever NASCAR-sanctioned event, the winner was stripped of his victory because his car had illegal springs! The truth is, when our favorite driver's team does it, it's "innovation"; when another driver's team does it, it's cheating. Among all those who have taken liberties with the NASCAR rule book, one man stood head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, if the New England Patriots had Henry "Smokey" Yunick working for them, they wouldn't have been deflating footballs, they would be putting metal particles in the balls, and magnets inside the receivers' gloves. It would be like those comedy movies where the quarterback throw the ball, and it just sticks to the receiver's uniform. What else would you expect from the man who opened up shop in Daytona Beach, naming it "The Best Damn Garage In Town?" The World War II copyrighted the name, so no one else would take it. Self-assured, opinionated, and a bit profane, the Pennsylvania-born son of Ukrainian immigrants closed it down in 1987 when he said there weren't any good mechanics left. This was 17 years after Smokey Yunick essentially told Bill France to stick it when he got sick of NASCAR politics. All that bluster means nothing if you can't back it up. Smokey could. The man just as famous for his cowboy hat and corn cob pipe fielded cars that won 39 races between 1951 and 1954, and two series championships. Marvin Panch won the 1961 Daytona 500 driving for Yunick. His handiwork also graced the winning car of the 1962 edition of the Great American Race driven by Fireball Roberts. The list of drivers who races in Smokey Yunick's cars included a who's who of NASCAR in the 50s: Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, and Herb Thomas, to name a few. Jim Rathmann won the 1960 Indianapolis 500 in a Yunick built car. An insight into his thinking came with his "reverse torque special" where the engine rotated in a different direction than normal. Yunick put a wing on Jim Rathmann's 1962 roadster for more downforce, allowing for better cornering speeds. The wings were banned for a time by USAC, but began showing up on cars in other racing bodies. He held patents for such innovations as the hot vapor engine, variable ratio power steering, and the extended tip spark plug. Yunick even held a patent for the centrifuge type oil refinery. For all his genius, what Smokey Yunick is best remembered for is his creative interpretation of the NASCAR rules. He had a car that got far superior gas mileage than the others. How did he do it? Though NASCAR had a rule on how big your gas tank could be, they didn't have rules on the fuel lines. So, Smokey used 11-foot coils measuring two inches in diameter, giving his car an additional fuel capacity of five gallons! Story has it that inspectors came up with a list of nine things he'd need to change for it to pass inspection; Yunick pulled the gas tank out, started the car and said, "better make it ten." There's also a story about how Yunick would mask fuel capacity by putting an inflated basketball in the gas tank. After it passed inspection, Yunick simply deflated the basketball. The greatest story concerns a 1966 Chevy Chevelle Yunick prepared for Curtis Turner. Some say it was a 7/8 scale replica. Legend has it he lowered the roof and raised the floor for better aerodynamics. The serious gear heads (Mac's Motor City Garage, for one example) say there's no way this is possible, but the body was moved back two inches on the chassis, changing the weight distribution and aerodynamics. Now we know where all the templates for inspectors came from. There's another story of how Yunick partially covered the stock rear tires of a Chevy Chevelle for better aerodynamics. Once the car qualified, he cut the fender openings. "The rules say that I can cut out the rear fenders but it doesn't say when I can cut them." Eventually, Yunick grew tired of rattling swords with France, and by the 70s, Yunick had moved on to other things, though for years he wrote magazine articles and eventually, an autobiography before his passing in 2001. Smokey Yunick would insist he wasn't a cheater; that other teams cheated "ten times worse," and he got creative in self-defense. Over the years, numerous drivers have been busted for oversized engines (Richard Petty), carburetor spacers (Mark Martin), and illegal carburetors (country music legend Marty Robbins turned himself in for the infraction at Talladega in 1972 when they wanted to award him "Rookie Of The Race" for his 18th place run). Regardless of your view on such shenanigans, you have to admire a mind that can dream up such schemes. People like Smokey Yunick don't think like you and me. You can have your spitballs, underinflated footballs, and stick 'um; give me the man who helped develop Chevrolet's small block engine back in the 50s. When it came to mechanics, Henry Yunick, who's nickname came from a motorcycle he raced with an engine that smoked, was a man among boys.      
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