As long as competitions have had a rulebook, there have been competitors trying to find a way around it. Sure, all motorsports are this way, but it’s only NASCAR that turned it into a catchphrase.
As we enter the Gen-7 era, however, NASCAR’s emphasis on parity and cost control has taken the design of the cars out of teams’ hands. If Brad Keselowski’s post-Atlanta penalty is any indication, the future of the sport will see a lot less patience for the kind of “innovation” that used to be dismissed with a wink and a “boys, have at it.”
Yes, the culture of NASCAR is changing, and in many ways, it’s for the better. Frankly, I do agree that penalties for egregious rule-breaking have needed to be stricter in the past, and I’m a big fan of the greater parity and more competitive racing we’ve seen in these first few weeks of a supposedly post-cheating season. I do, however, want to pour one out for what we’ve lost, and this series is my chance to do that. Join me as I investigate the most innovative, ingenious, and downright illegal designs in NASCAR history. After all, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.
THE TALL TALE OF SMOKEY YUNICK’S 7/8ths SCALE CHEVELLE
Born on a Pennsylvania farm to a pair of Ukrainian immigrants, Smokey Yunick was one heck of a character (“Smokey” was his legal name, by the way, he had it changed). After a stint in the Army as a World War II bomber pilot, (and occasional smuggler) Smokey married, settled down in Daytona Beach, opened “The Best Damn Garage in Town” and soon became involved in the nascent sport of stock car racing.
Though Smokey was first and foremost known as one of history’s most brilliant engine builders, he soon added to that a reputation as the early master of the dark art of aerodynamics. He honed his craft in open wheel racing, becoming the first person to put a wing on an Indycar, before bringing his expertise over to NASCAR in the mid-60s, where he well and truly developed the third pillar of his legend: nobody could find loopholes in the rulebook like Smokey Yunick could.
If the rules required a standard size of fuel tank, Smokey would throw thick enough fuel lines in the car to carry an extra two gallons. If the centerline of the engine was obligated to be exactly in the center of the frame rails, Smokey would offset the entire frame to the left for better weight distribution. He never thought of what he did as cheating, because technically, it wasn’t. If there was no rule explicitly forbidding something, it was allowed, and Smokey Yunick would probably do it.
As such, Smokey and NASCAR officials, particularly Bill France, were not each other’s biggest fans. The deep-running animosity between Yunick and the France family resulted in Yunick quitting stock car racing altogether when France forbade him from running an airplane-style fuel bladder – an ancestor of the modern fuel cell – in 1970.
That was one of several safety innovations Smokey pursued in the years following the tragic death of his longtime friend and collaborator Fireball Roberts, innovations that also included an early version of SAFER barrier he patented in the 1980s.
But there is no Yunick story greater than the myth of the 7/8ths-scale Chevelle that Smokey built for the 1968 Daytona 500.
Now, the actual “7/8ths” claim has been definitively disproven many times over the years, including on a 2019 episode of Dinner With Racers when they took a tape measure to the car in question. Trying to sneak a car through inspection that was 87.5 percent the size it was supposed to be would have been impossible, but the 7/8ths-scale legend (one that Smokey certainly played up) sprung up because, to the officials, there was something off about the black-and-gold ‘66 Chevy that Smokey turned up with, but they just couldn’t quite put their fingers on it. As a result, this car was the one that forced NASCAR to adopt the standard body templates used for inspection until 2018.
This is a story that has never really been told the same way twice, not even by Smokey himself. I wasn’t even able to find who the driver was supposed to be – although Smokey built a ’66 Chevy for Curtis Turner to drive the year before. There’s such little documentation, and so much speculation, that it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty which of these little tricks were actually present on this car – although they were all used by Yunick at some point during the mid-1960s. Smokey himself loved that the story of his ‘66 Chevelle has become the half-whispered stuff of legend. After all, it was his masterpiece – the Mona Lisa of illegal race cars.
Compared to a standard ‘66 Chevelle, Smokey had completely reimagined his black and gold #13 to improve aerodynamics, a full year before Chrysler enlisted its missile designers to create the Charger Daytona. The bumper was set back into the body and extended downward by two inches, creating an air dam to suck the car to the ground. The entire body was shifted back on the frame, moving both the center of mass and center of aerodynamic pressure towards the rear. The glass windows were replaced with plastic to save weight and fitted flush against the body to improve airflow. The car came in almost 100 pounds below minimum weight, so Smokey added it all back in ballast along the left side of the car to improve cornering. Adopting a Team Lotus innovation from F1, the fully custom frame used the 427-cubic-inch V8 as a stressed member, adding incredible stiffness with minimal weight penalty. Except, it wasn’t a 427 at all. Smokey had de-stroked it to 416ci so it would rev higher. The suspension was an entirely original Yunick design. Rumor has it, the frame was also designed as an auxiliary fuel tank to hold 5 extra gallons.
Even with all of that, the real advantage was under the car. Smokey had lowered the oil pan and smoothed out everything, even using sculpted channels in the original location of the wheel wells to direct air behind the tires. That, combined with the front bumper air dam and his trademark lowered side skirts/raised hood, used the air running underneath the car to aerodynamic benefit. Almost 30 years before Ray Evernham debuted the “T-Rex,” and a full decade before Team Lotus introduced it to Formula One, Smokey Yunick had invented ground effect.
What did Smokey in, eventually, was the sculpted shape of the roof and trunk lid. He’d formed little lips at the rear of the panels that effectively turned the entire car into a spoiler. The officials refused to believe those were stock. Supposedly, an outraged Smokey strode into the parking lot and pointed at the roof lip of the first two-door ‘66 Chevelle he could find – one that he had modified to match his race car and stashed in the parking lot the night before to help his case.
Only after removing the fuel tank, (presumably to check for the old “inflate a basketball in the tank during inspection, then deflate it and add more fuel before the race starts” trick) officials came up with a list of eleven violations that Smokey had to fix if he wanted his #13 to start the Daytona 500. Smokey hopped in the car himself, said “better make it twelve,” and drove all the way home with the fuel tank still sitting there on the asphalt. The “7/8ths-scale” Chevelle never raced.
He’d claim two things for the rest of his life. The first was that, according to the rulebook at the time, that car should have been allowed to start the Daytona 500. He maintained that Bill France had failed his car only because Chrysler and Ford threatened to pull out of the sport if the little Chevy was allowed to embarrass them on Sunday.
The second was that, even with the tank out of it, there was still enough gas in that car to make it to Jacksonville and back.
Featured Image from the NASCAR Archive, NASCAR Hall of Fame, and Getty Images.