Smokey was a genius who was quick with a joke

Smokey was a genius who was quick with a joke MY TWO CENTS By KEN WILLIS The last time I spoke with Smokey Yunick, it was by phone. Heard his health had been deteriorating, and wanted to check up on him. "I've never been dead before, so I ...

Smokey was a genius who was quick with a joke


The last time I spoke with Smokey Yunick, it was by phone. Heard his health had been deteriorating, and wanted to check up on him.

"I've never been dead before, so I don't know what it's like," he said. "I could be dead right now and I don't know it."

In his typical sailor talk that belied an otherwise brilliant mind, Smokey suggested his problem lately had been a lack of "romance."

We'd eventually find out it was leukemia that would claim Smokey in the shallow hours of Wednesday morning. While he would never go into much detail about his ailments and his odds of beating them, he remained typically blunt about the overall picture.

"Can you think of a better time in history for a man to die than right now?" he asked. "With all the stupidity going on, it pisses you off every night to think about it."

He loved the laughter that would greet such statements. When people -- fans, reporters, whomever -- would meet Smokey for the first time, they'd bring with them the belief they were meeting a genius, and in many ways, they were. In automotive circles, from the engineering labs in Detroit to the garage stalls of Darlington, Smokey was held up as a mechanical god worthy of Mount Rushmore.

Gear-heads from all corners of the globe, when visiting this area, would often drop by "The Best Damn Garage in Town" on North Beach Street, if not for an actual visit, just to snap a picture of the shop. That sprawling garage, for many people, was to automotive development what Memphis' Sun Records studio was to rock'n'roll.

Always an opinion But within two minutes of beginning a conversation with Smokey, a stranger would suddenly find his ears filling with the type of language usually reserved for pool halls and poker tables. You'd have to laugh at the absurdity of it all -- this man who is able to decorate talk of physics and combustion with a string of R-rated ornaments. It was, in a strange way, artistic.

Smokey would smile at the surprised look on a stranger's face, then continue his lesson. Quite often, when asked to explain a certain topic, he'd begin with, "Now, you probably don't know this, but . . ."

There was a lot he knew, and a lot we didn't. And if you had the time, he'd walk you through a lesson on the wide range of his specialties -- from hydraulics and power steering to fuel economy and ignitions. And he'd gladly share his opinions on everything -- everything, even the evils of cruise-control.

"So many of these highways are caused by someone falling asleep at the wheel," he said. "And most of these people probably had their cruise-control on. I'd say, Wake up fella, you're about to miss one hell of a wreck.' "

But for all his work in general automotive mechanics -- work and research that affects you every time you drive to the corner store -- Smokey might've never become a mechanical household name if not for automobile racing.

Back in racing's caveman days -- the 1950s and '60s, when mechanics had more rulebook leeway in which to play -- Smokey was truly in his element. The small-block engine, which Smokey massaged for racing purposes during its original mid-'50s development, was like a blank canvas awaiting an artist's imagination and touch, and Smokey could flat paint a winner.

Leaving the game Smokey built cars from the ground up and would win races and/or championships with the likes of drivers Herb Thomas, Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner.

It was a time when the men involved would work like dogs all day, and part of the night, often supplementing their meager nutritional intake with pulls from something contained in a brown bag. They'd spend what remained of the evening trying to charm the local female population, then start anew the next dawn.

But it was an era when Big Bill France was wining and dining the big automakers from Detroit, trying to get them interested in NASCAR. This schmoozing, many oldtimers will tell you, would often include on-track favors, and after feeling like the victim of certain political moves too many times, Smokey left NASCAR for good in 1970.

"In 1970," Smokey recalled a few years ago, "when I left, I said, France, this is the end of it. I ain't never gonna (mess) with you again, you rotten no-good (SOB). I'm gone.' He said, You'll be back.' I said to him, France, if you don't think I'm gone, you count the days until I come back.' I would've never, ever gone back."

Five years later, after nearly two decades of building Indy-cars and hauling them to Indianapolis each May, Smokey also gave up his open-wheel efforts when he tired of the modernization of that game. And that one hurt, because he truly loved Indianapolis and what it represented.

"Back in the old days, I would've pulled my car to Indianapolis with a rope if I had to," he said. "That was the ultimate, to stand there on the starting grid on race day at the Indianapolis 500, and pull up your pants and say, OK you mothers, let's have a race.' "

Though his efforts no longer showed up on the sports pages, he still found great thrill in his backroom work at the Beach Street garage. He loved learning knew things nearly as much as he loved inventing new things. And anyone who ever visited him at that dusty shop and sat inside that cold, dark office, will miss the pleasure that came from visiting a man who, well into his 70s, still knew his stuff and took great pleasure in enlightening others.

Before hanging up with Smokey a couple months back, I warned him that I'd be making another one of those visits someday soon.

"Don't wait too long," he warned back, knowing the ominous threat would draw a chuckle.

But we always wait too long. Thankfully, though, Smokey was one of the lucky ones -- his work in this world will be felt and remembered for a long time.


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Series History , NASCAR Cup , USAC