NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Nip It in the Bud, NASCAR

In the minds of some of the media and some fans, accusations that Michael Waltrip purloined some proprietary auto parts from Jack Roush’s teams seems to be causing some amusement. Count me among those not laughing. This has nothing to do with which team was stolen from and which team did the stealing; this has to do with honor, economics and the integrity of the sport of auto racing, already much maligned amongst non-believers.

First, let’s look at what limited facts have been publicly released. The sway bar in question was specifically developed for the Car of Tomorrow by Roush Racing and went missing at Dover last fall during the Cup race weekend. Neither side in the dispute is arguing that the sway bar in question arrived at Dover with Roush Racing and left the track with Michael Waltrip Racing. Because of the new design of the sway bar, the missing item did not fit on the back of the crash cart where teams normally store spare sway arms, and it was placed beneath the box.

The fact it went missing was not immediately noted by anyone on the Roush teams, and that was sloppy on their part. The fact it was stored differently and configured differently than the normal sway bars certainly could have been enough for someone, particularly on a team struggling mightily, to wonder what magic lay in that bar. Eventually, the piece was found to be missing, causing no end of consternation among Roush and his chassis men. A former employee of MWR hired by Roush relayed the information that the bar was in the possession of his former team. Roush, or someone in his employ, contacted MWR and demanded it back. Supposedly, the bar was returned in a clandestine pre-dawn meeting, but by that point, the horse was out of the barn.

Waltrip would have you believe this was an innocent mistake. Someone from his team inadvertently picked up a piece that didn’t belong to his organization, and it was accidentally returned to the MWR shops. Waltrip’s contention is, once they realized the part wasn’t theirs, they put it aside without making any effort to find out who that sway bar belonged to or what made it special. Of course, any statement from MWR has to be taken with a grain of salt – they still haven’t figured out who doctored their fuel at Daytona last February in an attempt to cheat, and such an incident allows the team’s integrity to seriously be called into question.

But dig a little deeper into the story, and some things just don’t add up. Some people want to ignore that; after all, a sway bar is a relatively innocuous, if awkward looking, bent up tube, not some super-secret new cylinder head or bulletproof set of transmission gears. Most sway bars look very similar, and when discussions turn to the “torsional effect” some pundits and fans’ eyes glaze over as they want to discuss something really important, like whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a girlfriend or something. I don’t claim to be a suspension expert, but I do know something about sway bars from back in the era where I used to own a series of 5.0 Mustangs I would take time to drive on road courses. Replacing the stock sway bars with aftermarket units was a tuning tool to try to get those nose-heavy Mustangs to stop plowing the corners. A good set of properly mounted bars made those Mustangs feel like an entirely new car. Combined with swapping set of springs, tires and tire pressures, it was possible to get those Mustangs to handle neutrally in the corner that had lesser cars going off the course nose first… even though the driver had the wheel turned to full lock. And Jack Roush has forgotten more about sway bars than I’ll ever know; anyone who has ever had the pleasure to take the wheel of one of his Roush-prepared street Mustangs after driving its stock counterpart will enthusiastically agree. Unfortunately, few of us can afford to own one. Maybe Roush’ll leave one laying around at Dover and we can steal it – then say it was just an honest mistake and return it when we get caught.

Keep in mind, by his own admission Jack Roush was behind the curve when the first CoT races were held. His assertion is teams from rival manufacturers broke the spirit, if not the letter of NASCAR’s testing limitations by testing their new cars at non-sanctioned NASCAR tracks while Roush tried to stick to the letter of the law. Once the Hendrick cars and others started kicking his cars butts in races featuring the CoT, Roush launched his own extensive testing program to catch up. There’s a limited amount of areas where a team can modify the new cars to find speed; the sway bars are one of those limited parts that don’t have to meet specific criteria. With the new cars proving unwieldy and tough on right-front tires, Roush used his suspension expertise to find a solution that spread the load between the four tires more efficiently. That sort of research and development doesn’t come cheap. My guess is Roush spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on unsuccessful prototypes and testing before arriving at the proper solution. Now, if someone had broken into Roush’s motor home and stolen $100,000 in cash, I doubt anyone would say that the act was anything other than felonious larceny, and that the actor once caught deserved draconic punishment – including a lengthy jail sentence. But by stealing that bar and analyzing its secrets, MWR gained the advantage of all that very expensive R&D without paying a dime for it. How is that any different?

But, oh, right, sorry, MWR finally realized the sway bar wasn’t theirs and sort of pushed it into the corner of the shop to wait until someone claimed it. That doesn’t explain why the part in question was sandblasted to cover its identity. Nor does it explain why, according to an independent source, someone from MWR approached a manufacturer about having that new sort of sway bar replicated for their team. In my mind, that fact alone proves criminal intent no matter how much Waltrip tries to whitewash the issue behind the latest fusillade of hot air emanating from his seldom shut yap.

NASCAR’s reaction to the issue has been bizarre. As far as they are concerned, this is a private matter to be worked out between Roush Racing and MWR. That isn’t how the sanctioning body has looked at Roush’s teams or others that have tried to slip a part that gives them a competitive advantage into the mix before. Such teams were fined, lost points, and had key members suspended. If a driver who’s angry after a crash calls the offending driver a “son of a cuss,” NASCAR hasn’t been shy about huge monetary fines and points deductions because such conduct is – let’s all sing it together campers – “conduct detrimental to the sport of NASCAR racing.” Yet, stealing parts in the garage area is an issue that the two teams will have to work out. Baloney. If someone were to steal a few french fries off Mike Helton’s plate and get caught, they’d probably be banned from the sport for life. But on an issue that reflects the basic integrity of the sport, NASCAR has decided to swallow their whistle. Color me surprised.

Others have been equally two-faced. When Carl Edwards was caught with parts that were said to be illegal and to offer the No. 99 car a competitive advantage, they wanted to see the Roush organization crucified and said the penalties were too soft. Now that the shoe is on the other foot and it’s one of Mr. White’s teams caught with their hand in the cookie jar, Roush is just a cranky old man trying to make something out of nothing.

This whole situation eerily parallels last year’s debacle on the Formula 1 circle. Ferrari alleged that arch-rival McLaren had somehow obtained secret R&D and testing documents. McLaren claimed they didn’t have any such documents in their possession. Later, emails were found in which McLaren principals, drivers and test drivers clearly discussed information from the very documents that McLaren said they’d never even had a peek at. F1 didn’t tell the two teams to settle it amongst themselves. They stripped McLaren of all constructor points (their equivalent to our manufacturer points) and fined the McLaren organization a sobering $100,000,000. No, that isn’t a typo. Let me spell it out for you; they fined McLaren one hundred million (as in a 10th of a billion) dollars. (Yes, the fine was paid in Euros, not dollars, but don’t quibble with the exchange rate.) In addition, this year’s McLaren entries were thoroughly scrutinized to be sure that none of the tricks they’d illegally obtained had been incorporated in the cars they planned to race this year. To date, that’s all Jack Roush is asking. He wants NASCAR to make sure MWR isn’t running any technology he paid to develop, but even to that NASCAR says it’s a private matter. I guess Jack needs to hire someone to hijack an MWR hauler en route to a race at gunpoint, so he can have a closer look at those cars and the sway bars they are using. After all, to NASCAR that would be a private matter too, I’m quite certain.

The garage area is a relatively open area. At most tracks, teams’ garage stalls have no doors that can be locked when the garage area closes at night and team members leave. Even the big team haulers aren’t impervious from forced entry made by those with bad intent. Security after hours is a joke. I personally watched someone scale the fence to reenter the garage area to retrieve a forgotten set of car keys because it was easier than going through official channels. Years ago at Talladega, teams arrived race morning to find many cars are had been vandalized or tampered with overnight, in some case with clear intent to cause a brake failure in a car once the race began.

If NASCAR is going to leave this sort of issue as a private matter, they’re throwing open the floodgates to more serious sorts of espionage. And once that occurs, they’re going to wish they had the sense of our old pal Barney Fife to “nip it in the bud.”

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