Yunick was deeply involved in the early years of the NASCAR, and he is probably most associated with that racing genre. He participated as a racer, designer, and other jobs relating to the sport but was best-known as a mechanic, builder, and crew chief. He was renowned as a crotchety, crusty, opinionated character who "was about as good as there ever was on engines," according to Marvin Panch, who drove stock cars for Yunick and won the 1961 Daytona 500. His trademark white uniform and battered cowboy hat, together with a cigar or corncob pipe, were a familiar sight in the pits of almost every NASCAR or Indianapolis 500 race for over twenty years. In 1990 he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Early lifeYunick grew up on a farm in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania and had to drop out of school to run the farm at age 16, upon the death of his father. This, however, gave him an opportunity to exercise his talents for improvising and optimizing mechanical solutions; for instance, constructing a tractor from the remains of a junked car. In his spare time, he built and raced motorcycles; this is where he got his nickname, "Smokey", derived from the behavior of one of his motorcycles.
When World War II broke out in 1941, Yunick joined the Army Air Corps, piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress named "Smokey and his Firemen" on more than 50 missions over Europe. He was with the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the 15th Air Force, at Amendola Airfield, Italy, before being transferred to the war's Pacific theater following VE Day. In 1946, Yunick married and moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, because it was warm and looked good when he had flown over it on training missions.
Smokey's GarageYunick ran "Smokey's Best Damn Garage in Town" on Beach Street in Daytona Beach, Florida from 1947, when he opened the garage repairing trucks, until 1987 when he closed it, claiming that there were no more good mechanics.
Automobile racingWhen Yunick's reputation as a good mechanic spread through the town, Marshall Teague, a local stock car race team owner, invited him to join the team and Yunick accepted, despite being completely unfamiliar with stock car racing. He prepared a Hudson Hornet for driver Herb Thomas for the second running of the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina, which won the race. By the end of his racing career, Yunick's teams would have included 50 of the most famous drivers in the sport, winning 57 races, two Grand National championships, and twice NASCAR mechanic of the year.
Between 1958 and 1973, Yunick also participated in Indianapolis 500 racing, his car winning the 1960 race. His innovations here included the "Reverse Torque Special" of 1959, with the engine running in opposite rotation than normal, and a car with the drivers capsule mounted "sidesaddle" in 1964. In 1962, Yunick changed open wheel racing forever when he mounted a wing on Jim Rathmann's Simoniz Vista Special Watson Roadster. The wing, designed to increase downforce, allowed Rathmann to reach cornering speeds never before seen at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but created so much drag that it actually caused the car to record slower lap times. The United States Automobile Club (USAC) immediately banned the use of wings but they soon began to appear on cars competing in Formula One and by the early 1970s USAC once again allowed their use. He also participated in drag racing.
Yunick's racing career brought him into contact with representatives of the automotive industry, and he became Chevrolet's unofficial factory race team, as well as heading NASCAR efforts for Ford and Pontiac. Much of the high-performance development of the Chevrolet Small-Block engine involved Yunick in design, testing, or both. Yunick raced Chevrolets in 1955 and 1956, Fords in 1957 and 1958, and Pontiacs from 1959 through 1963. It was with Pontiac that Yunick became the first team owner to win the Daytona 500 twice (1961 and 1962), and first to put a driver, his close friend Fireball Roberts, on the pole three times (1960–1962); this also made Pontiac the first manufacturer to do so.
Following Fireball Roberts' 1964 crash at Charlotte — where after 40 days in pain from burns, he died — Yunick began a campaign for safety modifications to prevent a repeat of such disasters. After being overruled repeatedly by NASCAR's owner, Bill France Sr., Yunick left NASCAR in 1970.
As with most successful racers, Yunick was a master of the gray area straddling the rules. Perhaps his most famous exploit was his #13 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle, driven by Curtis Turner. The car was so much faster than the competition during testing that they were certain that cheating was involved; some sort of aerodynamic enhancement was strongly suspected, but the car's profile seemed to be entirely stock, as the rules required. It was eventually discovered that what Yunick had built was an exact 7/8 scale replica of the production car. Since then, NASCAR required each race car's roof, hood, and trunk to fit templates representing the production car's exact profile. More recently, these templates represent an agreed upon "specification body" that has minimal connection to a production car's profile. The shape has been developed with extensive wind tunnel testing to "level the playing field" across several manufacturer's products.
Another Yunick improvisation was getting around the regulations specifying a maximum size for the fuel tank, by using eleven foot (three meter) coils of 2-inch (5-centimeter) diameter tubing for the fuel line to add about 5 gallons (19 liters) to the car's fuel capacity. Once, NASCAR officials came up with a list of nine items for Yunick to fix before the car would be allowed on the track. The suspicious NASCAR officials had removed the tank for inspection. Yunick started the car with no gas tank and said "Better make it ten," and drove it back to the pits. He used a basketball in the fuel tank which could be inflated when the car's fuel capacity was checked and deflated for the race.
Yunick also used such innovations as offset chassis, raised floors, roof spoilers, nitrous oxide injection, and other modifications often within the letter of the rule-book, if not the spirit. "All those other guys were cheatin' 10 times worse than us," Yunick wrote in his autobiography, "so it was just self-defense." Yunick's success was also due to his expertise in the aerodynamics of racing cars.
Yunick also built a 1968 Camaro for Trans-Am racing. Although Yunick set several speed and endurance records with the car at Bonneville Speedway, with both a 302 cubic inch (~5000 cubic centimeter) and a 396 cubic inch (~6500 cubic centimeter) engine, it never won a race while Yunick owned it. It was later sold to Don Yenko, who did win several races. In typical Yunick fashion, the car, although superficially a stock Camaro, had acid-dipped body panels and thinner window glass to reduce weight, the front end of the body tilted downwards and the windshield laid back for aerodynamics, all four fenders widened, the front subframe Z'ed and the floorpan moved up to lower the car, and many other detailed modifications. The drip rails were even brought closer to the body for a tiny aerodynamic improvement. A connector to the engine oil system was extended into the car's interior, to allow the driver to add oil from a pressurized hose during pit stops. In order to allow the driver enough freedom of movement, the shoulder harness was modified to include a cable-ratchet mechanism from a military helicopter. In 1993, Vic Edelbrock, Jr. purchased and restored the car. Contrary to popular opinion, Yunick designed the first "safer barrier" in the early 1960's using old tires between sheets of plywood but NASCAR did not adopt his idea and it took the death of Dale Earnhardt to finally install safer barriers at NASCAR tracks. Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the first track to install them. Also Yunick developed air jacks for stock cars in 1961 but NASCAR thought and still thinks it is safer to have a jackman running around a car during a pitstop rather than using air jacks.
AwardsHe was inducted in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990 (inaugural year) and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2000. Smokey is a member of over 30 Halls of Fame across the United State and the rest of the world. Some of his personal items, including hats, pipes, boots, engines, etc. are on display (loan from family most of them) at museums from race tracks to the Smithsonian (history of racing).
Smokey was the NASCAR Mechanic of the Year twice.
PatentsYunick is the inventor of at least nine US patents.
|4,068,635||January 17, 1978||Pressure vent|
|4,467,752||August 28, 1984||Internal combustion engine|
|4,503,833||March 12, 1985||Apparatus and operating method for an internal combustion engine|
|4,592,329||June 21, 1984||Apparatus and operating method for an internal combustion engine|
|4,637,365||October 22, 1984||Fuel conditioning apparatus and method|
|4,862,859||March 2, 1988||Apparatus and operating method for an internal combustion engine|
|5,246,086||March 15, 1991||Oil change system and method|
|5,515,712||June 17, 1994||Apparatus and method for testing combustion engines|
|5,645,368||May 29, 1996||Race track with novel crash barrier and method|
Scientific achievementsAside from racing, Yunick's innovations include variable ratio power steering, the extended tip spark plug, reverse flow cooling systems, a high efficiency vapor carburetor, a high-efficiency adiabatic engine, various engine testing devices, and a safety wall for racetracks, made of discarded tires, which NASCAR's France had refused to consider. He was granted twelve patents. He also experimented with synthetic oil and alternative energy sources such as hydrogen, natural gas, windmills, solar panels, as well as involving himself in developing the gold mining and petroleum industries in Ecuador.
AuthorHis column "Say, Smokey" was a staple of Popular Science magazine in the 1960s and 1970s; it consisted of his responses to letters sent to him by readers regarding mechanical conditions affecting their cars and technical questions about how automotive performance could be improved. He also wrote for Circle Track magazine, and published his autobiography Best Damn Garage in Town in January 2001. The audiobook version was narrated by longtime friend John DeLorean.
In 1984, Yunick published Smokey's Power Secrets: