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Feature Writing
First Place
Ben White, NASCAR Illustrated

Cheatin NASCAR Core Is Rich With Creative Engineering

It’s been a part of NASCAR since the day the sanctioning body was created nearly 60 years ago.

It has been called many things - “creative engineering,” “mechanical massaging,” “playing outside the boundaries” - but, in fact, it’s cheating, pure and simple.

Over time, many of the mechanical and aerodynamic tricks used on race cars have been considered nothing short of brilliant. They’ve been successful experiments in physics, case studies that could easily impress the most knowledgeable college professor.

However impressive these marvels in physics may be, they exist for one dark purpose: to flaunt NASCAR’s rulebook and thus gain an advantage over the competition - without getting caught, of course.

 Name anything you might think of that provides an illegal competitive edge and it’s been used - big engines, narrow bodies, extra gas tanks, cambered rear-ends, nitrous oxide, movable restrictor plates, hydraulic wedge bolts and weight variances are just a very few.
But to be fair, there have been, and seemingly always will be, times when a team had no intention of cheating. Rather, it simply interpreted the rules differently. When it came to car preparation, it pushed the envelope as far as possible and still remained within legal limits.

“You have to look for the advantage,” says Tony Glover, team manager with Chip Ganassi Racing. “The sponsors want to see their cars up front. The team owners want to see their cars up front. You’ve got to take it to the very bitter edge.

“Sometimes, you might go a little bit too far. You might start the race with a car that’s dead-on on height but by the end of the race, you’re 16th of an inch too low. You’re not going to start the race with a car too high. It’s just gotten so competitive now that you’re trying to get all you can out of your car as you can within the rules. You can’t leave anything on the table.”

The stories of technical innovation are very much a part of the fabric of NASCAR’s history, woven into the careers of some of the very best drivers in the sport’s history.
Here are the stories of a few of them:

One well-known cheating device was discovered in 1971 when former driver Charlie Glotzbach raced a Chevrolet owned by legendary team owner Junior Johnson. The car featured a retractable restrictor plate. During a race, Glotzbach would manually remove the plate, thereby allowing a much larger fuel-air mixture. That, in turn, created more speed.

Donnie Allison, winner of 10 Winston Cup races during his 25-year career, admits he ran something very similar to Glotzbach’s device two years later.

“There was a period when different restrictor plates were being used,” Allison says. “There were all kinds of different plates, even some that would separate and come back together.

“In 1973, I ran a Chevelle when I started Digard Racing. Mario Rossi was my crew chief. I had a carburetor plate on top of a big-block motor. I could take it out and put in from the driver’s seat. It was hooked to a rod that had some eyelets located under the dash.

“A carburetor on a 427 cubic-inch engine used to sit at an angle facing the driver from right front to left rear. The rod slid in and fed into the back of the carburetor plate. It had a stop on it where you couldn’t pull it all the way out. After you ran, you pushed it back in and pulled the rod out.

“We heard the NASCAR officials were going to start looking under the dashboard for trick things so we got rid of it.” 

Richard Childress, a six-time champion as a team owner in NASCAR, competed in 285 Winston Cup events as a driver from 1969 through 19 races of the 1981 season. He has seen many tricks in those 12 seasons.

“Gary Nelson was the king of cheaters,” Childress says. “Anytime somebody wanted to do something, he was there.”

Nelson was a prominent winning crew chief in the 1970s and 80s for drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Kyle Petty and Geoffrey Bodine, to name a few. Today, he is NASCAR’s vice president of research and development.

Before that, he was NASCAR’s Winston Cup Director, its top cop. The sanctioning body figured that to catch the cheaters, it had to hire the man who knew virtually every trick in the book.

And he knew some real beauties.

For example, the Nelson-Waltrip combination is remembered in part for racing a Chevrolet Monte Carlo called “Bertha,” a nickname shared with a World War II battleship.

“Bertha” was as sturdy as her namesake. The car won 16 races and eight pole positions during the 1977, ‘78 and ‘79 seasons.

While “Bertha” was a good car, she was a naughty girl. One of the reasons the Chevy won so often is that it was equipped with a devious process that eliminated weight during a race. A lighter car is always a faster car.

Nelson and former crew chief Buddy Parrott used an elaborate system that carried buckshot within the chassis. When the buckshot was slowly released - by Waltrip - the car became lighter with each passing lap.

As a top NASCAR official today, Nelson is understandably reticent to talk about his “creativity” as a crew chief. But he gave up the buckshot secret long ago.

“In those days, the battery was located behind the left-front tire in the firewall,” Nelson said in a 1988 interview with NASCAR Illustrated. “After taking out the battery, we cut a hole in the frame to add the buckshot. We had to take the battery out, plus the pad under it, and pour the buckshot in there. We knew they (NASCAR officials) would never find that.

“We jacked the car in the front as high as we could get it. We poured the buckshot in through a funnel. Then we would take a piece of rubber hose and shove it back in the driver’s side rail. That was a big space. We could put 75 pounds of buckshot in there. You could put 100 pounds in there, but most of the time, we only used only 75 to 80 pounds of buckshot.”

Nelson further explained how the buckshot was released from the car.

“The post, which is round tubing that hung down about an inch from the frame rail, is the point where you jack up the car. It was a hollow piece of tubing, and if you looked up it you saw the frame rail. The bottom of the frame was hollow into that tube. We had a cap or a plug that would go in there and a bolt would come up through the frame into the driver’s compartment.

“During practice, we had that bolt tight. We had it figured that we could loosen it to within one turn of the cap coming loose. When the driver started the race on the parade lap, he reached down and turned the bolt by hand the last turn. The cap would fall off, and the buckshot would start running out.

“It wasn’t a big gush, either. It was a stream, like an oil or water leak. It took several laps to dump it all. Darrell would say on the radio on the parade lap, ‘Bombs away.’ We would know he got the bolt loose.”

Back then, NASCAR didn’t have a post-race inspection that included weighing the cars. Thanks largely to Nelson, it does now.

Many infractions have involved the inner workings of the engine. During the final event of the 1974 season at Ontario, Calif., Bobby Allison took the checkered flag in a Roger Penske-owned American Motors Matador.

Later that night, NASCAR fined Allison $9,100 for using illegal roller tappets in the motor. Roller tappets, connected to the camshaft, create less friction, improve engine life and last longer than flat tappets, which were required by NASCAR.

Allison got the news of the fine the next morning when he read a newspaper headline in the Ontario airport.

“I was walking through the airport with a hang-up bag over my shoulder,” Allison says. “I looked at a newspaper box and saw the headline. It said, ‘Race Winner Allison Illegal at Ontario.’ I dropped my hang-up bag and fished a quarter out of my pocket to get a paper so I could find out why I was illegal.

“That’s the way I found out something was wrong with my car. I’m telling you, I did not know there was a problem until I read it.”

Why the strange fine of $9,100? Legend has it that Bill France, Jr., then president of NASCAR, saw a 9100 identification number on the tail of an airplane parked beside his at the Ontario airport. To him, it was a good a number as any.

Johnson was known for not tampering with the two engine cylinders he knew NASCAR would inspect to determine legal displacement. He made the other six much larger. Thus, he gained significant horsepower and NASCAR was none the wiser.

“NASCAR just didn’t have the right kind of measuring equipment you really needed to pinpoint if an engine was legal or if it wasn’t legal,” Johnson says. “If it was two or three cubic inches one way or the other, why, it was so iffy.”

Suffice it to say it’s no longer “iffy.”

Len Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers Ford driven by Ricky Rudd, remembers when cars came equipped with heavy wheels, used when they were weighed in pre-qualifying inspection.

But once the race started, drivers would pit as soon as possible to take on lighter, regulation wheels. As said, lighter is faster, and as a result, many cars would make a quick charge to the front.

“The wheels were made heavy by having a ring around the center with lead or buckshot put inside,” Wood says. “Then the ring was welded on. I thought that was pretty cool.

“The guys running them would start the race and then pit as quick as they could whether they needed to or not. Once they got the wheels off, their cars would be light. But they would risk being chosen to go to the scales when the race was over.”

When it came to shedding weight, some of the items used were very simple. Boxes for drivers’ goggles, helmets and even rolls of racer’s tape were filled with lead and later removed after the car was weighed.

“What you would do was hollow out the backside of a roll of duct tape and fill it full of lead,” says Dale Inman, Richard Petty’s crew chief from 1958 to 1981. “The tape would be put on the dashboard or somewhere in the car and no one knew it had been filled with lead. It may weigh six or eight pounds but to look at the tape you’d never know.”

Blatant cheating rarely happens in today’s world of high stakes, big exposure stock car racing. The risk is simply too great, as are the consequences.

“The sponsorships have gotten bigger and if you get bad publicity in the paper, that’s not good,” says Todd Parrott, crew chief for Elliott Sadler. “You’re in charge of your team and what goes on. You can’t afford to have bad press. It leaves a black cloud over your team. You just can’t afford to do it.”

Robin Pemberton, a former crew chief with Petty Enterprises and Roush Racing, now works as NASCAR’s vice president for competition. He enforces the rules. Rest assured, he has seen all types of cheating devices.

“I think the inspectors are doing a better job now than they ever have,” Pemberton says. “The teams don’t take many chances any longer. They know they’re on a level playing field, more so now than ever.”

Parrott agrees with Pemberton’s assessment.

“NASCAR has pretty much mandated everything to the point where there’s not much left that you can do,” Parrott says. “There are some small gray areas you can work in, but they aren’t enough to get you kicked out of the garage area. The things that went on in the past are over.”

But that doesn’t mean cheating no longer exists. It seems week in and week out, NASCAR nabs teams which have gone beyond the boundaries of the rules.

Teams are subtler than they used to be. Gone are the flamboyant gizmos. NASCAR’s inspection process, fortified by improved technology, mandates such.

But as long as the desire to win exists in drivers, crew chiefs and engineers, there is always going to be some “mechanical massaging” going on.