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Feature   June 1, 2001   by Andrew Ross

CANADIAN ENGINE REBUILDER: Smokey Yunick: The End of the Line

Smokey Yunick

May 25, 1923-May 9, 2001

When word reached me of Smokey Yunick’s passing, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of loss. Smokey wasn’t just an icon of motorsport and engine building; he was an icon of an age before computer simulation, before race shops were as full of engineering degrees as they were of laptops.

More than that, though, he had a knack for reducing the most complicated concepts to simple, understandable principles and, in doing so, helped us all understand a bit more about the nature of the internal combustion engine and racing. He’d probably say that he just cut through the crap. He always made us think. Sometimes he made us laugh, too. Rather than go on though, I thought I’d let a few of his own words say it best.

Back in 1995 and 1996, we ran a series of articles featuring Smokey’s answers to some questions during a CASCAR forum. Here are a few, just to say goodbye with.

Is spark plug indexing important?

No. Indexing the spark plug, unless you’re doing this for piston clearance, you’d do just as much good if you just go over to the back stretch and take a leak.

Now, there are a lot of very famous engine builders that believe otherwise, but then I don’t think they can prove it. Now, if you talk about what you do around the combustion chamber, around the plug, all kinds of things, good or bad, can happen there. But where you go then, once you’ve got the correct spark plug with the correct kind of ground strap or whatever arrangement in the plug, you’ve done all you can do there.

Now if you don’t set the ground wire and the piston is going to hit it, well hell, yeah indexing is important. But other than that it’s just old black magic and goes back to if some guy’s winning and if he puts a bag with ten pounds of @@## in the left rear, everybody’s going to do the same thing. If you said why are you doing that, you’d say because Junior Johnson’s doing it, you know what I mean. It’s kind like that with spark plug indexing.

What about coatings?

I think that it’s more baloney than it is fact. You can coat something and get less friction, but you’re talking about something in the thousandths of a horsepower. There ain’t much there.

The actual friction of the bearings and the piston rings isn’t anywhere as near as much as what you think it is. God damn valve springs are the biggest friction in the whole engine, way more than the rings and bearings put together. But nobody seems to be worried about that, you know they just get them heavier and heavier and hook them up.

Now, when you start talking about putting coatings on for thermal damming on the top of your piston, on the bottom of your combustion chambers, that type of thing, stop and think about this. The fuel that you’re running is what tells you how much timing, how much compression and so forth you can get away with and it’s all based on the amount of temperature in the combustion chamber. If you thermally dam that combustion chamber you’re actually going to make it detonate quicker, so you’ve got to back the timing off, add fuel or drop the compression. It’s just a waste of time; you’re just working in a circle.

Now if you want to wrap your exhaust pipes and so forth it does pay off. And if you put coatings on that there’s a little lift but not much. If you are going to do something to the exhaust system, wrap it in some of the better insulators and that will actually do something. What that will let you do is slow the exhaust timing down some more and then you get a little more power.

Well, the only other thing I haven’t done yet that would help get me assassinated, but I might as well bring it up right now, is that I think that running open wheel cars is stupid.

After two wheels touch and what happens after the two wheels touch, what in the hell has that got to do with racing? Now, how can you be stupid enough to build a god damn half million dollar race car with nothing covering the wheels so that you know that if the two wheels touch both guys are going to do some sheet time and you’re going to be short two cars?

Why don’t we just forget it, leave the race cars home and go back to the gladiators and the lions if you want to see somebody get his ass peeled? That’s a lot cheaper, you know, but somebody said we’re running out of lions so maybe that won’t work. The open wheel thing has got to go away. Take a look at the Formula One cars. All the money they spend to make that thing go like a son of a bitch and it’s got the wheels way out there. All the computers and everything and you know, it’s slowed down 15 mph because the wheels aren’t covered. It’s like some holy grail that they got to carry it from now on for, you know, the next twenty thousand years. Can anybody really justify why you would want to run with open wheels knowing how dangerous it is? If they want to see the wheels let’s put some clear composite fenders so we can see the god damn wheels or else cover them up. Any of you guys ever drove a spinner? Did you ever take a little ride when you touched wheels? It’s quite an experience.

Fortunately, Smokey finished his autobiography, “The Best Damn Garage in Town,” just before his passing.

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