Racing On Saturday Nights
Every week many thousands of racers compete at thousands of smaller racetracks throughout the country. Cheating is an issue here, too, but it poses an entirely new set of challenges to racers and sanctioning bodies.
Unlike Nextel Cup, racing on Saturday nights-whether it be Mini Stocks or Super Late Models-is often a money-losing proposition. Racers almost always spend much more than they will take in from sponsors and prize winnings. Racers at this level compete for the love of the sport, not to make a buck.
Track operators often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to cheaters. Providing fans with a good car count is the lifeblood of a track, and few can afford to run off cheaters. A track operator has to run a fair show or else the non-cheating racers will abandon his facility.
He also cannot afford to come down too hard on cheaters because they may go to another track, or even become frustrated with racing altogether and simply take up golf or some other diversion. "We'd never suspend somebody or send them home for two weeks," says Robert Lawton of Boone Speedway in Iowa. "There's no percentage in that. We all need cars, because without cars you don't have fans. We have to work with our racers. If we find something [in tech inspection] we don't like, we will usually tell the racer to have it fixed before he comes back next week. If it is a speed advantage, we will have him fix it there and come back through the line."
Fortunately, few people think cheating creates the same problems at local tracks as it does at the Nextel Cup level. For one thing, there isn't as much on the line. Also, McReynolds points out that many teams use volunteer labor to prepare the car and work on it during evenings after regular work days are over. Many teams struggle to keep their race cars properly prepared to go racing each week. There simply isn't the money or time to dream up elaborate ways to cheat. Lawton agrees. "Of the 200 cars we get every week," he says, "we probably get a car we have a problem with maybe once every two to three weeks."
When it comes to cheating at any level, the response is often to initiate more rules and stiffer penalties. But Scott Bloomquist, a professional Dirt Late Model racer, feels the best way to eliminate cheating as a detriment in racing is to get rid of many of the rules that constrict the racers. "The more rules you have, the more accusations you are going to have about everybody cheating," says Bloomquist, one of the most popular and winningest drivers in dirt racing. "In Dirt Late Model racing we have open engine rules and more horsepower than you do traction most of the time. There just isn't as much reason to cheat. But now you have the growing popularity of crate motor racing, and the opportunity to cheat more comes with it. When you limit the horsepower, the only thing it takes to win is more horsepower than the next guy. So if someone can come up with a way to get more power, the chances of winning are greatly increased, and that increases the chances of cheating. A lot of rules, the only thing they do is give the smart racers a greater advantage. That's why there is no greater racing than having more horsepower than you do traction."
Cheating. It's the dirty little secret that most local dirt-track race drivers know about but refuse to point the finger. At Orange County Fair Speedway and Accord Speedway and nearly everyone claims cheating takes place. A handful admitted to using improper methods but most say, "Not me."
Estimates of the number of local drivers cheating range from 3 percent to nearly 25 percent. "There's an old saying — 'You have to cheat to eat' — so a lot of the old-school guys live by that motto,'' said hamlet of Wallkill's Kevin Duryea, a veteran of both tracks. "I think there are guys that cheat just to cheat. They are out there to make money and win races and if they can sleep at night, that's fine. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night."
Eldred's Kirk Horton admits he has tried illegal things, mostly out of curiosity, he says. "We have not found anything that makes us so much better," he said, "and I don't have the conscience to continue it."
Accord pure stock driver Bob Gibson said it's a game of cat-and-mouse. "Of course (cheating) exists," said Gibson, of Hyde Park. "I think the way it works is it's all of our jobs to cheat and it's the tech inspector's job to catch us. That's racing, from NASCAR all the way down to Go-Karts. We're all just trying to get an edge."
Most veteran drivers say cheating has become more prevalent as organizing body DIRT MotorSports has tightened its rulebook and as operating costs of a race team have skyrocketed. There is pressure to win from within and indirectly from sponsors, the lifeblood of weekend-warrior racing.
A win at the big-purse Eastern States championships at Orange County Fair Speedway this weekend could pay off a driver's expenses for a season. "It's all about sponsorship," said Harriman's Danny Hedges. "If you can gain as many wins and look as good as you can, you will gain the sponsors. People want to sponsor people who win on a weekly basis; they don't want to sponsor someone who barely wins."
Traction control could help a dirt-race car get through corners quicker, but the electronic device is illegal and could cost upwards of $5,000. Engine work is costly, and no one wants to throw away cylinder heads if they are illegally ported.
Thus, the conundrum: drivers will cheat to make more money, but it costs a lot of money to cheat. That, for lack of a better reason, is why most drivers stay within legal means.
Most disqualifications at Orange County Fair Speedway are the result of simple mistakes, says chief inspector Red Muir. "I think cheating, if it is here, is at a minimum," Muir said. "I don't like to look for the worst in people. I don't think there are any deliberate cheaters, or very few. The illegal items that I have found so far I really believe it was just an error on the part of the owner or driver for the most part."
Muir keeps an ever-changing list of things inspectors will check pre-race on a given week. The top five finishing cars in a heat or feature race are weighed and given a quick once-over.
Protests may be filed after a race for a fee, at which point the car is impounded and checked for a specific violation. "These drivers and owners are their own best police force," Muir said. "They are the biggest bunch of tattle tales you will ever see. If something is going on out there, we hear about it."
This one calls for a little help from the narrator. His words alone don't quite explain the "car trouble" that just happened to plague Johnny Ziegler in ARTGO's Dixieland 250 at Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna. It was "car trouble" that just happened to come on lap 193, which - oh, by the way - just happened to give eventual winner Dick Trickle the yellow caution flag he needed to catch leader Steve Holzhausen.
So, with words from Ziegler and some notes from the narrator, let's find out what just happened when Ziegler's car stopped on the track Tuesday night: "Well, actually (wink, wink) on the first lap," the Madison driver began, "somebody in the front row got sideways (nudge, nudge) and pretty much everybody stopped except somebody in the back row (are you buying this?) and they seemed to pick on me (not) and hit me in the right rear. I had troubles from there on in. . . . (Pause) . . . There, how's that for an explanation."
Better if you're Trickle than if you're Holzhausen. "You've gotta keep in mind Steve's a very good friend of mine," Ziegler said. "And he's certainly one of the top local racers around." And Trickle? "As far as Trickle goes, he smokes too much, drinks too much beer and is too old to drive race cars anyway," Ziegler laughed. Nice friend, that Ziegler.
But with Ziegler's help - unless you're buying that half-hearted "explanation," that is - Trickle managed just fine, winning his second straight Dixieland. Ziegler, 47, all but admitted he did his old - "he's way older than me" - buddy a favor, giving Trickle an opportunity for a badly needed tire change. "Me and Dick started racing about the same time," Ziegler said. "but that isn't the thing. If I would have done it, I would have done it for anybody, whether it was Dick or Steve or the slowest car out there. It made it a good race. It turned out to be a hell of a race and that's what's important."
But what about questions of fair play and dumping on a friend and all that stuff? "As soon as they drop the green flag," Ziegler said, "there's only one rule - that's that there's no rules. . . . The only guy I was worried about was me. That's what it really comes down to."
Does that mean there will be a little piece of Trickle's $5,500 first-place check in Ziegler's Christmas stocking? "None whatsoever," Ziegler said. And then he laughed, "as I told you, I don't think I even like him." So then why'd he do it? "Wellllll, I guess nobody'd know that but me," Ziegler said. "Of course, I didn't say I did it." There he goes again.
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