Fire destroys Smokey Yunick's garage
The last remaining portion of legendary race car builder Smokey Yunick's former garage complex was destroyed Monday night as smoke and flames poured from the building onto North Beach Street.
|Smokey Yunick (pictured) and Mario Rossi were two 'Yankees' from New Jersey who went to Daytona and NASCAR and gave the 'rebels' of the south a real run for their money in the 1960's. Both were friends of AR1.com owner Mark Cipolloni's uncles, one of whom worked for Petty Enterprises for awhile|
"It's a shame to see it go," said Carrol Smith, who lives nearby. "That corner will be really empty."
The relic of the innovative mechanic burst into flames about 7 p.m., according to fire officials, and by 8:30 p.m. little of the building remained with the exception of portions of the block walls. Smoke was so thick at times the fire trucks battling the blaze couldn't be seen through the plumes.
"I think this is it," Smith said to a friend sitting with her on the back of a pickup at the Riverside Trailer Park. "There was Smokey's, the Streamline Motel where NASCAR was really born, and their was a garage in Ormond Beach that's just marked with a sign that it used to be there."
Roland Via was mayor of Holly Hill when a portion of nearby Second Street was renamed "Smokey Yunick Way."
"When you see history going up in smoke ... it's very chilling to me," he said. "There's so much history and so much there. That last remaining building, it was the last remaining piece of the puzzle there."
The age of the building and its former use as a garage made the blaze hazardous for firefighters.
"We're not sending any of our guys in there," said Daytona Beach Fire Department spokesman Lt. Larry Stoney. "We're fighting this from outside. It's going to be difficult to figure out the cause of the fire."
Yunick, who died in 2001 at age 77, wasn't shy about his mechanical skills, calling his business the "Best Damn Garage in Town."
There were two sides to the shop. He worked on trucks on one side and race cars on the other.
Inside the gray walls of his sprawling facility, Yunick made several significant gains for the automotive industry. Some of his inventions included variable-ratio power steering and the extended tip spark plug, a design utilized in most automobiles today.
When Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, Yunick's machines made an immediate impact. He built the cars that carried Marvin Panch and Fireball Roberts to Daytona 500 victories in 1961 and '63, respectively.
His innovations at the garage weren't limited to racing. He installed solar panels to the roof in 1974 -- long gone by Monday night's fire.
Yunick, known for his bluntness as well as salty manner of speaking, died in 2001 at age 77. The vacant racing landmark at 957 N. Beach St. was sold in 2004. Terra Mark condo project was proposed at the site of the former garage, but the two towers of 20 and 25 stories were never built.
Firefighters didn't have a chance of saving the building, Stoney said.
"The tin roof prevented them from getting in to fight the fire," he said. "They had to wait until it caved in on itself. There were tires and asbestos in the building. There might have been some oil products left. There wasn't any life inside, so we stayed out."
Yunick was proud of his accomplishments in various fields of automotive endeavors, but insisted he didn't want his old garage to turn into a shrine. Not long after his death, nearly everything was sold off in the ultimate "garage sale" for gear heads.
And, the property itself was sold on the premise that nothing would be done in the future to memorialize the famous former owner of that property.
Monday night, Yunick's daughter, Trish Yunick, seemed pleased that she'll never have to mount a legal fight to maintain that agreement.
"I said my goodbyes a long time ago," she said. "You know, he always said, 'I don't want no damn shrine.' I'm delighted it's not useable now. We didn't want to defend what he strongly wanted."
"Smokey's Garage" was also, at various times, a research-and-development arena for auto manufacturers and parts giants, such as Champion, the spark-plug company. Many of the wings, nooks and crannies that were added to the compound over the years were built by those companies, who beat a path to Yunick's door in an effort to take advantage of an automotive genius whose stature had grown quite large since leaving New Jersey shortly after his World War II bomber days.
Yunick first spotted Daytona Beach during training flights over Florida, and made it his destination when he had a falling-out with a garage owner in Jersey. After relocating to Daytona Beach, he originally worked on neighbors' cars at his mobile home, but eventually bought a Laundromat on Riverside Drive which became "Smokey's Garage."
The garage sprouted into a truck dealership, but more famously into a racing operation. Yunick's list of drivers is a roll call of Hall of Famers, from Herb Thomas to A.J. Foyt to Bobby Unser, but he's most synonymous for his partnership with star NASCAR driver Fireball Roberts.
The building that burned Monday night was the original "Smokey's Garage."
Over the years, the bulk of Yunick's workdays were spent in newer parts of the operation. Much of his work was spent shoulder-to-shoulder with a mechanical engineer named Ralph Johnson.
"We worked 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week," Johnson said Monday night. "We didn't sleep much, but we didn't need much sleep back then.
"It hits again, truly," Johnson said of hearing that the last part of Smokey's Garage is now gone, nearly 10 years after its former owner's death. "I had strong feelings for the man. I hate to see anything go from that place." Daytona beach News Journal