290. Henry "Smokey" Yunick
Unfortunately, the major source of information about Smokey Yunick’s childhood is his own autobiography. According to Smokey, he was the child of John and Lena, immigrants from Europe. He grew up on a farm in Neshaminy PA. He claimed he did most of the chores and worked a paper route. His father died from a heart attack when he was seventeen. He dropped out of high school to work at a Ford dealership in Doykestown. That led to Hall’s Garage, where he learned to repair REOs, Packards, Studebakers, or just about anything else a customer drove in.
Yunick obtained an Indian Chief motorcycle for basic transportation, and soon was racing it. It was in such poor repair that, when he laid on the throttle, he earned the nickname “Smokey.” In the late ‘30s, Smokey decided he’d rather pilot airplanes than race sprint cars. His service station boss, a Mr Pitcairn, mapped out the road to becoming an Army pilot. First, he had to produce a birth certificate. Yunick bought a forgery in Philadelphia. Next, he needed a college degree or he needed to pass an equivalency test. “… test was a bitch. Kinda like a picture of a jackass, a bulldozer, an airplane, and a mule, with instructions to ‘circle the airplane.’” Next was the physical. “Half of that is ‘Do you like boys or girls?’ And ‘Have you ever tried to screw a dog or a sheep or cow?’”
Yunick really did become an Army pilot. While he continued to stretch a yarn every chance he got, other people started keeping records of his accomplishments. Smokey completed two tours, flying a B-17 in the 97th group of the 15th Air Force, at a time very few airmen survived one tour. He also got an up close and personal eyeful of the refugees and the horrors of war in Africa and Italy.
There’s some probability Yunick had a tendency to wrestle with authority. In the air, he became a squadron leader, but, on his lapels, he never made it farther than First Lieutenant. After his European adventures, Yunick was assigned to pilot a B-25 in India, for the 7th American Air Rescue squadron, known as the “Flying Tigers.” In theory, his primary mission was sea rescue, but the Flying Tigers also transported massive shipments of military and medical supplies to the Chinese. The routes, over mountains and jungles, often had no emergency landing sites for hundreds of miles, and the planes had to dodge twin enemies of the Japanese and the Chinese communists.
Yunick discovered moonlighting in Italy. He found that there was a sizeable market for photographs and war trophies. He developed a lucrative photography business when he traveled east. In India, he also began transporting cargo for profit, presumably for Chinese commander Chiang Kai-Shek. Smokey made a few more stops in garden spots like Okinawa. When U.S. forces dropped the bomb in Japan, Yunick estimated he’d collected 125 grand from his wartime enterprises. He claimed he kept his fortune in a coffee tin.
Back in the states, Yunick’s sister Renee introduced him to a nurse, Elizabeth Parker. Soon, they were living with Parker’s parents, and Yunick was a mechanic in another auto dealership, in New Jersey. That didn’t last long. When the shop foreman ticked him off, Smokey packed his toolcase, loaded the truck, and asked Parker whether she was along for the ride or not. “After World War II, a lot of couples got married that didn’t really know each other and a lot of time was wasted which caused many bad endings for doomed marriages, and, worse yet, the children.”
Best Damn Garage
During the previous five years, Yunick had seen many different places from the air. During his early Army training, he flew over a charming little community with palm trees and white sand beaches. When Smokey moved to Daytona Beach, he set up shop in the back of Harry Neal’s blacksmith business, until he could build the “Best Damn Garage in Town,” Smokey’s Automotive, at the end of Beach Street, right on the Halifax River. It would become the birthplace of Chevy NASCAR racing. For many seasons, Smokey built his Indy cars there. Late night alcohol induced fancies turned into patents there. Mostly, the garage was home, for several decades, to a war hero, haunted by his past, afraid of the future.
Black & Gold Indy car