Interview: Smokey Yunick From The Person That Knew Him Best

TrishYunick_edited-1Smokey Yunick is still considered by most in the racing industry to be the most celebrated mechanics in automotive history. He was also one of the most practical people from the last half of the last century.

Our recent interview with Mario Andretti taught us that Smokey didn’t do anything halfway, but most of the time he wasn’t quite marching in formation with the rest of us either.

It wasn’t conceit or ego, it was simply understanding of his place in automotive history that caused Smokey to begin writing his autobiography in 1998. When he realized that many of the people that helped start stock car racing were dying or too ill to tell the stories of how racing was in the early days, Smokey begin writing his own history of stock car racing.  

Smokey Yunick and his famous Grand National Chevelle. Photo from The Official Smokey Yunick Website

Yunick personified the rough-and-tumble stockcar culture, partying hard and playing loose. ”I’m not proud of what I did back then, but if a woman looked good, we really didn’t abide by the Ten Commandments,” he once said.

“They will have to bury him in waterproof clothes and goggles if I outlive him.”                  -Smokey Yunick about Jim Rathmann

When doctors diagnosed him with a fatal and rare form of cancer, Smokey decided that it was time to get the publishing effort in gear. Supervising every part of the publishing process to make sure it was just like he wanted – raw and unedited, the book launch was set for the summer of 2001 in Daytona. The finalized copy of the book was at the printer when Smokey died on May 9, 2001, but his family launched it on schedule and it is still selling more than 10 years later.

Once Smokey had been told that his disease was fatal, daughter Trish took over the secretarial duties of compiling the manuscript and transcribing her father’s stories into words. Dutifully, she carried out Smokey’s wishes exactly as he wanted them done. They ended up with “Best Damn Garage in Town: My life and Adventures,” and it was originally published as a 3 volume boxed set of 1,100 pages with over 400 photographs. 

Hall of Fame Inductions

  • National Racing Hall of Fame
  • International MotorSports Hall of Fame
  • Legends of Auto Racing Hall of Fame
  • 
Stock Car Racing, Daytona Hall of Fame
  • Darlington Motor Speedway Hall of Fame
  • Legends of Performance – Chevrolet Hall of Fame
  • TRW Mechanic Hall of Fame
  • 
Living Legends of Auto Racing – 1997
  • 
Stock Car Racing Magazine Hall of Fame
  • Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame
  • Top 10 athletes of the Century by Winston Salem Journal
  • 
University of Central Florida, President’s Medallion Society
  • 
Rotary Club of Oceanside – Daytona Beach
  • North Carolina Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame
  • SEMA Hall of Fame

According to the publisher, “Best Damn Garage in Town is a book that is different from most you have read – it’s more like Smokey is sitting across the table from you telling stories. He goes off on tangents, he repeats himself every now and then, but when you’re finished, you understand what happened and why it happened. And you’ve laughed and cried through all of it. Smokey wasn’t all clean and polished, but he knew what the he was talking about. The book is the same way – it’s not for young kids or people who easily offended.”

Smokey’s autobiography can still be purchased at www.smokeyyunick.com

We sat down to talk with Smokey’s daughter, Trish Yunick, a loving family member and personal scribe for the legendary mechanic. In capturing his life story into words during his final days, Trish became one of the people that knew him best. We were interested to talk with her about the man, his thoughts and his relevance, 13-years after his passing. 

Chevy Hardcore: Did you see a side of Smokey that most people did not?

Trish Yunick: “We really didn’t know who Smokey Yunick was or what he did. To us, racing was something that he did that took him away from home. But we knew the people, who his friends were and we knew that they were in racing. They would come over but we really didn’t know what they did. Like during the Daytona Speedweeks, which even back then were a couple of weeks long, my mom was always prepared for up to 10-people for dinner every night. If there was going to be more than 10 people, he would try to give her notice, which at that point was usually 10 or 15 minutes before he got there.”

“We had A J Foyt, the Allisons, the Unsers, the Duntovs, Herb Fischel, Banjo Mathews… these were just his friends, the people that he brought home for dinner.”

It will take him five years in fifth grade to get an idiot’s license.      – Smokey Yunick on NASCAR President Bill France Jr.

“He worked a really goofy schedule. He would leave the house before 8:00 in the morning. Then he would come home for dinner at 7:30, pretty much on the dot, and he would eat dinner then go back to work and stay till 12:30 or 1:00 most nights. Later than that if he was working on a problem of some kind. He had this ridiculous work ethic being a child of the depression. He worked on a farm in his early years and worked hard and that is what he expected of us. For spring and summer break, he would order truckloads of red sand that my brothers were supposed to scatter across the grass. Over time he recovered a lot of property by filling in spots in the river with soil. He figured that’s what you did with the kids on spring break.”

“We didn’t really understand what he did over at the shop. We were never over there and he never talked about it. When he came back home he was focused on the next event. He also never talked about his war days but he did have very elaborate scrapbooks. He took lots and lots of pictures and we put a lot of these photos in his books. He took a lot of pictures and he had them in these scrapbooks but they were just put away in this closet. It wasn’t something that he discussed or anything.”

CHC: So he was a stranger to you, at least the work part of his life?

Smokey prepares an engine for a dyno run.

TY: “Yeah… he really, really was. My mother died when I was 16 and my brothers were 12 and 14 years old. He never came back to our bedrooms, we always came up to the kitchen where he was. When she died, all of the sudden he had three kids that he basically didn’t know. Don’t get me wrong, he was a tremendously wonderful, world-class provider but he was not an active father. After she died, he found out that we had two or three dogs that he really didn’t know about because they stayed back in our bedrooms. So it was quite a shock for all of us.”

CHC: Having grown up with that kind of relationship, was it awkward and difficult to sit down and help him do his autobiography?

“I think my step-mother had been working with him on the book for about two years before he got his terminal diagnoses. When he got really sick, she turned her focus to his health rather than the secretary part of her life, and so I just inherited the secretary part.”

“
It was tough because he was a writer and was so protective of his work. Until he had that final deadline he was not going to be able to let it go. He would probably still be polishing on it. The first time I went through it, there was so much stuff that I had never, ever known.”

Smokey flew his bomber in WWII with the name “Smokey and his Firemen” on the side. Photo from The Official Smokey Yunick Webpage

“I went into business for myself when I was 17. I really didn’t have any idea at that time who he was. I knew he was a racer and I knew he was famous but I really didn’t know why. One time I was on a call with somebody from Washington state and I was ordering something and he asked for my last name. Then he said, ‘Oh my God, you’re related to Smokey?’ I responded with ‘Yeah, he chewed me out this morning. Why?’ I had no idea. It was weird.”

“After a couple of years, I lost my lease at the building where I was at and he actually built a building for me near his shop so I could have a store. 
We would have race fans come in trying to get in contact with him. His shop was all gated off and fenced off so you couldn’t get to him unless someone took you in. Especially during race season. We’d have 25 to 30 people a day trying to get ahold of him for hero worship. That is when I really started finding out what he had done.”

Smokey Yunick Highlights

  • Flew B-17s for the United States Army Air Force in WWII
  • Won two Grand National (Sprint Cup) Championships
  • Won Indy in 1960
  • Worked in Ecuador for 30 years in oil drilling and gold mining
  • Wrote for Popular Science and Circle Track magazines

Accreditations

  • Founding Member and Director of Embry-Riddle University
  • Honorary Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering, Embry-Riddle Engineering
  • Professor Emeritus, Daytona Beach Community College
  • S.C.O.R.E Judge
  • Member of Society of Automotive Engineers

Patents & Inventions

  • Variable Ratio Power Steering
  • Hot Vapor Engine
  • Silent Tire
  • Smoketron Engine Testing Device
  • Movable Race Track Crash Barrier
  • Oil filling through oil filter
  • Extended Tip Spark Plug
  • Power brakes from residual power steering pressure
  • Water bypass system for “V” engines
  • Reverse cooling system
  • Centrifuge Type Oil Refinery (Ecuador)

Awards

  • Two Time NASCAR Mechanic of the Year
  • Mechanical Achievements Awards – Indianapolis Motor Speedway & Ontario Motor Speedway
  • Engineering Award – Indianapolis Motor Speedway
  • Inventor of the Year – 1983
  • Presented the Annual Smokey Yunick Lifetime Achievement Award at Charlotte Motor Speedway

CHC: This was at the best damn bird store in town?

TY: “Honest to god, in the center of the store he actually had ‘The Best Damn Bird Store In Town’ written. He made me a sign with that.”

CHC: So you became the gate keeper for all the fans that wanted to get back and do the hero worship thing with Smokey?

TY: “Yes. I was the gate keeper for a while. I had some challenges though. Smokey couldn’t stand cold. He came here from up North because he couldn’t stand the cold but he didn’t mind heat at all. He would drink hot coffee or hot tea, depending on what phase of life he was in, all day, every day, regardless of the temperature.”

“I have never been sooo embarrassed as I was in the middle of summer when it was 98 degrees and the humidity was very heavy. He always wore his cowboy boots. Cowboy boots have a little bit of a heel and over time his achilles tendon shortened. He couldn’t wear flat shoes or go barefoot. He couldn’t even wear tennis shoes because he was uncomfortable.”

“So… he was always in his boots. In the summer he would wear cut-off jean shorts, his cowboy boots and he would usually go shirtless. My step-mother bought him these goofy Joe Boxer light green boxers. These boxers would hang out above the top of his shorts. So you had all of these people that would come from all over the world to worship their hero and this is how he comes out to take a picture.”

CHC: We recently talked with one of Smokey’s drivers, Mario Andretti. Andretti mentioned how secretive Smokey’s shop was. Smokey wouldn’t even let him in to get measured for the seat in his Daytona car. Was that how it really was or was Andretti blowing smoke?

TY: “Oh no, NOBODY went in there. There were two big reasons. Number one, he was working on American big corporate secrets. They were the guys that installed the card readers , there were guards there… in the 70s he had electronic slide card locks. Really some sophisticated security to keep their secrets safe.”

“He also realized very early on that not going to school for a formal education benefitted him. He realized that if he had friends and contemporaries in, and they looked at something that he was working on and then they said ‘that’ll never work,’ it would mess up his thought process. He kept himself foisted away so that he didn’t get that feedback from other people.”

CHC: Andretti said that he believed that Smokey picked him to drive his Daytona car because he didn’t have a lot of experience in stock cars that would skew his appraisal of the car’s handling. Does that sound like how Smokey picked his drivers?

TY: “I think that was certainly a consideration. He probably picked them on how well they were going to tolerate operating blind.”

CHC: Everyone considers him the Master of the Small Block Chevy but he actually worked for just about everybody. Ford, Pontiac, GM… didn’t he work for just about all the manufacturers?

TY: “His time with Ford was pretty short. He was following Bunkie Knudsen. Cause Bunkie Knudsen grew up within the hierarchy of the motor companies. When Bunkie spent some time at Ford and jumped back out, that’s how Smokey ended up there briefly. He definitely was everywhere.”

Before the Best Damn Garage in Town there was Smokey’s Automotive Services.

CHC: Wasn’t the 1960 Indy 500 also the most painful subject for him?

TY: “Sure it was. I’ve never been to the Indy Museum before but we were going to Indy and my husband called ahead so that we could go downstairs because Smokey’s cars were downstairs.”

“When we got there we were kept out front for an awkward bit of time then out came Donald Davidson, the official Indycar historian. For some reason he spent about five minutes explaining to us that’s the rules, that Chickie Hirashima was the crew chief of record, Smokey may have worked on the car a little bit but it was Chickie’s show and well… that’s just the way it was.”

“It was very awkward. We just came to see the museum. We weren’t there to set history correct.”

[ed. note: Smokey always claimed Rathmann hired him as “co-chief,” and that he did all the work of a crew chief, including race-day strategy which resulted in Rathmann’s win. Yet all the glory and post-race prizes went to the man who was listed on pre-race paperwork as the car’s chief: Takeo “Chickie” Hirashima]

Whenever Smokey walked through the garage, he was in charge.

CHC: Smokey really held the driver responsible for that slight, correct?

TY: “Yeah. I don’t remember the date but it was probably in the 80s, it had nagged on him that he wasn’t the crewchief of record so they did a poll of all of the crew that was still alive and Rathmann of course. To a man, except for Rathmann, they all said that Smokey was the crewchief and that Chickie wasn’t there. But Rathmann gave the credit to Chickie and since the driver said it Chickie that’s how Indianapolis set the crewchief of record.”

CHC: Rathmann and Smokey had done a lot together by that point. They had done Indy and the NASCAR thing. Did Smokey feel betrayed by Rathmann over the Indy deal?

TY: “Yeah, Smokey felt horribly betrayed. In his book Smokey said that if Rathmann died first, they’d better bury him in a wetsuit and googles because he was going to piss on his grave. Rathmann was the one Smokey was referring to when he said 50 good drivers and one asshole.* It’s funny but Smokey loaned Rathmann a bunch of money that he put down as a stake on his car dealership, so it was a happy relationship. At least until it wasn’t.”

[*ed note: In Smokey’s autobiography, he used one chapter to detail his memories of all 51 drivers who drove for him over the years. The chapter’s title: “50 Good Drivers and One Asshole.]

CHC: What exactly was it with the Indianapolis 500 that he was so fond of?

Bobby Johns piloted Smokey Yunick’s unique “side pod” car at Indianapolis. Photo from Legends of Nascar

TY: “He called it the little tiny rulebook. They had a few rules and that allowed creative minds to go as far as you wanted to go. He wasn’t restricted by rules like NASCAR was applying at the time and that’s where something like the side pod car came from. The idea for the side pod car came from when Smokey was flying in the war and he was pursued by a little German plane that had the pilot in a pod off to the side of the fuselage.”

“He had a hard time getting away from that plane. Because of the smaller cuts in the airspace, it was very nimble. It gave him a hard time when he was trying to survive. He realized this might be a good concept for racing and that’s where the inspiration came from.”

Smokey Yunick and Bill France shake hands. Photo from The Official Smokey Yunick Website

CHC: Do you think that his time in aviation gave him a leg up on the competition?

TY: “Sure. I think so. He had to test things himself. Like the flow bench where he tested things. He also had a laminar flow device. He developed this flow device that he could put small parts in and blow colored smoke over them so he could see how different changes would affect the airflow. He had these devices so that he could see things. In his book he talks about playing in a stream in Ecuador. Putting rocks and stuff in the water and watching how the water flowed over it. Yeah. It probably started with the flights.”

HatCHC: Smokey’s battles with NASCAR are legendary. It had to be even more difficult because the France family and Smokey lived in the same town.

TY: “I think it would be awkward for most people but with Smokey that’s the way he was. That’s who he was and if you didn’t like it then it was your problem. It was never a question of ‘Am I in trouble,’ it was ‘how bad.’ There was never a gray area in any part of his life. He lived through it with total abandon and he was disciplined. Everytthing was either black or white. He just wasn’t encumbered by that sense of ‘oh did I hurt their feelings’ after the fact.”

CHC: What do you think he would say about Danica Patrick?

TY: “He probably would not have been any different than Richard Petty on Danica. He was pretty rough on Janet Gutherie at the time. So he probably wouldn’t have been very graceful about that at all.”

CHC: You were there during those last difficult days. Did he have any regrets?

TY: “He said that he wished that he had learned to be or could be more open with his family sooner. That all came from his upbringing. He had a really difficult childhood. Being a child of that era, there was no demonstrative affection. That’s just not who he was.”

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
Read My Articles

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