At 7:00 PM on Monday, April 25th, the “Best Damn Garage in Town” started to burn to the ground in Daytona, Florida. Six days before that the list of nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction class of 2012 was announced with the name of the former owner of the that garage omitted for the third time. Are the two events related? It is very hard to imagine that one event led to another, but hopefully it will have some effect on the committee and result in Smokey Yunick’s name finally being included on the list for 2013.
Yunick is one of the greatest mechanical minds in the history of automobile racing, not only leading drivers to Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 championships but also NASCAR Grand National Titles twice. Yunick drove stock cars briefly in his career but he was by far best known as a true innovator as a mechanic, credited with at least 11 patents and a very well deserved reputation for pushing the limits of the gray area of the rule book to its limits. Prior to the introduction of the new car design Yunick and Junior Johnson were probably responsible for two-thirds of the rules in a rather thin rule book. Unfortunately for Yunick, that love for pushing the limits repeatedly put him at odds with Bill France, Sr. and is the only plausible excuse for why his name has been omitted from the list of nominees for the Hall of Fame to date.
Yunick revolutionized open wheel racing in 1962 when he mounted a wing onto the roadster of Jim Rathman which provided more downforce for the car and ultimately far greater corner speeds. Unfortunately, the drag created on the straights outweighed the cornering speeds and the car was slower than some of the other cars in the race. USAC, the sanctioning body for the race immediately banned wings, but after Can-Am and some other series employed them, they relented and the wings became a permanent fixture in the sport.
Yunick also brought a car to Indy that had the engine mounted upside down, calling it the Reverse Torque Special. He also introduced the Hurst Floor Shift Special which was a car with the driver compartment mounted on the side of the car between the wheels on the left side. While the innovation was cutting edge, the car was never able to achieve its potential as it was wrecked during practice.
In 1966, Yunick brought a Chevelle to NASCAR that was noticeably faster than the competition and the officials checked all of the obvious things that had made a difference in the past to no avail. After some time it was discovered that Yunick had “shrunk” the car so that it was 7/8ths the size of the original car. The use of templates followed shortly after the discovery to ensure that the cars on the track met the specifics of the stock cars as they were designed by the manufacturer.
There was also a story about NASCAR limiting the size of gas tanks but putting no limit on the length of the fuel line. The officials confiscated the tank out of Yunick’s car to check it and the legendary mechanic said they could keep it, got into the car and drove it back to his garage some six miles down the road utilizing just the fuel in the 11 feet of gas line that was in the car. David Pearson disputes the story–and he should know because he was there in person for the inspection–that the tank was actually placed back into the car. Whatever the case, the rules were changed to specify the length of fuel line after that event.
By 1970, Yunick was tired of butting heads with Big Bill France over the limitations on innovation that were constantly imposed by the sanctioning body and he left the sport. He continued to work on multiple projects from racing to alternative energy and anything else that intrigued his mind. When he was diagnosed with Leukemia he switched his focus to writing his autobiography entitled Sex, Lies and Superspeedways which was released in January 2001, five months before he succumbed to the illness.
Yunick was the truest of characters that made NASCAR great in its early days. If he’d been in charge of a racing series he’d have had two rules: show up and race. His mind was constantly coming up with different ways to do things and, once he figured out how to read the rule book, he became the master of working in the gray area. In an article in Circle Track magazine in 1988, Yunick explained how he finally approached the NASCAR rule book. “Trying to figure out NASCAR’s rule book threw me at first. Then, after studying the rules from all sides, I realized I’d made a colossal mistake,” he said.
“I’d been reading the rule book to see what it said. And all along what I should have been doing was finding out what it didn’t say. After I started doing that, racing became fun in a big way.”
With the establishment of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the sport is recognizing the figures who’ve made a lasting impact on the sport. The fact that Henry “Smokey” Yunick is not even listed among the 25 people being considered for enshrinement is at least a great oversight and at most a travesty. Yunick has been recognized by several other halls for his contributions to racing:
• National Racing Hall of Fame
• International MotorSports Hall of Fame
• Legends of Auto Racing Hall of Fame
• Stock Car Racing, Daytona Hall of Fame
• Darlington Motor Speedway Hall of Fame
• Legends of Performance – Chevrolet Hall of Fame
• TRW Mechanic Hall of Fame
• Living Legends of Auto Racing – 1997
• Stock Car Racing Magazine Hall of Fame
• Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame
• Voted #7 on list of Top 10 athletes of the Century
by Winston Salem Journal, Oct. 1999
• University of Central Florida, President’s Medallion Society
• Rotary Club of Oceanside – Daytona Beach
He has also received several awards:
• Two Time NASCAR Mechanic of the Year
• Mechanical Achievements Awards – Indianapolis Motor Speedway &
Ontario Motor Speedway
• Engineering Award – Indianapolis Motor Speedway
• Inventor of the Year – 1983
• Charlotte Motor Speedway Presents the Annual Smokey Yunick Lifetime Achievement Award
The NASCAR Hall of Fame should be about the accomplishments of a person’s career and not about the politics that surrounded the individual. Smokey Yunick had a greater impact on NASCAR than any other mechanic and he deserves to be recognized for his contributions. Hopefully the nominating committee will realize after the fire last week that his legacy was more important than some petty grudges.
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