That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (flag) Past, One Story at a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday July 24, 2006
At Pocono this week, the No. 61 car of Chad Chaffin squeaked into the Pennsylvania 500 as one of the final “go or go home” cars to make the race. That is, until it went into post-qualifying inspection. The verdict from the NASCAR officials over there? The car was too low. As a result, NASCAR did what they have done for every qualifying infraction the last two seasons: disallow the qualifying time. Since the No. 61 was not locked into the field via owner points, the team was sent packing, paying a heavy price for bending the rules. The tough policy is part of NASCAR’s new crackdown on what they call “cheating,” or, as the team involved might call it, “working the grey area.”
However you’d like to describe it, while bending NASCAR's rules may (or may not; we'll get into that later) be more sophisticated than in the past, it certainly isn't more widespread. It's not that more teams are breaking the rules, it's that more of them are getting caught, thanks to better methods the sport has developed to catch them. As far as punishments go, despite the critics history shows NASCAR has always been tough on rule breakers – in the first ever race in what is now the Nextel Cup Series, they disqualified the winner because the car wasn't legal.
But catching the cheaters as the sport began in the 1940s and 50s was hardly a piece of cake. Stock car in the early days meant stock. Rollbars were added for safety reasons, and the lights on the cars were covered…but that was about it. NASCAR inspected the cars, but the teams were usually one step ahead of the inspectors, who often simply did not have the technical means to stop them. Even when they did, sometimes they got duped by smarter organizations. Teams took full advantage of the sanctioning body's limitations, and some of them got away with a lot.
Take Lee Petty, for instance. Known as a take-no-prisoners racer who let nothing stand between him and the checkered flag, Petty was not above bending the rules. At one track, Petty rolled his car to the inspection line with both an illegal carburetor and rear end. As soon as the car rolled to a stop, one of Petty's mechanics – son Richard, in fact – lifted the hood and started tinkering inside. When the official questioned Petty, he motioned to the mechanic under the hood. “He's draining the radiator (a common postrace practice),” the elder Petty explained. “But he's new. He's never done it before.” Whether it's more amazing that Petty came up with the story or the inspector bought it, I don't know. But he did, taking his time on another issue and returning later – after Richard and Lee had changed the carburetor AND the rear of the car. To add insult to injury, the illegal parts were “hidden” in the trunk…so the official passed the car without so much as a second thought.
Another of NASCAR's early legends, Smokey Yunick, was the reason the sport now has body templates for its racecars. Always an innovator, Yunick built a car for Cotton Owens to drive at Daytona that was so much faster than the rest of the field NASCAR nabbed it after practice for a lookover. First, the engine cleared; then, the weight and setup. Nothing appeared out of place, and NASCAR was baffled. In one sense, they were right; nothing was. What HAD been done only became apparent when a suspicious official commandeered a showroom version of the racecar. When he did, he found the real racecar was, in fact, a perfectly scaled 7/8 replica of the stock version. On a superspeedway, that presented a significant aerodynamic advantage over bigger cars.
From then on, a car's measurements were compared to the showroom version, eventually using body templates like we see today. In fact, the measurements of the cars had to become “stock” measurements as recently as 1996, when NASCAR allowed General Motors a deviation on the width of the rear decklid because the stock measurements hindered the car in relation to its competitors.
As NASCAR moved into its modern era in the 1970s and 1980s, the rule benders did, too. During his heyday, Darrell Waltrip's then crew chief Gary Nelson was so skillful a rule breaker that NASCAR later named him Director of Competition, the guy responsible for catching teams cheating. Nelson’s crowning achievement in the world of “gray area” came when he noticed something about NASCAR inspection. Back then, NASCAR didn't weigh the cars after a race…only before. That popped off a light bulb in Nelson’s head, as a lighter car on the track would have a significant advantage…but how could you lose weight during the race? Well, Nelson came up with a plan. He outfitted the hollow steel tubing of Waltrip's chassis with buckshot during prerace inspection. With the buckshot hidden from view, the “special” car easily passed weight check without a problem. Then, during the race, Waltrip would radio Nelson and tell him, “Bombs away!” That meant Waltrip had opened a secret trap door in the frame rail, releasing the buckshot that would then roll harmlessly down the track's banking. The much lighter car now had an advantage over its competitors. Once NASCAR found out, they started the modern day practice of weighing cars after races…but not before Waltrip and Nelson had used the “lighter” car on the track more than once.
As the sport continued to evolve in the 1990s and into today, nothing has really changed in the garage. Teams continue to “work the grey area,” and some get caught…but some don't. Stay tuned next week for a sneak peek into some of the more recent attempts to bend and slide around NASCAR's rules. Oh yeah…it still happens…no matter how much things change, old habits die hard. That's History.
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