With increased attention on NASCAR comes greater focus on sponsors, and that means less to
As a sport, NASCAR was officially born in 1949. Before then, there had been stock car races, but never with a major sanctioning body with a cohesive rule book. The first Strictly Stock (the grandfather of today's Nextel Cup) race was held in Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 19. Driver Glenn Dunnaway led laps 151 through 200 in the 200-lap event and lapped the field three times. But hours after driving under the checkered flag, NASCAR's chief inspector, Al Crisler, declared Dunnaway's car illegal, and Jim Roper went into the history books as the first-ever winner of a NASCAR Strictly Stock event.
Dunnaway's crime? He had modified the rear springs on his Ford-a common trick among bootleggers at the time-to provide better traction. NASCAR would have none of it, and stripped Dunnaway of his victory. So, in an inauspicious race at a track that no longer exists, NASCAR racing as we know it was born, and cheating was a part of it.
Fast forward to February 2006 and the Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR has become the second most watched sport in the United States, behind professional football. It boasts a television package worth billions of dollars, and corporate sponsors are contributing upward of $15 million a year to be on the hood of a car. It's quite a different world than the one NASCAR's pioneering drivers knew back in the sport's infancy.
Increased scrutiny allows fewer places for today's drivers to blend into the scene. Nigel
Of course, some things are still the same. Before this year's Daytona 500, NASCAR's tech officials discovered an irregularity in Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet owned by Hendrick Motorsports. The rear track bar was connected not only to the suspension, as it should be, but also to the bottom of the rear window. When the track bar was raised, so was the rear window. The effect was to deflect air away from the rear spoiler. At Daytona, where wind resistance is the ultimate evil, the configuration was probably worth real speed.
There were no illegal parts on the car, but the manner in which they were assembled altered the original design for the parts. So NASCAR named the innovation illegal, invoking the all-encompassing article 12-4-A in the rule book, otherwise known as "actions detrimental to stock car racing." In other words, cheating.
The New NASCAR
So what's different between then and now? The answer is "nothing" and "a whole lot," both at the same time. Auto racing is different from stick-and-ball sports in that each team is responsible for building its own vehicle. As long as it meets the letter of the rules, any innovation in how that car is constructed in order to make it faster, safer, and more reliable is not only allowed, it's expected. In football, for example, the ball and the dimensions of the field haven't changed in decades. In racing, the track may stay the same, but the cars, the tires, and the support equipment change and evolve not yearly, but weekly.
With teams searching for the slightest advantage, Humpy Wheeler says "micro-cheating" exis
So you can see there is more opportunity to tweak the rules in racing than there may be in other sports. Dunnaway did it way back in the day, and Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson's crewchief, did it at Daytona this year. The biggest difference may be NASCAR's reaction to the infractions. In 1949, Dunnaway had the win stripped away, but there is no record of any other punishment. In 2006, NASCAR caught the No. 48 car's illegal track bar in post-qualifying inspection. The illegal equipment wasn't even in an actual race, yet Knaus was escorted from the Daytona property and told not to come back for the remainder of the Speedweeks' events, fined $25,000, suspended for the next three Nextel Cup races, and put on probation through December 31, 2006.
NASCAR is now a corporate-driven sport, much more concerned about its image than it was in 1949 when it simply hoped to have enough cars show up to put on a good race. Today, the specter of cheating in the sport simply isn't tolerated.
Despite the penalties against Knaus, it really hasn't slowed the parade of infractions NASCAR's tech officials catch at just about every race. Since that incident, Rodney Childers, crewchief for Scott Riggs' No. 10 Dodge, was fined $10,000 for improperly attached weight; Larry Hyder, crewchief for Ken Schrader's No. 21 Ford, was fined $1,000 for an unapproved side window; and Hall of Fame Racing, a brand new team, lost its appeal of a $25,000 fine and loss of 25 points for an unapproved carburetor. By the time you read this, there will probably be more examples.
Is it Really Cheating?
The biggest question is this: Do the examples we listed-modified side windows, tricked-out carburetors and even fancy moving rear windows-constitute cheating? After all, we aren't talking about thrown games here, or steroids, or even stealing signals. We're talking about modifying a hand-built race car in a manner that often isn't specifically covered by the rules. That's why NASCAR so often has to cover infractions with the "actions detrimental to the sport" blanket.
"The word 'cheating' I think is a little over-the-top," says former crewchief and current Fox commentator Larry McReynolds. "If somebody gets caught with a big engine or soaking their tires, something as big as that, maybe that's cheating. But a lot of what is going on now is little stuff that's not breaking the rules as much as it is pushing into the gray areas. I see it more like a football player on the field who gets caught holding or making an illegal block. It's against the rules and he gets a penalty, but it's not cheating. Same thing here. A team tries something, gets caught in inspection, gets a penalty, and everybody moves on."
NASCAR's inspection process has become more sophisticated in recent years. The process is
During his time as a crewchief, McReynolds was considered one of the top minds in the business, with a Daytona 500 victory among his 23 wins. A quick search of the racing records shows that McReynolds was caught by the tech inspectors more than once, and he'll tell you there were many more times that nobody knew about.
"I think that rule breaking is looked at differently because of the way NASCAR is approaching it today," he says. "My hand was slapped more times than you would ever imagine. But back then they didn't fine me, they didn't suspend me, and they didn't take points away. They would simply confiscate whatever it was they found and say, 'Don't do that again.' But now the stakes are far greater in terms of points, prize money, and the prestige of winning. I believe NASCAR finally decided the old way of doing things simply wasn't working. They would take parts away that didn't meet the rules, and the teams would just go out and make something even better. So they decided to get their attention with their wallets. Taking away team points is also a big deal, because how can you put a price on points if even the loss of a few can potentially cause you to miss the Chase?"
Nextel Cup team owner Bill Davis believes that cheating at stock car racing's highest leve
"I call it 'micro-cheating,'" says Lowe's Motor Speedway's Humpy Wheeler. "That is what we are seeing more of today than anything else. You can't sneak the big things past anymore. NASCAR has gotten more sophisticated in its inspection processes. Still, any form of cheating is not good for the sport. It's not good for the sponsors. This is especially true if a guy has won a race and he's caught cheating.
"Where we really need to be concerned with cheating is if it can cause harm to a driver. I'll give you an example. I bought a race car once that had run Daytona. We were going to use it here for testing and different things. But then the guy working on it called me one day and said, 'You've got to see this.' I went over and found that the car had aluminum rollbars on it. This was when magnetized paint was just becoming available. NASCAR had figured it out pretty quickly, but that car had made it into one Daytona race. So I think that cheating really becomes a problem in the sport when it adds an element of danger."
In the '60s, '70s, and even early '80s, it was easier to use tricks that would provide a significant advantage on the racetrack. NASCAR simply didn't provide enough well-trained manpower in the tech area, and the skills of the cheaters were far ahead of the cops. One of racing's most loved elder statesmen, Darrell Waltrip, was known to roll through inspection with a set of wheels on his car that had several pounds of weight hidden on them. He would be terribly slow in the beginning laps of the race, but after the first pit stop when standard wheels were bolted in place, he would suddenly get a lot faster. It took quite a while before anybody realized the trick, which allowed him to race a car that was significantly lighter than the rest of the field.
Other racers had equally inventive ways of cutting weight at the track. "When I was working at David Pearson's shop," McReynolds says, "I was in the parts room one day and found an old helmet lying on the shelf. I thought, What in the world is this old thing doing back here? I picked that thing up and it must have weighed 70 pounds! It was filled with weight, and they would hang it in the car as it went through inspection. Then, all of a sudden, right before the race they would have a radio problem or something and have to get the backup helmet. Well, they went and got a helmet that weighed about 65 pounds less."
These tricks from racing's "good old days" make for great stories, but they also prove the point that NASCAR is tougher than ever on cheating. You don't hear about lead-filled helmets or other such outlandish things these days because they would never get through the tech line. NASCAR's tech officials have improved tremendously since then, and where teams could once get away with breaking the rules by a yard, today's racing teams can't get away with fractions of an inch.
Making It Public
Many of the people we spoke with for this article pointed out a major change in the way both the public and race teams view cheating. That's because of NASCAR's relatively recent policy of announcing which teams are caught cheating and exactly what they did. It's one thing if your indiscretions are kept behind closed doors; it's quite another when it's aired like dirty laundry for all the world to see.
Therefore, with NASCAR's incredible growth and popularity, a lot more people take notice when a team gets caught cheating. "One time [NASCAR] caught me infringing just a little bit with soft tires and a big motor," racing legend Richard Petty says of an infamous incident after a win in the 1983 Miller High Life 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Petty's comments are comically understated; he was caught running softer left-side tires on the right side and with an engine that was 382 cubic inches-24 over the allowable limit. "At that time we were working with STP, and they loved it because it was in the newspaper and they were getting their name out. But that won't work with [current sponsor] Cheerios. They won't tolerate it."
When Petty was caught in 1983, racing news was so limited that anytime a sponsor found itself in the news it was at least considered publicity. But now, as race coverage is commonplace in major print and broadcast media, sponsors are understandably much pickier about how they are presented to race fans. With the money at stake, few are willing to be associated with cheaters-even if the method of cheating was something treated with a mere wink in years past. And teams, which are more dependent on sponsorship money than ever before, are listening to the wishes of corporate sponsors in ways they never listened to the rule makers.
"We are not cheating," team owner Bill Davis flatly states. "Our sponsors are pretty critical of cheating. They consider it stealing, and we are trying to stay within the rules. The bigger sponsors that are capable of spending the money to be a part of the sport are very image conscious and aware that you are representing them. Sponsors are not interested in getting their name smeared around.
"We joke about it, but really, in my opinion, there is very little cheating going on. The days of hydraulic spoilers and dumping hundreds of pounds of lead out of a car to gain a really big advantage are gone. Any advantage gained is small and short-lived. I'm pretty comfortable with the fact there is very little cheating."
There is a fine line that racers dance around when they talk about cheating. When Davis says very few teams are cheating in Nextel Cup, he means flagrant violations that will be reprimanded with fines and potentially cost the team championship points. Others slap the label "cheating" on what many in racing call "pushing the gray areas." By that they mean exploiting loopholes in the rules or simply finding advantages on parts of the car that aren't covered by the rules. It's a time-honored tradition in NASCAR. The trick is to push the limits just enough so that when you do get caught, NASCAR's response is to update the rule book and not come down as hard on you as it did on Knaus at Daytona.
Racer Scott Bloomquist feels the best solution for reducing cheating is found in Dirt Late
"That's just the way it is," says McReynolds. "You show me a top-notch team with a top-notch crewchief that isn't pushing the rules as hard and as far as they can, and I will show you a team that probably isn't going to be a contender at the end of the season."
Racing on Saturday Nights
Of course, NASCAR Nextel Cup racing is just the tip of the iceberg. Every week many thousands of racers compete at thousands of smaller racetracks throughout the country. Cheating is an issue here, too, but it poses an entirely new set of challenges to racers and sanctioning bodies.
Unlike Nextel Cup, racing on Saturday nights-whether it be Mini Stocks or Super Late Models-is often a money-losing proposition. Racers almost always spend much more than they will take in from sponsors and prize winnings. Racers at this level compete for the love of the sport, not to make a buck.
Track operators often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to cheaters. Providing fans with a good car count is the lifeblood of a track, and few can afford to run off cheaters. A track operator has to run a fair show or else the non-cheating racers will abandon his facility. He also cannot afford to come down too hard on cheaters because they may go to another track, or even become frustrated with racing altogether and simply take up golf or some other diversion.
"We'd never suspend somebody or send them home for two weeks," says Robert Lawton of Boone Speedway in Iowa. "There's no percentage in that. We all need cars, because without cars you don't have fans. We have to work with our racers. If we find something [in tech inspection] we don't like, we will usually tell the racer to have it fixed before he comes back next week. If it is a speed advantage, we will have him fix it there and come back through the line."
Fortunately, few people think cheating creates the same problems at local tracks as it does at the Nextel Cup level. For one thing, there isn't as much on the line. Also, McReynolds points out that many teams use volunteer labor to prepare the car and work on it during evenings after regular work days are over. Many teams struggle to keep their race cars properly prepared to go racing each week. There simply isn't the money or time to dream up elaborate ways to cheat.
Lawton agrees. "Of the 200 cars we get every week," he says, "we probably get a car we have a problem with maybe once every two to three weeks."
Although cheating does happen at the Saturday night level, many feel it isn't as prevalent
When it comes to cheating at any level, the response is often to initiate more rules and stiffer penalties. But Scott Bloomquist, a professional Dirt Late Model racer, feels the best way to eliminate cheating as a detriment in racing is to get rid of many of the rules that constrict the racers.
"The more rules you have, the more accusations you are going to have about everybody cheating," says Bloomquist, one of the most popular and winningest drivers in dirt racing. "In Dirt Late Model racing we have open engine rules and more horsepower than you do traction most of the time. There just isn't as much reason to cheat.
"But now you have the growing popularity of crate motor racing, and the opportunity to cheat more comes with it. When you limit the horsepower, the only thing it takes to win is more horsepower than the next guy. So if someone can come up with a way to get more power, the chances of winning are greatly increased, and that increases the chances of cheating.
"A lot of rules, the only thing they do is give the smart racers a greater advantage. That's why there is no greater racing than having more horsepower than you do traction."