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Smokey Yunick’s NASCAR Innovations | NASCAR’s Biggest Impostor

Smokey Yunick's NASCAR Innovations |  NASCAR's Biggest Impostor

The early days of NASCAR had to do with a wafer-thin rulebook that gave engineers and crew leaders quite a bit of wiggle room to misbehave. The most infamous of these was Henry “Smokey” Yunick, who has since been credited with most of the thickening of that rulebook. He was a team principal, builder, driver, engine builder and car designer, but first and foremost an engineering genius. In the 1960s, he turned auto racing on its head thanks to his bold — often blatant out-of-the-box — interpretations of the rules and regulations governing automobile setups.

“Cheating” is ubiquitous in motorsport; I’ve only included the quotes because this isn’t a reference to blatant disregard for the rules. Rather, it is a reference to the clever reading of the rulebook by engineers. The saying “If you don’t cheat, you don’t try” is often thrown around in sports circles and still applies in motorsport. However, Smokey Yunick didn’t make a name for himself by cheating and blindly hoping no one would notice. He took the rules very literally; anything they had not explicitly banned was on the table. In addition, he had no formal training in racing car design. Call his fiddling if you will, cheating if you will, but here are some of his best.

    Smart fuel line

    RacingOneGetty Images

    NASCAR officials once removed the fuel tank from Smokey Yunick’s race car after suspecting it had suspiciously good fuel economy. To their surprise, the fuel tank itself was within regulations, but was evacuated through an 11-foot fuel line with a 2-inch ID. This meant Yunick could store an additional 5 gallons — yes, gallons — of gas in the fuel line alone.

    Many NASCAR historians say Smokey drove all the way back to his nearby Daytona Beach store after the tank — still removed from the car — passed a basic visual inspection. Other stories mention that he drives back to his pit box alone. But given his antics, we wouldn’t be surprised if both tall tales were true.

    Dribbling Fuel Tank

    Male hand pumps from the 1940s

    H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStockGetty Images

    Smokey was not shocked when NASCAR discovered its anaconda fuel line. If you could get through the technical inspection without officials noticing that something wasn’t right, you were as good as gold. So he put in a bigger tank and stuffed a basketball in it that made up for the difference in volume. Before the race, he would pop the basketball and fill the tank with even more fuel. More fuel means more miles and less time spent refueling in the pits.

    freezing cold gas

    smokey yunick and jim rathmann

    RacingOneGetty Images

    Your parents were right when they said you should fill up your car in the morning when it’s cold. Fuel contracts at lower temperatures, meaning you get more for your dollar. That’s why Yunick cooled the fuel—so much so that it nearly froze—before filling his race cars, so he could fit more into the tanks and drive those cars farther than the competition. As the cars flew laps, the fuel would heat up and expand, meaning the drivers could get more miles out of a normal-sized tank. However, NASCAR caught on and eventually demanded a minimum race fuel temperature.

    Transferring the exhaust manifold

    smokey yunick

    RacingOneGetty Images

    The 1970s NASCAR rulebook forbade engine builders to drill out the exhaust headers to make the passageways bigger. That’s why, instead of using a drill, Yunick ran an abrasive through the manifold to expand the ports and passageways. There was nothing in the rules that said you could do this, but also nothing that said you couldn’t

    Headers are actually a big deal when it comes to creating great power; they capture the exhaust gases coming from each cylinder and condense the passageways into one or two pipes. Their job is to make it easier to push exhaust gases out of the cylinder itself. The easier you can get air out of the cylinder head, the faster you can put air back in. More air in the cylinder head means you can add more fuel and spark, giving you more power.

    Chevrolet Chevelle Magnum Opus

    Mario Andretti Yunick Chevelle Daytona 1966

    RacingOneGetty Images

    Heading into the 1967 NASCAR season, Yunick had worked hard over the winter months to build one of the most technologically advanced stock cars the sport had ever seen—many historians allude to the fact that his Chevy Chevelle uses a 7:8 scale. had. Rather than simply put a smaller body shell over the same chassis, Yunick sculpted the exterior of the existing car to cut through the air more efficiently.

    NASCAR is short for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, meaning any car started out as “stock,” or how you and I could buy it from the dealership. The cars you saw in Yunick’s time were basically modified street cars. This proved to be a great advantage in getting grassroots competitors into the race.

    Dick Hutcherson and Smokey Yunick

    RacingOneGetty Images

    But for Yunick—and just about every other NASCAR crew chief ever—playing by the rules meant putting speed on the table. Much is not known about his 1967 Chevelle race car, but many say it lacks an original panel that has remained unaltered. While it may have looked relatively normal from the outside, it couldn’t have been more different.

    Starting at the front, the bumper was fitted tightly to the front fenders and hood to optimize aerodynamics – all door handles were also filled in and leveled to improve aerodynamics. Yunick completely redesigned the rear suspension with the shock and spring mounted vertically and (critically) behind the rear axle. Compared to the conventional truck arm setup the car would have had, this setup made it much easier to handle thanks to the longer spring base (or the distance between the springs on the left and right sides of the axle). Finally, one of the most dramatic changes was that Yunick moved the driver’s position to the left side of the car to improve cornering on ovals.

    Life after motorsport

    Smokey had a knack for giving NASCAR officials a headache. However, his exploits were not limited to just the track. Far from. In 1955 he played a key role in the development of Chevrolet’s small-block V8 engine – the basic design principles are still used in racing today.

    Further outside the racing circle was the hot vapor engine, which almost revolutionized internal combustion as we know it. Yunick essentially found that evaporating the fuel mix led to higher thermal efficiency, which would yield more horsepower. Its radical hot-vapor technology transformed a stock Pontiac Fiero — which produced a geriatric 90 horsepower – into a highly edgy tuner car with 250 horsepower.

    Here’s a taste of what Yunick’s vehicle has accomplished on the track

    • Daytona 500 win (1961, 1962)
    • Indy 500 win (1960)
    • NASCAR Cup Championship (1951, 1953)
    • 57 NASCAR Race wins
      Matt Crisara
      Matt Crisara is a native Texan with an unbridled passion for cars and motorsports, both abroad and domestically, and as Autos Editor for Popular Mechanics, he writes most of the digital and print automotive coverage.

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