Former mechanic, engine builder, crew chief and team owner Smokey Yunick called ’em like he saw ’em during his career.
NASCAR HALL IGNORES ONE OF SPORT’S ALL-TIME GREATS
In due time,NASCAR’s five newest nomineesfor its Hall of Fame will easily make the cut. Retired drivers Ron Hornaday Jr. and Ricky Rudd,team owner Jack Roush, engine builder Waddell Wilson and broadcaster Ken Squier are safe picks. That’s apparently not true of the lateSmokey Yunick, among racing’s most popular characters.
Since its 2010 inception, the Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, has considered 60 nominees and selected 35. Despite solid credentials, Yunick has never been nominated. He was a two-time mechanic of the year; two-time championship crew chief for Herb Thomas; won 12 poles and eight races as an owner; won several dozen more races as crew chief for others, including nine already in the Hall; won the last beach/highway race in 1958 with Paul Goldsmith; was crew chief for 1961 and 1962 Daytona 500 winners Marvin Panch and Fireball Roberts. He also fielded stock cars for IndyCar legends such asMario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Joe Leonard, Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford.
His daughter, Trish, is often asked why two dozen other halls have welcomed her father, but not NASCAR’s. “I get that question hundreds of times in the performance industry or with fans,” she said. “Most fans understand there were difficulties between Smokey and the Frances. Still, they’re perplexed and feel he’s been wronged. He was always sad that his adopted hometown of Daytona Beach never embraced him, but would he be surprised or disappointed that NASCAR hasn’t honored him? No. He’d just figure that was par for the course.”
Clearly, the mechanical wizard in his coveralls and cowboy hat didn’t get along with NASCAR’s founding family. Yunick and Bill France Sr. clashed for years over almost everything, including money. (A photo of them shaking hands notes “a rare moment when they saw eye to eye.”) Like his father, Bill France Jr. didn’t think much of Yunick … and vice versa. NASCAR bossman Brian France was a kid during those contentious years, but undoubtedly heard the stories.
One issue was Yunick’s belief that officials in the ’50s and ’60s ruled tech inspection with arrogant incompetence. The most famous tale—perhaps exaggerated, but just a bit—recounts how inspectors atDaytonastripped a Yunick entry and found multiple “irregularities.” Yunick scanned their list, said they’d missed a few and proudly drove the car back to his downtown garage, sans fuel cell and fuel lines. It wasn’t the only time the globe-trotting high school dropout and World War II bomber pilot embarrassed inspectors.
Former champion and HOF driver David Pearson said of Yunick: “He said if you cheated on 10 things and they made you fix two or three, then you’d (gained) something.” From Bobby Allison, another former champion and HOF driver: “Smokey got accused of a lot of things, but that was inaccurate. He delighted in people thinking he was cheating. He felt he had an advantage if they thought he was cheating rather than beating them fair. He was awfully good at what he did and should be considered for the Hall of Fame.” HOF team owner Glen Wood said Yunick wasn’t alone in stretching the rules. “Back then, everybody had things inspectors didn’t like,” he said. “It just seemed that Smokey got caught more than others. But I think he’ll someday make the hall.”
Trish isn’t optimistic. “Almost everybody on the (22-person) nominating committee is on thearm of the Francesor NASCAR,” she said. “There might be friends in (HOF executives) Winston Kelley and Buz McKim, but they know the politics and may not be willing to buck it. The same goes for Tony George and Eddie Gossage. I watch the induction announcement on TV but don’t think much more about it.” (A NASCAR spokesman said the committee’s deliberations are confidential and that track owner Bruton Smith—another long-time thorn in NASCAR’s side—was recently enshrined.)
Another issue was the tell-all book, “Best Damn Garage in Town: The World According to Smokey.” Yunick penned every word (he’d never let anyone speak for him) and painstakingly edited every draft, telling the story his way. Self-published, it was released shortly after he died in May 2001 at 77. Lacking even a hint of restraint, this unfiltered, conversational-style narrative undoubtedly did not sit well with the France family.
In it, he wrote that France Sr. “had to be something special, ’cause I don’t know of any racer that liked him. But we kept going back for more. He was a world-class BS’er and had the balls of an elephant with regards to gambling with finances. He’d work 20 hours a day, seven days a week. During our first meeting, I decided he wouldn’t make a pimple on a real mechanic’s ass. And I doubt he left singing the praises of me.”
Also from Yunick, about Brian: “The son and daughter of Bill Jr., I don’t know them. I’ve heard the daughter (Lesa France Kennedy) is sharp and the son is an asshole. My boy Sam went to high school with Brian, and he seconded his asshole rating.”
This may be the deepest cut: “My father wrote that Bill Jr. wasn’t smart enough to pour piss out of a boot if there were instructions on the heel,” Trish said. “Those things are hard to ignore. No question about it, the die was cast a long time ago.”