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.