Tracking down corner cutters

An inspection crackdown over the past decade has crashed the party of attempted cheaters.

Cheating In Sports

Auto Racing

August 25, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

If NASCAR's crew chiefs used to have a theme song, it might have been Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." Before NASCAR inspections got serious, teams cheated their tailpipes off.

Junior Johnson called it "just being competitive."

They'd race oversized engines, underweight cars and spongy, water-soaked tires. They'd fill roll cages with lead shot, stuff tailpipes with lead bars and fill helmets with lead blocks.

Come race day, they'd switch tires, remove the weights and, as veteran driver Ken Schrader said, "It was bombs away!"

"Engines were supposed to be 358 cubic inches, and they raced 380," said 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace, who is retiring after this season. "Now, that's cheating. When they'd put lead shot in the roll bars and then pull a rod out to empty the weight during the race, that was cheating. When they'd put water inside the tires to make the car heavier and then change the tires after inspection, that was cheating."

But since NASCAR started really enforcing its rules, getting tougher and tougher over the past 13 years, have teams gone straight? Did everyone suddenly develop ethics?

"That's probably an excellent question," driver Kyle Petty said with a smile. "Penalties have gotten steeper - points, money and embarrassing your sponsor. You don't want to humiliate your sponsor. I think money is probably the least of it - $50,000 isn't much in a $20 million game.

"But ethics? Penalties make you think about it. Before, you never thought to ask if the risk was worth the reward, because there was no risk. It wasn't an issue. Today, I don't think the policing of the sport is what is making a difference. I think it's the social pressures."

But, to make sure, NASCAR has made it more difficult to cheat. It has increased the number of inspectors from a handful to 60. It has increased the number of templates a car has to fit from four to 33 - and next season there could be more. And when someone gets caught breaking the laws of the rulebook, NASCAR has steadily increased fines, taken away points in the drivers' standings and suspended the people responsible.

The biggest indication of NASCAR's increased hard line came in March, when it suspended two crew chiefs, Jimmie Johnson's Chad Knaus and Kyle Busch's Alan Gustafson, two weeks each for having their cars too low and too high, respectively, in post-race inspection after Johnson had won the race and Busch had finished second.

Driver Kevin Harvick's crew chief, Todd Berrier, was given a four-race suspension for rigging his 22-gallon fuel tank to read full during race qualifying while holding just five gallons of gas. Johnson, Busch and Harvick, who finished fifth in the race, were each fined and docked 25 points in the drivers standings, and NASCAR took an additional 25 points from each of the car owners (Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress) in the owners standings.

Even though the suspensions were eventually reduced to 90-day probations for Knaus and Gustafson, that series of penalties is still the strongest statement of the sanctioning body's intention to keep the sport on the level. It was the first time three of the top five finishing drivers and car owners were fined points and three crew chiefs were sanctioned.

And just this week, Schrader was penalized 25 points after his car measured too low at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday.

In the old days, before the pre-race inspection crackdown, a crew chief might slip a lead bar under the driver's seat or push a 25- or 50-pound weight up the tailpipe. When that weight was removed for the race, the team had a lighter, presumably faster car.

"They'd fill the driver's helmet with 100 pounds of weight and leave it sitting on the driver's seat," said Wallace's team engineer, Derek Stamets.

"Even today, you'll see an official reach in and tap the helmet to make sure it is a helmet of normal weight."

Said Wallace: "They'd take the tires home at night and soak them to soften them in a chemical that would soften the rubber and then bring them back to the track and use them for qualifying, because the softer tire gave them more grip, which allowed them to run faster."

Staying a step ahead

Though it increased the grip, softening the tires also shortened the length of time a tire would last on the track. So teams would switch them after qualifying.

"That's why NASCAR said you had to keep the same tires on your car for the race after qualifying," Wallace said. "It wasn't a cost-saving thing. It was a cheating thing, because that kind of softening of tires was hard to monitor."

And the inspectors NASCAR had were out of the loop. They didn't know what to look for or where to look for it.

"In the old days," said driver Ricky Rudd, "your cousin might be the guy with the stick measuring the height of your car. If you were a little off, so what? And NASCAR would see something and let it go and tell you to have it right next week. They were much more forgiving."

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