At a late '50s or early '60s...
At a late '50s or early '60s race, Fireball Roberts is leading in one of our Pontiacs. Courtesy of the Smokey Yunick Collection
My cylinder head, for instance, hadn't been ported; the rules said you couldn't, but it might as well have been. I'd painted it. That's right, painted and polished the intake ports with a hard lacquer. Then there were the inserts. I'd added them to the valvespring seats to boost valvespring pressure. And, of course, I'd replaced the standard Hornet lifters with oversized mushroom tappets to quicken the valve action and increase camshaft duration. These were all the pieces I had to slip into Herb's engine without getting caught and with a grandstand watching to boot. Ironically, the trickiest, most vital part, my camshaft, wasn't a problem. As you'll recall, it had already passed the secret expert's secret test.
Fortunately, that was one damn dimly lit garage. I found a big steel washtub, filled it with gasoline, then dumped in all my parts along with Herb's stock parts. I let them settle until the gasoline got murky. Nobody could see the bottom of the tub. Reaching in and separating the trick parts from the stock parts, I started putting the engine together. As an added distraction, I lit and exploded firecrackers. While everybody was jumping out of the way, I switched, scrambled, and bolted on parts like mad. I still wonder how I got it all done. Everybody in the grandstand had to agree I hadn't done anything underhanded.
"The car's together, and now I'm going to take it and leave," I said. But Buddy Shuman still didn't trust me. "Oh, no you're not," he replied. "If you take that sumbitch out of here, you might change parts on us." Little did he know that I already had. That's when he banded me up. That's right. He proceeded to take two giant straps of banding iron and wrap and bind them completely around my poor Hornet engine. Afterward, he sealed them. That seemed to satisfy him and all those other jerks in the grandstand who'd watched me work for 18 hours. They knew it was one stock Hornet.
Well, the next day, Herb Thomas proceeded to qualify for the Southern 500 at almost 106 mph, the second quickest time ever. In the race itself, he had to work a little harder. Buck Baker, in an Olds 88, led for 34 laps before burning up his tires. Then Curtis Turner, in another Olds, led for a total of 277. By then, Herb was ready. All told, he only led for 28 laps, but one of those was the last one. At a record 95-mph average, Herb Thomas and my banded-up Hornet won the '54 Southern 500. And here came Buddy Shuman again. It seemed that somebody had gone to him and argued that somehow I'd managed to cut all the banding off and get inside the engine to change camshafts again before the race. As distrusting as he was of me, whoever it was hadn't had to argue to convince Buddy of that.
Even with his glasses parked...
Even with his glasses parked on the brim of his hat, it seemed like Smokey saw more than anybody else at the racetrack. Circle Track Archives
To make a long story short, I was asked to tear down the engine down again for a post-race inspection. I blew up. I even threw my hat on the ground. "I won't do it," I yelled at Buddy. "Besides, how the hell could I have changed camshafts? You've still got me banded up like Houdini." Buddy said it didn't matter, that I still had to be inspected again. By this time Curtis Turner and his car owner had shown up, drinking like everybody else, mad as hell about losing the race, and agreeing that my Hornet had to be torn down.
All of us were back inside the inspection station again. Counting spectators, it seemed like there were 2,000 people there. Even Buddy's secret camshaft expert, the Kiekhaefer guy, put his nose in it. "Just show us your camshaft again," he said. "I just need to see if it still has my secret mark." It wasn't so much the camshaft that worried me, it was what those guys would do when they saw my painted cylinder head and so forth. I could tell Buddy Shuman wasn't going to back down. So I finally told him I'd show him the cam again.
At that, I imagined I could hear a lot of guys begin to giggle because they thought they were going to get to see inside my engine after all. As everybody knew, it was impossible to change a Hornet camshaft without taking the cylinder head off. I went and got some clothespins, using them to jack up the valves and valvesprings. Then I popped out the camshaft without anybody seeing inside. The secret camshaft tester grabbed for it, but instead of giving it to him, I slammed it as hard as I could into the workbench. It broke into three pieces. He couldn't believe it. "Well how can I test it now?" he complained, looking at the three pieces. "Wait a minute," I said. "You say you're the camshaft expert. If you really are, all you need is one intake and one exhaust lobe to measure. Now, which piece do you want?" By now, I was acting out of self defense. If I gave him the whole camshaft, I worried that he'd take it into his secret room, then come back and say it had not passed. He decided he wanted to take the front piece. A few moments later, he came back asking for the middle. "Why do you want the middle?" I asked. "Because that's where my secret mark is," he said.
I wouldn't give it to him at first. Then, after another hour or so of stonewalling, I did. He reappeared from the secret room. "There's no question that this is the right camshaft," he said. "It's got my secret mark on it, and it checks out exactly."
My Hornet was redeclared Darlington's winner. I even got a good laugh out of it. Buddy's secret camshaft tester had been nothing but a big phony. I even told him so, and then I told Buddy so. While I was at it, I even walked over to Curtis Turner to personally deliver a message of what a no-good sumbitch I thought he was, too. He swung at me when he heard it, and I swung back. That was sort of the unofficial signal for all the Curtis and Smokey fans in the inspection station to begin pulling boards out of the wall and begin swinging at each other. The result was a riot that-if I remember right-the National Guard had to put down. Curtis and I watched it while safely hiding under the workbench. Yes, we patched up our differences, and Curtis later became one of my drivers. But that's another story. I just hope that one of the boards hit that secret camshaft tester who worked for Kiekhaefer.