The Quick Bio
Henry "Smokey" Yunick was...
Henry "Smokey" Yunick was a one-of-a-kind master mechanic, who was born on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania.
May 25, 1923
Daytona Beach, FL
May 9, 2001
Smokey Jr., Rex Henry (deceased), Betty Ann with first wife. Trish, William Sam (deceased), Steven with second wife. He and Margie had no children.
Smokey was many things to many people. While his personality often portrayed a hard-nosed, rule-bending competitor, there was much more to him than that.
I personally experienced many situations in our 35-year friendship that characterized him beyond the misconceptions of those who did not have those opportunities. He had one of the most inquisitive and probing minds I ever experienced, skilled with an ability to see more "sides" to situations than most of us are able. There is far too little space here to chronicle all facets of his life, both on and off the track, but some highlight the times we spent together. In no particular order, here are a few that found their way onto the canvas of my memory.
There was the time he showed up at Riverside Raceway (in California); in the midst of qualifications for a Trans-Am race. Flat-towing a carefully and aerodynamically groomed '67 Camaro, he proceeded to install Lloyd Ruby into the car for a half-dozen laps, some of which bettered the pole time set by Jerry Titus in the previous year's race. Amid speculation he was entering the race, track officials scoured the car for multiple rules infractions, after which Smokey re-hooked the car to his campered pickup truck and departed the facility, giving clear impression he'd be back to race the next day. That was Saturday before the Sunday race.
On Monday, he called me and asked, "How'd the race come out?" When I inquired about his whereabouts, he indicated he'd never intended to race at Riverside. Rather, he had been on his way to Bonneville to reset some land-speed records with the car. Riverside race locals still talk about the event.
I also recall a late-night engine dyno session in that area of the infamous "Best Damn Garage in Town" when testing some cross-ram intake manifolds for small-block Chevys.
We'd been at it all day and into the evening and, frankly, I was beginning to fall asleep...while standing. While I was on one side of the engine wrenching on yet another manifold, one of Smokey's hardly-ever-said-anything mechanics was on the other. Acknowledging I'd seen some of these "box" manifolds (in a nearby parts room) with Plexiglas tops, I asked a stay-awake question. "I can't imagine Smokey standing in here with the engine at 7,500 rpm while viewing air/fuel distribution patterns in one of these manifolds." To which my mostly-silent partner stopped work, put down his wrench, looked me directly in the eyes and said, "What the hell makes you think Smokey would be in here doing that?"
Smokey's shop was a treasure...
Smokey's shop was a treasure trove of parts, pieces, and all things mechanical.
Then I remember the '67 Daytona 500 when Curtis Turner put Smokey's "15/16-scale model of a Chevelle" on the pole, amid a sea of factory-backed Mopars and Fords. With the car qualified, and obviously not allowed to run another design or material of tire in the race, Smokey's crew was trimming out the fenderwells for larger rubber when I happened upon the scene.
A NASCAR official had just walked through a gate exiting the pit area, exclaiming, "You can't do that Smokey. The car's already qualified." With his back to the official and drawing on his pipe, Smokey directed his guys to "Keep cuttin'." The official continued toward the car, repeating his warning. When he was about 10 feet away and with his back still turned away from the official, Smokey cautions him. "You can stop right there, Sonny. Then why don't you turn around, leave that gate you just came through open and tell Mr. France his pole car just went home." He ran the tires.
But I still maintain there was a side to the man that few had an opportunity to experience. My wife and I had traveled to Daytona Beach for a few days with Smokey, a short time before Leukemia finally took his life. The shop was virtually empty, almost ghost-like, and eerily so. No activity had been around the dyno area for quite some time. Still, Smokey was urging NASCAR toward further investigation of his "crash wall" concept, yet another of his crusades well ahead of their time, modeling this one with a battery of used tires selectively placed in one area of the shop's yard. We spent hours in his office, cluttered with bits of memorabilia from his decades of racing and other exploits. It was like time stood still, at least for a few days.
He had a special place in...
He had a special place in his heart for the Indianapolis 500. Most Indy cars of the era had the transmission hanging out the tail of the car, but Yunick placed the transmission in his Chevy between the engine and the rear end. Yunick won the Indy 500 in 1960 with Jim Rathmann behind the wheel.
Historically, I've come to believe that you can learn much about a man by the way he treats his pets. In Smokey's case, it was his two dogs, both of which seemed aware of his impending departure and inseparable around him in that regard. In the evenings, we sat down by the causeway that traversed the ocean side of his shop property and reminisced about times both good and bad. How he was hurrying to finish compiling his "book" and what would happen to the "garage" in his absence. Both dogs stayed at his feet and he frequently acknowledged their presence. He spoke about all the "fun" he'd had racing, particularly winning the Indy 500, the quarrels with NASCAR, and many of the goals he'd achieved, along with those he'd not had time to investigate.
What Smokey brought to the automotive landscape and the way he went about making his marks failed to acknowledge that he understood and related to hard-working, honest people. Virtually anyone could call and talk with him. If you were a racer and had a question, somehow he'd find time to share his thoughts, whether you agreed with him or not. I've often thought his passion was for people and racing was just the stage on which he operated.
Did You Know?
• Won Two Grand National (Sprint Cup today) Championships (Herb Thomas-1951 and 1953)
• 57 NASCAR Grand National Wins, Including Eight at Daytona
• Won the 1960 Indianapolis 500
• Was Part of the Flying Tigers Flying B-17s for the Army Air Force in WWII
• Worked in Ecuador for 30 Years in Oil Drilling and Gold Mining
• Wrote for Popular Science and Circle Track Magazines
• Founding Member and Director of Embry-Riddle University
• Honorary Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering, Embry-Riddle Engineering
• Holder of at Least Nine U.S. Patents, Including One for a Racetrack Designed with "Soft Walls"