on May 26, 2016
Just prior to the 100th running of the Indy 500, we look back as Smokey Yunick dips his toes into Indy
Writer’s Note: We have begun a series of short recounts pertaining to parts of Smokey’s life and career as a racer/builder/car-owner, using personal experiences and slices of information that also appear in his three-volume “book”(Best Damn Garage in Town) that was penned by the man and completed just prior to his passing in March of 2001 at the age of 77. We hope you will gain some additional insight into this self-made man, along with periodic bits of entertainment.
By 1954, Smokey had left an indelible mark on NASCAR racing, winning events on both the “old course” on the Daytona Beach ocean-side sand track and four of the first eight races when the Daytona International Speedway was completed. But during this time, he was in continual conflict with NASCAR’s then-president, Bill France, Sr. In fact, there remains speculation that had he not been in a contentious relationship (never resolved) with France that he would long-since been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, among the thirty-plus halls of fame that honored him in the U.S. and elsewhere.
But to hear Smokey outline the elements involved in his France feud, money was a prominent reason. “The way I saw it, the racers were doing all the work and NASCAR was getting all the money. It’s not that far removed from it in more modern times. In fact, all the good reasons to be a racer can be written on the head of a pin…in capital letters. But for myself, some fifty years later, do I regret I used a major part of my life to be a racer? Hell, no! In fact, I’m pretty grateful to have had the opportunity.”
Still, just prior to the 1955 Daytona race on the beach, Smokey decided he’d had enough of NASCAR and opted to begin tracking down his participation in the Indianapolis 500 event, something “In my mind was the greatest automobile race in the world. I can’t begin to explain the intrigue and excitement that race represented to me. Those who did not experience it before 1975, would not even remotely know what we saw in that race. From 1975 to 1995, it slowly became a foreign car, foreign engine and foreign driver race.”
But in the time period that preceded this transition, Smokey was a regular figure at the Indy 500, fielding cars loaded with “The Best Damn Garage In Town” innovations and creative thinking allowed by the “Skinny Little Rule Book” that racers in that league of racing were required to follow.
“It specified a minimum weight, a maximum width and length, seventy-five gallons maximum fuel tank, and open wheels. There were two engine rules; one for blown engines and one for normally-aspirated – just displacement limits. No curse words (like damn), no booze, no drugs, and no tobacco ads. No women allowed in the garage area, period. The garage was open twenty-four hours a day. Yup, you could sleep in the garage and you can lock it and keep your secrets hidden. The garage is yours for the whole year (if you qualify). One-hundred entries, thirty-three race, no b.s.”
So for the years of 1955, 1956 and 1957, Smokey poked his nose into the hallowed grounds of the Brickyard, largely as a guest in the garage area. In the beginning, it was to get a first-hand look at what it took to become involved, either as a mechanic or car owner. Since he didn’t own an Indy car, he decided to become a “stooge” in the garage area to see if anyone wanted his mechanical skills. Then in 1966, he returned to make another attempt and, after two weeks, hadn’t attracted any interest. But then his luck changed.
“By now, Marshall Teague (a former Yunick driver piloting a Hudson for Smokey in NASCAR) not only has the ‘Indy bug’ but has secured a ride in a pretty good car, ‘The Sumar Special’. Chapman Root is the owner. It’s Pure Oil sponsored.” (Marshall had brought Pure Oil into racing in 1951 with a Hudson.) “So I spend some time with his crew. I got the ‘Indy bug’ bad. But, still ‘no cigar.’ I made ‘bout one week visit there three years (’55, ’56 and ’57) during practice. In this time frame, Marshal Teague had qualified once for the race and I stooged for him for a week. I came home with a with an official Indy white satin ‘Pure Oil’ racing jacket. I slept in the damn thing for a month.”
During this time, Smokey had returned to NASCAR racing for Chevy, Ford and then Pontiac, winning the 1958 “beach race” with Paul Goldsmith in a Pontiac. “Then it happened. I made up my mind five minutes after we won the race that I was going to buy an Indy car and enter it, no matter what.”
Now, keep in mind that Smokey is still having to balance building and racing a NASCAR car on a pretty slim budget. And in lieu of being able to go out and buy what he needs, he more often than not ended up building the parts himself. So at this point, being able to find an affordable Indy car was a pretty good chunk to swallow. However, he did manage to get “tipped off” about a used (two-year old) Kurtis car located in the suburbs of Chicago.
“A rich grandmom, heir to Texaco fortune owned it after her grandson hit a big oak tree in their driveway with a ’55 Chevy at Christmas time and it put his lights out. I deal with grandmom on the phone and she says, ‘Five grand, take it or leave it.’ Thank you, ma’am. Can I pay you $500 down and finance it three years? ‘Click.’ Grandma didn’t finance. Well, hell, you never know ‘til you try.”
But you want to keep this little exchange in mind because Smokey had other ideas he wanted to explore. And remember, he’d said he was going to buy an Indy car and enter it, no matter what. Well, the “no matter what” was just around the corner. Check us out next month and we’ll continue laying out Smokey’s path to “real life” participation at the Brickyard.