Gear: Revisit Nascar’s Golden Years With Smokey Yunick’s Unforgettable Story

Revisit Nascar’s Golden Years With Smokey Yunick’s Unforgettable Story

By Benjamin Shahrabani
May 22, 2015
3 comments

The book: Best Damn Garage in Town: The World According to Smokey

Author: Smokey Yunick

Pages: 3 volume set with slipcase; 1,100 pages

Purchase: Click here

Henry “Smokey” Yunick (1923-2001) epitomizes a life well-lived, and what one can do when they presumably wake up early enough in the morning. Smokey—if I might take the liberty of calling him by his nickname—was a driver, mechanic, and car designer who became intimately involved with Nascar during its formative years.

In addition to Nascar, during his 78-years on this earth, Smokey was a World War II B-17 pilot, drilled and mined for oil and gold in Ecuador, and later served as a consultant to the big car companies where he helped invent some pretty significant technologies.

Smokey’s many tales, both professional, personal, believable, and—ahem—fantastical comprise the record of his life, and are collected in the Best Damn Garage in Town: The World According to Smokey, named for his garage once located on Beach Street in Daytona Beach, Florida, that he opened in 1947.

The first volume, “Walkin’ Under a Snake’s Belly”, details Smokey’s upbringing on a farm in Pennsylvania, how he was forced to drop out of school when his father passed away, take over the family farm—and how those events helped to develop mechanical skills that he would use for the rest of his life. Smokey would go on to build and race his own motorcycles, the noxious output of one of them in Smokey’s quest for more power earning the author his nickname.

When the United States entered World War II, Smokey would join the Army Air Corps where, after training, he would become the very able pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress. After the war, Yunick married, and moved to Daytona Beach where he would open his “Best Damn Garage”, and have adventures in Ecuador in mining and oil.

If you’re wondering about the title of the first volume, Smokey, considered by some to be one of the greatest rule-bender in Nascar, described slipping past the inspectors as “walking under a snake’s belly”.

The second volume, “All Right You Sons-a-Bitches, Let’s Have a Race”, can perhaps be considered the “meat” in this hamburger of a three volume set.

Here, Smokey retells the early Nascar days, before it became highly commercialized like it is today. In the beginning, there were few stars in the series, with Smokey was among the very best: he was twice named Nascar Mechanic of the Year and in that time was responsible for 57 Nascar Cup Series races, including two championships in 1951 and 1953. The author would work with 50 of the most famous drivers in the sport, which he elaborates on in a chapter titled, “50 Good Drivers and An Asshole”—racers like Bobby Unser, Red Vogt, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, and Bunkie Knudson…the list reads like a who’s who of racing, but rest assured, there’s an “asshole” among them.

There’s also a lot of racing jargon used, but Smokey was thoughtful enough to include his own dictionary to explain the terms that racers used in the early days for the uninitiated.

Yunick’s ability as a mechanic not only produced winning cars and drivers, it helped bring innovation and technology to Nascar, and that’s the focus of the third volume, “Li’l Skinny Rule Book & Eatin’ an Elephant: Indy Racing and Inventions”.

The first part of this volume details Smokey’s love of the Indianapolis 500. Smokey loved Indy because the rules were so simple, but his inventive mind and knack for thinking way outside the box were always razor sharp—and Smokey would look for any advantage he could get.

And that was before the rule book became thick as…well…this 3 volume set by Smokey Yunick. The second half of the third volume, “Eatin’ an Elephant,” covers his years of inventing inside and outside of racing. Smokey’s 10 patents, including those for variable ratio power steering, the extended-tip spark plug, and perhaps, more importantly for the people that raced for him—the movable race track crash barrier—are just some of his inventions.

Smokey passed away on May 9, 2001, at age 77, just eight weeks before this book hit the streets. The sheer size and heft of this tome makes it slightly terrifying for those who don’t normally read about Nascar, but for the sheer breadth and width of Smokey’s life, it was probably necessary.

Refreshingly, the author leaves no stone, accomplishment, foible, or weakness uncovered when dissecting his own life, ensuring a rich view of the man by the time you make it to the end. The set includes an incredible number of photographs and illustrations, as well.

All of this adds up to an engaging looks at one of the most influential figures in the history of Nascar. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in cars, racing, war history, or to learn more about the history of this country through Smokey’s colorful set of eyes.

Purchase Best Damn Garage in Town: The World According to Smokey

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Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay

This looks great. I think I will pick this up for my father, and get in a good read for myself. 😉

Thanks for sharing, Benjamin.

Dan Picasso
Dan Picasso

‘Smokey Yunick’s Power Secrets’ is on the shelf somewhere around here. What a guy.

An often overlooked, smaller but still worthy volume to accompany Yunick’s story is ‘They Call Me Mr. 500’ by Andy Granatelli.

Bret Botzong
Bret Botzong

Appropriate that this post is on Memorial Day – some of the best parts are Smokey telling his tales of flying B17 missions in WW2 – this guy is not only smart and a great car guy but he is an American hero – unbelievable stories – great books.