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Episode 2 – Smokey Yunick

Prowling the NASCAR pits with a corncob pipe, cowboy hat and decked head to toe in white overalls, Smokey Yunick and his very southern manner of speaking left a huge impact on American motorsport. Not content with being a brilliant engineer, he was a racer, an aviator, a war hero, a smuggler, an inventor, and possibly the greatest cheat in the history of organized sport.

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    Full Transcript:

    My first car was a bucket of shit. It was a 1990 Holden Commodore, which is a kind of big, heavy dumb 6 cylinder sedan that we have down in Australia. I bought it in late 2002. It had done 320,000 kilometres. The rubber insulation around the doors was hanging loose, so I held it in with Gaffa tape. The engine mounts were shot, you could feel that big old Dodge engine shaking violently under the bonnet whenever you put any power down. The suspension was even worse, at highway speeds, the front end would lift up and start swaying around, as though it were gliding on a cloud. It was an unsafe, unreliable, bomb.

    But it was only 2500 bux, including registration.

    Two years ago, I sold a car. It was a 2007 Mitsubishi 380, which is like a Galant. It had a dent in the left rear quarter panel, and needed an 100$ part for its exhaust. It may have needed a little suspension work too. But apart from that, it was in excellent, with just under 200,000 kays on the clock.

    I couldn’t give it away.

    The trouble was, in the intervening years, government and industry had clamped down. Safety standards had improved dramatically, and it cost that much more to certify a second hand car for title and registration so that it could be sold. Gone were the days where a bored teenager with a part time job could get himself a cheap, legal car.

    When I realized this, I felt a little sad for 18 year old me. The world I knew in my youth was gone. Also, I loved that car. It was shitty, but it had personality. Kids today wouldn’t get to experience that same right of passage that was buying and driving their own colourful bomb.

    Then I remembered the time it nearly came off the road at 120 kmh when the lurching suspension tilted off the freeway. And I thought to myself. Huh. Maybe all those extra regulations are actually a good thing.

    Henry “Smokey” Yunick

    He was born in 1923 in rural Pennsylvania. His parents were eastern european immigrants, and his father was a violent drunk that beat him relentlessly. They were a farming family, sitting on about 20 acres. It was a very unhappy, poverty stricken, broken childhood. His sister left home as soon as she could, and it was left to the younger Smokey to help tend to the farm whilst their father spent weeks away from home to work as a carpenter. No explanation is given as to why dad bought a farm when he wasn’t a farmer, but there you go.

    Trigger warning on this next bit: Smokey was raped by a neighbours wife when he was 12 years old. He doesn’t phrase it that way, he calls it losing his virginity, and perhaps to an older generation that’s all it was. But having read the entirety of his autobiography, I’m convinced that being abused by a predatory 30 something housewife had a serious impact on his adult life. He published his life story when he was about 73, and the book is littered with the dirtiest old man comments you can possibly imagine. Here’s a few choice quotes:

    “I meet a rich 17-year-old nymphomaniac who lives with her grandma. If she sees a boy horse with his cock out, she’s sexy. She gets her kicks with the danger of getting caught at a stop lite. She’d climb on you while you’re driving, or behind a gas station, or in a parking lot in the daytime.”

    “Hard nose training: day, night, cross country and aerobatics out the ass. I’m becoming a robot. No pussy in three months in Miami, no pussy in three more in South Dakota, two quickies in Santa Ana, a couple “almosts” in Visalia, flat zero in Taft.”

    “I also got a little reckless in the lady department (like “doing it” on a bus station bench at 5:00 pm with a PX employee). I needed to get a lot more serious with my job before I got caught.”

    It feels like there’s an aside about getting laid once every 3 or 4 pages. Now, at the risk of being called an armchair psychologist, Smokey to me sounds deeply sexually compulsive. It ruins countless relationships for him. He mentions STIs many, many times. A man from his generation wouldn’t have seen the issue with any of this, but in my contemporary view, he was diddled with as a kid and it probably fucked him up.

    When he wasn’t studying, Smokey spent his time working a field with a badly worn out plow and a stubborn, fat old draught horse named Bill. It was horrible, frustrating work. When he was 14, Smokey spent what little savings he had (15$), bought a banged up old Ford and some truck parts, and using hacksaws, chisel and a hand cranked drill, built himself a tractor. It was his first mechanical project, and it would define the rest of his life.

    He bought his first motorcyle when he was 16, an Indian Bonneville Chief. He crashed it badly trying to impress some girls. He wanted to finish high school, be the first in his family to graduate, but his dad died suddenly of a heart attack, so he had to drop out to support his mother.

    He got a job working at a ford dealership. He was just a junior making 10$ a day, so he doubled up at nights working at a wreckers yard. He got working on big engines, trucks and tractors mostly, and self educated himself in physics and chemistry.

    It was about this time his mother sued the then 16 year old Smokey for not supporting her enough.

    He spent most of his free time mucking around with another motorcycle he found at a storage auction. It was a 20 year old, barely used army bike that had gas lanterns for head lights. The kind you had to actually light up with a match before riding. He built a flat wooden sidecar onto it, and rode around town with his dog on the side, often tilting the bike at and angle so he could overtake cars more easily. With the dog on board, of course.

    One night, driving home drunk, he and the dog drove the bike off a bridge into an icy river. Having to evade the police to avoid getting a citation for drunk driving and underage drinking, he decided he’d had enough. He spent the next few months roaming the midwest, working odd jobs and staying in half way houses.

    According to Smokey, “Man, I’ll tell, you there ain’t nuthin’ in my childhood and teens worth remembering.”

    He came back to Pennsylvania, starting working in a munitions factory. He still had the Bonneville that he crashed the year before. He took his wages, got it working, and set about souping it up for racing. He took it out to a straight line race at a small, dirt track called Hatboro. He lined up on the start line, gunned the engine, and took off….in a giant cloud of black smoke. 17 year old Smokey had some work to do before he would be a truly great engineer.

    The crowd loved it though, and the plucky new kid quickly earned himself a nickname for his cloud spewing motorbike. “Smokey.”

    He followed up with a big race at Langhorne a couple of weeks later. He lied up his age and qualifications to get onto the grid, and quickly found out that he was way over his head among the hardened racers. He smashed into another rider, totalled the Bonneville, and broke fingers, toes, and a couple of ribs.

    “There was no hospital free treatment for racers then, and no insurance, so I just sweated out the healing. I still have one little toe on top of the next toe, that’s the way it healed.”

    He gave up the motorcycle racing because it was too dangerous. He decided to start playing around with aircraft instead. He quit his job and set up becoming certified as a air force mechanic, and from there went on to chase certification as an fighter pilot.

    The following week, a gas cylinder blew up in his face at work and blinded him in one eye. He didn’t regain full vision, and he was stumped down to radio operator training. He was crushed.

    His training was in South Dakota, and it was freezing. The men were housed in crappy, thin barracks, and Smokey says that quite a few men died of the conditions. He became fully qualified in 2 months, and was about to ship out for a real assignment, when the army doctor he was seeing helped him cheat on an eye exam. He got into the pilot training after all. He attributed this to them being desperately low on pilots.

    He got shipped off to Santa Anna, where he could now see that his lack of visions was the least of his problems:

    “You see, I thought at this stage, “how well you learned to fly” was the boogie. Nope, not so, you had to absorb the math, physics, weather, engineering, aerodynamics and take or send 18 words of Morse code a minute. The college requirements were real.”

    He muddles his way through, and becomes a bomber pilot. Training seems to mostly involve fucking about in a B-52 trainer. Dropping coke bottles near farm animals and buzzing locomotives at low altitude. A couple of choice quotes:

    “A 19-year-old kid, who would have been a gas station mechanic if no war had started, is supposed to know how to fly this 180,000 pound mother of ’bout 200 foot wing span night or day, clear weather or instrument weather anywhere in the world. “

    “… that last 15 feet to the ground, your ass holes so puckered up you couldn’t drive a ten penny nail up it with a four pound hammer. You land and start breathing again.”

    There are some great sections in his book that take a bit of the sheen off the gloss the greatest generation. My favourite bit is about combat drugs. Many military historians talk about this, but it’s not often you have one of the combatants talk about it so candidly. Enlisted men were (and are still) often given powerful stimulants to help them perform in combat. Amphetamine tablets, mostly. Smokey describes them as several pills that:

    “are enough to make you climb laughing on the top of a missile and tell ’em to light it. A kinda “brave” pill which gives you ungodly stamina for ’bout 36 hours.”

    He has some wild, possibly half true anecdotes from his time as a cadet. One of the other pilots bombed a black families farm, killing everyone inside. It was treated as a huge joke. Another time, he flew a training sorty after an all night bender, then came down with appendicitis halfway through the mission. It put him out of commission for 3 months.

    He was then sent off to Europe. He flew his Bomber the whole way in small jumps. Florida to New England, over the Atlantic, then training and prep with the French Foreign Legion in Northern Africa.

    “They were good pilots, crazy as hell, but they flew the plane like a good horseman rides a horse. The plane did not fly or intimidate them.”

    They taught Smokey some valuable life lessons, the importance of planning & preparation, not putting things off until tomorrow, and he feels they helped him get over some of his more racist tendencies (although by modern standards Smokey was still quite racist).

    He was then stationed in Bari, Italy, then on to Foggia. He describes himself as a clueless 19 year old, barely qualified to fly, in command of a B-17, with delusions of quickly bombing the nazis to hell. Delusions that were quickly dashed.

    “ After ten minutes of flak, fighters shooting real live bullets, and seeing what was happening to some of the others, combat don’t seem so great. There is no way to describe the helplessness of a big plane like a 17 spinning down tail first and burning.”

    The bombers fly in formation, wingtips just a few metres apart. There’s flack exploding all around them, German fighters dancing in and out lighting up their hulls with canon fire. It’s nothing more than luck of the draw as to who gets shot down. Smokey became dependent on booze and drugs to help him cope.

    Smokey lost his religion while at war. Raised a Catholic, his experience with official Catholicisms lack of basic compassion drove him from the church.

    “A pregnant girl in Foggia, Italy – The weather is beyond horrible – cold, snow, wind. I run to our squadron priest, “Come give us a hand.” The girl and us are all scared. She wants a priest, she thinks she’s dying. That son-of-a-bitch would not come. Fucking “out of wedlock,” Apparently she’s fucked up her Catholic license “serves her right, let her rot in hell.” In ’bout two hours, baby was born. Lucky both didn’t die. Do I need to tell you what I thought about Catholicism then?

    He writes about his heavy drinking to cope with the fear he felt. He talks about how B-17 Tailgunners would often not fire, so afraid not only of their own guns, but of killing enemy pilots, returning home with all their ammo. He also talks about gunners that were ‘stone cold killers’, that took photographs and took records of every enemy plane they downed.

    He talks about his encounters with Berlin Sally, the infamous english speaking nazi propagandists that would broadcast to allied planes on their radio frequency, terrifying the young pilots on their way to bombing missions. He talks about a friend of his that had his balls shot of by flak, and how the very next mission he had a 50 pound steel plate welded under his seat. He talks about watching a friends plane crash and burn right in front of him during take off, and how he had to fly the plane right through the wreckage to get in the air.

    He served well, but got transferred out of the bomber wing after spectacularly fucking up a mission. He stole General Curtis LeMay’s personal flak suit, took it on a bombing mission, got lost, bombed an allied position instead of an enemy one, got his new plane shot to bits, and in a desperate effort to save fuel so he could make it home, threw everything he could out of the plane – including LeMay’s flak suit.

    It was quite the night out.

    For reference, Curtis LeMay was the guy that declared the US would ‘bomb North Vietnam back to the stone age’. He committed a number of war crimes and was generally not a nice guy. You can imagine his fair and measured response to Smokey nicking his flak suit.

    Smokey spent the rest of his time in Europe doing night missions ferrying spies around, a sort of espionage taxi service. He would fly out at dusk, land discreetly in an out of the way field, drop off and pick up spies, and very carefully fly home the long way to avoid german guns. He began freelancing, doing the odd job during his down time for criminal cartels and mercenaries. He also says he got to see Mussolini’s body hung up in a town square near lake Como. That is where Mussolini died, and his body was hung up, but I’ll leave it up to you as to how much of Smokey’s war stories you feel you can believe.

    He didn’t end up spending the entire war in Europe. He was transferred to the asian theatre. Initially posted in India on cargo and transport duties, Smokey soon realised that there was a tonne of money to be made working as a sanctioned smuggler. The air force ran routes to India and back resupplying the Chinese Nationalists who were fighting against the Japanese and the communists. Smuggling and graft were an open secret among the air force officers in the area, and Smokey, feeling he’d done his fare share for his country, decided to get in on the action.

    On the way into china, he’d haul soap, booze, condoms and nylon stockings. On the way out, he’d be loaded up with animal skins, ivory, jade, and stolen antiques.

    “Does this bother me regarding the obvious fact that it’s illegal? Nope, I figured I was doing this on my own time and our government knew about it. I saw it as a huge waste of money. But, of course, what is war? “

    Smokey doesn’t make out with quite as much money as he should. He discovers this wonderful thing that hasn’t made it to the western world yet, called Heroin, and most of the money he made smuggling in those last few years of the war literally went up in smoke.

    In amongst all the malarky, he became a very, very talented mechanic. He rebuilt a B-25 out of spares and specced it up. He wound up using it as his personal plane for the rest of the war. He worked on choppers, tanks, bombers, transports, and was called upon to do dangerous transport runs precisely because he was the kind of pilot who could run into terrible trouble, but still keep his plane in the air through sheer mechanical know how. He had become a self taught, masterful engineer. Indeed, a good chunk of his book is less life story, and more folksy engineering tips.

    Once the war in the pacific ended, Smokey stuck around for a few months as part of the occupying force in Okinawa, but he was emotionally and mentally spent. One night, a starving Japanese man broke into a supply room and stole a can of tomatoes. Smokey interrupted him, and in a panic, Smokey shot and killed the guy. He did some more transport runs, recalling in particular picking up the starved survivors of the Baatan death marches. His final days as an air force pilot are a haze of drugs, booze and sex workers. He missed not one, but two trips home due to hangovers, and had to hitch a ride on a ship to Hawaii to get back to San Francisco.

    He left the airforce and got married to Elizabeth Yunick. Truth be told, he didn’t have a clue what to do with himself. He lived with her parents a while, and buried his 150k in smuggling in a big tin can. He worked a couple of odd jobs, a mechanic here, an air line co pilot there. His wandering heart eventually led him away from the cold north east of the US, and down to Daytona beach. He was done with aircraft, and done with working for other people. There, in a quite patch of land backing onto a swamp, Henry Yunick started his own business, called ‘Smokey’s Best Damned Garage in Town’. Smokey needed something to replace the thrill of his wartime experiences, and Florida was the beating heart of the fledgling US motorsport industry. His new wife insisted that he wasn’t allowed to race, so Smokey worked as chief engineer instead.

    Smokey describes the men in early days of racing as ‘an odd lot of humans, a little bit carnie and a strange band of gypsies’. Pardon the slur. None had high school diplomas, quite a few couldn’t read or write. They were lower class men chasing a thrill. Nevertheless, out of this very odd bunch Smokey may well have been the oddest. He would parade up and down the pits, hungover and swearing, barking opinions at anyone within earshot. He wore a completely white track suit and overalls with a white cowboy hat and a corncob pipe. Out of a band eccentrics, he was their king.

    The year was 1947, and it was the beginning of the rest of his life.

    The number of people Smokey credits as being notable at this juncture are too numerous to mention: he has a story and an opinion on each and every one of them. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to stick to just a few of them.

    First off, there was Marshall Teague. Teague was both an expert in driving and engineering, which quickly made him one of Smokeys favourite people. Teague was a bomber pilot veteran too, and that endeared Smokey to him. Teague quickly hired him to work on his racing team. Fun fact: Have you seen the Pixar movie ‘Cars’? Doc Hudson is based on Teague.

    Teague was also one of the founding fathers of modern day NASCAR racing. He was both treasurer and secretary in the early years, but the business side of it didn’t interest him all that much. He was more keen on the racing. This put him in strong contrast with the chairman of the association, Bill France.

    NASCAR was originally formed to stop racers getting robbed by track owners. Often times, Smokey and his crew would drive as much as a 1000 miles to get to a race meet, driving overnight with the racecar on the back of a flatbed truck. People would come in, pay their tickets, the drivers would race….and the owner of the track would just run away with the takings. NASCAR, as a centralized organization, prevented that. Of course, as Smokey repeatedly points out, drivers and teams still got screwed over by management in other ways, but at least it was the devil you knew.

    Bill France was the architect behind NASCAR. He had a terrific business brain, but was a less than ethical character. Smokey felt he was guilty of all sorts of sins, including selling stolen government equipment in the middle of WW2.

    “France was a world class bull-shitter, and had the balls of an elephant with regards to gambling with finances, and he’d work 20 hours a day, seven days a week if necessary.” France divided himself into two people. The one the racers knew, and the one the “money people” knew. France could manipulate people like the pied piper. You couldn’t believe a goddam thing he said. He’s used Lindbergh’s plane name, “we.” It was always “we” doing the work, and “I” gets the money. France was as ruthless as Hitler.”

    Teague and France would clash regularly. One was in it for the purity of racing, and the other was looking to profit.

    In terms of lifestyle, motorsport was exactly like the airforce. Hard drinking, promiscuous, work aholic lifestyles in very tough conditions. In 1947, Smokey was paid by Hudson Cars to make racing engines for them for 200$, which was a huge sum of money. Trouble was, after building, tuning, installing, and then managing them on track day, it worked out to about 2$ an hour.

    “That last day before we left to go race, was almost always like this. Work Thursday to 6:00 pm at your regular job … eat … then work on the race car. That night you’d start drinking whiskey with beer chasers to keep going and stay awake and work all Thursday night. You’d continue all day Friday till midnight, then hook up and tow all night to start inspection at 8:00 am someplace. Then you’d qualify Saturday afternoon around 6:00 pm … leave the track taking the engine with us. Back at the motel, you’d work on engine Saturday night and install back in race car starting 5:00 to 5:30 am the next morning. The race was on Sunday afternoon. If you crashed, you had to get race car “yellow bar” towable, then tow back home. We wanted to be home by 8:00 am Monday morning so we could do our day work Monday. Finally, Monday night we get to bed. We were nuts, because at best all you could hope for was to break even and live.”

    Smokey smashed his hand trying to catch an engine, another man got crushed by a truck falling off a mount, and remember how I said the garage backed onto a swamp? Actual, full grown alligators would often wander into the store. Smokey kept one as a pet for a while, until it bit a worker, nearly taking his foot off.

    In 1950, Smokey and Teague ran a car called the Hudson Hornet. It was a weird looking thing, often described as an upside down bathtub. Hudson weren’t a very big or successful company, one of many hundreds of auto manufacturers circling the drain or being bought up in post war America. They had major problems with capital investment, and their factory was antiquated at best. Nonetheless, the Hornet was a powerful car with a solid chassis. Smokey and Teague turned it into a winning proposition.

    They won the championship in 51 with 7 wins, finished 2nd in 52 with 8, won again in 53, and finished second in 54. 39 wins total in a 4 year period. They made the Hornet into a household name ‘The Fabulous Hudson Hornet’, and helped cement it’s place as a classic piece of Americana. Herb Thomas was champion in both those years.

    The relationship with Hudson ended when they merged with Kelvinator in late 54’ to become American Motor Cars. If you’ve never heard of AMC, that’s because they were bought out themselves in mid 1980s. In any case, amc wanted to run new style Hornet with a different chassis, and Smokey hated it. “I see the car as a loser and I’m dead against it.” He shook hands with Marshall Teague, and walked out on Hudson for Chevrolet.

    Now, chevy might be a famous car brand now, but at the time, they were in serious trouble. The ‘55 Chevy was a major turning point for the company. Most people saw the car as a bit of a loser, and Smokey himself had reservations about it. It had a far smaller engine than the other cars in the field, running a 4.3 litre Chevy small block V8. For comparison, the 55’ Oldsmobile ran a 5.4 litre V8.

    Smokey got to work on that engine.

    “Above about 5800 rpm, the pistons, bearings and valve gear all went to hell faster than I could fix them. We had a list of problems to solve. Chevy was willing and NASCAR was grinnin’, saying ‘Load the wagons boys, the mule is blind!”

    He mentions that last quote at the end – often attributed to Bill France. I still can’t decide what it really means, but I think, *think*, it means that a job needs to get done, and the mule doesn’t know what’s good for it, so exploit the mule to get what you want out of it. In this analogy, Smokey is the mule, and Bill France is doing the loading.

    In any case, Smokey works away at the small block in his garage, tinkering away with the heads and rockers, and in consultation, with the Chevy engine team, they ended up working it into a really good racing engine. The small block wound up being just as powerful as many of the bigger engines, but smaller and lighter. It’s now regarded as one of the best engines produced in the US, and it’s basic form remained in production from 1955 until 2003.

    Smokey ran the 55’ Chevy for the first time at the Southern 500 at Darlington, roughly halfway through the 55’ Nascar season. This is one of the biggest races of the year, and Smokey didn’t have a very high opinion of the track itself:

    “Now this track was a dangerous son-of-a-bitch ’cause it gets great big holes in it. You see it was ’bout a 30 degree bank, and banks were Mississippi river bottom (a fine silt). No way to get it stabilized. I think somebody got killed every time it was run. Hell, Lee Petty went through the fence in turn 3. Over a power line 40 feet from the ground and landed in parking lot on his wheels. Well, track got so goddam rough, that gas tanks fell out, real axles broke out, front suspensions jerked off, and engines overheated real bad.

    “The track surface was asphalt, and no known asphalt could stand the weight, speed, and lateral forces of that many race cars on a hot day. So, like the farmers they were, the track management, the night before the race, would coat the turns with an oil that I called “owl shit” or “bear grease.” This band aid solution reduced the lateral traction to a point it didn’t knead the asphalt, and it pretty well stayed in place.”

    Simply put, the track could now last the race but the race cars were running on black ice. “

    There was one way in and out except across track at turn four. To get an ambulance in or out, you had to stop the race.”

    Now’s a good time to get to what Smokey is most famous for: he’s regarded as one of the greatest cheats in the history of organized sport. You may have heard the term ‘stock car racing’. What that specifically refers to is the idea that the cars on the track can’t be specially engineered for the race. So with Formula 1, the cars are built from the ground up by an engineering team specifically for those races. You would never see an F1 car, or anything like, on a regular road because they are very precisely engineered for going around a track. In stock car racing, the car parts have to be ‘stock’, as in they have to be the standard parts that were mass produced by manufacturers. You can’t go out and pour a bunch of money into a custom engine just for your racer, you’ve got to use the one that, say Chevrolet, are putting into their regular consumer muscle cars.

    But you are allowed to modify the car within reason. For example, you can mix and match parts from one car to another, or tweak existing parts so they behave a little differently. This results in lots of confusingly written rules about what is, and what isn’t allowed. What is and isn’t “stock”.

    “In regard to being nominated for first member of the “Cheater’s Hall of Fame.” I really just read the rule book carefully. If a nut, bolt, or part wasn’t specifically mentioned, or a measurement wasn’t given, I assumed those items were “fair game.” Even where they said “stock,” what the hell did that mean? They needed to say “stock as of a certain day.” Hell, stock can change a lot depending on when and where a part was made.”

    Smokey lived and died within the margins of these rules, constantly beavering away trying to find grey area he could exploit. How much of this was him actively trying to get an unfair advantage, and how much of it was him just trying to be innovative with his engineering, is up for debate.

    How does this relate to the 1955 Southern 500 at Darlington? Well, Smokey wasn’t happy with the tyres he had available to him for the race, so he employed a friend to go hunting around the world for a unique kind of tyre, one that would require less pit stops, and would be able to deal with the slippery track:

    “I found a hole in the rules which paid a lot of attention to wheel width and tread patterns and bolt holes, but not a damn thing about diameter. (I wanted a 20 inch tire if I could get it.)”

    They found one. Firestone had recently discarded a massive pile of tyres they build for a LeMans racing team. Smokey’s buddy found them in a junkyard and bought them for a buck a piece.

    Between the tyres width and the Chevy’s lighter weight, the tyres were way more durable than the ones run by the other teams, and even though the Chevy was 2-3 mph slower on the straights, Herb Thomas, Smokey’s driver, didn’t have to pit once in the 500 miles. They won easily.

    Some of the other teams protested after qualifying, and demanded the Firestone super sports be made available to them as well. But Smokey had the only supply, and Bill France had to back down from disqualifying Smokeys tyres when he realized that a Chevrolet win would mean that they would start pouring massive amounts of money into Nascar.

    The Chevy won the race easily.

    Smokey’s career was full of rule bending anecdotes.

    For example the 1951 Hudson Hornet, was a well designed but poorly manufactured car. Many of the parts weren’t well made, and the exhaust manifold was rough and impeded the flow of gases through the exhaust system. The rules clearly stated that you were not allowed to grind down surfaces using tools to make them smoother. So Smokey blasted an abrasive compound, something like sand, through the exhaust over and over again until it was dead smooth. No tool ever touched the manifold.

    At the 1962 Daytona 500, fuel tanks had to be no more than 22 gallons. The inspectors emptied the tank on Smokeys car, filled it up again to check the capacity, found it held a legal 22 gallons of fuel, and moved on. Once they left, Smokey took a needle and deflated the basketball that was hidden inside the gas tank, which freed up an extra 6 gallons. His justification? Every other asshole had a 28 gallon tank as well.

    In 1968 (at least I think it was 1968, the timeline is hazy), Yunick realized that while NASCAR mandated fuel tank sizes, it said nothing about the fuel line. The fuel line is the hose that carries the fuel from tank to engine. A regular fuel line is about half an inch thick and maybe 4 feet long. Smokey installed a 2 inch wide, 11 foot long fuel line that held a whopping 5 extra gallons. That’s 19 litres for those of you living in the civilized world.

    To sum up his philosophy : It didn’t say you couldn’t.

    Anyway, back to 1956’ Smokey was flying high. He was hired to work on the Chevy small block engineering team, and was the head of their racing department. That year Bunkie Knudsen became Vice President of Gm, and head of Pontiac. Pontiac were in much the same shape Chevy was prior to the emergence of the small block. They were churning out heavy, old fashioned cars with weak engines.

    Smokey credits Bunkie as being one of the most influential men in his life. A terrific engineer with the people skills and economic nouse to run a major auto player, he, along with a few of his underlings and proteges, turned Pontiac around.

    Knudsen got Smokie to run a 57’ Chevy at the last ever Daytona beach race, which he won. Prior to the construction of the speedway, races at Daytona beach were run on the actual beach. By the final race, the cars had gotten so powerful that they would churn the sand. It was the beginning of a long friendship between he and Knudsen. After a attempt at Indy Car Racing in 1958, Smokey returned to Nascar after Knudsen made him an offer to run a Pontiac team.

    “Fireball” Roberts was his driver.

    “Fireball had the skill and the balls, and he was the smartest of the drivers. I also know Fireball had two allergies, one to asthma, and one to work.”

    Smokey rated him as an exceptionally talented driver, and though they clashed occasionally, they were very good friends and worked well together. Smokey ran a few new pieces of gear in his ‘59 Pontiac. Power brakes and adjustable hydraulic suspension, both of which ended up creating a near decade long patent problem. They had a moderately successful year, with a major win at the Daytona 500.

    Career wise, Smokey was at the height of his powers. However, things were not going well for his old pal Marshall Teague.

    Teague had stuck with Hudson, and as Smokey had predicted, the new car was a bit of a dud. After that failure, he switched over to Indy car racing for a while, but the switch did not come cheaply. Bill France was still chairman of NASCAR and had accumulated signifcant wealth and power for himself in the intervening years. Despite his many years of service, and his role as a founder, France banned Teague from NASCAR.

    Teague had to bankroll his own team, and it went poorly. Without the backing of a major company, costs were extremely high for him personally, and by 1959, he was broke. He tried to get work at Chevy, but the heads of the company didn’t go for it. He had to go begging to Bill France to let him back into NASCAR. France agreed to this, on one condition: that Teague personally set a closed circuit world speed record in a car of France’s choosing.

    France probably wasn’t just being malicious; a record like this would be a powerful marketing tool. In ‘57, many of the major manufacturers walked away from competitive racing, putting a huge strain on NASCAR as an organization. Risky promotional gambits like this were exactly how France planned to keep the lights on. Still, the whole arrangement exploited a desperate man.

    Smokey had serious reservations about the deal. The car, as he put it, ‘wanted to fly’. This meant that at high speed, the aerodynamic profile of the car would cause high pressure air to pool under the front fender, and lift the vehicle off the ground. Smokey wanted Teague to rebuild the car entirely, but Teague replied he couldn’t. He was broke.

    Smokey called on France to cancel the whole thing, but France replied that Smokey ‘should mind his own business’.

    The record attempt started well enough, with Teague posting an 178mph stint at the then newly opened Daytona raceway, a new record for an American speedway, but the following day, the car flipped coming into a turn, and at 140 mph, Teague was thrown, seat and all, from the car, where he smashed into a concrete wall. He died instantly.

    ”As you people sit down in the “Marshall Teague grandstand” in Daytona (at a ticket price you’d expect an air-conditioned, gold-plated seat), look over to “turn one.” Maybe you can see the spot on the track where he died while trying to get back into NASCAR.

    Smokey never says that he hated France for what he did, describing it more as a ‘smouldering resentment’. It may feel like he let France off easy, but motorsport is a dangerous business, and part of him may have felt that Teague’s death simply came with the territory.

    “In NASCAR from 1949 to 1958, ’bout ten years and about 400 total races, some 27 racers were injured fatally on the race track with plenty more doing tough sheet time. Most all good race tracks today have pretty damn good hospital on the racetrack infield. Back then, a local doctor with a bag and an ambulance or a hearse, or maybe just a fire truck was all we had.”

    “Very few people have any idea of all the sacrifices a truly great driver, or any competitive driver, has to accept. It’s many times, just two degrees cooler than hell. Blood boils at 140 degrees F, and when blood boils, death follows in a couple of minutes. And how ’bout sitting in same position for four hours, tightly strapped in at temperatures round 130 degrees traveling at 200 to 300 feet per second, two to 12 inches from a competitor with restricted vision, (Windshield covered with oil and rubber and the last hour running into the sun on a quarter of each lap) breathing carbon monoxide five to ten times above normal till you’re fuckin’ dingy. Where the real story is your asshole is so puckered-up you couldn’t drive a 10 penny nail into it with a four pound hammer. Then do that 30 or more times a year. If nothing else, by now you must realize that anybody who does this is out of his fucking mind.”

    It would be a lie to say the death of an old friend was Smokey’s only issue. Smokey’s marriage had hit the rocks. He was still drinking and working like he was in his 20s, not to mention all the screwing around, and it was really catching up with him. There’s a chapter in his book dedicated to a high mileage endurance race that ends with he and Fireball Roberts stuck in a motel in California with unidentifiable drugs, a team of sex workers, and a live lobster.

    Elizabeth Yunick sued Smokey for divorce, and (deservedly) got the house, as well as a healthy 200$ a month to take care of their two children. Despite the gig with Chevy bringing in good money, the divorce almost bankrupted Smokey. It didn’t help that a number of patents he had pending didn’t work out, and that he was screwed over in a small business deal to the tune of 15,000.

    “I’m so broke in this period I’m living in an old laundry building. It’s now our machine shop next to the main shop. I’m sleeping on an army cot and have only cold bath water.”

    The loss of his marriage, and seeing what all the booze had done to so many friends of his, finally convinced him to give up drinking. It was a difficult task – the NASCAR pits back then were drenched in booze, with some drivers even taking to the track completely hammered, but Smokey kept at it, and by 1961, he had his last ever drink. Canadian whiskey with a beer chaser.

    The 1960 series saw them finish first in qualifying at the Daytona 500, finish 3rd at the Firecracker 250, and won the Dixie 300 at Atlanta. The numbers refer to the amount of miles in the race. They didn’t place in the top ten for the drivers championships. All in all, not a great year. 1961 was a hell of a lot better. They ran a second car driven by ‘Starvin’ Marvin Panch. They were headed for a 1-2 finish at the Daytona 500 when Fireball’s car blew it’s engine, leaving Marvin to win the race. Fireball finished 2nd in Charlotte, 3rd at Atlanta, and finished 5th overall in the standings.

    Smokey started getting a little ansty around this time. Between the naysayers at GM, and the inspectors shutting down what they saw as non standard parts, many of the innovations Smokey would have liked to have seen installed on his cars were outlawed. One of them were flame guards for rear petrol tanks.

    “In the early sixties a major problem we had was “heads-up-their-asses engineers” in Detroit put a flimsy 20 to 25 gallon steel gas tank within an inch of rear bumper, and dropped down below the car ’bout six inches, totally unprotected. Soon as you got tapped in the ass there would be a tank fire. Well, they were great in the films, but very hard on drivers. So in ’63 I built a chrome alloy guard to prevent that happening, but Friel made me remove it”

    1963, the team saw Fireball achieve his crowning glory – a win at the Daytona 500. He would win just two more races for the season and finish 8th overall, but a win at the 500 was a huge deal.

    1964 saw Fireball take an early win at Augusta. Later that year at Charlotte, he crashed badly on the 7th lap. That unprotected rear gas tank Smokey was so worried about exploded. He suffered horrific burns to 90% of body and took over a month to die in hospital.

    “His plan was to retire as a driver after race he got burned in. He had just got a good job with beer company in Chicago. He stopped in to see me at Indy to tell me I was right about it being over for him as a driver. The coming Sunday was my last qualifying chance at Indy and his last race. Sunday we wrecked my car at Indy. An hour later I got word he crashed and burned in Charlotte and was messed up bad. I towed my wreck back to Charlotte (got there at 5:00 am) but they wouldn’t let me see him, too hurting. Next time I saw him, I helped carry him to a place ’bout quarter mile from the Daytona track, within 100 yards of his friend Marshall Teague.”

    Two other drivers, Eddie Sachs and Dave Rovertson, died in similar circumstances the following week at the Indy 500, though I can’t say for sure whether the fuel tank was the culprit in those cases. In spite of the carnage, NASCAR didn’t move all that quickly to improve safety standards. The following year, Smokey’s team was running on a Chevrolet Chevelle.

    It had a 22 gallon rubber fuel cell, the first one in NASCAR. The chief inspector said, “Get that inner tube outta here and put in a standard steel death trap.” So I started to negotiate with him and said, “I ain’t moving that tank nowheres – it stays.” He says, “Then you’re outta here.” I say, “Fine, you can go take a flying fuck on a galloping duck, I ain’t doing nothing.”

    After much shouting and name calling, France finally allowed him to run the Firestone built rubber fuel cell, which became a standard part in coming years. Yet another example of when it simply isn’t practical to run a stock part on a race car.

    Smokey spent months trying to beat the Chevelle into a decent race car, and learned a huge amount about weight reduction and aerodynamics in the process. His description of what he actually did to the car is too complicated for me to understand, let alone explain, so I’ll just say this: He basically rebuilt it from the ground up, and it still wasn’t a good racer. In the end, it ran into all sorts of inspection problems, and never actually ran a race.

    In spite of that, the Chevelle is the biggest part of Smokey Yunick’s folklore. The urban legend among race fans is that it wasn’t a real Chevelle, and that he actually built a 7/8ths replica to fool the inspectors. This story is nonsense, because a 7/8ths sized sedan would be at least about two feet shorter than a regular sized one, and the difference would be clear even to someone who didn’t give a damn about cars. Plus, what good would a slightly smaller version of a bad car be? Still, the legend persisted, and Smokey spent a good portion of his twilight years signing pictures of the 67’ Chevelle.

    He finally quit NASCAR in 1971. He describes the final straw as a rule dispute with Bill France, but it feels more to me that the world he knew had passed him by.

    “When I am asked to compare racing in 1940 to racing in 1990, people ask, “What’s the difference, if any?” My answer is, “If I was a racer, today’s people are not, and if today’s people are racers, I never was.” In 1940, racing was a series of thrill shows. We were never a sport. Back then racer equipment had the potential to kill if driver error or a mechanical goof-up occurred. And they still can, but by comparison, today’s race vehicles are five times safer.

    That added safety came at a cost though. Literally, it drove race costs through the roof. Remember how Hudon paid Smokey 200$ an engine back in 1950? Well at Indycar in 1971, his bi turbo 208 inch cost him well over 30,000$. The original stock car racers often bought their cars at scrap yards and repaired them with whatever they could salvage. There was big money in the sport now, and big money meant better technology, better facilities, better training, but also no room for the little guy. The original stock car racing community was a weird band of illiterate misfits, farmers and gas station attendants looking for a thrill on weekends. There was no avenue for that kind of grass roots participation in the sport anymore. If you didn’t come into Daytona beach with a team that had at least a million dollar budget, you could forget about.

    “Yesterday’s driver ran Indy and Darlington in street shoes, slacks and a tee shirt, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the shirtsleeve and an open face helmet (about as protective as strapping a turtle shell on your head). They very seldom wore gloves. Nine out of ten finishing drivers had bleeding hands, and some with bleeding asses (Yes asses!) and two out of 10 with burns on throttle foot from the heat. I’ve seen Jimmy Bryan climb out of an Indy car with his ass and clothes soaked in blood. Some would not wear helmets, or use safety belts, until it was mandated by the sanctioning body.”

    He continued racing Indy Cars til 1975, but he fell out of love with that as well. Again, the sport was becoming more professionalized, and he hated the big international money and the foreign cars coming in. The moment that sealed it for him was when the head of the US Auto Club, the powerful organization that helps sanction US auto racing, told him that stock engines were dead in Indycar. That would essentially prevent small players from entering the sport, leaving only rich teams that could afford custom built equipment. He was 52 years old, and had run his last race.

    “I put 23 hard-hard years, with about a five dollar an hour average wage, but it was my choice. I got no regrets at all. Actually, I think I was lucky to have been part of the birth of stock car racing. I really loved the competition.”

    The changing face of the sport wasn’t the only thing bothering him. Though he’d quit drinking, he was still committing long hours on the job and cheating on his wife.

    “Where you going? What do you want?” I’d answer, “I don’t know, I think I’m lost.” I had a good wife and three good kids, but I hardly knew them. I had a serious relationship with another lady. I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. A loud mouth, know-it-all, two-faced, cheating asshole. And what’s worse I couldn’t see a clear path to fixing it all. In the beginning, I let racing consume so much of my time I believe I deserved a rating of “defective father.” I’m gonna have to tell you, I was a loser as a father.

    His second wife, Patricia, mother to 3 more of his kids, passed away from cancer. I can’t find the exact date anywhere, but I think it was 1980. This left Smokey to raise 3 teenage kids that he didn’t really know. 3 years later, he married Margie, his 3rd and final wife. They had been good friends for 30 years, and when Margie’s own husband died in 1981, it felt like the perfect fit. Margie, unlike his previous wives, knew exactly what she was getting into, and didn’t mind.

    Retirement from racing didn’t mean retirement for Smokey. He stayed busy as an engineer, working across the GM, Ford and Chrysler as the moment suited him. Between in 1978 and 1996, he submitted at least 9 patents, though in truth they were mostly for innovations he had come up with years earlier. He ran a regular column in Popular Mechanics for about 20 years, though he hated it, saying it was answering questions for idiots for a pittance.

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about the man was his environmental conscience. For much of his book, he comes across as a crochety old grandpa, dropping casually racist comments and raging against the Clinton family. The development of his beloved Daytona beach, and the devastation caused to the wetlands that backed onto his shop, bothered him deeply. He viewed the damage industrialized society was doing to the environment as just another symptom of the unfettered greed he’d hated his entire life.

    “Environmental concerns were a hell of a lot more considered by practical farmer types than the normal captains of industry. Hell, they were the ignorant, greedy bastards that championed the mass pollution of earth.”

    Smokey viewed the issue through the same lens he viewed most things in life: it was an engineering problem. He spent many of his later years experimenting with new technology, trying to find a way to avoid the environmental quagmire that we today are firmly stuck in.

    By 1976, his shop had wind mills, solar collectors, engines running on hydrogen, coal dust, biowaste, fluorocarbons (freon), ammonia, hot vapor, natural gas and liquid natural gas. He said that his biggest mistake in new energy, was backing hydrogen. He was so sure it was going to be the big fossil fuel replacement, but ran into many of the same problems Hydrogen fuels still face today. Energy density and fuel tank embrittlement. Funnily enough, Smokey may not have been completely wrong about Hydrogen. It’s looking like it might be the most cost effective way to run heavy vehicles, like trucks and buses. Perhaps not the day to day car use he probably envisaged, but it’s still got the potential to be an important fuel in the low carbon transition.

    In 1983, he shut the garage down, claiming there were no good mechanics worth hiring anymore, and he’d earned his retirement. He hung a big sign saying closed for reorganization sign out the front, and left it as, filled with tools and memories.

    He was involved with John Delorean and his ill fated car company in the mid 80s, and had a number of ill fated business dealings with the big 3 that never quite panned out.

    He had a stake in oil fields down in South America and would make trips several times a year to iron out problems on site. From what I gather, he did quite well out of the venture, and in spite of the fact that his racing days left him with no pension or insurance, he lived quite comfortably in retirement.

    In his later years, he grew closer with Bill France. France had Alzheimers, and got into the habit of calling Smokey several times a week. One time, on a visit to Smokey’s home garage France:

    “puts his arm around me and says “he misses us.” (The original bunch) Now he has money, and wants to “spend lots of time with us and help us enjoy our remaining years.” Well, I turned away and damn near cried. I got all choked up. I thought, “What a fucking shame, most of us were either dead or crippled or sick, and as a rule very poorly equipped financially in our medically much more expensive years. Here Bill’s got the world by the ass financially, but he’s out of time.” But something inside his brain made him aware of yesterday in a way I guess that bothered him, and he aimed to remedy it.
    No, my true feelings for Bill France, Sr. are sadness. He did live a long life, but I doubt he was comfortable with his conscience as the days wound down.”

    As Smokey himself got older, his hearing and balance deteriorated, and in 2000 he was diagnosed with Leukemia. In May 2001, he passed away. The remains of his garage were sold off to fans and local mechanics at reasonable, low prices, to both ensure they would be used in the way that he wanted, and to make sure some rich guy didn’t wind up owning his legacy. In 2011, almost ten years to the day of his passing, The Best Damned Garage in Town burned down. A sort of second death afforded to a larger than life man.

    Smokey made two big predictions later in life. Firstly, that the environment would be destroyed by fossil fuels, and secondly, that NASCAR would fade away due to the huge costs imposed on fans. On both counts, he was right. The ice caps are melting, the seas rising, and the world is scrambling to find a way to get all those petrochemicals off the road. As for Nascar, it’s attendances have been falling rapidly since the Global Financial Crisis. Smokey’s beloved Daytona speedway has reduced seating capacity from a peak of nearly 160,000, to just over 100,000 today. Fans just can’t afford to go anymore, and that carnival, community feel that he so loved? It’s as dead as the man himself. Smokey was very much a man of the 20th century, and reading about him has really underlined to me just how much cultural change has occurred in the 20 years since his death. In just two decades, we live now in a world he predicted, but would not be able to recognize.

    I left a tonne out of this podcast. His experiences at GM, Ford, and Chrysler, his involvement with John Delorean of Delorean motors (which produced exactly one vehicle, known to most of you as the Back to the Future car), a lot of really gross sex stuff, but most of all I’ve left out his many ramblings on automotive engineering. If that sort of thing interests you, you might want to pick up a copy of his autobiography. The abridged version is called Sex, Lies, and Superspeedways, and the unabridged is called The Best Damned Garage in Town. I must warn you it is not a good book at all, it’s a rambling, structureless, often incoherent tome that badly needed an editor, none the less it’s where I got most of todays tale from, along with various motoring magazines, other podcasts, and the ever helpful wikipedia which was oh so useful for figuring out who won what race where. I hope you enjoyed it, til next time.

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