50 Years of nascar racing ~ Those Cheatin' Ways (Post 3)
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.
Think of NASCAR stock car racing history and a lot of things have remained constant over the years; three-wide racing on the superspeedways, a little bumping and thumping on the short tracks, and frantic last lap dashes that prove, "it ain't over until it's over." And of course cheating. "Cheating" is one of the most hot button words in the English language. Accuse another player of cheating, even in a friendly card game, and you better be ready to use your fists to defend your opinion and dental work. To avoid enraging any fans of a particular driver or car owner, let's define cheating, not as an attempt to steal a victory or two, but the creative process of circumventing existing rules, exploiting inadvertent loopholes left open by the rule books, and bending rules right to the limit, though in some cases somebody should have heard a loud snap. During his days as a car owner for Mark Donohue's Trans Am series Camaro, Roger Penske coined one of the neatest euphemisms for cheating, labeling it "the unfair advantage." Even the King of Stock Car Racing, Richard Petty, was once quoted as saying to avoid getting caught, you had to "cheat neat." Almost as interesting as some of the hi-jinx that have gone on, are NASCAR's approach to catching, punishing and occasionally condoning cheating.
If they were ever to open an "Unfair Advantage Museum" at Daytona USA, there would be two cars placed on revolving turntables and illuminated by floodlights. Coincidentally, they raced at the same period of time. First of course, would be Junior Johnson's infamous Yellow Banana, supposedly a 66 Ford Galaxie, though it resembled the production version of the car about as much as John Force's Mustang funny car looks like your buddy's GT. The Yellow Banana's roof had been chopped in classic hot rod fashion so that it was some five inches lower than its street counterpart. The windshield had been laid back some 20 degrees. The entire rear end of the car had been bent upwards to serve as a crude sort of spoiler, and the front A arms had been relocated to put the car's nose in the weeds. All of which was of course, illegal. Heck, Stevie Wonder could have told that car wasn't right from 20 paces. So when it reached the inspection garage with a Greek Chorus of competitors wailing and pointing to the areas that didn't conform with the rules, the NASCAR inspectors had a look at the Yellow Banana, AND DECIDED IT WAS LEGAL! Why? Well Chrysler had boycotted the 65 season when Hemis were banned. And Ford was using the same tactic in 66. Johnson was willing to break the boycott and race his Ford of sorts, which NASCAR hoped would induce other Ford teams to do the same. Probably enjoying all the fuss was the owner of another car in the inspection line, the legendary Smokey Yunick, standing alongside his infamous black and gold number 13 Chevelle. Compared to the Yellow Banana the Chevelle looked bone stock. Unless it was parked alongside its street counterpart, which would have revealed the race car was a 7/8's replica of what Chevy was selling. A careful inspection would also have revealed a primitive spoiler built into the rear end of the cars roof line. And again it passed. See, General Motors had withdrawn from auto racing and NASCAR was hoping… you get the idea. And while they overlooked those "minor" inconsistencies NASCAR did fail LeeRoy Yarbrough's car for having blocks of wood in the springs, intended to fall out during the race and let the car sit lower than the rules mandated. Not a very neat solution. Much better was the device on David Pearson's car that was cable operated and lowered the car when the driver yanked the cable. NASCAR caught that little gizmo as well, and the car's owner, Cotton Owens, was so enraged the Yellow Banana had passed and his car failed, he withdrew from the race, though Pearson was leading the points chase at that time.
Even if Yunick's Chevelle must sit in the shadows of the Yellow Banana as the most blatantly illegal car ever to race, Yunick himself has to get the "Five Aces In The Deck Trophy For Most Creative Rule Bending." Stories of the "unfair advantages" Smokey tried to slip by NASCAR are the stuff of legends. When NASCAR mandated a maximum fuel tank size, Smokey noticed there was no rule about the length of the fuel line and ran a fuel line back and forth the length of the car four times, allowing his drivers to carry an extra five gallons of gas. When NASCAR nixed that idea, he devised an inflatable bladder inside the fuel tank. When pulling up to the pumps after a race, the driver simply inflated the basketball sized bladder located in the oversize fuel tank, and it would test as legal. Yunick's biggest run-in with NASCAR was during tech inspection for the 68 Daytona 500. Well aware of Yunick's "creativity", NASCAR inspectors went over his Chevy with a fine tooth comb, even pulling out the fuel tank to measure it and be certain there were no inflatable bladders inside it. After going over the car stem to stern, the inspectors presented Smokey with a list of nine items that had to corrected before the car would pass inspection, ranging from minor ones, like the door handles were of the wrong sort, to the major sticking point, the fact the frame was custom made and not a production Chevrolet piece as was required. Smokey took out his glasses and read over the list calmly, then announced "You better make it ten", hopped in his race car and drove off down the beach… leaving the fuel tank still sitting in the inspection station.
As mentioned, sometimes the "cheating" was actually exploiting a "loophole" left open in the rule book. Certainly some people had to be scratching their heads when LeeRoy Yarbrough started the 69 Firecracker 400 with the tailpipes exiting under the rear bumper, rather than out the sides as was common practice. But the rule books said nothing about where the tailpipes had to come out of the car so he was allowed to run them that way. As it turned out, when other drivers tried to draft off LeeRoy's car, the hot exhaust gases blowing directly into their radiator caused the car behind his to overheat. Not to mention getting that car's driver sick and woozy from breathing carbon monoxide. Yarbrough won the race. NASCAR rewrote the rules to say tailpipes had to come out the sides of the car.
An even harder type of cheating to police is secret agreements made between drivers or their teams. Witness the 1975 running of the Delaware 500 at Dover. With fifteen laps to go Richard Petty got back on the lead lap, but without a caution there was no way he could catch the leaders for the win with that few laps remaining. Enter Buddy Arrington, who stopped his car high in turn four for unknown reasons. NASCAR decided he was not in the racing groove so they didn't throw the yellow. Arrington drove back into his pits, and after a brief consultation with his crew chief, drove back onto the track and parked the car in the racing lane of the third turn. The officials had no choice but to throw the yellow, allowing Petty to make up the distance and restart on the rear bumper of the lead cars. He eventually won the race as a result. Why would Arrington do such a thing to help Richard? Perhaps it had something to do with the transport truck Petty Enterprises had sold him that week. Wonder if the check ever cleared?
Of course there are times a driver needs a little help to win a race and there just isn't a handy competitor willing to take a dive. In a situation like that the old axiom, "There's no substitute for cubic inches" comes into play. But of course there are those nasty rules limiting the size of the engines that have to be ignored. Ironically the same driver, at the same track, Richard Petty at Charlotte, in 73 and 83, caused a firestorm of controversy concerning oversized engines. A lot of competitors were adamant the cheating was getting way out of hand in 1973. Even prior to the race one driver, Charlie Glotzbach, got caught in a surprise inspection with a device that allowed him to swivel the mandated restrictor plate out of the way of the carb after having won the pole. Prior to the race Bobby Allison announced he planned to post the required $100 inspection fee to have any car that beat him looked over after the race. So everyone was on their best behavior, right? Not as it turned out. Bobby Allison finished a distant third, three laps behind race winner Cale Yarborough, driving for old Mr. Banana himself, (Junior Johnson) and second place finisher Richard Petty. As he had said he would, Allison posted the two hundred dollars to have the cars inspected. NASCAR returned the money saying they would do the inspection as part of the sanctioning body's effort to control cheating. And for appearances sake they also announced they were also inspecting Allison's car. Prior to the inspection Allison claimed he saw crew members from Petty's crew run over and using rags to hide what they were up to, remove something from the engine compartment, while a nearby NASCAR official conveniently turned his back. Allison's car passed quickly, but there was obviously something up in the inspection garage, as the post race inspection dragged on six hours. Rumors were circulating Petty's engine was a little oversize and Yarborough's was way out of line. An official statement was released the measurements taken would be forwarded to NASCAR's headquarters in Daytona for review and an announcement would be made the next day. Bobby Allison went to bed that night confident the other two cars would be disqualified and he would be awarded the win. The next day NASCAR announced their post race inspection procedure was "inadequate" to determine the size of the engines and as such the results would stand. As a sop to Allison they announced in the future they would test engines at random after a race. He was not appeased. In fact, Bobby threatened not only to quit racing, but to sue NASCAR. Bill France and Allison eventually had a long meeting and Allison decided not to quit the sport or sue NASCAR after all. It is widely thought he received a pretty hefty check to change his mind, an allegation he would neither confirm or deny.
A decade later, Richard Petty won his 198th race at Charlotte, and in the process set off yet another firestorm. On his last pit stop, the one right before his previously not too impressive car turned into a rocket ship, Petty's crew members had installed left side tires on the right side of the car to give Petty extra grip in the corners. They would later admit this infraction of the rules was done on purpose, after seeing their driver badly outgunned. A similar infraction during the race at Martinsville earlier that year had resulted in NASCAR penalizing Tim Richmond five laps so the victory was very much in question. And it was even more so after a post race inspection showed the engine in the 43 car a whopping 23 cubic inches oversize. The mess that followed, "Pettygate" as it was dubbed, was almost comic. Petty's pit crew and engine builder quickly admitted they had cheated but said Richard knew nothing about it. Petty admitted being a bit out of touch with what was going on at his shop, and guessed his team had "misunderstood" when he said they needed more horsepower. The crew chief, Robin Pemberton, said the team was just trying to keep up with all the other teams that were cheating as well. Eventually NASCAR decided to let the win stand, but penalized Petty $35,000 and took away 104 points, in a bizarre attempt to not let him make up any ground on Benny Parsons who was trailing behind him in points. Asked to defend their decision, in one of the least forthcoming statements ever issued, NASCAR's Bill Gazaway said "The rationale, the whys and what have you is 'that's that' - and that's the end of the discussion." In another attempt to lock the barn door after the horse was gone, NASCAR announced in the future any driver caught with an oversize engine would be suspended for 12 weeks or three races, whichever was longer. Petty had some surprising detractors and supporters. An enraged Junior Johnson announced the blatant acceptance of cheating would set the sport back for years. Bobby Allison on the other hand, was more diplomatic and said that next to him, Richard Petty cheated less than anyone on the circuit.
Not that Allison hadn't had a run in or two with the rules in the decade between the two oversized engine flaps. Allison won the last race of the 74 season at Ontario. In an apparent attempt to overcome one of the two "canine problems" (they were coyote ugly and dog slow) with the AMC Matador race car owned by Roger "Unfair Advantage" Penske, the engine builder had installed illegal roller rocker arms. Allison was fined $9,100 but allowed to keep the victory and points. Then during the 82 Daytona 500, the rear bumper on Allison's DiGard Buick just happened to fall off after an early race love tap. Running a Regal sans a rear bumper, coincidentally of course, had been shown in the wind tunnel to be worth three more miles per hour down the straights. Allison went on to win the race. A lot of fingers were pointed but no fines were ever imposed. The crew chief on Allison's Buick that day? None other than Gary Nelson, now NASCAR's chief watchdog against cheating.
Certainly Junior Johnson should have chosen his words a bit more carefully after the Pettygate scandal. It was widely rumored that his car, driven by Darrell Waltrip to a win in the inaugural Winston, had an oversized motor. Of course that was hard to prove because the engine in question just happened to explode as Darrell crossed the finish line. But in the same event in 1991 he got caught with an oversized engine and suspended four races. Of course during the suspension a car with the same sponsor and driver as Junior's ran all the events . Geoff Bodine drove with the number 97 on his doors rather then 11, driving for one Flossie Johnson... Junior's wife.
One of the most ingenious contraptions ever discovered was a fuel cooling system that was found on the Hoss Ellington prepared Chevy that Sterling Marlin drove at the 1986 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. During a routine inspection, NASCAR officials noticed a small, extra line coming out of the fuel pump. The line was traced all the way to the front of the Monte Carlo which led into some foam padding. When the padding was removed, a metal box was found that had copper coils spiraling through it, which was filled with dry ice. The intention of the contraption was to cool the fuel several degrees, which would have an enormous horsepower advantage. Ellington was fined $5,000 and the device was confiscated by NASCAR.
Certainly the most famous penalty for cheating this decade was levied against Mark Martin at the Richmond race in February of 1990. His car was found to have an illegal carb-spacer and his team was fined $40,000, and docked 46 points in the Winston Cup chase. Had those points not been taken away Martin, not Earnhardt, would have been the Winston Cup champion in 1990.
Many attempts were made by Darrell Waltrip in the late 70's to find a way around the then 3,500-pound weight requirement on the cars. In one case, Darrell Waltrip had a device that looked like a two-way radio, had an antenna like a radio, a dial like a radio, and wires like a radio, but was by no means a radio. Instead it was a 26-pound lead brick designed to simulate a radio. The intent was to replace the fake radio with a real radio during qualifying, to give Darrell a weight advantage. In 1978, Waltrip had a phenomenal year in a car nicknamed "Bertha." It also turned out the car was illegal for most of the season. The car met the minimum weight requirement with the help of nearly 80 pounds of buckshot pellets that were discharged during the pace laps. Amazingly, the hiding place of the pellets was never discovered by NASCAR. However, one time then crew chief Gary Nelson, ironically today's top official in inspection, was sure the team would be caught. But when the inspectors told the team to jack up the car, they knew they were home free, as the jack was hiding the place where the buckshot was kept.
Some say the "good old days" of cheating ended at the beginning of the 92 season when the same Gary Nelson who bent the rules for Darrell Waltrip, among others, became NASCAR's director of competition. Coincidentally enough, only 4 cars made it through inspection on their first attempt at that year's Daytona 500. Perhaps a little birdie told Mr. Nelson where to look? Or maybe he just consulted his own notes.
The two times a win has been in serious question lately, both involved the same driver, Rusty Wallace, who co-owns his team with Roger Penske of course. Last year at Sonoma his car was thought to be too low, though it was later decided because of the cold temperatures the air pressure was low in the tires. Wonder why they didn't reinflate them and measure again? I hasten to add Rusty's car was not the only one borderline because of its height, and an off track excursion could have damaged some suspension components, lowering the car just a bit. Then of course, we had the engine compression question at Richmond earlier this year, that took more than 24 hours to settle. Again, the engine was found to be legal, but it shows as competitive as the series is today, teams have to run right up to the jagged edge of the rules to be competitive. And perhaps occasionally beyond?
Rumors persist that some teams are using a traction enhancer on their tires, particularly for qualifying. There has also been whispering for years now some teams are employing an illegal traction control system. I'll mention no names since nothing has ever been proven, but NASCAR has been looking. Expect some pretty stiff penalties if someone gets caught. Don't expect to see a race winner stripped of his victory, as NASCAR has stated they are loathe to decide someone else won a race after the crowd leaves or switches off their TV.
Of course there's that one illegal car I left out, the 69 Ford driven in the inaugural race at Talladega I mentioned last week. The engine was set back six foot from its stock location for better weight distribution in clear violation of the rules. The set back required some pretty ham handed modification to the firewall that should have been evident to even a casual observer. The car was allowed to race and finished ninth with Tiny Lund at the wheel. The car's owner? Bill France, who also owned the track and of course NASCAR. If you can't beat them, join them I suppose. Unless of course you're already them.
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