Henry “Smokey” Yunick, one of auto racing’s most brilliant mechanics and innovators, died in 2001 at the age of 77. He was born in Neshaminy, Pa., and settled in Daytona Beach Florida in 1946 after serving as an Air force bomber pilot in World War II. In 1947, he opened an automobile repair shop on Beach Street he dubbed “The Best Damn Garage In Town.”
He closed the garage to the public in the mid-1980s but continued work on his research and development projects. Yunick quickly became a major player in the racing community boasting several big victories on the old beach-road course before winning both the Daytona 500 as a car owner and the Indianapolis 500 as a mechanic.
His black Pontiacs with gold trim twice claimed the Daytona 500, with Marvin Panch in 1961 and Daytona native Fireball Roberts in ’62. Yunick’s cars won four of the first eight Winston Cup races at Daytona International Speedway. Yunick was the chief mechanic for Herb Thomas, who won Winston Cup championships in 1951 and ’53.
Yunick was especially fond of bending the NASCAR rule book. In 1968 during Speed Weeks, NASCAR officials pulled the gas tank out of his Pontiac after they thought his car was getting excessive fuel mileage. After passing a rigid inspection, Yunick got in the car– with the gas tank lying on the ground — fired it up and drove back to his space in the garage area, leaving NASCAR inspectors dumbfounded.
The gas tank was the right size but he made the fuel line so it held a couple of gallons of gas. So he was able to drive away without the gas tank. I don’t want to say he didn’t step outside the lines, but he was really smart about those things.”
His open-wheel creations made 10 appearances at the famed Brickyard between 1958 and 1975. He won the Indy 500 in 1960 with Jim Rathmann. In 1959 he brought a car with the engine turned upside down. He called it the Reverse Torque Special. The car finished seventh. In 1964 he showed up at Indy with the strangest machine ever to turn laps at the 2.5-mile track. It was his “sidesaddle” car wheeled by Bobby Johns. “The whole car was built out of backyard kind of stuff,” said Yunick.
Yunick worked with some of the greatest race car drivers in the 20th century, including Hall of Famers Tim Flock, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Bobby Unser, Buck Baker, Fireball Roberts and Paul Goldsmith.
Yunick stopped fielding a Winston Cup entry in 1970 after a heated argument with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. Even though the two racing giants lived in the same town, they hardly spoke to each other for the next 20 years.
Yunick had no formal education but was considered one of the top minds in automobile engine design. He helped develop Chevrolets original small-block engine in 1955. The basic blueprints of that design are still used in racing to this day. He also did research and development on hydraulics, fuel intakes and engine mileage. He built an engine in the 1970’s that he boasted could go nearly 100 miles on a gallon of regular gasoline. He also was interested in creating other gadgets. During the energy crisis in the mid 1970s, he built a windmill and solar panel over his shop hoping to generate enough electricity to power his business.
He penned numerous magazine articles during his long career. He had the ear of Detroit’s automakers and even found time to do some consulting work for NASA.
Yunick was in the first group of 20 men inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990.
Please check out Smokey’s web site.
Very soon we will be bringing you more details on several of the large variety of cars built by Smokey over the years. Below are three race cars built by Smokey. We will soon have more photos and lots of details on these cars.