Lets Go Back To The Old Definition Of Cheating
(This is the second in a series of articles with one person’s suggestions about how to bring the excitement – and the fans – back to NASCAR traveling series racing.)
There’s a bit of inconsistency among NASCAR fans who’ve been fans for a while (since this includes me, I’m refraining from using the term “old-timers”). Many of them will criticize Daytona for going easy on Chad Knaus when he’s caught slipping a bit over the edge of legality as it’s defined in NASCAR’s rulebook, then they’ll turn around and lament that Smokey Yunick isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
Some of the many victories scored by the Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus team may have gotten
extra help from Knaus’ “innovations,” but cheating has become a major NASCAR no-no at about
the same time that the sport’s growth has turned into a downhill slalom. Coincidence?
I know; we’re like that. We also lament the lack of excitement in a race where 17 cars finish on the lead lap and then gaze back longingly to that 500-miler from a few decades back when the winner lapped the field and the fifth-place finisher was 10-15 miles behind. They don’t have a correction in your eye-glasses prescription for that.
Here’s the thing that makes this even weirder: most of the stuff Chad gets caught doing (and the same goes for his peers who run afoul of all that laser and digital measuring) wouldn’t have even gotten anybody’s attention back in Smokey’s day; that’s when cheating was CHEATING!
(Just for the record, I don’t include newer fans in this generalization because all they know about cheating is that it causes outrage among those writers/commentators/bloggers/mouthing-off-ers whose job it is to be outraged enough that somebody will pay attention to them.)
Smokey Yunick was known for making cars go fast, but he was even better known for
HOW he made them go fast. He innovated (ever see an Indy car like the one here?), but
he also worked around the rules, and both of those actions drew fans to the track.
My pitch today for righting the sinking ship of NASCAR is that we need to take a step or two back in Smokey’s direction. No, don’t make it legal to cheat; just make it understandable what someone’s done when caught and why it was done.
The change I’d like to undo took place a good while ago – probably 20 years – but it’s now reached the point where it’s a deterrent to the health of the sport. Back in Smokey Yunick’s day, something was legal unless the NASCAR rulebook said it was illegal. Today, something is illegal unless the rulebook says specifically that it’s legal – and NASCAR is the sole interpreter of what the book says and means.
The change stunts innovation. Really, it makes innovation illegal, so you don’t see a crafty guy like Bobby Allison fielding a smaller Chevy Chevelle with a smaller motor to run against the big-engine Chevy Impalas and Ford Galaxies – and win some races. Try that today.
It’s the same with Indy Car racing, which I think explains some of the downturn there. How could Andy Granatelli enter a turbine-engined car in the Indy 500 today? For that matter, how about the less-wise visionary who entered an Indy car with a little engine for each wheel?
As with the four-engine Indy car, change doesn’t always destroy competition; sometimes, it just makes things more fun.
Before American Motors had its brief fling with Allison and a few others driving factory Matadors, Larry Hess built an AMC Ambassador and ran some Grand National races. He had very little success, but it gave people something to talk about. Henly Gray built a Ford Thunderbird when everyone else was running Fairlanes or Galaxies, and in the same way, it didn’t do squat, but it was interesting.
Junior Johnson also could bend the rules with the best, as he showed in 1966 with the
“Yellow Banana” Ford, shown here on the track and in comparison with a stock Ford. Today,
of course, the NASCAR-created “stock cars” look nothing like their street counterparts.
Today’s NASCAR is like seeing the same two people play chess or checkers every week: same pieces, same moves, and same limited number of outcomes. Stick a couple of Monopoly pieces on the checkerboard, and regardless of how they affect the game, they draw interest, which, increasingly, NASCAR doesn’t.
(Let’s see . . . this started off being about cheating, and it’s kind of wandered off. Better get to the point, Frank.)
The point, I think, is that this is another area where NASCAR’s effort to standardize cars has turned out badly and needs to be re-examined. We need to see the drivers win races by driving better than the rest, not just by communicating best with their crew chiefs or having the most money and largest teams. We need to see the crew chiefs (and assorted others) come up with tricks that make their cars fastest, then watch everybody else try to catch up.
We need a rulebook that says, “These are the limits, and within them, do whatever you want . . . understanding that if you suddenly are 20 miles-per-hour faster than everybody else, and the rest can’t figure it out, we might ‘tweak’ things to even the playing field again.”
We need for the inspectors to leave the lasers at home.
Of course, the extension here is that we need to dumb down the cars so that some innovation is possible without just having $20 million more than the other teams to innovate with. Smokey Yunick was probably tight with a lot of folks at General Motors, but he seldom had a major sponsor, and in some years, the size of his operation wouldn’t keep a K&N East team going today.
Major reductions in the cost of cars also would mean that NASCAR rule fixes (whether arbitrary or not) would be affordable to comply with, and it would open the door to new teams (assuming we also ditch the worst of all the changes, the charter system).
Another Allison Chevelle or a black-and-gold Smokey Yunick mystery car would get more attention than whether Michael Waltrip can fit into his driver’s suit one more time, and I think it would bring out more fans, too. Bring back the “Best Damn Garage in Town” and maybe you’ll be able to stop tearing out seats.
This is just an awesome photo of an awesome person.
Frank’s Xtra: Some thoughts about a great article by the ‘Godfather’
You really need to read “Godfather” Dave Moody’s article about declining attendance in other sports and what keeps them propped up despite the empty seats:
If ESPN can promote sorry college football bowl games just so there’s something to put on the air and sell advertising, why can’t my Wednesday “Cup Classics” series or indoor racing in the winter? If enough people watched some of those turkeys (I won’t mention any specific games, because they might involve your favorite team, awful as its 2016 season was) to sell beer, pizza and bedroom enhancement supplies, surely we could put on a 100-lapper at South Boston Speedway with some Monster/Xfinity/Camping World competitors and pay the bills.
(We might also be able to do some of the weirder things I’ll suggest in upcoming articles.)
Finally, I’ll try to rile my Chase-hating colleagues with Moody’s concluding paragraph:
“Here’s some good news for NASCAR. Today’s oversaturated, “More Is Better” slate of College Bowl games has diminished the importance of all but the final three - semifinal and final - events. NASCAR has only 10 playoff games, and each one includes every fan’s favorite team, whether they’re playing for the championship or not.”
Rock on, Godfather.