To win at NASCAR, you have to have a great driver, a stellar pit crew, and a garage that gives you the best equipment.
But the easiest way to win at NASCAR? Cheat.
NASCAR’s history is full of teams cheating and officials trying to catch them. Cheating seems to fall into two categories: knowingly circumventing the rules and exploiting gray areas the rules don’t cover.
It used to be easier to get away with the former. Before templates and electronic measuring systems, NASCAR officials relied largely on their own judgment and experience. That meant racers might be able to disguise some trick body work with a crazy paint scheme or weight one part of the car more heavily for a handling boost.
Winning driver Richard Petty said as much in racing journalist Tom Jensen’s book Cheating. In the 1960s, Petty admitted he cheated but tried to keep the tweaks modest so they wouldn’t attract attention. “Or cheat on 15 things and do two or three things that’s very obvious. NASCAR’d catch [the obvious ones]. You got through with what you wanted to get through with,” Petty said.
Now, inspection is much more standardized and sophisticated. Inspectors have templates to measure key body dimensions, and no one knows which ones will be used until just before inspection. Sophisticated electronics like digital scales also keep teams honest.
That doesn’t mean teams have quit trying to get things past the inspectors. Between the start of the NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series February 17 and the beginning of the Cup Chase in September, officials dealt teams at least nine cheating penalties. And that doesn’t count the times inspectors asked teams to fix a part to bring it into compliance before a race.
When NASCAR hands out penalties, crew chiefs face suspensions and probation, as well as monetary fines that this season hit $150,000. Drivers and owners are docked 25 to 150 championship points. The latter is the difference between placing first and last in a given race.
Allegations of cheating during inspection, but not during the race, surfaced in August in the secondtier Nationwide series. Someone stuck magnetic shims under gas pedals in two Joe Gibbs Racing cars just before the cars went up on the chassis dynamometer. The magnets were thought to keep the throttle from hitting 100% wide open, leading to a falsely low peak horsepower reading.
NASCAR officials are quick to react when rumors of blatant cheating surface, and the JGR case was no exception. Three days after the news came out, NASCAR announced it was deducting 150 points from each driver’s score and docking JGR 150 owner points for each car.
The crew chief of each car was fined $50,000. They, along with each vehicle’s car chief and engine tuner, were suspended indefinitely. The open-ended ban is the harsh part of this penalty; most suspensions last six races or less in the Sprint Cup series and a onerace suspension was the worst levied to that point in the Nationwide series.
The consequences of being caught cheating can reach further than points and pocketbook, however. Sponsors are wary of putting their name behind teams that might not be playing fair, so a team that gets a bad reputation could easily find itself out of business.
Since out-and-out cheating is so risky for a racer’s livelihood, it might be better to stick with the second type of cheating. In fact, many would argue it isn’t really cheating at all, just smart engineering and an intimate knowledge of the rule book.
The rule book evolved from exactly this type of innovation. For example, the rules were once silent on the size of the fuel line, weight distribution, and many other details. But when teams started to make tweaks to their advantage in these areas, NASCAR instituted new regulations to level the playing field.
Jensen quotes mechanic Smokey Yunick’s memory of a 1968 race: “Everyone else ran a 5/8-in. gas line. I chose to run a 2-in. gas line, which was obviously much too big, but it was 11-ft long and held almost 2 gallons of gas. Nobody ever [specified size]. A week after the race, gas lines couldn’t be over a half-inch in diameter. The day I did it, however, it was not illegal.”
The 1960s saw quite a bit of experimentation with aerodynamics that were also not covered by the rules. At one point, the distance from the car to the ground was not regulated, nor the width. Racers who figured out that a lower car got better downforce and traction or a narrower car was less steel to push through the air had an advantage for a race or two until NASCAR’s rules caught up with them.
The rule book is much more comprehensive now, and CFD and FEA have replaced experienced guesswork in the garages. NASCAR’s new Sprint Cup series chassis, previously dubbed the Car of Tomorrow, was one attempt to cut down on the need for expensive analysis and development and put the race back into the hands of the drivers. But teams still look for an advantage.
“NASCAR made it very clear from the beginning to the teams that manipulation of the body, parts, and pieces of the new car would not be tolerated and would mean a significant reaction on the part of NASCAR. And they’ve backed it up with penalties that include loss of 100 driver and owner points, $100,000 fines, and six-race suspensions for crew chiefs,” spokesman Kerry Tharp told Machine Design.
The first such penalties went to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s #8 car in May 2007 for mounting the NASCARissued rear wing at an angle outside the allowable 0 to 16° range. Jeff Gordon’s #24 and Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Hendricks Motorsports cars were next in June 2007 at Infineon Raceway in California. The teams had modified the cars’ fenders, possibly enhancing their aerodynamic performance.
This year violators included the #1 car driven by Martin Truex Jr., which was lower and wider than the templates allowed. The Scott Riggs-driven #66 and Johnny Sauter’s #70 were both busted for illegal wing-mounting locations. All three violations garnered 150-point deductions for drivers and owners and $100,000 fines for crew chiefs, who were also suspended for six races. And NASCAR confiscated cars #66 and #70 for good measure.
Still, Tharp said, “The teams have done a good job of adjusting to the new car and working within the guidelines to help make it as competitive as possible.”
One inside-the-lines adjustment this season was “crabbing,” tweaking the car’s yaw to provide more stabilizing side force in turns. The chassis’s flat sides and mild asymmetry don’t provide the side force teams could get out of the old kidney-shaped bodies and curved side panels.
Crabbing did permit more aggressive cornering, and drivers who figured out how to go edgewise on the straightaways pulled ahead. Still, cars risked having a wheel loosen and tires wear unevenly due to the shift in forces.
The rules specified the limits of trackbar adjustment and wheelbase tolerance but those adjustments and others still allowed teams a two to three-degree angle on the rear axle. In May, NASCAR tightened the loophole and restricted the angle to one degree, adding another line to the rule book.