When it comes to rule bending — or breaking — in NASCAR, it’s always been known as simply “cheatin’.” And it has had many practitioners. Too many to mention, in fact.
I think I’m correct when I say there hasn’t been a single NASCAR Cup team in any given race in any given year that hasn’t tried its hand in skullduggery.
“Take a look out there,” the late, longtime motorsports writer Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer once said to me. “There ain’t a totally legal car in the field.”
A transgression could be something that just barely crosses the line of legality, or it could be something so flagrantly illegal that it should come with a prison sentence.
You may be a NASCAR fan of many years or one who is just beginning to discover an interest in the sport. Doesn’t matter; you’ve heard or read about “cheatin'” incidents.
“Cheatin'” can take many forms, some of which seem to be so trivial they border on insignificance — like the time a team went through inspection with what was seemingly an empty box of driver goggles on the dashboard.
When inspection was complete, the box was taken out of the car and its contents — a 25-pound lead brick — removed. The car was immediately too light for legal competition (actually happened).
Other incidents have been far more creative and flagrantly outside the rules. Such as the time in the restrictor plate era when a car passed inspection because the wire attached to the plate was missed.
That wire ran beneath the dashboard, allowing the driver to yank it and pull the plate away from the carburetor and allow much greater air flow. That resulted in a powerful, sudden burst of horsepower that was very effective on a superspeedway (actually happened).
Speaking of creativity, perhaps there has been no better example of it than a car that had BBs crammed into its hollow roll bars.
Once through inspection and on the track, the driver would pull on a release mechanism and those BBs would be released it a rolling mass on the speedway surface, thereby lightening the car.
The driver would exclaim, “Bombs away!” (actually happened).
Unlike other professional sports where cheaters are considered beneath contempt and earn fans’ disdain, many of NASCAR’s rule breakers have been admired; some so much so they have achieved iconic status.
Included among them are Smoky Yunick, more magician than mechanic, Hoss Ellington of the plate gizmo and Gary Nelson, the BB guy, who was so effective retiring Winston Cup Director Dick Beaty wanted him to be his successor because, “He knows everything.”
Of course, there was also the late Junior Johnson, who, along with his lieutenants Herb Nab, Tim Brewer, Mike Hill and Travis Carter, constantly thumbed their noses at NASCAR.
I believe NASCAR fans, particularly those who can recall many past years, like the cat-and-mouse game the sport’s officials and mechanics have always played.
They recall the days of “Run what ya brung,” which rewarded teams who used as much imagination as mechanical skill.
And those fans certainly didn’t mind seeing competitors get the best of NASCAR — and tweak its inspectors’ noses while they did it.
For many years, it wasn’t difficult for teams to get around the rule book. NASCAR’s inspection teams, while filled with able personnel, did not have the time or resources to combat a horde of mischief.
For the teams, the best way to beat them was to overwhelm them.
“Yeah,” said Hall of Fame team owner Bud Moore, “I would come up with 10 things to do to the car. NASCAR would catch seven of ’em. So I was still three to the good.”
Another, perhaps more effective, way of nabbing the rule breakers was through an informant.
It’s often been said that secrets can’t be kept in a speedway garage area. Sooner or later, whatever is going on — and where it’s going on — is going to be discovered.
And if what’s discovered is sneaky, all it took was for a single upset individual, who may have carried a grudge or sought revenge for some reason, to inform NASCAR.
“No matter how long you got something working, sooner or later someone is going to rat you out,” team owner Richard Childress said years ago.
For the teams, getting around the rules is certainly not as easy as it was years ago. NASCAR has embraced many technical advances provided by this age of computer and electronic dominance.
In other words, getting through inspection is not the cakewalk it could be in the past.
Additionally, NASCAR has created a system of punishment that is far more regulated than in the past. It includes levels of penalties and a wide range of punishment that ranges from large fines to multiple suspensions.
Also, the sanctioning body is far less arbitrary than it once was.
All of which contributes to the fact that “cheatin'” is more difficult than it used to be.
The teams know this.
Maybe it has slowed them down.
But it hasn’t stopped them.
And guess what? It never will.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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