Where There Was Fire, There Was Smokey…

n the mid-sixties, Smokey Yunick was making periodic editorial contributions to HOT ROD Magazine.  As the newest member of the publication’s staff, one of my early tasks was to “edit” one of his stories.  In this particular instance, it happened to be a technical piece touting the power benefits of the then-new, 396 c.i.d., big-block Chevrolet V8.  Pretty straightforward stuff, with one little caveat; Smokey hand-wrote his stories, sans any form of capitalization or punctuation.  He simply wrote what he thought.

I struggled making readable sense out of his material for a couple of days and came away thinking it was a pretty successful effort.  Keep in mind that although I clearly knew who Smokey Yunick was, I had not yet had an opportunity to meet him in person or have any direct contact otherwise.  That turned out to happen more quickly than I’d expected.  In fact, on the day the issue of HRM with his story hit the newsstands, I received a personal call.  I answered and the very first thing I heard was, “What the hell makes you think you’re some kind of a damn magazine editor?”  And how-do-you-do, too, Smokey.

Interestingly, however, that single phone call initiated what became a 35-year friendship during which I not only came to know the real person under the hat and smoking pipe but grew to appreciate his wit, exceptional intelligence and strong sense of honesty and fair play.   I learned as much about life as I did engines, during the course of that friendship.  And he had a remarkable flair for the unexpected.  In this MaxChevy column, I’ve shared a number of “Smokey episodes” that included the Riverside, CA Camaro caper, Smokey Jr. killing horseflies in the shop with a high-pressure grease gun and marathon engine dyno sessions lasting long into the nights.  But here’s one I haven’t shared.

While I was still at Edelbrock sometime in the '70s, on a Wednesday, I get a call from Smokey.  The conversation went something like, “What are you doing Saturday morning?”  “Don’t know, Smoke, what’d you have in mind?”  “There’s a couple cases of Valvoline oil down at their downtown Los Angeles depot.  Think you could pick ‘em up for me and come out to the speedway (Ontario Motor Speedway)?”  “OK.  Where will you be at the speedway and what’ll you be doing?”  “You’ll find me.”  Typical deal.

So Saturday morning I head down to the Valvoline depot and, for whatever reason, I put my camera in the car.  Still don’t know why I did, but I did.  Remember that.

In case you’re not aware, the ill-fated Ontario Motor Speedway was fashioned to be the “Indianapolis Speedway of the West,” replete with completed enclosed garages (row after row), mammoth grandstands and all the trappings of a forward-looking motorsports facility.  It eventually fell to the overriding growth of the Ontario, CA community and is today covered by commercial and residential structures.  It was a nice place.