Vito Pugliese · Wednesday April 27, 2011
On Monday April 25th, 2011 a piece of NASCAR history was lost forever.
The remainder of NASCAR legend Henry “Smokey” Yunick’s shop – aka, “The Best Damn Garage In Town” was destroyed by fire in Daytona Beach, Florida. It is sad, to say the least that yet another of NASCAR’s founding fathers’ legacies has been lost. With the announcements soon forthcoming for the next Hall of Fame class, it was unlikely that Yunick would have been included – although he would have likely been part of the discussion.
When NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees are mentioned, it is typically the drivers that garner most of the adulation and recognition. But with Junior Johnson having been inducted, there has been more of a push as of late to include many of the mechanics and allow them to have a home there as well. Yes, Junior was a driver with 50 career wins, but he is probably still recognized by most as a championshi- winning car owner. Yunick drove all of 25 laps in his NASCAR career – heck, he more than doubled that in the European theater, piloting a Boeing B-17 during WWII ironically named, “Smokey and his Firemen.”
Much like fellow mechanic and race engineer Bud Moore, Yunick answered the call of service to his country, and returned to reap the reward. During training missions, he had flown over Daytona Beach, Florida and thought it looked nice – and was warm. Yunick opened his garage in 1947 servicing trucks and cars on one side while, eventually, racecars were constructed on the opposite end.
Yunick got his start in NASCAR during the golden era of the 1950s. Manufacturers were taking notice and getting involved in stock car racing because back then the cars were just that – stock. He was tabbed to put together a car for Herb Thomas in the second running of the Southern 500 in 1951, which they won. Thomas and Yunick would rack up 49 wins together, including championships in 1951 and 1953, driving an Oldsmobile in ’51 and a Hudson Hornet in 1953.
Yunick would dabble with Chevrolets and Fords in the coming seasons before making the move to Pontiac in 1959. The big Tin Indians were all the rage on superspeedways in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with drivers Paul Goldsmith, Marvin Panch, and most notably Glen “Fireball” Roberts. Roberts would capture three wins from 1959-1962, with Panch winning a fourth in a Yunick-prepared Pontiac.
Speed was not short in coming for Yunick and Roberts. In 1962, Roberts and Yunick dominated Daytona, winning the pole, the Daytona 500 qualifying race, and the Daytona 500 (both were points-paying events back then). The duo went on to finish first or second six times that season, posting twelve top 10s and nine poles in only 19 starts.
During this same period, Yunick was a frequent competitor at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. The car he helped build for Jim Rathmann won in 1960, leading 100 of 200 laps. Ever the innovator, Yunick introduced the now-familiar rear wing in 1962. It was subsequently banned, but returned to stay in the early 1970s.
It would be stock cars, though – and cars that were stock – where Yunick would make his mark. He had a habit of working with the legends and fabric of the sport, with some of the most notorious rides that pushed the boundaries of innovation, fabrication, and, uh, legality.
There was the pole-winning effort at the 1967 Daytona 500 with Curtis Turner attempting to make a return to racing at the controls of one of his familiar black and gold machines – this time, a Chevrolet Chevelle. The problem? This car was a cacophony of questionable, albeit ingenious engineering. A lowered roof, chopped windows, and raised floor made the car a bit of a 9/10th-scale replica, a feat repeated by the Melling Racing bunch of Bill Elliott in 1985.
Turns out this innovation wasn’t built to last; the engine in Turner’s car ended up letting go with less than 60 laps remaining. Later that season in Atlanta, Turner crashed heavily in Yunick’s Chevrolet, a violent wreck that led Yunick to pull his entry from the race stating, “I’m not going to build the car that Curtis Turner gets killed in.”
While Lee Petty is often cited – and rightfully so – of creating the prototypical professional race team, Yunick was in his own right a Jack Roush-of-all-trades. He was very influential in helping Chevrolet develop its engine programs so they would stop exploding, and has several automotive patents tied to his name. When hybrids were hype, Yunick took the lead in developing one that worked, and would far exceed anything else that exists today.
In the 1960s, he helped guide Pontiac to prominence on the banks of the beach, and it was with another PonTon where he would make his mark again 22 years later. In 1984 he took a lowly Pontiac Fiero (which is Italian for “Combustible Noxious Plastic”) and made the Hot Vapor Engine. By intentionally running the engine hotter than ever dreamed possible, and employing some pseudo-turbo charging, the car made 250 horsepower (160 more than stock), yet would still eclipse the 50 mpg mark on the highway.
Try doing that in your pious Prius.
That innovation was nearly put into production in 1990. However, it was Yunick’s sometimes-prickly demeanor that put him at odds with those in Detroit, just as it had in Daytona with NASCAR over the previous four decades. That’s not a knock against him; most people of any consequence in history typically don’t get along with everybody at every juncture.
General George S. Patton and Abraham Lincoln come to mind.
That the last standing monument to Yunick’s legacy went up in smoke this week would likely be of little concern to him. Prior to his passing in May of 2001, he sold off all of his tools and much of the memorabilia that was left behind.
Always a mechanic at heart, he wanted to give tools to people who would use them, and not end up as part of a shrine of sorts. Yunick’s daughter, Trish Yunick, echoed her father’s final wishes Monday as reported in the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
“I said my goodbyes a long time ago,” she said. “You know, he always said, ‘I don’t want no damn shrine.’ I’m delighted it’s not usable now. We didn’t want to defend what he strongly wanted.”
While that may be the case, Yunick rightly deserves a place in NASCAR’s Shrine in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It won’t come this year, or likely next, though with two of his former drivers Fireball Roberts and Herb Thomas as nominees, it would be fitting that Yunick gets his due as well.
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