Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The "Best Damn Garage" Is No More

The building that housed part of Smokey Yunick's legendary "Best Damn Garage In Town" was destroyed by fire Monday in Daytona Beach, Florida. The North Beach Street fire was reported at approximately 7 pm, but the age of the dwelling and its decades of use as an auto repair shop prevented firefighters from aggressively fighting the blaze. Within 90 minutes, little remained of the storied building but the blackened remains of two outer walls.

While some are mourning the loss, Yunick's daughter said her legendary father would have shunned such attention. "It was Smokey's expressed wish that we liquidate the contents of the building and sell the property," said Trish Yunick a day after the blaze. "He said, `Don't make it no damn shrine.'”

The elder Yunick opened his "Best Damn Garage in Town" on Beach Street in Daytona Beach in 1947, repairing trucks on one side of the building and building race cars in the other. The race shop featured blacked-out windows and locked doors, keeping curiosity seekers and spies alike at arm’s length. Day and night, Yunick and his band of helpers labored with torches and stick welders to create some of the fastest -- and often most controversial -- racers in the history of motorsports.

Yunick was a self-taught engineer, learning to create and refine mechanical devices after dropping out of school at age 16 to take over the family farm following the death of his father. Lured into motorsports by team owner Marshall Teague, Yunick welded up the Hudson Hornet that carried driver Herb Thomas to victory in the second running of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. In the two decades that followed, he was twice honored as NASCAR’s Mechanic of the Year, winning 57 races and two Grand National championships with some of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Often operating on the fringes of legality, Yunick frequently confounded NASCAR officials. In 1967, he constructed a 15/16-scale Grand National Chevelle for driver Curtis Turner; dropping its roofline and raising the floor to lower the overall stance of the car, while still maintaining a stock appearance. Smokey called it the best car he ever built, but it was far from the only “gray area” creation to roll out of the Beach Street shop. Yunick once put a basketball in the fuel tank of his car, inflating it to decrease fuel capacity during pre-race inspection, then deflating it for the race. He once sidestepped NASCAR regulations limiting fuel tank capacity by utilizing more than eleven feet of two-inch diameter fuel line. Officials pulled the gas tank from his car, then handed him a list of 10 items to fix before being allowed to compete. "Better make it 11,” he barked, leaving the tank behind as he drove back to the garage.

In the early 1960s, Yunick designed a precursor to today’s SAFER barriers using tires mounted between sheets of plywood. NASCAR ignored the concept. He developed a revolutionary air-jack system for stock cars, but was again rebuffed by the sanctioning body. He introduced offset chassis, extended-tip spark plugs, roof spoilers, variable-ratio power steering and nitrous oxide to NASCAR competition, and while his cars carried Marvin Panch and Fireball Roberts to victory in the 1961 and 1963 Daytona 500s, he eventually tired of NASCAR’s white-glove scrutiny and walked away from stock cars for good. "All those other guys were cheatin' 10 times worse than us," wrote Yunick in his autobiography. "It was just self-defense."

Yunick shut down the “Best Damn Garage” in 1987, complaining bitterly that there were no good mechanics left for him to hire. And after padlocking the doors for the final time, the legendary mechanic made it clear that he would tolerate no undue sentimentality.
“When Smokey sold the building, the sales contract specified that nothing could be sold as being from the garage,” said Trish Yunick. “And there could not be a Smokey Yunick (or) racing-themed eatery established there.”

Smokey passed away in 2001 at the age of 77. And while his battered cowboy hat is currently on display in the NASCAR Hall Of Fame, many viewed the humble, cinderblock building on North Beach Street as an enduring monument to one of NASCAR’s greatest creative minds.

“The bulk of the buildings -- the truck shop and the race shop where all his magic happened -- were razed in 2005,” recalled Trish Yunick. “But when the developer left that solitary building standing, it made me wary. I went down last night and watched them finish putting the fire out, and now I don't have to worry about his wishes not being honored.

“I have heard from many fans over the years, saying it was sad the `Best Damn Garage in Town’ wasn't being preserved,” she said. “And in some ways, I agree. But I am pleased that we have honored his wishes. I also know that the mark he left on the performance industry won't be erased just because the building is gone.”

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