Those Cheatin' Ways!
In the inaugural race at Talladega, a 69 Ford had its engine set back six inches to a foot from it's stock location for better weight distribution in clear violation of the rules. The set back required some pretty high 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.
Hmmmmmmmmmmmm!!?? Let me see here.
NASCAR employees (who make $30-50,000 per year) wink at some teams and owners (who have multi-million dollar per year budgets) and smack the hands of others. "Don't worry if your engine appears a little too strong today, Hoss. I don't reckon we'll be checkin' that too careful like."
When NASCAR hosted its inaugural Strictly Stock race way back in 1949 at the old three-quarter-mile Charlotte Speedway dirt track, winner Glenn Dunnaway was disqualified when a post-race inspection revealed that his 1947 Ford had illegal springs. It would be only the first of many controversial fights between teams and NASCAR over the coming half century.
Dunnaway's car was built to haul moonshine, and used the special springs to cope with the extra weight of the illegal hootch. But Major Al Crisler, NASCAR's first tech inspector, said the springs didn't pass muster and instead awarded the victory to Jim Roper, who had finished second on the track in his Lincoln.
Hubert Westmoreland, a veteran moonshine runner and owner of the car Dunnaway raced, was so incensed by the disqualification that he sued NASCAR over it. Westmoreland sought $10,000 in damages, a fortune back in those days, but Greensboro (NC) Judge John J. Hayes threw the case out of court, setting a legal precedent that recognized NASCAR's absolute power over its own races.
Nearly 50 years later, a lot of things have changed, but NASCAR's iron rule hasn't - nor has the never-ending game of cops-and-robbers played between the sanctioning body's inspectors and wily car owners and crew chiefs. And over the long and storied 50 year history of NASCAR, there have been some colossal battles of wits between the teams and the inspectors, some comical, some serious, some verging on the tragic.
The names of those caught skirting the rule book read like a "Who's Who" in NASCAR history: Tim Flock, Smokey Yunick, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bobby Allison. Richard Petty, Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Ray Evernham ... the list goes on and on, almost as if it's some kind of badge of honor.
Trying to stretch the rules has long been an accepted tactic in NASCAR. Or as Darrell Waltrip said after having his qualifying time for the 1976 Daytona 500 disallowed: "If you don't cheat, you look like an idiot. If you do it and you don't get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me in the category where I belong."
Teams have stretched the rules in every way imaginable. They've used oversized gas tanks and fuel lines; big engines and carburetors; components fashioned from lead to add weight or titanium to reduce it; tires soaked in chemicals to improve adhesion; illegal clutches, flywheels, camshafts and rollers; bogus body work; retractable fenders and spoilers; cheater carburetors and nitrous oxide. You name it, somebody's tried it.
Yet through it all, three tales of rules bending stand out head and shoulders above the others. The first occurred in 1966 at the Dixie 500 in Atlanta. Ford had sat out most of the season up to that point in a rules dispute with NASCAR, winning only a handful of the first 36 races of the year. But with race attendance falling off drastically, NASCAR needed Ford and some big-name teams and drivers back in the sport in a hurry.
In early August, Ford made its return in the form of car owner Junior Johnson's Ford, which came to be known as the "Yellow Banana," a 1966 Ford Galaxie to be driven in the Dixie 500 by Fred Lorenzen.
Nothing about the car's lines even remotely resembled those of a production Galaxie: Its windshield was steeply raked back, its tail curved upward, its front snout dropped. Clearly, the roof had been chopped.
Smokey Yunick, who like Johnson was a master of skirting the rules, showed up with an equally outrageous Chevrolet Chevelle for Curtis Turner, complete with an offset chassis and a roof spoiler.
But when those two cars passed tech inspection while three others were disqualified for much lesser infractions, tempers flared. "If you're in a fight and your opponent has a glove filled with lead, who's going to win?" said former Ford factory driver Bobby Johns of the Yellow Banana. "It's very obvious to the eye what a laugh that car is."
While Turner and Lorenzen qualified first and third, respectively, both fell out early in the race due to mechanical problems. According to the book, "Forty Years of Stock Car Racing" by Greg Fielden, NASCAR founder and president "Big Bill" France reportedly admitted the two cars were illegal but were allowed to run because they had been assembled just prior to the race. But under pressure from other competitors and track promoters, NASCAR cracked down.
Junior never ran the "Yellow Banana" body again after Atlanta, and Smokey's car ran only twice that season. For 1967, NASCAR instituted the use of body templates to help prevent recurring problems with its cars.
Yunick, meanwhile, pulled out of the '68 Daytona 500 after a fight with France over the inspection process, although he denied the oft-repeated rumor that he drove the car away from the track after NASCAR inspectors had removed its gas tank. "The next day I picked up the morning paper and it said I drove out on an empty tank," Yunick told American Racing Classics in 1992. "I went back and asked France what kind of shit he was putting out. He said, 'That's what the inspector said.'... I got the inspector and dragged him over to France.... Finally, he told France that I ... poured gas into it."
But if the days of Junior and Smokey in the '60s represented the lighter side of rules breaking, the dark side would rear its ugly head in 1983. Richard Petty, already a legend and a seven-time champion, won the Miller High Life 500 at Charlotte that October, only to be found with an engine that was nearly 392 cubic inches when the allowable maximum was 358 cubic inches.
The engine's cylinders reportedly contained wax, which melted and burned off as the race went on. Petty was also found to have violated NASCAR rules by using left side tires on his car's right side. For Petty, who was virtually a poster boy for NASCAR and family values, it was a devastating blow to his reputation. He was allowed to keep the win, but the price of triumph was high. He was stripped of 104 Winston Cup points and fined $35,000, at that time the largest monetary penalty in NASCAR history.
Petty at first said he was just the team's driver and the engines were the responsibility of brother Maurice. "I did it and I'm not sure I wouldn't do it again under similar circumstances," Maurice said at the time. "What I don't like is people calling my brother Richard the cheater.
Just exactly what the "similar circumstances" Maurice alluded to were never fully explained, although he was thought to be angered by other teams flaunting the rules.
Competitors to the Petty Enterprises team were incensed that NASCAR's winningest driver was allowed to keep the Charlotte victory. "NASCAR is crookeder than what Petty has done," said Johnson, himself no stranger to controversy surrounding alleged rule breaking. "In the future, the credibility of the sport will be called into question." Of course NASCAR and Johnson rarely saw eye to eye on such matters. The quick witted car owner once said of a suspension by NASCAR "If I was wrong, they was wronger.
But Bobby Allison, Petty's archrival, defended the "King's" integrity, noting a host of other teams had tried things far more devious. "In my opinion, Petty has shot straighter than anyone over the years," Allison said. "Anyone but me."
Petty's incident shook the NASCAR establishment to its foundation and made headlines nationwide. But it was months before the ramifications of the third and final cheating saga were fully understood.
Mark Martin won the 1990 Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond, but four and-a-half hours after the race, NASCAR determined his carburetor spacer - a piece that fit between the carburetor and the intake manifold - was 2.5 inches high, half an inch taller than the legal maximum.
At most, the extra half-inch was worth two to three horsepower, hardly the difference between winning or losing. Worse yet, the infraction was avoidable. The 2.5-inch spacer was bolted to the manifold. Had the team welded half an inch onto the manifold and then bolted a 2-inch spacer on top of it, the car would have been totally legal with the carburetor at exactly the same height.
Martin was stripped of 46 Winston Cup points, his Roush Racing team fined $40,000 and crew chief Robin Pemberton suspended for 30 days by team owner Jack Roush, a suspension that was later lifted. "This particular situation could turn into losses of millions of dollars in sponsorships (and) prize money," Pemberton said at the time.
Little did he know just how right his forecasting would prove to be. Martin would eventually lose the 1990 Winston Cup championship to Dale Earnhardt by just 26 points. And while Earnhardt would go on to claim four titles this decade, Martin is still looking for his first. "People are going to say we are cheating to win, but it's not like that," Martin said. "I look at cheating as something that's done to get an unfair advantage. What was done on our car didn't give us an advantage on anybody. It wasn't like we had a big engine or illegal tires."
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