The truth about Smokey Yunick’s 7/8-scale Chevelle

For gearheads, Smokey Yunick is an American folk hero, a current-day Mike Fink or Molly Pitcher. His exploits are the stuff of myth and legend—take his notorious ’66 Chevelle, for example. 

 

Here’s proof that Smokey is a contemporary folk hero: People love to tell Smokey stories, even when they know the stories can’t be true. The tales seem to grow a bit taller with each telling. His hot-air Fiero used water for fuel; he raced a scale-model Chevelle right under NASCAR’s nose.

Check it out. When they’re talking about Smokey, people enjoy telling their own tall tales, adding their own embellishments. And that, folks, is where folklore comes from. If you think we’re knocking this phenomenon, quite the contrary. This is a special thing when you think about it: that a racing personality could attain the status of legend, and nearly in his own lifetime.

To understand the legends, maybe we could start with what we know to be true. In the case of Smokey’s Chevelle, we can start here: There wasn’t just one Chevelle; there were three. And the most notorious of them, the second one, wasn’t built by Smokey. It was constructed by Chevrolet Engineering back in Michigan, then finished by Smokey and a crew of Chevrolet technicians in his shop at 957 N. Beach Street in Daytona Beach.

 

And while the Chevelle(s) was often called a ’67 model, even by Smokey himself, all three cars wore ’66 bodywork. However, many of Smokey’s Chevelle-related capers took place in the 1967 calendar year, perhaps generating some of the confusion. The ’66 and ’67 models are similar to the casual eye.

Of course, here’s the most popular yarn told about Smokey’s Chevelle over the years: It wasn’t a real Chevelle at all. No, it was a perfect 7:8 scale miniature Smokey fabricated in a cunning scheme to cheat the wind and the NASCAR rulebook.  It’s a great story, one of the top bench racing tales of all time. But unfortunately, it doesn’t pass a basic smell test.

In truth, if Smokey’s Chevelle were a true 7/8 size, it would be almost 10 inches narrower and more than two feet shorter than a full-scale version. The wheelbase would be only 100 inches; the track 50 inches. The car would be Vega-sized, not Chevelle-sized, and the scam would be obvious in a rainstorm at midnight.

There’s a similar but slightly less far-fetched version that says the Chevelle was a 15/16 model. Nice try, but such a mini-Chevelle would still be blatantly bogus, with its full-size wheels, lamps, and accoutrements sticking out on the shrunken body like swollen thumbs. So what was the real deal on Smokey’s Chevelle? Let’s do a straight comparison with the production version, line by line, inch by inch.

 

Well, look at that. DIsappointingly stock, isn’t it? It’s clearly not a scale model in any sense, and compared to the NASCAR stockers of later years, the car is remarkably unmodified. It’s just as Smokey insisted all along: The sheet metal was stock. The serious aero mods were under the car, where he attempted to smooth the floor pan—with debatable results.

However, there is one interesting alteration visible in the photo above: The body has been moved back on the chassis approximately two inches, improving weight distribution and moving the aerodynamic center of pressure a bit to the rear. This was one of the modifications that caused NASCAR to call shenanigans, as shown below.

 

Smokey himself wrote a tell-all on the Chevelle in the October 1987 issue of Circle Track magazine, where he was a regular columnist. In this piece, he says the scale-model tales began when NASCAR officials attempted to construct a Chevelle body template, but used the wrecked-and-rebuilt racer of Bobby Johns as the pattern. The template wouldn’t fit the Yunick Chevelle (or any Chevelle they tried it on, apparently) and the rumor mill went to max revs.

We’re barely scratching the surface here. Along with the Circle Track story, two more good sources of info on the Chevelle are Yunick’s must-read autobiography,  Best Damn Garage in Townand Chevrolet = Racing? Fourteen Years of Raucous Silence! 1957-1970, by former Chevrolet engineer Paul Van Valkenburgh. The latter tells the story from the Chevrolet R&D point of view, while Smokey’s memoir represents his unique take on the matter, naturally. This is one of those stories where the truth is better than fiction.

More Smokey Yunick stories at Mac’s Motor City Garage:

Another look at Smokey Yunick’s Capsule Car 

Another look at Smokey Yunick’s Reverse Torque Special 

Bookshelf: Best Damn Garage in Town by Smokey Yunick 

 

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17 thoughts on “The truth about Smokey Yunick’s 7/8-scale Chevelle

  1. To my eye (lining up body parts using the vertical lines), it looks like the racecar body is moved *forward* a couple of inches compared to the showroom car, not backwards – at least in regards to everything above the window line? What am I missing?

    • The window trim is misleading due to slightly different camera angles. The two bodies are aligned – front bumper to front bumper and rear bumper to rear bumper. Now look where the rear wheel is on the race car.

  2. Tightening the gaps on a typical 60′s car will get nearly that much, standards were much more lax back then. As Bud Moore knew, they didn’t have any lofting templates, so the Chevelle may have been a touch narrower than stock. There were some interesting mods on the body, including a very subtle ducktail on the roof of either the #2 or #3 car to counteract the drag of the tunnel-back flying buttress rear window.

  3. The wheelbase is marginally shorter, though negative caster on the l/f may account for that. The body seems to be moved forward and all the gaps are closed up making the car a good inch shorter. The front bar as most were is tucked right into the body. Was it about an inch narrower too. I suspect it was. Though again GM built the base car not Smokey. That Plymouth in the top shot probably had the front bar pulled back too. BUT they all look like cars unlike the modern slab sides characatures. Where I see little similarity with the Chev and its VF Commodore base.

  4. I don’t understand this obsession with panel gaps. In side elevation there are only two that can affect the length of the car, at the leading and trailing edges of the door. The rest of the panel fits are zero. In front view, the left and right sides of the hood, and in rear view, the left and right sides of the decklid. Realistically, the gap can only be from 1/4″ to 1/2″ or thereabouts, so you are talking about 1/2″ total in any direction, tops. It doesn’t matter. And it certainly doesn’t support the scale model stories.

  5. It appears that with the nose of the car stationary, the greenhouse AND the wheelbase were both moved forward. Note where the axle centerlines between the 2 cars and where the door handles and side windows are…

  6. I am so confused by the gridded image, as other comenters seem to be.
    Would it be possible to produce an image where there is a fixed reference point, I suggest the front axle hub point ?

  7. The car in the photo is the ’66 chevelle driven by Mario Andretti which was deemed legal by NASCAR. The ’67 Chevelle was the car which was ruled illegal by NASCAR and was never driven on a track. Smokey was so pissed he drove the car back to his shop from Daytona.

    • That’s not Mario’s version of the car from the ’66 Daytona 500, the pictured car is the ’66 Chevelle driven by Curtis Turner in the 1967 Daytona 500. The car you’re referring to that was never driven on a track was Smokey’s third ’66 Chevelle, presented for tech at the 1968 Daytona 500.

  8. I remember that 1987 Circle Track article. In fact, I still have that edition in a box in my office. Smokey said there was one body mod that NASCAR never caught on to. He sectioned the front bumper, made it about an inch or so taller, and re-chromed it. With the nose of the car raked down, and the bumper hanging down an extra inch or so, it acted like a front spoiler when NASCAR did not yet allow chin spoilers. You can see it in the picture above. Compare the race car bumper to the street car bumper. You can see it’s a little taller, and tucked right up against the body.

  9. I read these comments and they are so naive. I had personal conversations about the Chevelles with Smokey. By the way in case you think he was just a gimmick racer check out the 1961, 1962, 1963 fastest quAlifiers and race winners. The 1966 Daytona Chevelles driven by Andretti was not fast or even competitive but was in its infancy of development. Those developments came from a combination of the 1965 Impala and the updated 427 porcupine engine from 1963( see Raucous Silence referenced in earlier comments). The author never liked Smokey and will be happy to tell you so. The #2 Chevelles raced at Daytona and sat of the pole being the first car to qualify at over 180 MPH. This was a 408 C I engine not a 427 because Smokey shortened the stroke for more RPMs on Daytonas back straight. This car was destroyed by Curtis Turner at Atlanta layer in the year. In 1968 Smokey showed up at Daytona with the now infamous #3 66 Chevelle built by GM. Any arguments?

  10. you are all missing the point just like nascar did back then! watch americarna where they buy smokeys truck they play an interview with smokey the car was not a 7/8 scale car and did not have to be one it is a combination of small things! smokey said there was a fin on the bakc glass and “nascar thought it hurt more than it helped so they let it go but it is being used on all the cars today” the car did not have a one piece panhard bar it had a bearing in the middle the coil springs were behind the rearend it was a front steer car ( all nascars are front steer today) the exaust was pushed up and the frame was cut to allow that (look at the letter above) these things along with the fact that the roof is slightly lower the windsheild is raked back the track is slightly narrower the shape and posion of the rear pilars (just ask the 48 team about daytona and how they had to chang them) all these things add up you don’t need a 7/8 car when you are going over 150mph any little bit helps it is the combantion of all these things together that make the difference smokey also stated that gm r&d built the chasis for that car with the changes to the suspension it is the old slight of hand trick while they look here we change there and that is how he did it!

    • We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the three Chevelles were all in different stages of development . This is especially true of the MK IV 427 engines designed by Bill Howell at GM. Nobody was better at getting the most HP out of an engine than Smokey but Bills Porcupine Hesds gave Smokey a real edge on the competition. Look at the qualifying speeds at Daytona in 1963 and you can readily see that the Mystery Engine MK II 427 was a big step ahead of the competition. The MK IV was faster and stronger than the MK II so the little things in the Chevelles may not have been all that significant. In fact the most controversial 3rd Chevelle never raced in NASCR at all so it was all potential and speculation. The sad part was all the engine development done by Smokey and GM at Bonneville that off season to improve the reliability went for naught because the 3rd Chevelle was modified too far outside the rules. Smokey would disagree of course. That we will never know. Faced with Boycotts and declining attemdance NASCAR had let the rules slide to improve attendance during 1966 and 1967 . The clampdown in 1968 hit Smokey hard and was a shame really the way it unfolded. Junior Johnson got the same treatment earlier with his Yellow Banana Galaxie bringing in the Dreaded Template. Today the whole “Stock Car ” concept by NASCAR is a complete joke but the formula for bringing in the fans by having certain cars perform better than others hasn’t changed. NASCAR still gives the Fans a Big Time Wrestling Show.

    • My Dad chartered a plane in the Bristol area and took my brother (Jr High schoolers) and I to the 1967 Daytona 500. I was a Smokey fan and got to see him and Curtis Turner and the 66 Chevelle up close after the Race in the pits which was a common practice custom in those days. I have great memories and an 8mm film I took on the trip. Those were the Days back in the Day!

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