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All-American Cheating Game

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.



Fabled for his years running moonshine, Junior Johnson spent a year in prison in 1956 after he was caught hauling wood to his father’s corn liquor still. President Reagan pardoned him in 1985. (click for larger version)


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.



Richard Petty called his 200th (and final) win on July 4, 1984, at Daytona Speedway his most memorable because President Ronald Reagan was in attendance. In 1996, when Petty was running for North Carolina secretary of state, he was charged with off-track shenanigans in a hit-and-run incident after he bumped another driver (whom Petty decided was driving too slow) from behind several times before passing him on a Carolina two-lane highway. All charges were dropped. (click for larger version)


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.

Racing in Alabama — Talladega Celebrates 35 Years of NASCAR

Racing in Alabama

Talladega Celebrates 35 Years of NASCAR

September 23, 2004

October sports talk in Alabama is traditionally geared toward football. But this year a pair of high-profile automobile races promises action that’s three times faster than a Brodie Croyle bullet pass, and light-years quicker than a Cadillac Williams touchdown run. Talladega Super Speedway celebrates its 35th anniversary the weekend of October 3 with the EA Sports 500. NASCAR has gone through numerous changes since an unknown named Richard Brickhouse drove to victory in the first race at Talladega in 1969. (Brickhouse’s golden opportunity came about only because the usual contingent of NASCAR stars, led by driver-turned-organizer Richard Petty, boycotted the race due to safety concerns at the world’s fastest speedway.) In place now is a new points system that places the top 10 drivers a mere five points apart as they begin what is billed as the Chase for the Nextel Cup, a playoff of sorts designed to make the final 10 races compete head to head with Sunday afternoon NFL football.

Gone is longtime series sponsor Winston due to the straightjacket imposed by the government on tobacco advertising. NASCAR’s top series now races under the title Nextel Cup, but apparently this current version of “legislating morality” doesn’t stop there. Network television’s old-fashioned squeamishness and double standard about advertising liquor has made Crown Royal whiskey the forbidden fruit of the NASCAR circuit. What Crown Royal does sponsor is the International Race of Champions Series, which features NASCAR drivers competing against Indy car and sports car stars in identically prepared racecars, each emblazoned with the purple and gold Crown Royal logo, at NASCAR tracks such as Talladega Super Speedway.

150,000 NASCAR fans can’t be wrong. (click for larger version)

But booze is booze. Budweiser sponsors Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The first thing Earnhardt often does on network TV when celebrating a win is to chug a Bud tall boy before telling the interviewer that he’s going back home “to drink some more Bud.” Coors Light sponsors Sterling Marlin. Miller Lite sponsors the car of Rusty Wallace. Wallace has announced that the 2005 season will be his last, and what has he titled his farewell tour? “Rusty’s Last Call.” Bobby Allison used to drive a gold Miller car that looked like a can of Miller zooming around the track. The NASCAR series that often runs on Saturdays in tandem with Sunday Nextel Cup races is sponsored by Busch beer. Rednecks running moonshine whiskey on the back roads of North Carolina and Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s were grooming themselves to become some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever. (Check out Tom Wolfe’s enticing 1965 Esquire essay about stock car legend Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”)

According to AutoWeek magazine, NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter has this explanation: “Yes, TV plays a big part in it. Over the years it [NASCAR] has taken the stance that it’s not in their best interest to advertise liquor and spirits. But climates change, and it’s not like we said we’d never consider it. Network TV doesn’t accept it, and they account for a big portion of sports revenue. It makes sense for us to track that. If it’s acceptable to them tomorrow or later on, that would put a different light on it.” Never mind that Jim Beam currently sponsors an Indy Racing League [IRL] car, or that the IRL runs many of its races at tracks affiliated with NASCAR, and it telecasts races live on ABC.

Some things never change, however, such as that strange twist of human evolution known as the drunken NASCAR fan. Last spring at Talladega, Jeff Gordon, the most despised driver, beat the most popular, Earnhardt Jr. But most disconcerting to the inebriated was that a crash that occurred with a handful of laps remaining forced the race to finish under a caution flag, a situation in which drivers must reduce their speed and maintain their positions, except for pit stops. Feeling deprived of the possibility of a last-minute race to the finish line, hundreds of intoxicated louts hurled Budweiser cans at Gordon’s car as he slowly took the checkered flag. Several weeks later, a race at Pocono Raceway also ended under caution, prompting one irate drunk to toss a cooler at the flagman waving the checkered flag.

Some drivers don’t change, either. Tony Stewart punched rookie Brian Vickers after a race at Sonoma, California. Stewart has a history that includes shoving matches in the garage area after races, throwing things at competitors on the track during cautions, trying to pull racers from their cars, and once knocking a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand. After Stewart wrecked rookie Kasey Kahne at Chicagoland Speedway this year, Khane’s entire crew charged down pit road during the race to confront Stewart’s crew in a free-for-all. “He definitely needs to get suspended, and he should have his ass beat,” assessed Khane’s car owner Ray Evernham. “That’s the problem with him. Nobody has ever really grabbed him and given him a good beating.” Evernham then offered to administer the whipping himself. Tony Stewart’s legendary temper is refreshing, however, in light of NASCAR’s perpetual attempts to clean up the sport’s image. Ironically, Stewart has often said that Talladega race fans are the worst-behaved on the NASCAR circuit.

Porsche 250 at Barber Track

Birmingham’s lush new Barber Motorsports Park will host the Rolex Grand American Sports Car Series on October 10. The Porsche 250 won’t pack in 150,000 like Talladega does (and George Barber is probably fine with that), but staging this year’s race in October instead of May is expected to attract more than last year’s weekend attendance of 25,000. And while it won’t make network TV, it will be broadcast around the world on the international SPEED Channel.

The racing entry field is expected to be larger this year, as the Rolex Series has more than doubled the number of Daytona Prototypes to almost 20. Sports-cars typically race several classifications on the track at the same time. This year the Grand American Series will have three classes—the futuristic Daytona Prototype (the fastest), GT, and GTS. It’s basically three races held at once, and the added excitement is that they get in each other’s way from time to time.

Several high-profile names have entered the Grand American fray this season. NASCAR and Indy Racing League team owner Chip Ganassi, who will have his drivers Sterling Marlin, Casey Mears, and Jamie McMurray racing at Talladega, has a Daytona Prototype with former Indianapolis 500 stars Max Papis and Scott Pruett sharing driving chores. (Sports-car racing typically has a driver change during a race.) Hurley Haywood will compete with co-driver J.C. France (son of NASCAR magnate Jim France) in the renowned Number 59 Brumos Porsche, winner of last year’s race at the Barber track. Haywood is world-famous for his three wins at Le Mans and his five victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona. The addition this year of NASCAR stars Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kyle Petty to Grand American races when there isn’t a NASCAR event has increased the racing league’s profile in 2004. If that doesn’t impress you, movie star Paul Newman drove with Petty at the Rolex Series opener, the 24 Hours of Daytona. Appropriately, Newman’s car number matched his age—79.

For those NASCAR fans who have a tendency to snub sports-car racing, it’s more compelling than you realize. Watching two or three Daytona Prototypes banging one another as they compete for one of the Barber track’s numerous tight corners is a thrill you’ll never experience at Talladega. And if the weather’s bad, just bring an umbrella. Unlike the NASCAR boys, the sports-car men aren’t afraid to race in the rain. &

The Ride of a Lifetime

The view from inside. (click for larger version)

Seven years ago I took my turn behind the wheel of a Camaro racecar at Birmingham International Raceway [BIR]. I had been working on a story about drivers at BIR, and one thoughtful gentleman named Sluggo asked if it would help to take his car for a spin around the half-mile oval racetrack, the third-oldest track in America behind Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I arrived at the track on a July Sunday afternoon, slipped into a fireproof driving uniform, strapped on a helmet, and did 25 or so laps. It was fun, but I pretty much shamed myself with my lame speed. As I brought the car around for one final lap, terror struck when I applied the brake pedal to come into the pits. There were absolutely no brakes. I circled one more time, as it takes a while to roll to a stop when you’re going 90 mph.

Laughing not only at my timidness to “put some speed on that thing,” but also that the brakes had given out, Sluggo told me I wouldn’t achieve the full experience until I had been out on the track with other cars. He wasn’t kidding. Toward summer’s end, I arrived at the track one Friday night for that evening’s races. Sluggo turned the Camaro over to me during the 7 p.m. practice session for street stock cars, the classification in which he raced. I would be more or less “mixing it up” with a dozen other cars at race speeds. Having already thrown up once from fear when I heard the engines being revved at deafening levels after arriving at the track, I was literally shaking when I climbed into the racecar. The worried expression on Sluggo’s face suggested that he was beginning to have second thoughts about putting me out there with others. Nevertheless, he reassured me that the brake failure a couple weeks earlier had been rectified. I’ll never forget his final instructions before I drove off: “And if you wreck it, buddy, don’t worry about it . . . ’cause we’re just out here to have fun.” With those words of encouragement, I attempted to merge onto the track as half a dozen cars careened out of turn four at more than 100 mph.

Somehow I put the car into the middle of race traffic, and away I went. I held on for dear life as cars passed me on the right and left, often at the same time. There were no side mirrors on the Camaro, just a wide rearview mirror above the dash. The full-face helmet and painfully tight seat harnesses that strapped me to the seat with no room to move allowed for near zero peripheral vision. I’ll never forget the sight of several cars in my rearview mirror. Ahead, a car had slowed, which meant that I would have to pass someone as three cars were coming around me. I sweated bullets and somehow stayed out for 10 noble laps. Poking through the corners, I would slam the accelerator all the way to the floor as I exited the second and fourth turns, which meant I was blasting down the straightaways [approximately 120 yards in length] at a top speed of maybe 90 mph before having to turn left again. On the tenth lap, the car’s rear went out of control in a fishtail-style maneuver as I tried to pick up my speed between turns three and four. I gripped the steering wheel firmly to brace myself for impact, either with a wall or another car. I knew from many years of watching races at BIR that I’d probably have to fight whomever I wrecked . . . if I was still conscious. But, amazingly, the car straightened out as I lifted off the accelerator. (The pros know you often step on the gas to straighten out a sliding car, but I didn’t have that much courage.) In fact, I barely touched the accelerator again as I crept down the back stretch of the track with my tail safely tucked between my legs. The brakes worked this time. For the rest of my life, whenever I watch Sunday afternoon racing and the telecast shows the driver’s view from the in-car camera, I’m able to say that I’ve been there . . . sorta.

Let the Good Times Roll

Let the Good Times Roll



The blur of 43 screaming stock cars storming around the Talladega Superspeedway returns for Alabama’s annual 200-mph spring rites with the Aaron’s Rent 499 on Sunday, April 25. The 2004 NASCAR season is the first under new race series sponsor Nextel after longtime patron Winston threw in the towel, largely due to limits on tobacco advertising.

For the uninitiated, Talladega Superspeedway is a sight to behold. The massive stretch of acreage is the equivalent of 10 Legion Fields hosts nearly 150,000 fans twice yearly. Though it has lost some of its redneck luster over the years, the hayseeds still flock to the speedway like ants to honeybun crumbs. The influx of Yankees to NASCAR racing, however, has brought a new set of manners to the rough-knuckled sport that was born and bred in Dixie: Confederate flags have been replaced by banners proclaiming favorite drivers, and women no longer flash their breasts (thanks, Yankees).

But the race cars are still fast, the crashes are frequent, and, thanks to the tight restrictions placed on coolers brought into the speedway following the September 11 attacks, ice-cold beer is now sold for a shamelessly exploitative price at the concession stands on Sunday. Call 877-462-3342 or visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com for more information. &

Alabama Getaway

Alabama Getaway

The Alabama 500 will be raced at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, October 21.

A blur of colors roars past at 200 mph with the deafening noise from 43 dueling race cars that are separated by mere inches. Suddenly, two of the cars touch, and spectators leap from their seats more in fear of flying debris than for a better vantage point. The squeal of skidding tires and odor of burnt rubber accompany an abrupt crash that leaves wreckage scattered across the asphalt.

No sport is more breathtaking than automobile racing, and with 2.6 miles of raceway action and steep 33-degree banked turn, no track is faster than the Talladega Superspeedway. The Alabama 500, held each October in Talladega is one of NASCAR’s premier events.

It’s been a sad, though no less exciting, year for Winston Cup stock car racing. The sport’s most colorful champion, Dale Earnhardt, was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, the first race of the year. In search of victory at any cost, Earnhardt became legendary for his controversial driving maneuvers.

In recent weeks, renegade driving tactics have ignited a weekly feud between veterans Ricky Rudd (who drives the late Davey Allison’s black and orange Number 28 Texaco Ford) and Rusty Wallace. Each weekend, one driver pays the other back for destruction inflicted the week before. The conflict escalated two weeks ago in Dover, Delaware, at the track known as the Monster Mile. Rudd clipped Wallace while putting him a lap down. Several laps later, Wallace blatantly smashed the rear of Rudd’s car, spinning Rudd out and costing him the race. After the race, Rudd confronted Wallace, grabbing him by the collar as the two exchanged threats in the garage. All eyes will be on the quarreling pair when the green flag drops at Talladega on Sunday, October 21.

Alabama 500 racing action begins Thursday, October 18, and Friday, October 19, with qualifying for the weekend’s races. Saturday will feature the ARCA Food World 300, and Sunday, October 21, features the big one, the Alabama 500. Call 256-362-RACE for details.