I Edited Smokey Yunick Each Month…And Lived To Write About It

Last time I gave you a little bit about my background. It included a two-time stretch as editor of Circle Track & Racing Technology and Stock Car Racing magazines. I was recruited as editor of CT at the SEMA Show in the early ‘90s, and naïve youth that I was then (all of 38).  Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

Before CT, my first tech content editing and writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s was in the relatively slow-paced, but exacting world of computer science, and laser optics for weaponry: academic writing, research and development papers, scientific publications, government scientific proposals. I had to defend my editorial judgments to scientists with Ph.D.s, committees of them or their peers, or icy government representatives who controlled funding looking for any slip-up from a contractor. I was able to withstand withering and well-reasoned scientific editorial heat, sometimes with real money on the line, but nothing had prepared me for the writing of iconic, colorful, and Chevy racing guru Henry “Smokey” Yunick. What could have?

Smokey had been contributing for decades to Hot Rod and CT as a beloved writer of features, tech articles, and a monthly racing tech Q&A column (for CT). He was very used to having his writing published with a sort of editorial hand waving as it went through the production cycle to publication. I didn’t know this of course, although CT Publisher at that

time C.J. Baker, gave me a heads-up that Smokey’s material was printed pretty much verbatim in CT and that I’d do well to respect this precedence. Just check the spelling, and don’t screw up the tech content. Seemed simple enough.

The first snag occurred when I got his manuscript for the next Q&A racing segment of CT. It was hand-written in ink – on yellow legal pad notebook paper: page after page of it. Pretty much without punctuation, or it was optional – I think he put a period in every so often just to throw me off. He might start a sentence with a capital letter, or not. His penmanship wasn’t stellar; hieroglyphics were more easily translated. I sometimes felt I could decipher more of what he was writing by running my fingers across the text and hoping that I would pick up the meaning -- like a blind person reading Braille. He had original ideas about paragraphs – he wrote like he wanted his cars to go – put the pen to the paper and lift only when you had to; that is, there usually weren’t any.

He wrote sentences in a sort of telegraphic tech shorthand – he would sometimes lightly explain a basic concept (that Smokey figured his readers already knew or he had explained many times) or then bear down into the intensity of a tech or engineering concept with full force. Throw in his “folksy” writing style and his no BS demeanor, which came fully across the page unfiltered, and you had a great contributor – if I could lightly tune it into some sort of English or derivation thereof.

Smokey was from the school of learning by doing, and he had a Ph.D. in doing, that’s for sure. I don’t think there was a machining or mechanical or fabricating skill he didn’t know how to do – or explain in his own matchless way. Plus, his mind was always thinking over the engineering horizon -- he was on the leading edge of using aerodynamics to improve a stock car’s speed. He was explaining and championing his version of “soft wall” safety barriers (using old tires) long before they got their later press and installation. He had seen too many of his friends die racing, or do “sheet time.” It was belly-laughing fate that matched my academic editorial writing/editing background (“book learnin’”) up with his learning by doing background (trial and error experimentation). This was an old battle with him, and one he usually won, sometimes by out-lasting the opposition, but usually by getting in the win column.

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