In NASCAR, curtain of speed hides cloak-and-dagger scenes

Cameras join wrenches in tool kits as spy game thrives in sport's garages

February 12, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The Winston Cup cars are parked side by side in the garages at Daytona International Speedway and at every other racetrack on the circuit. They sit no more than a foot or two apart in some garages.

It makes for a tight and cozy working situation. It makes for opportunity, too. Being so close, a competitor's eyes can hardly help but take in his neighbor's car.

"We're parked right next to them," said Joe Gibbs, who owns the cars of current Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart and 2000 champion Bobby Labonte.

Gibbs' tone was disbelieving as he went on: "We're right next to them, and we're going to race against them. But it's a real classy part of the sport. People don't out-and-out steal from each other."

But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of spying going on.

"How can you not notice what someone else is doing?" said Michael McSwain, crew chief for the Gibbs-owned Labonte car. "Sometimes, you're only six inches away. How can you not know what someone else is doing? But I don't think you should get down and look under someone else's car."

Spying is not new in Winston Cup racing. Richard Petty kept his eyes on Bobby Allison. Cale Yarborough eyed Buddy Baker. Junior Johnson and his wily crew chief, Harry Hyde, kept each other under surveillance. Even Ned Jarrett took an interest in opposing teams.

And the practice continues today. No matter how much someone tinkers with his car in the privacy of his garage, it becomes fair game at the track.

"Anyone who comes up with something in their basement and thinks he is going to keep it a secret at the racetrack is just fooling himself," said Kenny Wallace's crew chief, Phillipe Lopez.

Mark Martin and Bill Elliott have grumbled in past years, when struggling for points, that one of the most difficult things about being low in points is that their cars weren't parked with the really good cars in the garages on race weekends.

That meant their crews didn't have the opportunity to look over someone else's shoulder or talk with other crewmen and learn the little things that might make their own cars run faster.

"You have to look," said Bill Wilburn, who is the crew chief for Rusty Wallace's car. "I look at everybody's stuff I can. And it's not just us. It's everybody. If someone is running his bumper two inches lower than you, you want to know it and you want to try it to see if it works for you."

But not everyone is so eager to share secrets. Yesterday in the garage here, Labonte's crew had covered the wheel wells of his car to hide the suspension.

As Labonte crewman Ryan McKinney said while lying under the car: "We do try to keep the spies away."

Asked if the cover was on only because of the spies, he said, "You bet."

Some teams take extra crewmen to the races, just to have someone roaming through the garages looking. Some of the roving crewmen have cameras.

"It's amazing how much time we spend taking pictures of other people's race cars that weren't for publication," said James Ince, the crew chief for driver Johnny Benson's car.

"A lot of times, we bring a fabricator with us to look at other cars' suspensions. If you think Tampa Bay wasn't looking at films of Oakland's plays, you don't know sports. But it didn't start with us. ... It goes all the way back to Ben-Hur and the chariots."

Lopez said, "It's not CIA stuff," but added, "We have our ways."

Standing beside his car, he pointed toward the rear tire.

"There are a lot of pictures taken, and you can scale a whole car out [by measuring around] the Goodyear tires," he said. "But one setup doesn't always work with a different driver, and you have to be careful because you can confuse yourself."

Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach who won three Super Bowls, said he learned a lesson about the value of ill-gotten information early in his football career.

"I probably shouldn't say this," Gibbs said. "But way back in college, a team I was involved with managed to get every play one of our opponents had. I wasn't the coach and I wasn't responsible, but we had everything they were going to do.

"And we got killed.

"I made up my mind right there I was never going to spend any time trying to get anything on another team. Yeah, I didn't play a big part in that college thing, but I learned a big lesson. I'd have a tough time cheating and then taking the trophy."

Still, Gibbs said he, too, has a cameraman "looking at stuff" and says everyone "pushes the rules" as far as they can.

"But you never try to go beyond that," he said. "If you did, you'd get a reputation and you don't want that reputation."

At a glance

What: Daytona 500, opening race of NASCAR Winston Cup season

Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

2002 champion: Ward Burton

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