Always in the thick of things, Yunick stays close to the action from his unique vantage po
Henry (Smokey) Yunick, a Hall of Fame Stock car and IndyCar builder, engineer, and inventor, needs little introduction as this month's host of Scrapbook. He's the guy in the Western hat. Yunick, 76, built Stock cars for leading NASCAR drivers for 22 years and open wheel cars for the Indianapolis 500. Yunick and his wife, Margie, are working on two books, the first expected to be published next year. He is also developing gasoline, diesel fuel, and lubricants of the future in the "best damned garage" in (beloved) Daytona Beach. Yunick tells it like it was and is, which means his language has been edited. "When my book comes out, I'll probably have to leave the country," he says.
Face In The Crowd
I was hired by Chevrolet in 1954 to get the Chevy V-8 engine in condition to win Grand National (now Winston Cup) races. I worked first for Ed Cole, who was vice president of General Motors and general manager of Chevrolet. He was a very nice guy. He said his engineers were young and inexperienced, and that he'd like me to talk to them from time to time. He says he hoped I didn't mind his saying that my language and speaking ability needed some help. He enrolled me in a Dale Carnegie course to teach me how to speak and conduct myself. In a short time, management called General Motors and told them that I was incapable of being taught and that they would refund the cost of the course. Nevertheless, I agreed to speak to about 2,000 young engineers
Former IndyCar driver Mauri Rose, a Chevy engineer at the time, told me not to worry, he'd help me. He said the key is just to look at someone, anybody, in the last row of the audience and talk to him personally. Scared to death, I got up there and started searching for somebody in the back row to focus on. All of a sudden, I saw Mauri. He had his fingers in his ears and his tongue out making faces. The first line of my first speech was, "Oh, you lucky SOB!"
Mauri Rose was very knowledgeable about tires. I sent him searching for tires that would be better than anybody else had in the '55 Southern 500. Two months later, Mauri called from a junkyard in Akron, Ohio. I asked why the hell he was at a junkyard. He says he thought he had found tires I wanted. He added that a Firestone engineer had told him that the best tires for us had been made under the name Super Sport, for Briggs Cunningham to run at Le Mans. Cunningham took 25 of the tires, but opted for Dunlop. Firestone was so disappointed, they sold the remaining 175 tires to a junk dealer. The junk man had tried but couldn't sell the tires, so he planned to burn them. He wanted $1.50 per tire. I told him I'd pay $1. He says no. I told him to burn them and hung up. However, Mauri got them for a buck apiece.
After we got to Darlington, we found we could run low pressure in the tires, and it looked like we had an edge. If we had a problem, we could play turtle and outlast the faster cars that were blowing tires. A Firestone rep came to me and asked if I'd sell car owner Carl Kiekhaefer (who had four cars in the race) 75 of my tires. I told him hell would freeze before I sold any tires at any price to a competitor. (NASCAR founder) Bill France Sr. was next to ask on Kiekhaefer's behalf. I said no. He said in that case, he had no choice but to ban my tires. I told him in that case, I'd go home. He left, and a couple of Firestone management wheels came to me. One of them says he could break my career if I didn't sell Kiekhaefer some tires. I got really pissed, explaining that Firestone had discarded the tires, sold them to a junk dealer, and I had bought them eight hours before he was to burn them. I told them I had been hassled three times and asked them to leave me alone.
Yunick did his best to make it difficult for Firestone Tires to use him in a promotional s
Well, Herb Thomas won the race in my Chevrolet. The Firestone people came to me with photographers for pictures. I told them they'd given me such a rough time that I wasn't going to pose for any pictures. They said the entry blank specified that I had to. So I went to my personal car, put on a pair of bib overalls, and tied a red bandana around my neck. I painted two front teeth black with shoe polish, put on a floppy straw hat and told the Firestone people I was ready to take pictures.
In the early '50s at a short track, Herb Thomas drove my Hudson Hornet to a runaway victory. Lee Petty finished second and Curtis Turner third. Turner charged that the scoring was crooked, and he and Petty argued. After the race, we were in the Hudson dealer's garage. The argument got heated, and Lee finally swung at Turner. Just behind where Curtis was standing was a wall made of plywood with a bunch of hooks on it. A piece of iron that weighed 65-70 pounds was hanging on a hook that was 7-8 feet off the floor. When Lee swung, Turner ducked, and Lee's fist hit the wall. The hook holding the piece of iron collapsed and a piece of iron hit Turner in the head, knocking him unconscious. While we were dumping water on him trying to revive him, he woke up and said, "Damn, Smoke, that SOB can hit."
Famous Gas Line
This story has been told countless times, but not very accurately. I don't know whether it's worth wrecking the myth that surrounds it. Most versions have me driving my '66 Chevelle race car out of Daytona Speedway while the gas tank was laying on the ground. There was an argument over fuel, and I did drive the car from the track to my garage with no gas tank. Whether or not I had a gas tank didn't matter, because that car had an illegal 11-foot fuel line with a 2-inch hole in it that held 6 gallons of gasoline. I could have driven to Jacksonville 90 miles away with the fuel in the line. The incident prompted NASCAR to change the fuel line opening to 3/8 inch.
Always there to help, Yunick's analysis was highly sought. Here he analyzes plug readings
Two weeks before the '66 Firecracker 4000 at Daytona, Bill France Sr. stopped by my house and asked why I hadn't entered a car in the race. I told him I would never run another race car with a steel fuel cell, that I had Firestone make for me a 22-gallon rubber cell and would run it or not race in NASCAR again. (Fireball Roberts, Yunick's close friend and former driver, was mortally burned after his metal gas tank erupted in a crash at Charlotte in 1964.)
France said OK, he would have the chief technical inspector change the rule. I said that wasn't enough. I told him to put up an 8x12-foot sign in the inspection area that read, "The first 10 cars will have their gas tanks removed for measurement and observation after the race." Finally, he said it was a done deal.
I took my Chevelle to the track for Curtis Turner to drive. The sign wasn't on the wall. I went to France's office and told him if he didn't put the sign up, I was leaving the track-so he put it up.
The race started-Turner got the lead and had to stop for fuel. The other fast cars kept on trucking, and we dropped to 13th. I knew they had 28-gallon tanks. Turner charged back to finish fourth. Sam McQuagg won the race in Ray Nichels' Dodge. I went back to the inspection area, and the sign was gone. I told the technical inspector the gas tanks were supposed to be inspected. At that point, guys who had finished in front of us offered me $2,000-5,000 to shut up about pulling gas tanks. I refused on both counts. After threatening to whip the chief inspector, I went to France again. He said Chrysler had already approved the newspaper and magazine ads, that the wire services had the story and he couldn't change anything. I told him that's what I expected.
Never at a loss for words, Smokey told it like it was-even when it came to his own garage.
The next day, France sent over a check for $1,500 with a note saying the check would take care of the flap at the track. I told the guy who brought it to wait. I took the check, soiled it, put it back in the envelope, and told the guy to take it back to Big Bill. About an hour later, here came Big Bill. He was furious. I threw a 4-pound hammer at him and just missed from 25 feet. He was gone in a flash.
"Don't Stall It"
At a dirt-track race in Savannah, Georgia, in 1953, I had two Hudson Hornets for Herb Thomas and Dick Rathmann. Thomas won the pole, but Dick was having problems. I kept telling Dick he was lifting too late in Turn 3. Finally, he gave me his helmet and said to show him. We climbed in the car. He had no seat, helmet, or harness. I told him to touch me when we got to the point where he lifted going into (Turn) 3. We went into the turn wide-open, and he never touched me. We spun around the biggest telephone pole I'd ever seen and left the door handle on the driver side sticking in the pole. The only thing Dick said was "Don't stall it."
One time we were at qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Driver Jim Hurtubise had a car he built himself. It was the old-style construction, with torsion bars and straight front axles. Everybody else had independent suspension. In fact, he had two cars-one he had wrecked and the other that wasn't ready. To hold your place in the qualifying order, you had to keep a car in line. When the track closed, the position you held at that time was the same one you got the next morning. That gave Jim all night to prepare his car. He put the car that wasn't ready on the line. Somebody challenged the legality of the car, which was sponsored by a beer company. The hood was raised, and there were four cases of beer holding up the exhaust header. There was no engine in it. (The car and beer are in a racing museum in Bedford, Indiana.)
One time I was at Concord (North Carolina) Speedway with a Chevy and driver Paul Goldsmith. Fireball Roberts was driving for rival Holman and Moody, Ford Motor's Stock car stable. Fireball, who lived in Daytona Beach, was learning to fly his own plane and didn't make the race because of bad weather. John Holman was carrying on about not being able to race Fireball's car. I told him I'd drive it, and he said, "OK." (Yunick drove in several races).
When I got ready to qualify, Fonty Flock advised me not to drive because the track was so full of holes and so slick I'd bust my tail. He said if I insisted, to let him lead me around the half-mile dirt track. We did that for 10 laps, and I was able to qualify.
Goldsmith wanted to know what he was going to do for a pit crew. I told him not to worry, that at about the 10th or 12th lap of the race I was going to crash that purple Ford through the fence just before entering Turn 3, then I'd return to his pit.
Shortly before the race started, Ralph Moody (Holman's partner) tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I'd be upset if Ralph Earnhardt (Dale's dad) drove Fireball's car? Moody had figured out my ruse-to wreck the car because it was a Ford. The kicker is that about three quarters through the race, somebody spun Earnhardt through the fence at exactly the same place I'd planned to wreck. I asked Earnhardt what took him so long to wreck.
It appeared that Herb Thomas was going to win the '53 Southern 500 in my Hudson Hornet. Pure Oil (now Union 76) had a big plywood check, showed me where to stand and how to hold it for postrace photographs. With 10 laps to go, the Hudson threw a rod through the side of the block onto the side of the track, within 50 feet of where I was standing. Buck Baker won the race and Herb finished fifth. I really felt bad until I got a good laugh-a fan who didn't like Hudson, Thomas, or me, ran out, picked up that hot connecting rod, and burned his hands.