#76 - Controversy... Let It Rage - Part 1
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
The 1998 Winston Cup season has seen its share of controversy, with several questionable flags thrown or not thrown (including those black flags that always seem to involve Rusty Wallace year after year) on track bumping incidents, and the infamous "whodunnit" concerning that piece of rollbar tubing wrapped in duct tape that somehow wound up on the track in Michigan. (My favorite bizarre conspiracy theory is the TV cameramen threw it because the race was getting boring.) But throughout its 50-year existence, NASCAR has always been dogged by the occasional controversy and the way they handle those problems sometimes defies all logic. Below are some of the great controversies in NASCAR History. (Authors Note: The name Richard Petty shows up in a great many of these incidents. Please don't interpret this as meaning I have anything but the utmost of respect for Richard Petty, and what he accomplished in his career. The King is in fact, and always will be, my favorite driver and hero. For every driver that gets caught, a dozen more get away. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.)
Pettygate- This may be the most famous example of controversy in the history of NASCAR racing. Richard Petty had been having a lackluster season by his lofty standards in 1983, having scored only two victories before going into a summertime slump during the meat of the schedule. As the tour arrived at Charlotte for the fall race, even loyal fans were beginning to wonder if Richard was over the hill and questions about his retirement dogged the King. Petty's own feelings on why he wasn't winning were simple. He felt the team was lagging behind in the horsepower department and asked his brother Maurice who ran the engine shop to step up the motor program.
That race didn't look like it was going to belong to the King either. Veteran Benny Parsons and rising star Tim Richmond seemed to be poised to decide the event between themselves. While Richard stayed on the lead lap, he had not led a single circuit that day. A late race crash by Greg Sacks sent all the leaders into the pits for a splash of gas and fresh rubber to get to the finish. Outstanding pit work on the part of Junior Johnson's team and the Petty Enterprises crew put Darrell Waltrip into the lead and Richard Petty in second.
On the very first lap after the green was waved, Petty showed unexpected muscle and blew by a shocked Darrell Waltrip coming out of turn two. From that point on no one could run with the King and Petty beat Waltrip to the line by over three seconds.
The fans were cheering wildly. To put Richard's win that day in perspective for newer fans, the reaction to a legend who had been in a slump finally winning again, was equivalent to this year's Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt won. Richard Petty was in victory lane accepting the adoration of his fans, but in the post-race inspection barn the mood was anything but ebullient. It was quickly noted there was a major problem with Petty's car and they didn't know the half of it yet. Bill France was summoned to the garage to see how he wanted to handle it. Not long after, Richard received word he better get to the garage area as well, as the win was very much in question at that point. Petty excused himself from reporters and hurried off to find out what was going on.
The first rules violation noted was simple to spot. In those days the Winston Cup teams ran bias ply tires as opposed to today's radials. The left side tires were considerably softer than the right sides to offer improved grip, since they wore less quickly. NASCAR had strict rules against running those left side tires on the right side of the car, because while it made the car considerably faster, the mis-mounted tires also wore very quickly, which could cause wrecks. The penalty for getting caught accidentally or purposely violating the tire rule was severe. The same season, Tim Richmond had been held five laps at Martinsville when a NASCAR inspector noted the team went all the way around with left hand tires. But there sat the famous 43 car with the serial numbers clearly indicating that there were left hand tires installed on the right side of the car. Either accidentally or by design, they had been mounted during that frantic last lap caution period. A dismayed Petty said "I just drive the car; I don't mount the tires."
Things were about to get dramatically worse. Part of the post-race inspection process calls for a check of engine displacement. Not only was Richard's engine oversize, it wasn't even close to complying with the rules. The rules allowed for a maximum of 358 cubic inches. Petty's measured at close to 382.
NASCAR was between a rock and a hard place. The 43 car was clearly illegal, but disqualifying the King was going to outrage his fans, and embarrass a driver who had devoted his life to the sport and his sponsor.
The decision was finally made that Richard Petty's win that day at Charlotte would be allowed to stand. NASCAR made some noise about it not being fair to the fans in the stands to leave the track thinking one driver had won, only to have an off track incident change the result. (One could argue an off track incident, the building of that oversize engine had already affected the outcome.) The King did not get off without penalty. He was fined $35,000 of the $40,400 he had earned with the win, at that point the largest fine ever in NASCAR history. He was also stripped of 104 Winston Cup points, the amount he would have lost for finishing five laps down. In a perfect example of locking the barn door after the horse is gone, NASCAR enacted severe new rules that suspended any driver caught with an oversize engine 12 weeks or three races, whichever was longer.
While Richard Petty walked away with his trophy, he was clearly upset by the incident. To this day he swears he did not know that his engine was oversize, and says his brother Maurice must have misinterpreted his insistence for more power under the hood. While not ready to retire, the King was upset that the incident cast a shadow over the rest of his illustrious career with people beginning to wonder if he was a great racer or a great cheater. In a move that stunned the racing community, that week Richard Petty announced he was leaving Petty Enterprises to drive for Mike Curb Racing, the team with which Petty would score his last two Winston Cup victories.
JUNIOR'S WHOPPER- At that very same track, Charlotte, ten years before the Pettygate debacle, there was another huge controversy caused by oversized engines. In that era teams were allowed to run big blocks, with a 431 cubic inch maximum, but for some teams that just wasn't enough.
Throughout the 1973 season rumors were rampant that this team or that was cheating, and that the only way to keep up was to cheat as well. Things were getting a bit out of hand, and Bobby Allison for one, was getting sick of it. He knew he had a good car, but week after week he was mysteriously getting his doors blown off, occasionally by independent drivers in qualifying. He made no secret of the fact he intended to post the required $100 bond to have NASCAR tear apart any car that beat him, to try to figure out why.
Allison had a decent run that day and he finished third. However, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, driving for Junior Johnson, had been in a class by themselves, and Allison had finished three laps behind them, with Yarborough edging out the King for the win. After the race, Allison tried to pull alongside Richard Petty in the garage area but was kept back by members of the 43 crew, one of whom Allison says he saw pull an air breather tube off the car. The implication was Petty had carried a bottle of that great horsepower enhancer, Nitrous Oxide aboard the car, and the gas was fed through that firewall into the air breather hose, which was purposely punctured prior to the race to let the nitrous reach the air filter. Such a trick was common in those days, and it wasn't unusual to see a half dozen nitrous bottles laying on the inside edge of the back straightaway after a race, as drivers disposed of the evidence before pulling into the garage area. A NASCAR official standing right there claimed he had seen no such thing take place, even as a crew member ran off with the telltale tube wrapped in a shop rag to dispose of it. NASCAR did note the hose was missing. Dale Inman said he guessed it had fallen off during the race, darn our luck.
Allison made good on his promise to file the one hundred dollar bond. NASCAR at first refused to accept the money, which Allison had carried in his pocket throughout the race so he could move quickly. Confronted with the rule book they relented, and finally gave his money back. NASCAR officials decided, just on the spur of the moment of course, they were going to look at all three of the top finishing cars, including Allison's. All three were rolled to the inspection barn, and angry confrontations between Allison and his crew and those of the other two teams being looked over threatened to boil over into fist fights. A normal post-race inspection takes less than an hour. Engine displacement is measured by a simple formula that multiplies the bore (diameter) and stroke (how far the piston moves up and down in the cylinder) and adds the combustion chamber volume of the engine. Any high school kid who stayed awake in geometry could have done the math. The problem quickly became apparent. Something was not right. Bill France had already left the track and was en route home in a plane. NASCAR's officials were trying desperately to reach him to ask what they should do. Even the legal department was being called in, because labeling a driver a cheater could land NASCAR in legal trouble if they could document their words. Word leaked out through the grapevine Allison's car was fine, and Petty's was in the dark side of the gray area as far as displacement (if a bit short of one hose) but Yarborough's Johnson prepared engine was a whopper in the neighborhood of 480 cubic inches. Still no official word was released. Meanwhile, things were getting even tenser outside. The owner and promoter of Charlotte in those days, Richard Howard, was outraged. Like every track owner, he paid to have NASCAR inspectors at his track three days to look over the cars prior to the event. He hinted if the results were changed as NASCAR was found to have overlooked something, he would sue the sanctioning body to get his money back.
To buy time, Bill Gazzaway, one of Gary Nelson's predecessors as NASCAR technical director, issued a prepared statement to the press. Initially he said that the engine measurements of the 11 car were being forwarded to NASCAR's corporate headquarters, and an official announcement as to who won the race would be made Monday. When asked by a reporter if that meant the Petty and Allison cars were legal, Gazzaway looked stricken, quickly changed course and said the measurements of all three cars in the inspection barn were being sent to NASCAR's headquarters, and excused himself, saying he had no further comment.
The decision issued the next day was stunning. NASCAR's official line was that the post-race inspection procedure had been "inadequate" ( though it had been run by their own people and wasn't all that hard to calculate) and as such, the results would stay as they were.
Allison was infuriated, threatened to quit NASCAR racing, and announced he planned to file suit against the sanctioning body. Allison did in fact withdraw his car from the season ending race at Rockingham. Officially, Bill France had no comment. On the very same day Allison was set to file his lawsuit, he and Bill France had a long meeting. After the meeting Allison announced he had received sufficient assurance NASCAR was going to clean up the sport and as such would not quit racing or file a lawsuit. France announced there were going to be tough new inspection rules the next season, and God help anyone who got caught cheating. Anyone. Not publicly discussed by either party beyond a few coy references by Allison, but widely held to be the case, NASCAR wrote Bobby a rather largish check in the course of that meeting, in the area of $50,000. Recall Benny Parsons, that year's Winston Cup champion only earned about $185,000 that season. The amount was what Bobby calculated he had lost in prize and Winston Cup bonus money for trying to run a legal car against illegal entries all year. That was the price Allison demanded to let the issue die quietly on the vine. Asked these days just how big that engine was, Junior Johnson, who has since retired from the sport, just smiles. "Well I don't rightfully remember, way back then…." he told a reporter grinning. “We never actually cheated. We just bent the rules some." And that, fans, is an even bigger whopper than Cale's engine at Charlotte in 1973.
Budgate - It might seem a case of "Deja vu all over again" but there was yet another case of an oversize engine at Charlotte in 1991, and it once again involved Junior Johnson. That year Junior was running a two-car operation, with the 11 car sponsored by Budweiser and driven by Geoff Bodine. Bodine was injured that week in a savage practice wreck that left him with several broken ribs and a punctured lung. Junior tapped journeyman driver Tommy Ellis to take the wheel of the Bud car at the upcoming Winston and World 600.
Ellis had an unspectacular run in the Winston, finishing 13th in a field of 20 cars. By that point, NASCAR post-race inspection was a lot of thorough and standardized, so a post-race inspection revealed the engine in Ellis's car was oversize. Unlike Cale's huge engine, the engine was 4 cubic inches oversize. By that era you had to "cheat neat" rather than be blatant about it with your fingers crossed.
Rules are rules and that engine was oversized. According to NASCAR rules instituted after the Pettygate debacle, Junior Johnson, crew chief Tim Brewer, and driver Tommy Ellis would have had to sit out the next 12 races.
That posed a bit of a problem. Budweiser, who sponsored the car, was a loyal supporter of the sport, and a long time sponsor in the Winston Cup ranks. The beer company was title sponsor of three races that year, including the very next race after Charlotte at Dover. Of course, that is one reason NASCAR had such draconian rules. Besides the loss of purse money and valuable Winston Cup points, a team owner suspended for cheating was going to have to explain to his high dollar sponsor why their 200 MPH billboard wasn't out there advertising their product, a powerful incentive to keep to the straight and narrow.
Almost immediately, NASCAR started reversing its own policies. The suspensions announced for Junior, Brewer and Ellis were four races. Then in another surprising decision, NASCAR announced that since Ellis wasn't actually part of the Junior Johnson team, just a hired gun, he wouldn't be suspended. That still left the fact that the Budweiser car wouldn't be running in the high profile World 600 at Charlotte, and the Budweiser 500 at Dover. But the Bud car made it after all.
With a wink and a nod from NASCAR, Junior transferred ownership of the Bud team to his wife Flossie, and the car would run with the number "97" rather than "11" since the 11 team was officially suspended. Of course, Budweiser wasn't so concerned with what number was on the door as those big Budweiser logos on the hood and quarter panels. Besides the "97" cars were the same stout entries from Junior's stable, with different decals on the doors, and a different signature on the "owner" line.
Ellis drove the 97 car at Charlotte and Dover. Bodine was healed up enough to return to the driver's seat of the "new" team at Sonoma and Pocono, where he finished 8th and 5th respectively. The properly chastened 11 team sprung from the ashes at Michigan, having endured their lengthy suspension.
While there is no hard evidence to support it, and stories about Junior Johnson are sometimes made just a bit more colorful as becomes a legend, many people say though he was officially banned from the track, Junior called the shots at those four races anyway. The stories vary as to how he managed that. Some say he watched the races at home on TV, phone in hand, calling the shots. Others put him in nearby taverns watching on a big screen TV, communicating via CB to the track. Others claim they saw Junior sneaking into the Bud suites as the races. The most colorful stories place Junior, lightly disguised with sunglasses and a ball cap worn low, right out there in the stands, wearing a two way radio just like the spotter's. However he managed it, you can bet Junior wasn't out plowing the back 40 those weekends, waiting for Flossie to get home and tell him how "her" team ran that day.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.