Editors Note: Smokey Yanick's...
Editors Note: Smokey Yanick's contributions to racing are legendary, as are much of his writings. Periodically, we'll crack into his vault to bring some of his best stuff. Courtesy of the Smokey Yunick Collection
Reprint From Circle Track November 1988
The late Buddy Shuman was a wonderful guy. It's a damn shame he asphyxiated in a motel fire in Hickory, North Carolina, in 1955. At the time, he was car owner to both Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, and was working for Ford. He'd been a liquor runner (he was one of his own best customers) and a champion driver in Modifieds, and he had a limp-maybe from the time he was supposed to have pulled on a chain gang.
Shuman was a wild man, and I liked him a lot, even when he was chief technical inspector for NASCAR, making the two of us natural enemies. Buddy cracked the whip for Bill France, NASCAR's founder. Once he ruled that your car was "outside the spirit of the rules"-a catch-all phrase that France had put in there-then your car didn't race. I suppose nobody's cars ever were "outside the spirit for the rules" more often than mine.
All NASCAR's early tech inspectors had to work with were the basic parts catalog books of Hudson, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Ford, and so forth. This was during the '50s, when NASCAR liked to imagine that it truly was the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing - no modifications allowed, nothing but stock parts, period. But it took Buddy Shuman a while to discover what really was going on. When he tech-inspected your car and discovered the correct parts number on, say, a camshaft, it was so enchanting to him that it didn't dawn on him to wonder whether or not the cam-shaft itself had come out of the parts book. Very few of them did. And I know damn well that I wasn't the only engraving artist at work. Almost everyone ground his own cams-and often his own crankshafts, too-and then hammered on the appropriate parts number. No problem. It was Buddy who had the problem.
One of my farewell NASCAR...
One of my farewell NASCAR starts, with Bobby Unser at the '69 Daytona 500. Courtesy of the Smokey Yunick Collection
Staying on top of all that must have been a terrible, impossible job. Buddy was far from dumb, and sometimes, after he belatedly found out somebody had slipped something past him, he'd get mad and decide to crack down. He cracked down on me at the fifth Southern 500 at Darlington, Labor Day 1954. Herb Thomas was my driver, a Hudson Hornet was our car, and Herb and I had been having such a successful season that everybody in NASCAR was suspicious as hell, Buddy most of all. Trick camshafts had him almost paranoid.
Word was out even before I rolled the Hudson into line at the dirty little hole they called the Darlington inspection station that this time a parts number alone wouldn't satisfy Buddy. He'd brought along his own camshaft-checking machine. In fact, he even had his own secret camshaft expert doing the checking. Not only that, the secret expert even had a secret room. He was standing eavesdropping inside it, just out of sight, while Buddy and I exchanged pleasantries and I unbuttoned my little Hornet. Then, when Buddy carried my camshaft back to the secret room, I could hear the secret checker warning him: "No, no, don't believe him. The sumbitch is screwing you again." And Buddy soon returned to ask me additional questions. At last, the secret checker himself came out of the secret room to ask me about the camshaft. I immediately recognized him as a guy who worked for Carl Kiekhaefer.
Now, everybody in NASCAR knew exactly what I thought of Kiekhaefer and his militaristic racing team. I even had Kiekhaefer's picture reposing in a place of honor in my garage in Daytona Beach. It was in the men's room, hanging over the john. So I really didn't think it was in "the spirit of the rules" for Buddy to have made one of Kiekhaefer's guys his camshaft expert, but I didn't say anything. I just expected the worst, anticipating the secret expert to tell me the camshaft had failed the test. Instead, after long deliberation, the secret expert informed me that it had gone through his testing machine and checked out as stock and legal. Now, since I'd ground the damn thing myself, and it was radical as hell, that was quite a surprise to me. But I damn sure didn't argue with him. I just asked him what made him so sure it was legal. "Oh, it's definitely the right cam," he said airily. "And now I've even put my secret mark on it. You won't be able to change it if you want to."
I always looked grouchy. But...
I always looked grouchy. But I was having a hell of a good time. Courtesy of the Smokey Yunick Collection
I didn't want to. I just wanted to get out of the inspection station with a clean bill of health and go qualify for the race. Unfortunately, things didn't work out like that. Buddy Shuman next decided that something I'd done to the engine block wasn't in the spirit of the damn rules. He wouldn't let me race.
If I could lead my life all over again, I'd probably spend it hunting oil instead of racing. Not even racing can compare with what it feels like bringing in the big well. But the race I wouldn't exchange for anything-the race I enjoyed more than any other-except maybe Indianapolis-was this NASCAR racing of the '40s and '50s.
It was fun because of all the crazy sons of bitches: Red Vogt, the Flocks, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Herb Thomas, Bob Welborn, even Buddy Shuman. It was fun like racing will never be again because it was before restrictor plates and big money. Money? We'd probably have raced without getting any. It was fun, too, because in the beginning we had hardly any rules getting in the way. So long as you didn't get gored by that "outside the spirit" rules clause, everything was dandy. Actually, it stayed fairly dandy even when Bill France, looking for respectability from both the public and manufacturers, began beefing up his rule book and making Buddy Shuman insist that our cars truly be "Stock" cars.
Another engine goes together....
Another engine goes together. Courtesy of the Smokey Yunick Collection
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. 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. Here's a particularly crude example: A rule was passed prohibiting the porting of the exhaust manifold. This was when I was racing Hudsons. Now, Hornet manifolds were cast and molded in the side of the engine and were very rough; they badly needed porting. Still, that's what the rule said. On the other hand, although the rule said, "no porting," meaning no hand grinding to alter its shape, it didn't say that a guy couldn't put a suction pipe on the exhaust manifold and draw a slurry of sand and water back and forth in it.
That's just what I did. I built a machine like a suction pump, put sand into it like a liquid, then slurred all those abrasives back and forth in the manifold until all those bumps and lumps were gone. It did a hell of an efficient job, but it wasn't porting.
Another rule called for a certain gasoline tank size-22 gallons, I think, but it didn't say how big the gas line could be. I built an anaconda-sized fuel line that held an extra 5 gallons.
There was a rule saying you could run only so wide of a wheel rim, but the rule didn't say what the outside diameter had to be. So, in 1955, Herb Thomas and I took a Chevrolet to Darlington, put some 26-inch-tall tires on 16-inch legal rims, and won another Southern 500.
There was also a rule stating you had to use a standard, foot-and-a-half-diameter flywheel. On the damn Hudson, one of those buggers could weigh close to 40 pounds. By lightening it, you increased the speed coming off the corners. Because you weren't allowed to alter the flywheel's basic shape, I didn't. But I did remove the ring gear and radially drill a bunch of 31/48-inch holes 8 inches deep into the flywheel. Then I reinstalled the ring gear, now made out of aluminum
What I remember about the...
What I remember about the early racing was the competition. There was so much of it-so many fast cars and good drivers. Courtesy of the Smokey Yunick Collection
All the stuff I've mentioned so far were things you'd learn in the third grade. It was when you got up to the seventh grade that things became more advanced. For instance, there was a rule saying you couldn't alter the bore and stroke. But those Hudsons had a bad connecting-rod angle and something had to be done. So I left the bore and stroke alone and instead moved the crankshaft. Nobody said you couldn't. Similarly, a rule said you couldn't improve the weight distribution and handling by moving the engine back in the frame. But the rule didn't say you couldn't move the body forward. I would move it 3 inches.
Another rule insisted that the engine had to be centered left to right in the chassis, although the rule didn't specify where the wheels had to be located. So I shifted the weight bias to the left side of the car, lengthening up the A-frames on the right side and shortening them on the left. Or sometimes I'd just move the brackets over and keep the same lengths. Those "gray areas" of the rules were what I liked best. They didn't say you could do something, but they didn't say you couldn't either.
In that spirit, I used to hang a reserve oil reservoir under the dashboard that the driver-Herb Thomas, Paul Goldsmith, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, whoever-could get to. Whenever he felt the oil pressure fluctuating, he'd give it a lick and dump a little more oil into the engine. Sometimes I pressurized the cooling system the same way. Being secretive and often working alone, I did things nobody ever knew about. No rule said that an engine had to rotate in a certain direction, so I'd reverse the rotation and have all the torque loading on the left side of the car. Really, all I had to do was make up different cams, then turn the rear end upside down and reweld the spring perches. Not even my own drivers ever knew about that one.
Times change and you have to change with them. I raced with NASCAR through the '40s, '50s, '60s, and into the '70s. In the '60s and '70s, as the circuit switched to the superspeedways and speeds rose like hell, all of a sudden it wasn't just the engine that required attention. It was the bodywork, too. Still, it was the same old deal. Live by what the rule book doesn't say instead of what it does say.
One rule said you had to have a stock hood, fenders, and so forth, but no rule said you couldn't drop the nose down. No rule stopped you from taking 5 pounds of body filler to build up a lip on the rear of the roof to simulate an airfoil and direct the air straight out the back, without sucking loose the rear window or raising the car's rear end off the ground. Another rule said you had to have a stock windshield. But it didn't say you had to have a stock roof or that the windshield had to be at the stock angle. Lots of times, after a rollover, you'd do roof bodywork and maybe you couldn't be completely accurate and happened to tip the windshield back an inch. Only a really ornery technical inspector wouldn't agree to call that an honest mistake.
One rule said you had to run a stock floorpan in a stock position-no belly pans. I used to spend weeks cleaning up a car's underside. Using more body filler, I blended the supports, cross ribs, and everything else that would catch the wind. Then I'd sink the rear end up into the chassis to get it out of the airstream and match the gas tank to the rear bumper. Afterward, I'd paint and wax it just like the rest of the car. That was the closest thing to having a stock floorpan and a belly pan you can imagine.
All along, NASCAR could have gotten me to "behave" by writing rules without ambiguities because I refused to cheat. There was no craft or fun in that. Whenever a rule appeared outlawing something, I instantly gave it up. I gave up some advantages because of that. For instance, to reduce the volume and get more fuel into the car, I used to chill my gasoline to near-freezing temperatures. As a result, I could sometimes get by with one less pit stop than everybody else. But once a rule turned up saying, "no freezing of fuel," that was the end of my doing it.
Here's a view of the bottom...
Here's a view of the bottom of my boots. Photo by Don Hunter
Another advantage I gave up was using nitrous oxide. In the beginning, the rule about gasoline was that you had to use pump fuel-period. Additives, however, were permitted. So I used to spend hours mixing that stuff-nitrobenzene, ethane, and alcohol. Then it came to me. Who was going to dispute whether or not nitrous oxide, the most volatile stuff I could imagine, was an additive or not? First, I tried mixing it with gasoline, trying to get it into the carburetor. Eventually, I found that you didn't have to do a damn thing except stick the nitrous into the engine compartment in its gaseous form and turn it on. Sure enough, it'd always find the carburetor. For a long time, that was how my cars qualified for races. I put a hand valve under the car seat, cut a hole in the seat so the driver could operate it, and let it rip. Just a small amount of that stuff was enough to jack the power to the moon. But when the rule book unequivocally declared, "no nitrous oxide," that was the end of it. I quit using it.
I once surrendered another advantage that had to do with NASCAR's minimum ground clearance rule. A car had to pass over a certain height block before it could go out to qualify. But once it got out on the track, it'd very mysteriously drop down a couple of inches. That's when the piece of wood or whatever had been propping it up would pop out on the first bump it hit. But I'd always considered that a somewhat clumsy way of doing it. Rather than go through all that, under each of the front springs I put hydraulic pads which could be operated off the power-steering pump. Those pads pumped up the car and let it clear the block. On the track, though, my driver could crank a valve to let the front end settle an inch or so. After the qualifying run, while tooling down the back-straight, he'd pump the pads up again before coming back in. In a race, each pad could be controlled independently to vary the wedge in the suspension to suit handling and track conditions. Really, those pads had quite a few advantages. However, when NASCAR declared hydraulic pads and "jacking weight" to be illegal, out they came.
We didn't have any computers...
We didn't have any computers monitoring how an engine was performing. The best way to do that was to concentrate and listen-as here, at an early Daytona. Photo by Jerry B. Howard
I always wanted to win races as much as anybody else-more than anybody else. Before a start, I'd hitch up my belt, look at the competition, and think, OK, you sumbitches, let's go. But you had to do it with some style. And there was no style in, say, running a 450ci engine when the rules plainly called for a 427. That was just cheating.
I felt the same about those clowns who used to meet NASCAR's minimum weight by carrying 200 pounds of water onboard inside the frame. Watching them creeping around on the pace lap, dumping it out on the edge of the backstraight, I used to think, What the hell you sumbitches doing, watering the grass? The only time I'd resort to something like that was in self defense, when NASCAR was permitting other teams to get away with it and it was either do it or lose.
Did my cars always make it safely through NASCAR's tech inspections? Hell, no! I went through a whole generation of tech inspectors who knew me by reputation and put me through pure hell. I particularly remember a 1967 hassle at Atlanta, when cut-and-channeled Chevelles that looked like swaybacked horses were passing through NASCAR's template with ease, while my Chevelle-which looked as high as a Mack truck by comparison-was rejected. In frustration, I borrowed a Chevelle from Hertz and made NASCAR test it. It was rejected, too. The tech inspector still thought I was trying to trick him. Finally, I proved to him that his own template was goofed up.
But what I went through at Darlington all those years ago, which is where this story started, remains one of the wildest ever. I still wonder what made Buddy Shuman lower the boom on me and refuse to let me run. All I knew was I wasn't going to run. My Hornet and I were going home to Daytona Beach. I was plenty bleeped off and didn't give a damn about the race anymore. It was Bill France himself who had thrown out my engine; couldn't Herb Thomas and I replace it with another one? Herb had a Hornet. All we had to do was take the block out of Herb's car and put it in mine. We could change it right there in the inspector's station. It was a dirt floor, but what the hell.
Well, I still didn't want to do it. But people from the Hudson factory were there putting on pressure. Racing successes had doubled Hudson's yearly sales-from $26,000 to $52,000. The year before, Herb and I had come within eight laps of winning the Southern 500 before snapping a crankshaft. Hudson wanted a win. After I agreed to do it, I found there was a slight catch. Buddy Shuman and his secret Kiekhaefer cam expert still didn't trust me. They wanted to watch me put the new engine together.
Accordingly, they got some workmen to nail together an actual goddamn grandstand-right there in the inspection station-for themselves and their friends to sit in and watch me while I worked. By then, I was tired-bone tired. I'd been up the previous 24 hours. I had a sizable hangover (these were still my drinking days). And I had Buddy and his mob watching every move I made, dying to find me "outside the spirit of the rules." If I was going to pull off what I needed to do, it would be the sleight-of-hand job of my life.
I took the engine out of my Hornet, and I took the replacement engine out of Herb's. Then I put Herb's engine in my car, minus the cylinder head. I still was bleeped off and drinking seriously while I worked. Pretty soon, I was starting to feel no pain. About then, I realized the predicament I was in. Half drunk, I still had all those jeering sumbitches in the grandstands watching me. And I also had some very important parts to take off my original race engine and put into Herb's. My audience didn't know about them. But I doubted hugely any of them would regard those parts as being within "the spirit of the rules."
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.