There were really two Smokey Yunicks. The first was the stuff of legends.
Henry Yunick dropped out of school as a teenager to work on his family’s Pennsylvania farm after his father died. His nickname came from a track announcer commenting on the condition of his motorcycle during a 1941 race. He joined the Army Air Corps, flew bombers and fighters in World War II, and then returned from the war to open what was at first a tiny shop in Daytona Beach, Florida, “The Best Damn Garage in Town.”
It wasn’t just bluster. First in NASCAR, then at Indy, Yunick applied his prodigious mechanical talents to making fast cars and making cars go faster. The roster of men who drove for Yunick is a Who’s Who of racing champions, from Allison (Bobby) to Vukovich (Billy). He won two NASCAR Grand National Championships as a car owner and mechanic, and he won at Indy in 1960 as the co-chief mechanic for Jim Rathmann’s Offenhauser-powered roadster.
“Indy was his love,” said Jim McFarland, who was an editor at Hot Rod magazine when he began a 40-year friendship with Yunick in the ’60s. “He came out of NASCAR but gravitated to Indy since he wasn’t bound by all the rules. He could explore more things there. The technological challenges were something that intrigued him.”
Yunick’s speed secrets could be so ground-breaking—or difficult to discern—that some hung another nickname on him: cheater.
“I get offended when I hear that,” said Trish Yunick Brown, his daughter. “He maintained he didn’t cheat. What he did was innovation. As far as he was concerned, if it didn’t say what he was doing wasn’t allowed, then it was perfectly fair. Many things that weren’t in the rulebook on the weekend became rules on Monday morning, courtesy of Smokey.”
Yunick’s talents weren’t limited to the racetrack. Pontiac, Chevrolet and Ford were among the auto makers that benefited from either his hands-on engineering or consulting work. He is credited with developing, among other components, variable-ratio power steering, reverse-flow engine cooling and the extended-tip spark plug.
He was closely involved with the development of Chevy’s small-block V-8. According to McFarland, he “…pioneered a lot of thinking that builders of aftermarket parts picked up on. He came up with a cross-ram intake that Vic [Edelbrock] built later, did cylinder head work, pioneered things ostensibly for Chevrolet that wound up in various segments of the aftermarket.”
Racer safety was a big concern of Yunick’s as well. He stopped competing in NASCAR when the sanctioning body wouldn’t let him use a fuel bladder; and he designed a “safe wall” in the ’60s that would move on contact, absorbing some of a crash’s energy.
The Yunick of legend could be blunt, even ornery. “Cantankerous, that’s a good word for it,” Trish Yunick said. But then there are the stories about the other Smokey, the one who would open his garage in the middle of the night to help a fellow racer, even if he was a competitor. Or who, in his later years, found time for a family that had learned to live without him for long stretches, especially from late April to early June.
Trish told this story about her dad’s other side:
“Smokey and John DeLorean were friends. They worked at Pontiac at the same time. Smokey called John one morning, and John was going through his first very public divorce. They didn’t talk about the divorce, but Smokey knew he wasn’t in good shape. So he hung up the phone and flew to Detroit to check on him. They talked for a while, and Smokey felt better about John, so he flew home. John later said he was thinking about killing himself that night. Smokey did have a bad side, but he really was very human.”