Best Damn Mechanic Ever

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Legendary racing mechanic Henry “Smokey” Yunick, who earned more than 50 NASCAR Winston Cup (then Grand National) victories as a crew chief, mechanic or engine builder, died Wednesday morning at the age of 77 at his Daytona Beach home after a yearlong battle with leukemia.

Often recognized by his white cowboy hat and a ‘go to hell’ attitude toward NASCAR, Yunick - among the first group of 20 men inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990 - was a racer’s racer. He was a person who would stand up and fight until the bitter end to get his point across… and he often did just that with his countless innovations.

An example of Yunick’s creativity came in preparations for the 1968 Daytona 500 when he was fielding a Chevrolet for driver Gordon Johncock. After a difficult time getting through technical inspection, NASCAR made a list of nine things for Yunick to do in order for his gas tank to meet the requirements.

Yunick told NASCAR he’d make the changes, and did that just before he left the gas tank lying on the ground in front of them. He then drove his car away from the inspection area, much to the chagrin of officials.

“Smokey was the kind of guy who didn’t avoid controversy,” said legendary driver/car owner Junior Johnson. “He always stood up for what he believed in, just like he did down at Daytona in 1968. He and all the NASCAR officials were all standing around arguing about it. They finally made Smokey so mad that he just got in his car and drove away. But the thing about it was, he drove off with the gas tank still lying on the ground. You talk about making NASCAR mad…

“He was a true pioneer of this sport and he always did a great job of representing everybody. There wasn’t a better talent in our sport than Smokey. When Smokey showed up with his car, you knew he was the guy you were going to have to outrun. There was no question if you wanted to win, you were going to have to beat Smokey.

“Very few people have ever had the charisma and smarts of Smokey as far as the cars and the motors went. He knew all the aspects of racing, there was never any question about that.”

Yunick could never be called a cheater, but he bent the rulebook plenty in his time.

“Smokey was perhaps the most creative racing mechanic of the 20th Century,” Lowe’s Motor Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said. “To say he was a genius is not enough. His unique exploits in both Indy and NASCAR are legendary, but his uncanny brain worked best when challenged by the search for extra horsepower. From his renowned ‘secret’ room at his Daytona shop where he let no man enter, horsepower of impossible levels came forth and scored many victories for legendary drivers.”

Perhaps most well known as the owner and operator of “The Best Damn Garage in Town,” some of the greatest race cars of all time came out of Yunick’s Daytona shop.

It was there he built cars for some of the greatest drivers ever, such as Fireball Roberts, Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Cotton Owens, Buck Baker, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Allison, Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser.

As an owner, his teams made 61 Grand National starts and produced eight victories. Yunick scored 49 victories while working as a crew chief with Herb Thomas, and was a championship crew chief with Thomas in 1951 and 1953.

He won both the Daytona 500 as a car owner and the Indianapolis 500 as a mechanic. Yunick’s cars won four of the first eight Grand National races at Daytona International Speedway, including the 1961 Daytona 500, with Panch, and the 1962 Daytona 500, with Roberts.

His lone Indianapolis 500 victory came in 1960, when he prepared a car for Jim Rathmann.

Yunick stopped fielding a Grand National entry in 1970 after he was involved with an argument with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who passed away in 1992. The two hardly spoke to each other over a period of 20 years.

He had been battling several problems with his health the past few years. Funeral service information is expected to be announced by the family later Wednesday.

Yunick grew up on a farm in Neshaminy, Pa., and flew B-17 bombers for the Air Force in World War II. After the service, he decided to move to Daytona and open an automobile repair shop on Beach Street.

His "Best Damn Garage in Town" was closed to the public in the mid-1980s, but he continued racing research and development projects the next several years.

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