Countdown to Daytona: The fascinating history of Smokey Yunick’s No. 13

We’re now less than two weeks away from the 59th running of the Daytona 500, which takes place Feb. 26  at 2 p.m. ET on FOX.

And with the Daytona 500 a mere 13 days away, we look back on the only time a car carrying the No. 13 won a NASCAR Premier Series race.

The year was 1963 and the car was a black-and-gold Chevrolet owned by the legendary Smokey Yunick, the proprietor of “The Best Damn Garage in Town” in Daytona Beach, and one of the most brilliant mechanical minds in NASCAR history.

In addition to his skills under the hood, Yunick was a decorated World War II bomber pilot, one of the most colorful characters in the sport and a constant thorn in the side of NASCAR founder Big Bill France.

At Daytona International Speedway in February 1963, Johnny Rutherford won one of the two 100-mile Daytona 500 qualifying races in the Yunick-owned No. 13 1963 Chevrolet Impala.

Never before or since has the No. 13 visited Victory Lane in a NASCAR Cup Series race.

But that doesn’t mean the No. 13 quit making headlines. Far from it.

Four years later at Daytona, another Yunick No. 13 Chevy turned up at Daytona and turned the stock-car world completely on its ear.

By 1967, Chevrolet had long since pulled entirely out of the sport, but Yunick entered an unsponsored Chevy Chevelle in the Daytona 500. It was driven by the legendary Curtis Turner, who promptly put the car on the pole.

“This was at the absolute height of the Ford-Chrysler factory wars, also (a tire war) between Firestone and Goodyear,” said former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler. “Smokey shows up with a ’67 Chevrolet Chevelle with Curtis Turner driving. It was two renegades coming into Daytona, neither could care less about what anybody thought of them. All of a sudden, the first time I saw the car, I thought the car was awful small. The Chevelle, an intermediate-sized production car, was smaller than the full-size Ford Galaxie and the Dodges and Plymouths that were running. But Smokey’s car didn’t look like it was as big as the Chevelles I’d seen.

“In practice, it didn’t really do much. Here comes pole day, and he wins the pole. This would be like a Peugeot coming in and winning the pole today in a stock-car race. It was such a shock. It was so embarrassing to the factory teams. I have never seen longer faces in my life at a racetrack, other than when somebody’s killed, than at Daytona that day. NASCAR scrambled all around trying to find out who did what to whom, how did that damn thing get on the pole?”

The answer was simple: It was about 7/8 the size of a production car.

“What did Smokey do with the car? He just made a small Chevelle out of it and took advantage of something nobody paid much attention to in those days, and that was aerodynamics,” said Wheeler. “It was less to move through the air. He had the fabulous ability to get more horsepower out of an engine than anybody else on Earth could. So the combination was earth shattering. It would be interesting to get that car and find out what size it really was.”

Alas, Turner retired with engine failure after 143 laps, finishing the Daytona 500 25th.

But the mystery of that ’67 Chevelle only added to Yunick’s legend.