If you’re not a fan of Nascar, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Henry ‘Smokey’ Yunick before. But when it comes to building race cars, few people were as naturally talented as Smokey. Despite very little formal training as a mechanic, Smokey’s ‘Best Damn Garage In Town’ became a fixture of Daytona Beach, Florida. He was so good that he eventually attracted the attention of stock car racing teams. With multiple automotive patents to his name, Smokey Yunick is undoubtedly a racing legend.
Despite his sheer brilliance as a designer, Smokey is probably best known for his cavalier attitude towards the rules of professional racing series. His outrageous ‘solutions’ to racing regulations have earned him a reputation in the eyes of some fans as a cheater. However, Smokey always insisted that his bizarre designs were completely within the letter of the rules, even if he bent them as far as they could go. Here are seven Smokey Yunick hacks that prove just how much of a cunning genius the man was.
As you’ve probably learned in school, many substances tend to contract when they get very cold. Petrol happens to be one of these substances. This is why you’ll often see a statement on gas pumps stating that the volume has been corrected to a certain temperature (usually around 10 degrees centigrade).
For a time, there were no rules regarding the temperature of racing fuel in Nascar. Smokey knew this and would often cool his fuel so much that it was nearly frozen when it entered the fuel tank. As the race went on, the gasoline would heat up and expand, resulting in fewer pit stops. Of course, that all came to a stop when Nascar set regulations for fuel temperatures.
Designed for the Indianapolis 500, the 1964 Hurst Floor Shifter Special was one of the most bizarre open-wheel racers of all time. With the off-centre cockpit shifting the centre of mass to the left, the car’s natural habitat was the oval track. However, in order to offset the mass of the rear-mounted engine, Smokey again resorted to his unique philosophy of the rules.
At the time, there were no regulations for how much fuel an Indy 500 car could carry on board. So Smokey decided to balance the ‘Capsule Car’ by putting a massive fuel tank in front of the radiator. Essentially, this gave the car three masses that would ensure constant weight distribution throughout the race. Although the car was ultimately unsuccessful in competition, it wasn’t long before the United States Auto Club (USAC) instituted fuel capacity regulations on Indy 500 racers.
Smokey Yunick was always well aware about what the Nascar rule books said. However, he built his legendary reputation by always knowing what the rule books didn’t say, as well. One such example involved the badly-cast exhaust manifolds on the Hudson racers he worked with early in his career. The rules clearly stated that porting out the manifold by hand was illegal.
The rules did not say that you couldn’t pump an abrasive compound back and forth through the exhaust manifold instead of using a grinder. So guess what Smokey did? Apparently, this technique did a pretty good job of porting and polishing the manifold, even if it wasn’t explicitly against the rules.
Built to compete in the Trans-Am racing series, this unusual 1968 Chevrolet Camaro was one of Smokey Yunick’s most involved builds. Clearly, Smokey wanted the Camaro to break some small-block speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and he stopped at nothing to ensure his car was as good as it could be.
Although the Camaro was supposed to essentially conform to stock design regulations, Smokey found a few ways to tweak with the car’s structure. He used thinner window glass to reduce weight, cut the subframe to raise the floorpan and lower the ride height, and tilted the front end forward to improve aerodynamics. Smokey even had the body panels dipped in acid to shave off some crucial weight from the Camaro. Although it wasn’t truly a “stock” car anymore, it also wasn’t illegal, either.
Smokey might have lived in the grey area of the rule book, but he always maintained that he followed the rules when they were clear. As such, when the size of the fuel tank became regulated in Nascar, Smokey duly obliged by installing a regulation-sized fuel tank.
However, there was no regulation on the size of the fuel line. Obviously, it didn’t take Smokey very long to capitalize on that non-rule. He made a fuel line that was two inches wide and 11 feet long, closer in dimension to an anaconda than a fuel line. Although it sounds pretty funny, the monster fuel line held an extra 5 gallons of gasoline, which made a very real difference on the track (until it was banned, of course).
OK, this one is definitely testing the boundary between bending the rules and outright cheating. One of Smokey’s most well-known incidents involved shoving an inflated basketball into an oversized fuel tank before the car was inspected by scrutineers. When they filled the tank up with fuel, the tank would appear to conform to regulations. After passing inspection, Smokey would then deflate the ball, pull it out of the tank, and fill the regulation-plus-basketball-sized fuel tank for the race. Amazingly, nothing in the rules at the time said this was illegal.
Eat your heart out, Tom Brady.
This 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle race car is considered by many to be Smokey Yunick’s magnum opus. Although the popular urban legend claims that the car was actually a 7:8 scale version of a stock Chevelle, the truth is perhaps a little less wacky than that. Still, the modifications to the car were significant. Smokey moved the body of the car backward three inches for better weight distribution, raised the floor and smoothed out the underside of the car for better aerodynamics, and made the bumpers and fenders flush with the rest of the body. In other words, even though it looked like it, the car was no longer a stock Chevelle.
Smokey Yunick built two of these Chevelles for NASCAR racing. The first car, driven by Curtis Turner, took the pole position at the 1967 Daytona 500. The un-sponsored, underfunded car shocked the NASCAR community, and many drivers accused Smokey of cheating. However, it passed an inspection, and continued to race until Turner crashed it in Atlanta later that year. The second Chevelle was built for the 1968 Daytona 500, but never made it past inspection. There’s no doubt that Smokey Yunick’s Chevelle was one of the most technologically advanced cars of its day.