Tuesday is generally fine day in NASCAR and this week was no exception. The hammer that is the the sanctioning body’s fine machine was swift and forceful on the heads of Michael Waltrip racing and JTG-Daugherty racing. The crew chiefs and car chiefs for David Reutimann’s No. 00, Martin Truex, Jr.’s No. 56 and Bobby Labonte’s No. 47 were all fined and suspended for the rest of the Sprint Cup season (although it is technically four races until Nov. 23rd) and the car owners and drivers were each docked 25 points. All of this fuss was over windshields that were confiscated in pre-practice technical inspection before Friday’s practice at Talladega.
There has been a long and storied history of bending rules and finding gray areas in the NASCAR rule book. Smokey Yunick ran enough fuel line through his car that he was able to drive six miles to his shop with an empty fuel cell in his racecar. Chad Knaus developed shocks that actually made the back of the car get higher as they did their job. Richard Petty drove a car with a drastically oversized engine that allowed him to win a race, although he was eventually fined and docked points. Junior Johnson was fined routinely for pushing the envelope on the ends of the rulebook but most of the time it seemed as though Johnson did it out of disdain for the sport’s sanctioning body.
The history of skirting the rules goes back to the very first race sanctioned by NASCAR at Charlotte Speedway, a three-quarter-mile dirt track on the west side of the city. Glenn Dunnaway, a moonshiner by trade, brought his ’47 Ford that he used during the completion of his daily duties and raced it to the win. However, in the post race inspection, NASCAR’s first chief inspector Al Crisler said his rear springs were not stock, primarily because moonshiners used beefed up springs or extra springs due to the extra weight they’d carry in their cars when they were filled with moonshine. As a result the win was awarded to Jim Roper and Dunnaway was scored last.
In the current world of Sprint Cup racing there isn’t a whole heck of a lot that teams can monkey with on the cars so the efforts they make can be very subtle. The MWR teams, along with the JTG Daugherty team all prepare their cars in the MWR shops and apparently all had the same technique applied to their windshields. The NASCAR rulebook says that windshields have to be a uniform thickness. During the pre-practice inspection it was discovered that all three of the cars had windshields whose edges were beveled, apparently in an effort to improve the aerodynamic flow over the cars. The windshields were removed before the cars ever hit the track so they never were allowed to receive any benefit from the modification.
In an interesting twist, with no real explanation at all, team owner Michael Waltrip, who also ran in the race in a one-off effort to honor his brother’s Hall of Fame induction, wasn’t busted for an illegal windshield.
Pushing the rules to the limit has been a longstanding tradition in NASCAR. The beauty of it is reading between the lines. When Yunick installed the 40 foot long fuel line in his car there was no real about how long the line could be, just how big it could be. When Ray Evernham charged his engineers with building a car from the ground up they came up with T-Rex that Gordon ran in the All-Star race in 1997 and blew away the competition. The car, while perfectly legal, was banned from racing after that event because it would cost all of the other teams too much money to catch up to what Hendrick had done. When Knaus made his shocks for Dover that actually raised the rear end as they worked, giving the car more exposure for its spoiler, there was no rule that said shocks couldn’t do that, because no one had ever thought about doing that with them.
The beauty of racing which, unfortunately, has been lost over the last few years was the never ending ballet between crew chiefs and inspectors as one group tried to work in the gray areas and loopholes while the other group tried to paint them black and white and close them up. In the end, while it doesn’t happen nearly as much anymore, the guys who were able to find those cracks in the rulebook often rode those advantages all of the way to championships. If you aren’t trying to find those cracks, you aren’t really trying to win.