On his 100th birthday, the legend of NASCAR’s greatest cheater

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty Images

The legend varies.

In one telling, it’s a Pontiac, in another, a Chevelle. One twist says the scrutineers had chalked up 16 infractions, another has them unable to find anything even after pulling the car apart. In any case, the ending is always the same: Smokey Yunick climbs into his stock car, leaves the track, and somehow drives all the way back to his shop without a fuel tank. Leaving dumbfounded officials standing in the paddock, next to the possibly illegal tank they had told him to remove.

It’s a good story, if only that. It’s easy to believe, however, given that Yunick’s name long ago became synonymous with bending the rules. For years, Henry “Smokey” Yunick pitted his considerable mechanical ingenuity against the NASCAR rulebook. He earned a reputation as a wily competitor, a man whose motto was basically it ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.

Trouble is, the legends and Yunick’s famous bags of tricks can obscure the story of a true innovator. Like Max Balchowsky, Yunick was a natural mechanic, gifted with a preternatural ability to understand the nuances of a combustion engine and the importance of aerodynamics. He saw his rule-bending as innovation, not cheating. And besides, in NASCAR’s midcentury Wild West days, everyone sought an unfair advantage. Smokey was just smarter than the rest.

Driver Curtis Turner chats with car owner/mechanic Smokey Yunick
ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty Images

Farm Boy, Craftsman, Pilot

The Yunick family were Ukrainian immigrants, settling in the tiny rural town of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. Henry was born in May of 1923. Growing up on a farm during the Great Depression, he became steeped in self-reliance. In that environment, in that time, when something broke, you didn’t send for the repairman, you fixed it yourself. Henry was just 16 when his father died and he took over running the farm with his mother.

One of Yunick’s earliest creations was a homemade tractor built from the wreckage of a scrapped car. Later, he began to hone a taste for speed, delving into racing motorcycles that he built and tuned himself. At one point, as Yunick careened around a circuit followed by a plume of petrocarbons, the track announcer dubbed him “Smokey.” The name stuck.

When the United States entered World War II, Smokey was just 18. Like many young men of the era, he enlisted, and he soon found himself piloting a bomber over Europe. (Here again lie parallels to Balchowsky, who was a ball-turret gunner in a B-24). Yunick flew more than 50 missions in his B-17, which bore nose art labeled Smokey and his firemen. The 97th Bomber Group of which he was a part took heavy losses in massive daylight bombing raids, but Yunick survived the war.

At some point, while testing aircraft stateside, Yunick overflew Florida’s Daytona Beach. From the air, the long sands looked inviting, and when the war ended, Yunick settled there. His time in Europe, however, would not be his last as a pilot.

Driver Paul Goldsmith and car owner Smokey Yunick talk
ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty Images

“The Best Damn Garage In Town”

In 1946, Yunick got married and landed in Daytona Beach. His shop, at 957 North Beach Street, opened one year later. It was called The Best Damn Garage In Town, and those words were no slogan. Yunick actually had the name officially registered.

Shortly after he opened for business, a born-and-raised Daytona resident named Marshall Teague wandered through the door. Teague was an early pillar of NASCAR, a man they called the King of the Beach. He found initial success racing a Hudson—a car liveried as The Fabulous Hudson Hornet, later immortalized in Pixar’s Cars and voiced by Paul Newman. Teague had factory backing from Hudson, and he wanted Yunick as his crew chief.

Herb Thomas drives his Smokey Yunick-prepared Hudson
ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty Images

Despite little experience in auto racing, Yunick accepted. Soon enough, though, his mechanical aptitude was given chance to shine. Yunick-fettled Hornets scored 39 Grand National wins—the equivalent of today’s top-shelf NASCAR Cup racing—over a four-year period. In the 1950s and 1960s, Yunick went from strength to strength. He worked for Chevrolet and Ford for a time, then prepped winning Pontiacs driven by A-listers like Glenn “Fireball” Roberts and Paul Goldsmith. But ol’ Smokey is not, and may never be, in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.

Battling the Rulebook

Racers get penalized or disqualified for all manner of sleight-of-hand these days, but in the early years of NASCAR, the rulebook was thin. Why make a rule to standardize fuel temperature or a seemingly irrelevant detail like a fuel line’s maximum size? Because along came Smokey Yunick.

Innovations gave Smokey his reputation, but they also brought him into longstanding friction with NASCAR’s founding family, the Frances. Competitors would often complain that some of Yunick’s tricks operated outside the spirit of competition. But again, as Yunick would tell you, he wasn’t the only one looking for an edge, and that’s just racing.

Smokey Yunick NASCAR 1955 Oldsmobile
ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty Images

That fuel-temperature standard? As Yunick correctly reasoned, colder liquids are denser, so cooling fuel to near-freezing temps before pouring it into a car’s tank effectively allowed the car to hold more combustible material per gallon. On top of that, as the fuel warmed during a race, it expanded, giving a little extra range per tank. Regulators soon cottoned on.

An extra-long, extra-wide fuel line was another trick. At ten feet long and two inches in diameter—nearly four times wider than standard—Yunick’s clever feed line from tank to carburetor held just enough extra gas to let a car stay out, running a bit longer, when everyone else had to pit. NASCAR eventually caught that one, too. Yunick once put an inflated basketball inside a fuel tank to reduce the tank’s capacity when the car when through scrutineering, then deflated the basketball for the race. He once sent a car out to qualify with its factory fender covers still attached, then cut off those covers to make pit stops easier—the rules said you could cut them away but failed to specify when. Porting and polishing exhaust headers wasn’t allowed, but the rulebook said nothing about extrude-honing them for similar benefit, so Yunick did just that.

Probably his best-known feat was the trio of 1967 Chevrolet Chevelles he built to run at Daytona. The legend here says the car was not a factory Chevelle body and frame but something like a smaller copy of each, around seven-eighths scale. In reality, the Chevy was far more impressive. It had a lightly destroked engine that revved more freely, quietly reworked front aerodynamics, a nearly hidden rear body flap for generating downforce, and a completely smooth underbelly. The result was good for 180 mph in qualifying, far outdoing factory-backed teams.

Smokey Yunick Chevelle 1966 NASCAR
Smokey Yunick services his 1966 Chevelle for driver Curtis Turner in the 1967 Daytona 500. ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty Images

The Yunick Chevelles spawned the no-fuel-tank myth. At Daytona in 1968, when Yunick showed up ready to run, he was handed a list of required changes for his cars. A production frame was included. He was steamed.

It wasn’t so much the wrangling over rules that caused a falling-out with the Frances. It was more Yunick’s no-holds-barred opinions, which he handed out liberally. Even today, 22 years after his death, Yunick’s relationship with stock-car racing’s most famous family has kept him from induction into the sport’s hall of fame. Which is a shame, but he might have cared more about the Indy 500, anyway.

An Unbridled Creativity

Marshall Teague can again be thanked for introducing Yunick to a new form of racing. He invited Smokey to the Indy 500 to watch, and Yunick was hooked. Where NASCAR’s rulebook was growing, its scrutineers ever more frustrating, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, breakthroughs won races.

Yunick won at Indy only once, in 1960, with driver Jim Rathmann and the fairly conventional Ken Paul Special. But he was free to experiment, and some of the cars he built show just how far his mechanical aptitude extended.

Take, for instance, the Hurst Floor Shift Special. Yunick said he took inspiration for this strange machine from the war, when he spotted a Blohm & Voss BV 141 from the cockpit of his B-17. The BV 141 is one of the weirdest aircraft of World War II, its cockpit offset from the main fuselage like some strange precursor to the Millennium Falcon. Similarly, Yunick’s creation (soon sponsored by Hurst, hence the name) sat the driver outside and to the left of the car’s main body. It was powered by a four-cylinder Offenhauser and held enough fuel to complete the entire 500-mile race without pitting.

49th Indianapolis 500 - 1965 Smokey Yunick Hurst Floor Shifter Special
Bobby Johns gets strapped in to the innovative “Hurst Floor Shift Special” by Smokey Yunick (R). Bob D'Olivo/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

Ecuadorian Gold and a 51-mpg Fiero

The 1950s and ’60s created the Smokey Yunick legend—his signature cowboy hat and pipe were a look as well-known as that of Carroll Shelby. But Yunick didn’t slow down in his old age; if anything, his story only grew crazier.

All told, Yunick spent three decades prospecting for gold and oil in Ecuador. His garage was transformed from race shop to highly secretive R&D location, complete with card locks on the doors. Inside, he worked on projects for various auto manufacturers. Despite having left school at a young age to run his family’s farm, he held 11 separate patents by the end of his life. And he used to commute to and from his shop, four times a day, in a helicopter he flew himself.

That lack of formal education, combined with a Depression-era work ethic, made so much possible. Yunick would put in a 12-hour day at the shop, fly home for dinner, then head back and work until one in the morning. He’d rarely let anyone, especially educated friends, see what he was working on, as he feared they might start listing potential problems with his ideas. If he didn’t see the potential for failure, he figured, he might just achieve success.

One bonkers example of Yunick’s ingenuity can be found in a most unlikely car: a four-cylinder Pontiac Fiero. Yunick fitted that car with a complex system that used coolant to manage the temperature of the fuel-air mixture and paired it with a temperature-controlled turbocharger. Duly equipped, the Fiero’s much-maligned Iron Duke four made 250 hp and reportedly achieved 51 miles per gallon. Yunick’s patents for the technology are public domain, but he took some of its secrets to the grave.

Smokey Yunick shop 1994
Rick Dole/Getty Images

On His Own Terms

In May 2001, just a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday, Yunick died of leukemia. Obituaries describe the end in the usual terms—lost a courageous battle with cancer. Smokey may have lost a few races here and there, but he didn’t lose any last battle. Judging the proposed treatment not worth the short life extension it would give, he quit it, deciding to enjoy the time he had left.

He was careful to preserve his legacy but not burden his family. Before the end, he wrote out an unvarnished autobiography, its text frank to the point of scandalous. But he also set out an estate plan that saw The Best Damn Garage sold off. There would be no museum for his kids to have to maintain.

Nothing of Yunick or the shop remains at 957 North Beach Street. The cars he built are still out there, though. Along with the endlessly circulated tales, both true and embellished. But really, there was never any need to make up stories about Henry “Smokey” Yunick. The reality was incredible enough.

 

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Comments

    Good testament to a true genius, and one of the most interesting characters to ever grace the racing biz. It’s true that the truths are way better than any made-up tales could be. To describe him as more of an innovator than “cheater” is correct. But he also had a twinkle in his eye when he was besting the rulebooks and race officials – he knew darned well why he as “innovating”! That he might never be inducted into the HOF is tantamount to a crime, IMO. Thanks for this write-up Brendan! 🤩

    Smokey made a point of the fact that he was not a cheater – he merely did things the rules did not state you could not do. There’s a huge difference. Cheating is doing what the rules say you cannot.

    Smokey is proof that not everyone has to have some high degree to have a clear understanding of mechanics. To some it just comes natural. Smokey was one of them.

    I was glad I got to meet him years ago at the PRI show. He did not invite me to the ARP seminar that he was giving he told me to be there like I had no choice. I also got a poster from him signed and it is hanging in my garage framed as a memorial to him and his knowledge.

    If you have not read his 3 volume autobiography you need to find a copy and read it. It is written just as he spoke profanity and all. Yes he even has a section the defines much of his profanity and his coined terms he used like calling someone a Pelican. He said a person that was a Pelican was in relation to a worthless bird the Sh#t$ and squads and is a waste.

    Smokey did not tolerate fools and hucksters well. He was who he was and if that was not good enough that was your problem.

    He was a good man who lived a full life for 3-4 men. Too bad there are so few more like him.

    Junior Johnson was another. These guys today would not get a second look and I often wonder how many more are out there undiscovered. Both he and Smokey taught the Detroit guys a good bit.

    Years ago, Car and Driver wrote of their experience with a Chrysler K-car that Smokey had engineered an early adibiatic fuel system for. C/D said that they could detect a pre-ignition rattle coming from the engine but Smokey claimed the noise was coming from a loose exhaust heat shield. As I recall, the remainder of the road test didn’t go well and the writer was invited to leave the shop. Ah, Smokey! Defiant as ever! The late Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins once said that Smokey was the smartest man he never met.

    Smokey’s autobiography is a must-read: the chapters about his WW2 flying tell an amazing story of the hi-jinks that occurred in the Pacific Theatre, and he explains the ’66 Chevelle much more accurately than this article. Not a 7/8-scale car, but basically every panel & dimension were altered. The car exists – as does his ’68 Camaro TA car – and both are masterpieces of clever re-shaping & engineering. I’ve stared at both for literally hours. The “cheater” accusation is a dis-service to him; but Smokey IS the reason the rulebook grew by leaps and bounds. It becomes clear in his book that his friction with Bill France stemmed from lazy safety measures – especially fuel cells – and some of France’s pre-NASCAR activities. Everything isn’t quite like the TV tells you…

    He and Bill clashed over playing favorites with MFGs.

    Smokey lost a race to a Mopar with an oversized fuel cell. He complained and Bill sent him the difference in winnings to shut him up.

    Smokey wiped his butt with the check and sent it back.

    In later years Smokey would visit Bill in the nursing home and talk.

    Also the TA Camaro and Chevelle there were several of each car. Many people think there was only one of each.

    One Chevelle had the fenders flared out over the tires. Teams complained till they realized there was no way to remove the tires during the race.

    They won the pole then Smokey took an air chisel and cut them away. Teams cried foul but Smokey said where did it say I can’t do this?

    One Chevelle died at Atlanta in Turners hands. Smokey said he hit the wall so hard he figured him dead. That car was crushed to a cube and at his shop for years.

    The story in the opening paragraph is true… I’ve heard it from Smokey himself. “We did not cheat”, the story begins emphatically… his much larger than stock fuel line wound its way throughout the car .”There was no rule restricting fuel line size or length… it held two extra gallons.”

    It certainly shows how small the France family is that Smokey isn’t in the Hall of Fame, doesn’t it?

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