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Wednesday, May 9, 2001
Yunick won two Daytona 500s

Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Henry "Smokey" Yunick, one of the key innovators from stock car racing's early days, died of leukemia Wednesday. He was 77.

Operating out of a repair shop he dubbed "The Best Damn Garage in Town," Yunick helped develop Chevrolet's original small-block engine in 1955, the blueprints of which are still used on today's cars.

He was the last owner to win at Daytona when they raced on the beach, in 1958. He fielded winners at the 1961 and '62 Daytona 500s and won four of the first eight Winston Cup races at Daytona International Speedway.

"He was about as good as there ever was on engines," said Marvin Panch, who won the Daytona 1961 in Yunick's car. "He was a pioneer.'

Yunick closed the shop in the 1980s, but remained a fixture around Daytona Beach, even though he barely spoke to NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. for the last 20 years of France's life. France died in 1992.

Yunick never agreed with NASCAR on its increasingly strict rules, and some of his attempts to circumvent the rule book have become legend.

One year, figuring his car had been tricked up, NASCAR rules officials dismantled his entire carburetor, and pulled the fuel cell out, then told Yunick he had violated 17 rules. Unfazed, Yunick started up the car, void of its fuel cell. As he was driving away, Yunick yelled out the window, "Better make that 18."

Decked out in a flattened cowboy hat and chewing on an old, corn pipe, Yunick fielded stock cars through 1968, with drivers like Fireball Roberts, Banjo Matthews and Bobby Issac behind the wheel.

The International Motorsports Hall of Fame inducted him in 1990, and called him a "sly mechanical genius whose reputation as one of the premier mechanics in NASCAR hasn't diminished over the years."

The Stock Car Racing Encyclopedia credits Yunick with eight victories in 61 starts as a car owner. He won more than 50 races as a crew chief, chief mechanic or engine builder.

He also knew the open-wheel-racing game, taking cars to the Indianapolis 500 for several races between 1958 and 1973. In 1960, Yunick won the Indy 500 as a crew chief.

"Back in the old days, I would've pulled my car to Indianapolis with a rope if I had to," he once said. "That was the ultimate, to stand there on the starting grid on race day at the Indianapolis 500."

Funeral services will be held at Ormond Funeral Home in Daytona Beach on Saturday, said Wade Caldwell, a friend of the family.