Photo Credit: Pete Biro
by Gene Granger
Smokey Yunick was different. He was born with a mechanical mind. Many have called him a mechanical genius. Although he hasn't fielded a stock car since 1971 or any auto racing machine since 1975, Yunick is regarded today as one of the most respected, honored mechanics in the country.
Life began for Yunick, he believes, on May 25, 1923, "around the Maryville area" of Tennessee. "I really don't know when my birthday is. I had three different first names. Harry, Henry and Gregory. I say my birth is May 25, 1923, but I don't have anything to back it up," he said seriously.
Around 1939 he decided to try motorcycle racing. His only exposure to racing was watching the Championship Dirt Cars around Langhorne, Pa. - "Ted Horn and that bunch," he said. Motorcycles were a short-lived affair, but the sport did give him his nickname.
"I worked on my motorcycle and I was racing on a half-mile track. I didn't do a very good job as it was smoking like a SOB. The guy had forgotten my name, so when I got to doing pretty good he started calling me 'Smokey'. One of the guys I worked with was there when he called me Smokey. When I got to work the next day, he kept calling me Smokey.
"Before you knew it everybody was calling me that. The nickname stuck," he said.
During WWII, he was a test pilot. "They didn't have any radar then, So instead of running around in circles for eight hours, I would take trips. I made one trip to Daytona Beach. It looked so nice from the air that I said if I ever got out of the Air Force that's where I would want to live," said Yunick, who has been a resident of Daytona Beach since 1946.
"I opened my garage in '47. I named it 'The Best Damned Garage in Town.' I've got the name registered. Most garages had slogans back then. I just decided I was going to have the best damn garage in town."
It was in NASCAR where the Yunick name became famous. Herb Thomas drove Yunick prepared cars to his three Southern 500 triumphs in 1951 and 1954 in Hudson Hornets, and in 1955 in a Chevrolet. The 1951 and 1953 NASCAR national driving championships were also won by Thomas for Yunick. Yunick cars also won the 1961 and 1962 Daytona 500's. Smokey wasn't exclusive to stock cars though, racing at Indy as well. He was the chief mechanic for the car driven by Jim Rathmann, that won the 1960 Indianapolis 500.
In addition to Herb Thomas, Smokey's drivers included Fonty and Tim Flock, Paul Goldsmith, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Marvin Panch, Buck Baker, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Isaac, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Allison, Mario Andretti, Joe Leonard, Swede Savage, and Bobby Unser.
Among the most legendary Smokey Yunick stories are the 7/8 scale Chevelle, the "empty-gas-tank," the 1964 Indy sidecar, and his passion and persistence with both stock block engines for racing and adiabatic engines for passenger cars.
Yunick is also well known to many non-race fans for his ability to explain automotive subjects. He wrote for Popular Science for 28 years and said "I was their 'Dear Abby of Cars.' He also has written a column, "Track Tech," for Circle Track, a monthly oval track racing publication. That column generated hundreds of letters each month and Smokey tried to answer them all - even if just a single line. The very least he'll do is send the questioner his phone number.
"Racing was good to me. I owe racing. And I will as long as I live," said Yunick, who will die as a maverick-but knowledgeable, if not unforgettable -"racer".