12/15/2006

WHERE THERE WAS FIRE…

In the mid-60s, brand manufacturer involvement in NASCAR was at an all-time high. Ford and Chrysler were providing various “means of support” that included engineering assistance and purpose-built products, often brought into their traditional parts distribution systems to provide the homologation that made them legal under NASCAR rules. And, believe it or not, some of these parts were “individually” modified for specific teams, if you can imagine such. Still goes on today.

Just one year before the ruling association introduced body templates to address aerodynamic modifications that were stretching “stock” body dimensions to new limits, 1967 became the focal point for a black and gold Chevelle, built to be “almost as slick on the bottom as the top” and reputed to have hosted more rules violations than any such car to that date.

When I arrived in the garage area for the 1967 Daytona 500, clearly the Ford and Chrysler “factory” teams were in abundance. You could literally stir with a stick the number of engineers and related staff circulating throughout the area. Qualification had been completed days before and, if memory serves, there were two “independent” Chevelles in a veritable sea of Fords and Chryslers. One of these Chevelles had qualified on the pole, much to the promotional delight of NASCAR, and presumed to be a prime reason for packing the stands on race day in what was being forecasted as a “David and Goliath” on-track encounter. As a matter of fact, the pole Chevelle was being driven by Curtis Turner

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and owned by Smokey Yunick.

It didn’t take long for me to find Smokey. The car was on jack stands with masking tape outlining what appeared to be new fender-well dimensions. Goodyear had provided Smokey with some “larger tires,” different from what he had used to nab the pole, and the car was being modified to accept them…clearly outside the rules. You can speculate what “larger tires” meant. So, amid a surrounding crowd of on-lookers easily numbering 30 or more, here comes a grizzly NASCAR inspector, clipboard in hand and approaching Smokey who had his back turned and facing the car. Two members of his crew (actually, son Smokey Jr. and Ralph Johnson, an ex-Holley engineer working for Smokey at the time) were trimming out the fender wells.

“Hey, Smokey. You can’t modify that car. It’s already qualified. That’s illegal. I’ll have to report this violation and it’ll disqualify you!”…still approaching the car.

Smokey Jr., and Ralph stopped and looked at Smokey. “Keep cuttin’, like I told you,” was Smokey’s response. The tech, now about 20 feet away, is still talking and warning about a pending disqualification. “Keep cutting;” comes again from Smokey, still with his back to the approaching inspector.

And then, still back-facing the irritated inspector, he said this; “Why don’t you just stop right there, sonny. And then I suggest you turn your ass around and go back through that gate you just left open, leave it open for me and tell Mr. France his pole car just went home.” Graveyards don’t get much quieter. Then there’s a couple of snickers, Smokey Jr. and Ralph keep cutting and Smokey ran the tires.

For the record, this was a time when Chevrolet was having connecting rod bolt problems in their Mark (big-block) engines. Leading and partway into the race, the engine lost a rod bolt and the car was retired. In the ensuing race at Atlanta, Turner put the car over the wall, scattering sheet metal, fiberglass bits and panels and a surviving driver out of competition. I happened to see a couple of Ford engineers carrying away bits of fiberglass as souvenirs of a highly controversial Yunick benchmark. Smokey took most of the remaining “scrap” home.









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