During Prohibition, some men decided to live outside the rules. The business of hauling illegally produced liquor proved the perfect fit, a lucrative if dangerous way to do it. Those who got caught faced stiff prison terms. Those who didn’t get caught got rich during the depression. Even after prohibition, the manufacture, transport and sale of illegal liquor that didn’t have the official state and federal tax stamps, and could be sold cheaper, remained gold rush business, particularly in the rural southeast.
We’ve all heard the stories of the legends like Junior Johnson, whose family was big into the bootlegging business, learning to drive so fast trying to outrun the revenuers to get a load to market and avoid jail. We’ve all laughed at the colorful stories we’ve heard from that era about the bootleggers and the feds, but my guess is modern culture has romanticized those days. Doubtless many drivers on both sides of the line lost their lives in horrific traffic accidents wrapped around a tree, and many widows and children were left in poverty by their passing. I’ve heard less romantic stories about bootleggers and federal agents shot in cold blood in the back, because back then, such were the real rules of the game.
So forget the Dukes of Hazzard. Bootlegging was a harsh and dangerous, if lucrative business. The primary task wasn’t good-spirited races between the shine cars and hopped up cop cars over the dirt roads – let the better man win. One of the tricks the bootleggers used was the “bait car.” Feds would get a tip from a confidential informant a load was being delivered to market that night by such-and-such driver in such-and-such type car, then they’d stake out the route looking to make a bust. And sure enough, here came Bobby Junior in his black hot rod Ford, sitting low in the rear, driving like a fool down dirt country roads, lights out and heading towards the bright lights of the big city.
A merry chase would ensue, Bobby driving for all the world like he had a load in the trunk. Sometimes, he’d get away. Sometimes, he’d get caught. But when they finally pried open the trunk of that Ford, the baffled revenuers would find nothing more than a spare tire and a jack.
Meanwhile, a plain-looking Mercury, sitting perfectly level, running at or just slightly above the speed limit and occupied by what looked like a nice young couple on their way home from a tent revival purred along with a thousand gallons of white lightning in the trunk. The bait car cleared the delivery car’s route of any potential interference. It was an old trick, but one still in use today. That Mustang running at triple digits north on 95 might just be the bait car for a Dodge Caravan running at 66 with a few kilos of coke aboard.
Bait car. That’s what I thought when I heard Mark Martin’s No. 5 HMS Chevy was disqualified after qualifying at Dover last Friday. OK, so Martin, well out of the Chase, but still competing for the rest of the season is caught with a pair of trick rear shocks. Of course, the two cars of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, legitimate title contenders each, weren’t found to have the illegal shocks. Perhaps if Martin had made it through post-qualifying inspection, the No. 48 and the No. 24 would have been running the same trick shock next week.
That gets me thinking back to last week. Clint Bowyer eked his way into the Chase. When you look at the totem pole at RCR right now, Bowyer is clearly closer to the earthworms than the eagles. Kevin Harvick is the team’s golden boy, while veteran Jeff Burton is a darkhorse if still legitimate title contender. If the team was going to try to slip one past NASCAR post-race inspection to see if they could get away with a fast one, they clearly weren’t going to cheat up the No. 29 or No. 31 cars.
In the concept of the bait car, we see another clear difference between NASCAR and the stick and ball sports that originated the “postseason” model. The owner of an MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL team owns only one franchise. If one fellow were to own the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers, there’d be a temptation that since New York is a major media market and Green Bay is the smallest one in the NFL, maybe he should have the Packers throw the game so the Giants would advance to the Super Bowl and the game would draw better ratings for everybody.
What’s supposed to keep that from happening in NASCAR is each team in a franchise has a separate corporate sponsor. All those sponsors have invested good money to see their driver and team hog up all the airtime winning races and titles. They don’t like the TV airtime so much when their driver and corporate spokesperson in a multicolor ad emblazoned fireproof jumpsuit gets caught cheating, though. (I hear that Hamburger Helper is being threatened with exclusion from the American Culinary Institute’s Gold Tier Hall of Excellence after last week’s misadventure. I don’t know why they call it “Hamburger Helper,” by the way – it tastes just fine by itself.)
But are all sponsors treated the same way? RCR recently inked a deal with Budweiser, perhaps the most lucrative deal in the garage area, and usually a long-term one, for Harvick and the No. 29 team. Might not delivering Harvick to Anheuser Busch as reigning Cup champion be worth more than a few tears spilled in the Cheerios?
So if the “bait car” mentality is at work in the garage area, what’s next? How about “blockers?” Let’s say a driver is leading a race or least running well, but a member of a rival team that’s contending with the other driver in the points is closing in. It’s a no brainer when a driver comes up to lap one of his teammates, the slower driver will yield position. (Unless he’s Colombian or Kyle Busch.) We see that out there every week. Now let’s say team orders are in place, never discussed over the radio but whispered back at the shop; the slower teammate must slow up his buddy’s rival as best as possible. That teammate will then block to his heart’s content, making the other driver trying to pass him burn the good off his tires, maybe even rough him up a little bit and try to knock the steering alignment out of whack on the other car when the pass becomes inevitable. There’s no NASCAR rule that says a slower driver must yield to a faster driver trying to pass him. It might not look very sportsmanlike to fans watching the event, but I’ve seen several incidents of the above over the last two seasons that I find highly suspicious.
At their height of villainy, team orders can dispense with any manner of sportsmanship. Let’s take the example of the championship actually coming down to a two man battle to win the title. But Johnny Jameson only needs to finish 40th or better to be champion even if Kenny Matthews posts a top-3 finish and leads a lap. The title and millions upon millions of dollars are at stake, not to mention increased sponsorship money and exposure going forward. So on the first lap of the race Matthews’ teammate (or a driver of one of the organization’s auxiliary secret cars) Eddy Carlson starts radioing he thinks he has a tire going down. He slows dramatically and as Jameson comes by to pass him, Carlson drills him wide open right in the numbers, shoving him so hard into the wall all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the No. 84 back together again.
Unthinkable, right? NASCAR would go medieval in handing out penalties. Fans would be outraged. Media types would be bright purple in their faces and have spittle flying out both corners of their mouths decrying such a deplorable circumstance. That’s the nice thing about championships, though. There’s no footnote that the team that won the World Series that year had a bunch of players later found to be on the juice. And a year after the incident, there’s little recollection of how a fellow won that Cup title. The record book just records a list of the names of champions.
Matt, take a deep breath. You’re sailing to the thin ether of fantasy of this one, some will tell me. Such a thing could never happen in NASCAR racing. This is a sport of honor. Oh, yeah, my little pretties, the fact is it has already happened, and it was as blatant as the nightmare scenario I describe above.
Mr. Peabody, hand me a Corona and set the Wayback Machine for 1956. Carl Kiekhaefer and his Mercury Marine-sponsored fleet of Chrysler 300 cars were the original super team, far outstripping anything Rick Hendrick has managed to date. Better funded, better prepared and with a host of big name drivers Kiekhaefer’s goal wasn’t modest. He wanted to win every Grand National race, cost be damned.
The team started the year with an All-Star roster that included Herb Thomas, Buck Baker, Tim Flock (reigning champion) and Tim’s brother Fonty. Tim Flock won at North Wilkesboro, then promptly quit the team, saying Kiekhaefer put too much pressure on his drivers and did bizarre things like sending spies to peek through motel room curtains to make sure that drivers weren’t having sex with their wives the night before the race in violation of team orders. Baker then asserted himself as top dog in the championship fight, while Thomas quit the team later that year protesting Kiekhaefer didn’t want him to battle Buck for the title. He wanted Baker to win.
When he left the team, Thomas took his driver’s points with him and Kiekhaefer was incensed. You can imagine how pleased old Carl was, then, when Thomas actually wrested the points lead from Baker. The title on the line, Kiekhaefer leased the Shelby County Fairgrounds half-mile dirt oval and got NASCAR to add a race date for the track at the last minute. You have to wonder if Thomas knew he was being invited to a lynching as the guest of honor, but there were points on the line and he and Baker were battling neck and neck. Baker led that race in dominant fashion, but Thomas was closing in fast. Thomas had a prolonged battle with second place Speedy Thompson (another Kiekhaefer driver) but finally prevailed to take over the spot. It seemed like the championship would still be his after all.
That’s when Thompson hooked Thomas in the right rear quarterpanel and put him hard into the fence.
Thomas’ stricken Chevy bounced back into traffic and was hit broadside several times in a nine-car pileup. A scary incident, he was removed from the car and rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull and severe internal injuries. It was about as blatant a hit as you can imagine, and the fans weren’t real happy about it. The nascent NASCAR media wrote awful things about it. And you know what NASCAR did? I’ll tell you what they didn’t do about it. They didn’t do sh*t. Not a one dollar fine, not a one point penalty. Baker cruised on to the championship. Thomas, NASCAR’s most prolific winner to that point, made three more starts in the series but never again raced competitively due to the extent of those injuries he suffered that night in Shelby.
Take a second. Go look at the record books, in print or online if you choose and look up the 1956 Grand National champion. Those sources will tell you Buck Baker won the prize. They just don’t mention how. Can’t happen today? Not with the media scrutiny and the TV coverage, not to mention all the money in the sport that makes participants very wealthy young men? As I’m prone to saying, campers, “It ain’t that it ain’t happened, it just ain’t happened yet.” Like running liquor sometimes, we romanticize this sport’s history and ignore some ugly little bits that are hard to accept.
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