• Profile Yunick

A blazing star in the racing world

Few people interpreted the rules as creatively, which meant Henry Yunick had his share of enemies and friends

Avatar By: Wheels July 4, 2021
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The way old “Smokey” Yunick saw it, breaking the rules was an overly simplistic cut-and-dried way of looking at life. Rather, he thought rules were all about interpretation. Few people creatively interpreted rules like Smokey did.

And depending on what side of the racing world you were on, you either loved him or hated him for it.

From one end of pit road to the other, drivers, mechanics, tire changers and owners will talk about the engineering genius. Or they’ll talk about how Smokey was a pioneer in the auto industry, whether it was challenging conventional thinking or spinning out another invention.

One thing they’ll all agree on: Henry “Smokey” Yunick was unquestionably unique, a blazing star in the racing universe.

From his trademark hat, glasses and cigar, down to his standard white uniform, Yunick was multi-faceted and multilingual in the language of racing: a driver, car-builder, mechanic, pilot and crew chief.

He could spin a tale as well as he could work a wrench. He could find the most creative way to win a race.

How did one man dominate not just a sport, but an industry? Follow the winding road of wild adventures and it’s easy to see the soul of the man was shaped on some interesting pit stops in life.

Yunick grew up on a farm in little Neshaminy, a hidden town in eastern Pennsylvania. He lived a hard life. When he was 16, Henry was forced to drop out of high school after his father died of a heart attack. Coincidentally, it was around this time that the young Yunick began to show mechanical creativity, a thirst for speed and a lust for fixing machines. Gleaning information from physical science books, his natural ability led to several interesting creations.

At age 12, after growing increasingly frustrated with the laziness of the family work horse, he built a tractor from spare parts he found in a junked car. By age 15 he was racing motorcycles. With his knowledge of internal combustion, and his quest for more power, Yunick’s bikes smoked so much so that one track announcer nicknamed him “Smokey.” It stuck.

Yunick eventually left the family farm, joining the Army Air Corps where he became a B-17 bomber pilot, surviving more than 50 missions over Europe in the Second World War before being transferred to the Pacific theater.

After the war, Yunick married and moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., “because it looked so good from the air,” he later said. Daytona was also the heart of a burgeoning racing industry.

A whiz with a wrench, Yunick decided he would set up his own truck repair garage on Beach Street. He called it “Smokey’s Best Damn Garage in Town.”

One visitor to the garage changed Yunick’s life for good. Marshall Teague, a well-known stock-car driver and owner, lived in Daytona Beach and, upon seeing Yunick’s new business, decided to take the garage owner up on his claim. Teague invited Yunick to join his team even though Yunick admitted he knew little about stock-car racing.

He began his racing career building Hudson Hornet engines in the early 1950s and ended up one of the most famous and influential crew chiefs in the history of NASCAR. There, his cars won 57 races and his list of more than 50 drivers read like a who’s who of racing over a half-century. He won two Grand National titles (the forerunner to Winston, Nextel and Sprint Cups).

A deep appreciation of aerodynamics had made all the difference. He understood how air affected objects in motion and applied that principle to the vehicles he built and tuned. Mostly, though, Yunick’s interpretation was a thorn in NASCAR’s side.

To those who disliked him, Yunick was an underhanded rule-bender. For those on his side, he was a hard-working genius with a scientific approach.

“All those other guys were cheatin’ 10 times worse than us,” Yunick said in his autobiography, “so it was just self defence.”

Yunick moved into open-wheel racing, running teams in the yearly Indianapolis 500 race in the late 1950s. That affiliation lasted 20 years. In 1960 he earned a win as a chief mechanic.

But Yunick’s influence stretched to all facets of the industry. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was a consultant to Chevrolet, Pontiac and Ford, working closely with the presidents of each company. Many of Yunick’s innovations in horsepower also found their way into the passenger-car side of the business: variable ratio power steering; the extended-tip spark plug; new cooling systems; and engine-testing devices.

Yunick closed his Daytona shop in the 1970s — he said he couldn’t find the right mechanics — and he quit racing altogether to work on other automotive projects. During that time, he began traveling to Ecuador to help companies find oil. He also wrote articles for Popular Science and Circle Track magazine. Mostly, though, Smokey was a character and a great storyteller.

Yunick was diagnosed with a blood disorder in 1998 that progressed into leukemia in November of 2000. Less than a year later, he was gone at age 77, eight weeks before his book, “Best Damn Garage in Town … The World According to Smokey,” hit the shelves.

As a final tribute, his wife, Margie, had his ashes scattered in every winner’s circle where his cars won.

The tribute was all too fitting for a man who had been, undeniably, been everywhere and done everything.

 

All through July and August, Wheels will pay tribute to the people and vehicles that have become legendary in the world of automobiles. Next week we take a look at racecar driver Janet Guthrie and the Jaguar D-Type.

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