Any race fan who has been around the sport for the past 20-plus years knows who Smokey Yunick was. He was a genius on top of the pit box and under the hood. He was a brilliant inventor, a crass scoundrel, a blunt straight-shooting American who loved racing. He had a keen eye when it came to true racers and knew what it took to make his cars fast. He had a huge role to play in the early growth of NASCAR, and without Yunick, there is no telling where the sport would be in this day and age.
Sadly, it looks like NASCAR hasn’t really recognized that and won’t be doing so anytime soon.
Anyone who has read Yunick’s tell-all autobiography “Smokey’s Best Damn Garage in Town” would see quickly that Yunick’s thoughts on the France family weren’t exactly rosy.
“During our first meeting, I decided [Bill] France [Sr.] wouldn’t make a pimple on a real mechanic’s ass. And I doubt he left singing the praises of Smokey.”
Despite all this, Yunick and France continued on a working, civil level that saw Yunick-powered race cars win championships with Herb Thomas and the No. 92 Hudson Hornet. He even won a Daytona 500 with Marvin Panch in 1961, furthering his status as a NASCAR giant. Yet following another quarrel with France Sr., Yunick quit the sport for good in 1970.
Among Yunick’s contributions to the sport (aside from legends and colorful stories), Yunick is well known for pursuit of driver safety, only to be met with resistance from the NASCAR sanctioning body. For example, prior to 2001, and prior to Dale Earnhardt’s death in that year’s Daytona 500, Yunick held a patent for a padded tire barrier, a precursor to today’s SAFER barrier. It was technology that he first experimented with in the 60s, using old tires between sheets of plywood. However, his idea was rejected by NASCAR.
Another major pursuit by Yunick regards fuel cells. In the early days of NASCAR, fuel tanks were made out of steel and were prone to catching fire in accidents. Initially, he installed a steel guard to protect the tank, but NASCAR didn’t allow it. So Yunick then tried to go with a rubber fuel tank with help from Firestone and Goodyear. Around this time, Fireball Roberts, a driver whom Yunick was very close with, was killed in a fiery accident at the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte.
“He expressed frustration with NASCAR and their refusal to make safety improvements, saying, ‘When the hell are they gonna get to doing something? Maybe after next Ace gets it?'” said Yunick’s daughter Trish. Roberts was set to marry her aunt, when he passed, making Yunick’s pursuit of safety both business and personal.
He built the rubber fuel tank with a non-metal fuel line, in hopes of cutting down fiery accidents on the track. The design prevented leakage and minimized the risk of igniting a fire following an accident.
Yunick was a master regarding racing physics. He was often concerned with the undeniable physics of race cars in regards to driver safety and worked tirelessly to make the cars safer. He didn’t want to be responsible for the death of a driver and used that as a driving force throughout his time in racing.
History will always remember him as a precursor to Chad Knaus, always working within the gray area of the rules. He knew how to read between the lines of NASCAR’s rule book, and was the bane of the NASCAR garage. But that doesn’t mean he only won because of that savvy. He worked with some of NASCAR’s biggest stars, like Roberts, Curtis Turner, Paul Goldsmith, and Herb Thomas. He had the most talented of drivers running his cars, which meant he was no stranger to winning.
So despite all this, Yunick is continually slighted for a NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination. If he were here today, he might not have minded it as much. That’s understandable. But it would mean more for the sport as well as the fans if he were nominated and inducted into the HoF. But it’s because of the ill-feelings between the Frances and Yunick that he hasn’t had that recognition.
This is unacceptable. For one, Yunick has all the qualifications of a Hall of Fame inductee. It shouldn’t matter if there was bad blood between the Frances and Yunick; this sport is bigger than the both of them. Therefore, this exclusion of Yunick seems petty after all these years. He held firm to his opinions on the Frances, and it’s understandable that they would be upset. But it would take a blind person to not see the good that Yunick did for the sport.
The Frances may have founded NASCAR and may have led the sport throughout the years, but it wasn’t built on the backs of the Frances alone. It was built on the backs of men like Yunick, men like the Pettys, the Earnhardts, the Allisons, the Flocks, and so on. That’s the main thing. Just because of that bad blood, they’re risking the credibility of the sport and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
That’s not saying that the men already inducted into the Hall of Fame aren’t deserving. Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Wendell Scott, Richie Evans, and Jack Ingram are just some of the names in the Hall of Fame right now, and all are deserving of that distinction. But as long as the ill feelings towards Yunick and the continual slighting of him from inclusion into the Hall of Fame, then it is guaranteed that the facility’s credibility will never be 100 percent certifiable.
Sure gets tiring to see how petty the France family can be.They are ignoring a true legend that made Nascar the great franchise it once was.
A NASCAR Hall of Fame without Smokey Yunick is like a Baseball Hall of Fame without Babe Ruth. Both were men who lived and played by their own rules on and off the field. The NASCAR Hall of Fame without Smokey is actually just a France family Hall of Friends. Nothing more, nothing less. NASCAR is much smaller by ignoring Smokey. What they have done is to make a LOT of younger racing fans ask ” Who is this Smokey guy I keep hearing about and why is NASCAR not mentioning him?” Like I said, their loss, NOT SMOKEY”S.
There’s a few ways to look at this in my eyes:
1) Smokey was maybe the one of the few guys with the balls to tell is like it is/was in NASCAR. Most of the other S.O.B.’s leave the good stories for their own enjoyment and leave the fans out of it. Nuts to them. A lot of the folks who could offer counterpoint to Smokey aren’t around anymore, so Smokey’s truth will be the truth – end of story.
2) Go back in time to 62 through 64 and look at Curtis Turner, Tim Flock, Smokey, Fireball, … 3 of 4 are in the HOP. 2 of those 3 were previously banned for life by NASCAR. All 3 have Smokey as integral components of their careers. What is it then? Earnhardt and the safer barrier and the “I told you so?”
3)NASCAR needs Smokey. Smokey never needed hardly anyone. ‘Cept maybe Margie, and Trish, and Lena long ago… and maybe some others… But it’s NASCAR’s loss, not the other way around
4)… in fact, NASCAR’s bull-headedness can only make the legend stronger. So it was written by Smokey, Someday it shall be Done.
Nicely written article. When David Pearson was not elected to the HOF in the first go round I immediately felt that the whole process was suspect. That Smokey Yunick is being totally ignored in the process fortifies my feelings. It’s a real shame that an article like this has to be written to bring these situations to the public eye. Hall of Fames are about performance not personal feelings toward individuals. Thank you for writing this article.