Ya gotta admire the guys that set the trends rather than just following along. The fearless “free thinkers”. The guys that march to a different tune. The guys that really don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. Smokey Yunick and Duff Burgess were two guys like that. Yunick you may have heard of, Burgess is my best friend Drew’s older brother. Both became legends among their peers. Oh, and both built race cars out of ’68 Camaros.
Yunick survived fifty plus raids piloting a B-17 in World War II. After coming home he set up shop in Daytona Beach Florida where a fledgling racing club called NASCAR was just getting started. His first winner was a Hudson Hornet but it didn’t take long to draw the attention of the big wigs from Chevrolet. When the small block V-8 was introduced in 1955, Yunick was in charge of research and development. His race cars were always competitive. Over the years Yunick became better known for his ingenuity (and creative interpretation of the rulebook) than winning races. Some of the stories about his escapades became part of racing folklore. The most famous of which involves a rigorous inspection wherein the officials required Yunick to remove his racecar’s fuel cell. Certain that the car was somehow carrying more than the legal amount, the tank was confiscated pending further inspection. Outraged, Yunick reportedly jumped into his racer, fired it and drove off, leaving the officials gas tank in hand. Another tale involved a 1966 Chevelle that supposedly was constructed at 7/8 scale. It turns out that Yunick had moved the body back on the chassis to improve the center of gravity and for that reason, it failed to fit NASCAR’s template.
It is known that Yunick was provided with at least three ’67-’68 Camaros from the factory to rebuild as racecars, only one of those cars exists today. That car was stripped to the bare bones and rebuilt on a rotisserie so that Yunick could get at it from any angle. The body panels were all acid dipped to reduce weight. The windshield was laid back and composed of a thinner safety glass. All bolt-on components were either shaved down or rebuilt in lighter versions. Knowing that he couldn’t get away with altering the stock engine location, Yunick instead Z-cut and lowered the chassis around the motor giving the Camaro the lowest profile possible. As sleek and slippery as the finished racer looked, it was just as aerodynamic underneath.
Yunick set off for Bonneville but when he heard that the factory Cougar team was testing at Riverside (CA), he couldn’t resist taking a detour. With slicks mounted all around and Indy car driver Lloyd Ruby at the controls, the Camaro promptly shattered the track record. Yunick loaded back up and continued on to Utah leaving the Mercury boys in an uproar.
At Bonneville the car broke several FIA records but Yunick refused to dumb it down enough to pass road race tech. The Camaro was sold to fellow racer Don Yenko who made the required changes and won races in the car including the Daytona GT race in 1969. The car remained a competitive SCCA club racer (still in Yenko’s stable) for another ten years until it was literally falling apart. A decade after that, historian David Tom found the Camaro and restored it to its former glory. Today the Edelbrock family owns and races the car in vintage events throughout the country.
Looking back, Duff Burgess wondered if he’d had A.D.D. as a kid (“hyperactivity” they called it in my day). I’d known him as long as I’d known Drew and we’d struck up a friendship in kindergarten. I don’t remember anything unusual about Duff’s behavior. In fact in my opinion, Duff was cool. He was upbeat and funny. He was always goin’ but it wasn’t “willy-nilly”, Duff always had a plan. If we were drawing, he might sit down and draw with us. Or he might plop down in front of the upright piano and hammer out a little boogie woogie. Usually though, he was building something. I was a night owl but there were nights when I could hear Duff in the next room toiling away into the wee hours.
Drew and I were H.O. slot car nuts and one morning Duff emerged from his bedroom, his latest creation cupped in his hand. It was a Camaro stripped of all chrome and windows and painted a deep metallic purple. The most impressive feature was its rake- nose to the ground, tail way up. On the rear were mounted the largest sponge slicks I’d ever seen…Ever. Like, wrong scale to be honest but when you’re twelve years old, you don’t argue. Duff casually planted the well lubricated machine on the track and grabbed a pistol gripped controller. What Drew and I witnessed next was unprecedented. Whereas our best racers skittered around the track, chattering like little locomotives, Duff’s Camaro flat git! Effortlessly, almost silently, it glided. It was easily the fastest slot car we’d ever seen. Duff laid down a couple quick ones then put down the controller.
Drew and I were just coming to grips with the reality that we were never going to win a race again…when fate intervened. As he plucked the oily Camaro from the track, it slipped from his fingertips and did a full gainer into a poorly placed bowl of decal water.
Turns out, Drew and I had nothing to worry about because the Camaro never ran again. In all likelihood it was taken back to the bedroom and disassembled and Duff moved on to something else. Why wouldn’t he? He had nothing more to prove. Like Yunick at Riverside, he’d shown us who was fastest without even racing us. That’s how legends roll…