All-American Cheating Game
By Ed Reynolds
“It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught” has been the unofficial motto of drivers and mechanics on the NASCAR circuit for more than 50 years. A related phrase, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t racing,” hearkens to the origin of a sport sired by drivers who developed their skills hauling moonshine (and eluding law enforcement) through the backroads of the Appalachian Mountains at 100-plus miles per hour. Cheating in a race car is as All-American as major leaguers hitting home runs with corked bats. Year after year fines are imposed, but cheaters simply say that others are infinitely more guilty of flaunting the rules. After paying slap-on-the-wrist fines, drivers whine all the way to the bank while plotting their next devious move.
At one time stock car racing may have been the sport of rednecks, but it was a bunch of innovative, scientific rednecks who skillfully souped up automobile engines allowing them to achieve the break-neck speeds for which NASCAR is revered. “Being creative is my job. If I’m going to get fined and penalized for being creative, then that’s just part of it,” said driver Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, just after his first major penalty three years ago. The following year, Knaus was busted for rigging a refrigerant near the fuel line (cooled fuel provides greater combustion— and therefore more speed—than heated fuel). In 1986, NASCAR inspectors found a metal box containing copper coils and dry ice in Sterling Marlin’s car; the device was chilling and shaking the car’s gasoline to create a high-octane martini.
This year, NASCAR suspended Knaus for two races when it was discovered after the March 13 race in Las Vegas that the winning car Jimmie Johnson drove was lower than NASCAR’s minimum height requirement. The suspension was later lifted after the car’s owner, Rick Hendrick, complained that the increased height was a result of mechanical issues during the race, yet not an intentional effort to break the law. However, Hendrick’s questionable tactics may extend beyond the racetrack. In 1997, he was found guilty of mail fraud, after which he was pardoned by Bill Clinton during the president’s forgiveness spree in 2000. This after Hendrick’s pal Hugh McColl, CEO of Bank America, donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation before writing a letter to the president on Hendrick’s behalf. Though the two-race suspension of crew chief Knaus was dropped, the $35,000 fine and loss of points for driver Johnson remain.
In 1975, when Richard Petty was in desperate need of a caution flag (in order to lure the other drivers into a pit stop, thus allowing Petty to catch back up to the field), racer Buddy Arrington suddenly stopped his car on the high side of the track. The car was out of the way, so NASCAR kept the green flag out. Arrington then drove his car to a busier section of the racetrack and stopped. The caution flag promptly came out. Petty got his lap back and eventually won the race. Earlier that week, Petty had sold a car transporter (a complete portable mechanic shop that hauls the car from race to race) to Arrington, who was an independent driver operating on a shoestring budget. Speculation was that it was one heck of a sweetheart deal, and somebody still owed someone something.
Petty is reported to have once said that teams must learn to “cheat neat,” although there was nothing neat about Petty’s brother Maurice installing an oversized engine in the blue number 43 at Charlotte in 1983. At the time, the $35,000 fine was the highest ever levied. Petty, NASCAR’s poster boy, was embarrassed and fumed that he was only the driver; his brother Maurice was responsible for the engines.
Though some car owners say that taking away wins following rules violations is necessary to end cheating, NASCAR reportedly feels that this would only confuse and infuriate fans to learn that the winner on Sunday is not the declared victor on Monday. According to Vice President Jim Hunter, NASCAR remains committed to “the integrity of the sport.” The last time NASCAR took a victory away for rules violations was when it stripped Fireball Roberts of his Daytona win in 1955. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun out deliberately at a 2004 NASCAR race in Bristol to put the race under caution because he was about to lose a lap. He got busted when he bragged over the two-way radio to his crew that he did it on purpose. NASCAR was eavesdropping and fined him $10,000. Earnhardt later admitted that boasting on the radio was rather stupid. “What I did wasn’t necessarily the best plan. My mom even admitted that,” he said after the race.
During practice for the 1982 Daytona 500, the rear bumper on Bobby Allison’s Buick Regal had been inadvertently functioning as a parachute that trapped air, slowing the Buick considerably. Nothing could be done about the bumper because it was a “stock” piece of equipment, just like those on Regals purchased from showroom floors. Early in the race, Allison got tapped from behind and the rear bumper came off cleanly. Allison was then able to increase his speed and won the race. Afterwards, as rivals cried foul, he admitted that the bumper had been attached with a flimsy wire welder rather than with the usual heavy-duty welding machine.
Gary Nelson, currently the chief cop for NASCAR’s policing of cheating, was often praised for his skillful skirting of the rules when he served as Darrell Waltrip’s crew chief. Nelson used to flaunt the minimum weight requirement by rigging Waltrip’s car to unload 80 pounds of shotgun pellets onto the track as the pace laps were being run before the race. “If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot. If you do it and you don’t get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope,” was Waltrip’s philosophy.
The legendary Junior Johnson (immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1960s Esquire piece “The Last American Hero”) attached 100-pound bands of lead inside each wheel. On the first pit stop, he’d replace the wheels with conventional ones and suddenly be 400 pounds lighter. NASCAR soon learned to weigh cars after the race as well as before.
The reason NASCAR has such a thick rulebook is due primarily to the greatest racing mechanic ever, the late Smokey Yunick. Yunick, in turn, gave stock car racing a lot of rules to write. The mechanic claimed that he never really cheated, because anything not specifically in the rulebook was legitimate in his eyes. NASCAR rules stipulated that a gas tank hold no more than 22 gallons, but said nothing about the size of the fuel line. So Yunick installed a gas line that was two inches in diameter (everyone else ran a half-inch diameter line) and was also much longer than those of competitors. The line held an extra five gallons of gas. NASCAR limited the size of fuel lines the next year and began watching Yunick like a hawk.
At the 1967 Daytona 500, Yunick’s Chevy was actually a slightly smaller version of opposing Chevelles, making the car narrower and lower to the ground so it could slice through the air faster. The next year NASCAR mandated body templates so that stock cars remained identical in size to the production models. “As far as cheating goes, they’ll never stop it,” said Yunick. “There will always be some guy that’ll think of something that’s a little smarter than the average cat, but the reason there ain’t any more of it on a big scale is that the only way it can be done successfully is if only one person knows about it.”
In the greatest cheating story ever told (which Yunick always denied), NASCAR confiscated the fuel tank from Yunick’s black and gold number 13 Chevelle one year at Daytona. As he sat in the inspection area, inspectors chided him for nine rules violations. With supposedly no gas in the car, Yunick suddenly cranked it up and drove off, hollering over his shoulder, “Make that ten!” &
Aaron’s Dream weekend will be held at Talladega Superspeedway April 30 through May 1, featuring the Aaron’s 499 Nextel Cup Series race on Sunday. For more information, call 877-462-3342 or visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com.