50 Years of nascar racing ~ Controversy: Let It Rage, Part 2 (Post 78)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
This is installment two of a look back at some of the controversies that have become a part of NASCAR history, and the sometimes bizarre ways that the sanctioning body handled them. Strap in, throw the rulebook out the window, and enjoy.
Bumblegate- Tragedy struck the NASCAR community during the running of the 1990 season finale held at Atlanta. In those days there were no pit road speed limits, and while roaring into the pits, Ricky Rudd hit some oil, lost control and slammed into the side of Bill Elliott's car parked in its pit stall. Tragically, Elliott crew member Mike Ritch was crushed and killed as he was working at changing a tire.
There had been several close calls in the pits prior to that tragedy, and obviously NASCAR needed to do something to protect the pit crews. Eventually the sanctioning body adopted the pit road speed limits that are in use to this day, but before adopting that idea they tried some other unworkable solutions.
The first attempt at a rules change for pit safety was to ban changing tires during caution periods. That didn't work so well. Drivers stayed out on badly worn tires unwilling to give up track position to pit under green late in the race, and numerous wrecks followed as a result.
At Bristol, NASCAR tried something new. Cars were designated either "even" or "odd" based on their qualifying position. (For example the pole winner and 3rd place qualifier were "odd" cars, and the 2 and 4th place qualifiers were "even" cars) A colored sticker on the windshield helped NASCAR officials recall who was in which group. The rules allowed the "odd" cars to pit under caution and take on new tires on one lap and the "even" cars to pit the next. When lining up for the restart, the "odd" cars would line up in their running order on the inside lane, while the "even" cars lined up on the outside to take the green.
It was a bit hard to figure out, and in practice it worked very poorly. As it turned out, all the drivers who were contending for the win for most of the race just happened to have qualified in positions that designated them "even" cars. All the lead drivers save for Rusty Wallace, that is.
Rusty led early, but an equalized tire sent him into the pits for an unscheduled stop and dropped him two laps off the pace. But coming back to green after each caution, and there were 19 of them that day, Rusty found himself sitting in the catbird seat, restarting the race on the preferred inside groove at the front of the pack, and able to drive hard into turn one to bypass the leader, then keep ahead of that leader until the next caution period to make up a lap under yellow.
Wallace had made his way back to 7th when a caution flew on the 477th lap of the race. Though he was in seventh position, Rusty was once again the lead car on that preferred inside line, allowed to pass the drivers in 2n through 6th position under caution as they lined up in the outside groove. When the green flag dropped Rusty outdrove Ernie Irvan into the first corner to assume the lead and never looked back. Irvan did make a race of it, but Rusty held Ernie off by a foot at the checkers. Even Rusty didn't claim he could have won the race without the unexpected help from the new rules, but as he correctly pointed out, he hadn't made up the rules, he had just abided by them. Needless to say the rule was unceremoniously dropped after that race, and pit road speed limits were adopted for the next race on the schedule at North Wilkesboro.
As the footnote to the great "Pit Road Rules Mess of 91" there is a charming but apocryphal story that occasionally makes the rounds, that a little girl waited patiently to see Bill France walk by, tugged on his pants legs, and asked "Mr. France why don't you just have a speed limit on pit road like they have on the highway?" and the rest was history. Charming, but not true. The person who finally convince France to adopt the pit road speed limits was our old buddy Junior Johnson, who had been advocating those speed limits for years as a safety issue. If any of you have ever confused Junior Johnson with a cute little girl, please see your local eye care specialist quickly for corrective lenses….and have someone else drive you there.
Spacergate.- A frigid day in Richmond, the second race of the 1990 season, was to have a chilling effect on one driver's chances for that year's Winston Cup championship. Mark Martin won that race thanks to a brilliant pit stop decision by Robin Pemberton, then Mark's crew chief, during the final caution period. While all the other lead lap cars opted to go with four tires, Pemberton ordered a two tire stop to get Mark some positions out on the track. The strategy worked so well Mark took the lead under that caution flag and went on to beat his arch rival for that year's title, Dale Earnhardt by three seconds.
But even while Mark was basking in the glow of victory lane, chilling news worse than the Richmond weather was emerging from the inspection barn. NASCAR had discovered the spacer plate that goes between the carburetor and intake manifold of a race car engine was one half an inch too thick. In actuality that spacer would have been legal had it been welded to the intake manifold, rather than slipped over the carb studs, but somehow that had been overlooked back at the shop. Pemberton protested rules instituted that year had allowed teams to legally lower the engines in their cars one inch. In order to raise the air cleaner back to a height it could take advantage of the cowl induction effect, he needed a little bit more spacer.
While the half inch spacer may seem a less severe rules infraction than an oversize engine and illegally mounted tires, Martin and the Roush team were fined $40,000, more than Petty had paid for his misdeeds. More importantly, NASCAR stripped Martin of 46 valuable Winston Cup points, to give him the total he would have received had he been the last car to finish on the lead lap.
Still it was early in the season, and there were still 27 races to run. Mark had a fine year and scored three wins and 23 top ten finishes in 29 events. Unfortunately for Mark, Dale Earnhardt also had a great year. When the final points total was tallied at the end of the year, Earnhardt had edged out Martin by a mere 26 points to take the championship. Those 46 points lost at Richmond had decided the outcome of the race. How much did Mark miss winning the Winston Cup by? Oh, about half an inch.
Richmondgate- Naturally, NASCAR is faced with a difficult decision as what to do when a car is found to be illegal after a race, but if in pre-race inspection a car fails tech the solution should be fairly simple, no? The team either brings the car into compliance with the rules, or they go home, logic would say. Not always, as it turns out.
At the Spring event at Richmond in 1971, some big name drivers were found to have big time illegal modifications to their cars. Richard Petty was found to have the engine set too far back to the rear in his car from the factory location, and the wheelbase (Distance between the center of the front and rear wheels) had been altered as well, which was strictly against the rules. The cars of Benny Parsons and James Hylton were caught with similar illegal modifications. Curiously, Bobby Allison had missed technical inspection and qualifying, after being warned of the crackdown. Qualifying took place and the posted 25-car field was filled with Dave Marcis taking the pole.
Recall NASCAR racing in those days was very different than today's racing. The sport was still struggling to survive after the recent pullout of the factories, whose bushels of money had been the mother's milk of the sport. Also races didn't always, or even usually, sell out in those days. You could walk up to the ticket window at just about any track on the day of the event and purchase a good seat. With some of NASCAR's biggest names, including Allison and Petty, not in the race, Richmond owner and promoter Paul Sawyer feared he was going to take a bath at the turnstiles, that could possibly shut down his track.
Sawyer sat down with NASCAR, and in an unprecedented move, it was decided that the four drivers who had failed tech inspection could start at the back of the field which would be expanded to thirty cars for the race. All they needed to do was make their cars legal to gain entry to the race.
You might think that Richard Petty would have hollered "Hoo Ray for me!" and hurried off to the shop at Level Cross to get a legal car. Instead, he had to awkwardly admit that maybe there weren't any cars back home that would pass tech either. Allison admitted the same. There was another meeting between Sawyer and NASCAR and it was decided the illegal cars could run anyway, but they would need to have a smaller restrictor plate to cut down on their horsepower. In the interim a post qualifying inspection revealed the gas tank in Bobby Isaac's K and K Dodge was positioned a bit low according to the rules. While that was a much more minor rules infraction Isaac and the 71 team were told they had to run the little restrictor plate too.
The little restrictor plates turned out to be a case of "too little too late." Richard Petty charged from the back of the field and dominated the race, beating Bobby Isaac by two laps. In fact, all four of the top finishers were cars that had been found to be illegal before the race started, and three of them, Petty, Allison and Parsons, hadn't even qualified for the event.
Fifth place went to Dave Marcis, the pole winner, in a Dodge he owned himself. Dave was a mere ten laps off the blistering pace Petty set. A clearly frustrated Marcis told a reporter in a post race interview he wanted to head over to the inspection barn, to see if by chance, NASCAR had found out Richard's car was illegal.
Message In a Bottle- So what happens to a driver who doesn't drive for Junior Johnson or Petty Enterprises, and gets caught cheating? Look at the rotten day D.K. Ulrich had at the 1978 Southern 500. Ulrich was one of NASCAR's legendary independents who kept showing up week after week, and plugging away, though he was badly outgunned by the drivers with big name sponsors, with one top five finish to show for 273 starts in the Winston Cup series.
That day at Darlington Ulrich was already laps down when Grant Adcox, who died a decade later racing at Atlanta, lost control and slammed the wall. Adcox's machine came off the wall in D.K.'s path and the impact was horrendous, tearing away most of the right side sheetmetal of the only race car Ulrich owned. He was removed from the car unconscious, but fortunately was not critically injured, though he spent days in the hospital bruised and cut from head to foot. More bad news followed, while DK was still in the hospital. NASCAR had inspected the car, and with the sheetmetal torn away, found a nitrous oxide bottle in the space above the rear wheel well, behind the quarter panel. Ulrich was fined $2000 and suspended from competition for the rest of the season. Sometimes the rules do apply.
Bananagate- Some of the above incidents may seem a bit bizarre but in NASCAR history there has never been any car quite as blatantly illegal as "The Yellow Banana" owned by (you guessed it….) Junior Johnson. The fact any car owner would have the nerve to show up at the track with such an obviously illegal car is baffling. The fact NASCAR decided it was legal and let it race anyway defies belief. A car NASCAR knew wasn't legal was not only allowed to race, but begged to race.
A little background is in order. NASCAR had two rough years in 1965 and 1966 that threatened the sanctioning body's very existence (See the Speedworld History articles, Chrysler Plays Hard Ball, and Ford Strikes Out, for more details.) In 1965 Chrysler pulled its teams, including that of defending champion Richard Petty, from NASCAR competition, after the infamous Hemi engine ban. Fords dominated that season, and the fans stayed away in droves. In 1966, NASCAR allowed the Hemis is certain body styles, but refused the Ford 427 SOHC engine's use in sanctioned events. Early in the 1966 season Ford started a boycott of its own, and once again the defending champion, Ned Jarrett, was removed from the series. Even worse, track promoters were angry over bad ticket sales and beginning to discuss sanctioning races put on by NASCAR's rival stock car racing league, USAC.
NASCAR and Bill France sensed some dissension in the ranks of the Ford drivers, who were tired of politics and just wanted to go racing. None of those drivers was willing to be first to break ranks and bite the hand that fed them, the Ford Motor Company and the huge amount of money it spent on racing.
Junior Johnson was the first big-name owner to risk the wrath of the company and brought a Ford to the Atlanta race in August of that year. Well it was sort of a Ford, and sort of a space ship. It certainly didn't resemble any car Ford had ever manufactured. (Maybe they should have called it a Taurus, because saying it was a Galaxie was pure bull.) The roof had been lowered over three inches and narrowed as well. The car sat so low the top of the front rims were about even with the sheetmetal. The windshield was laid back about 20 degrees from stock, another aerodynamic concession. The entire rear end of the car, from the rear window backwards was bent up at an angle to turn the trunk lid into a huge spoiler.
Certainly no Ford owner, however hopelessly ignorant about cars, was going to look at that yellow thing in the garage area at Atlanta and say it was the same sort of car they parked in the driveway at night. A reasonably intelligent 6 year old could have told that car was all wrong at 20 paces. If they'd parked a stock Ford next the Yellow Banana a blind man could have figured out something was fishy in under five seconds. NASCAR's careful team of inspectors looked over the car, said it looked all right to them, and declared it legal, even while other competitors howled in anguish and pointed out the areas the car didn't meet specification
Why? Because that car had a blue Ford oval on the grill, and better yet it was to be driven by Fred Lorenzen, one of the most popular drivers of that era, second, perhaps only to Richard Petty.
Even more baffling was NASCAR strictly enforced the rules on some other cars, failing the Cotton Owens Dodge driven by then points leader David Pearson for a device that allowed Pearson to lower the car an inch during the race. Owens pulled his car from the event in protest.
Lorenzen and his space ship qualified third and led the race early. A blown tire put Fred into the wall about the midpoint of the race and he wound up 23rd in the final running order. Still NASCAR's allowing the Yellow Banana to race had served its purpose. Other Ford teams announced they were going to defy the boycott too. Ford had seen all the applause and attention Fred and his fast Ford had earned, and threw in the towel. The Boycott was all but over.
NASCAR thanked Junior for his help, then politely asked he never bring that particular car to the track again, warning it would not pass inspection. Somewhere during the course of the race, perhaps NASCAR noticed it did look a little peculiar, I suppose. Though it only raced one time, Junior Johnson's Yellow Banana remains the most controversial car ever to run in a NASCAR event, a legacy I bet old Junior is pretty damn proud of.
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