Editor’s Note: We’re proud to present to you our newest column, “Hitting the Books,” where we will review some of the best and the worst literature out there about NASCAR’s past, present, and future. First up is Cami Starr’s review of “In Cheating: An Inside Look At The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed.”
In Cheating: An Inside Look At The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed by Tom Jensen, readers get a behind the scenes look at the battle that has raged on between NASCAR officials and crew chiefs since the birth of the sport in the late 1940s. For new fans, this book is a great way to learn about the history of NASCAR and to get to know the back stories and characters that have made the sport what it is today. For veteran fans, it’s a chance to find out something you may not have already known about or an entertaining way to revisit old memories.
The overlying theme of Jensen’s book is the neverending “war” that goes on between NASCAR officials and the crew chiefs they try to police. On one side are the lesser paid NASCAR officials, who spend countless hours on race day inspecting cars and looking for infractions against already established rules. The other side finds the highly paid crew chiefs who spend days, weeks, and months in order to find the gray areas within those rules, fighting for that one small advantage over everyone else that will help their driver win on Sunday.
Jensen chronicles the history of cheating in NASCAR from its inception through the 2003 season in the newer, extended version of the book. He talks to team owners, crew members and series officials who have worked in the trenches day to day and know firsthand what goes on behind the garage area fence. The book also includes tidbits from well known NASCAR historians and writers, the men and women who spend their lives covering the sport. The varying views make the book more interesting and bring life to the stories. Jensen isn’t trying to get his own agenda or opinions across, he’s simply trying to tell the history of cheating in NASCAR, and that alone is entertaining enough.
The chapters are divided into decades and each gives detailed accounts of the biggest controversy at the time, as well as what each side was coming up with next to gain the upper hand in battle. Older fans might recognize stories about Junior Johnson’s 1966 Ford Galaxie, dubbed the Yellow Banana, and Smokey Yunick’s famed number 13 black and gold Chevelle. Newer fans will recall the infamous T-Rex car that Jeff Gordon ran in 1997’s Winston, the Roush/Hendrick Tiregate feud in 1998 and Tony Stewart’s Chevy that was confiscated in Texas back in 2003.
As each story is presented, the book goes into detail to reveal some of the most common tricks used by crew chiefs as they tried sneaking something by officials during inspection. In the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for a crew chief to bribe officials with a bottle of whiskey in order to get his car overlooked in the inspection process. Early on, competitors knew that they had to be creative in getting the upper hand on the competition, and they went to great lengths to do it. The tricks used ran the gambit from putting gas in frame rails for extra fuel mileage, to filling wheels with lead to get the car heavy enough to pass inspection but light on the track following the first pit stop, to nitrous oxide, to traction control, to even using clever paint schemes to cover up hidden tricks. Jensen gives technical details about what was used, but doesn’t do it in a way that talks over the head of the casual fan or non-”grease monkey.”
While reading the accounts of what part or trick was used to break each rule, the real entertainment in the book comes from learning about the men that are engaged in “battle” and what lengths they will go to in order to state their case. There’s strength within Jensen’s chronicling of people like NASCAR creator Big Bill France, who laid down he law with an iron, and sometimes biased, fist as he worked to build up his new series, as well as the early NASCAR officials and inspectors who were seemingly fighting an uphill battle from day one. Jensen also presents outstanding profiles of the drivers and team owners of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s like Smokey Yunick, Junior Johnson, and Maurice and Richard Petty, who coined the phrase "cheat neat." Finally, crew chief profiles include Gary Nelson, a one time crew chief with a reputation for flexing the rules turned NASCAR hired gun, and Ray Evernham, whose work at Hendrick Motorsports in the 1990s has inspired the next generation of crew chiefs looking to find every loophole possible.
For any fan looking to get a little insight into NASCAR’s shadier past, or if you’re just looking for a good read and entertainment, I recommend you pick up a copy of Cheating: An Inside Look At The Bad Things Good Nascar Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed by Tom Jensen. I don’t think you will be disappointed, as this behind the scenes peek is a worthwhile read.
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