In early May the racing world lost one of its legendary characters and great minds when Henry "Smokey" Yunick died at age 77 at his home in Daytona Beach, Florida. Known for his trademark corncob pipe and what looked like a chopped, 10-gallon cowboy hat, Smokey was usually found at the track decked out in working whites with the logo of his garage on the back. That "Best Damn Garage in Town" motto caused considerable consternation in the '50s for using "rough" language. Born in Tennessee, Smokey was an Air Force bomber pilot in World War II.
It is believed he got his nickname from his motorcycle's smoking engine. Inducted into the first-ever class of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990, Smokey's penchant for bending the rules often kept him at odds with NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. However, that didn't stop NASCAR from crowning him Mechanic of the Year twice in his long career. The noted rules-bender said he'd never do something illegal, but if it wasn't in the rulebook, it was fair game. When early NASCAR rules banned porting and polishing the cylinder heads, Smokey figured out that it was not illegal to paint them until they were smooth. Another example was the ban on bellypans designed to smooth out the air flowing under the car. Smokey's famous '66 Chevelle had the stock floorpans flattened and smoothed out to act as bellypans; that was until the rules were changed to stipulate not doing precisely that.
Smokey did just about everything but drive the cars he worked on. He was an engine builder, crew chief, chief mechanic, and owner. He was quickly noticed as the engine builder of one of the famous Hudson Hornets. Working with almost all the brands used in NASCAR, he helped develop not only Chevy with its small-block, which was introduced in 1955, but Pontiac as well with its 287ci Strato Streak, released the following year. When the small-block Chevy came out, Smokey was quick to use it successfully for racing, having only to "blueprint" the engine's parts.
Smokey is often credited with coming up with the idea of angle plug heads, stressing their value long before Chevy provided the modification. The success of the NASCAR Buick V-6 used in Busch Grand National racing is also often credited to Smokey, who helped to do a total redesign on the powerplant. Not only did he bring Chevy back into NASCAR in 1967, he brought Curtis Turner as the driver. Turner was banned by NASCAR for trying to start a driver's union, but won the pole with Smokey's Chevelle.
Smokey owned and built cars for both the Indy 500 and NASCAR circuits (including a 1960 win at Indy with Jim Ratham driving and wins at NASCAR's Daytona 500) with some of best drivers in the history books. Curtis Turner, Mario Andretti, Junior Johnson, A.J. Foyt, and others drove Smokey' s cars, which were often painted his familiar gold and black with a simple No.22 or No.13. It was Fireball Roberts who shared a record with Smokey for having the fastest car from 1959 to 1962 (minus just one race). One of his Indy cars resembled a motorcycle with a side car which used a pod-like device on the left for the driver to sit in. Engineer extraordinare, tuner, and car builder Smokey Yunick quickly became a living legend. His no-nonsense attitude was a breath of fresh air for some and a frustration for competitors. But regardless of the legacy he left, there's no one to contest that the motorsports world was better off with machines coming out of that Best Damn Garage in Town.
One of the best Smokey Yunick stories involves this very car. Smokey always said it was a great tale, just not true, yet we still have to wonder. While going through inspection, NASCAR officials took the fuel cell out of the car for its usual look over. Upon finishing the inspection, the officials told him 10 things wrong with the car. Smokey was upset and already knew they weren't going to let him race the car. He reportedly threw the disconnected fuel cell into the back seat and climbed into the car. He then said, "Make it 11," and fired the Chevy up and drove back to his shop with the fuel cell disconnected. That's just how it was with Smokey; the only thing you knew for certain was that his cars would consistently run up front.
NASCAR Grand National racing was dominated by Ford and Mopar in the mid-'60s. Chevrolet, along with its GM brethren, was still sitting out a "No Racing" GM policy edict, which was initiated in 1963. With only the two brands racing in NASCAR competition, things got boring. Smokey changed all that with his infamous Chevelle. The car came from nowhere to take the pole for the '67 Daytona 500 with none other than Curtis Turner driving. The car scared the factory-backed competition by running so strong for the pole but succumbed to engine woes during the race. Shortly after, it crashed at Atlanta and was totaled.
But Smokey had a second Chevelle which he brought out the following year. The political climate had changed by then, and NASCAR didn't want the little Chevy on the track for their big race. With only limited time for second-round qualifying, Smokey was given a list of items to change before his car could make a time lap. One of those things was the frame. Smokey took the car back to his garage and eventually sold it.
Years later, Smokey found the car and restored it. Its reputation preceded it, and when the restored car went to the speedway for these photos, NASCAR still didn't want the car on the track; the reputation of the famous Smokey Chevelle was that strong.
What made this car so magical was the man who created it. This car (and its predecessor) was the culmination of every trick Smokey could think up. The two Chevelles have about as many conspiracy theories as the JFK assassination. Some complained that the cars were 7/8 scale. Some claimed the engines were the aluminum big-blocks used in Can Am racing. Some suggested NASCAR told Smokey to build a Chevy that would win the pole to sell more tickets for the race. The wildest one we've heard was that Smokey also built a street version of the car, which was parked in the NASCAR garage parking lot, and when the inspection team didn't have Chevelle templates, they used the one in the parking lot to create a set.
As with any great race car, it's the details that make it better than the competition, details that are now commonplace in NASCAR. Notice how close the bumpers are to the fenders, keeping them out of the air for better aerodynamics. It's the result of narrowed bumpers which were changed and enlarged to modify the original angle of the face. Notice the small spoiler-like lip on the end of the roof. This was the car that employed the infamous floorpan trick mentioned earlier. All glass was painstakingly fitted to the car, all openings in the bumper (for turn signals and such) were covered, and all wheel opening were kept to a minimum so as not to catch the air and cause drag.
This was during the days when NASCAR engines were allowed to run bigger cubic inches. The big-block Chevy started life as a 427 Rat but is rumored to have been stroked to 416 by Smokey so it would rev higher. One single four-barrel gets plenty of air from the cowl vents and an insulated, two-inlet air box. The sheet aluminum heat deflectors above the headers were another Smokey-original to keep hot air from rising up to the air box. Notice the stock hood and hinges, the Holman and Moody oil cooler, and the OEM fenderwells.
The suspension was pure Smokey, too, with completely adjustable caster and camber via custom-made upper A-arms. While still prior to the disc brake age, Smokey reinforced his brake shoes by welding on small rods to prevent bending. Using the same, long Chevy truck-style rear control arms that are used today, he mounted the springs and shocks as close to the wheels as possible. He used square and rectangular tubing to reinforce the frame, not at all unlike what modern day NASCAR Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, Craftsman trucks and ARCA RE/MAX cars use today.