How Not To Cheat In NASCAR
The late Smokey Yunick, the greatest rule-bender in
motorsports history, described slipping past NASCAR inspectors as "walking
under a snake's belly." And that was long before the rule book became the
airtight list of guidelines it is today. Cheating is a time-honored racing
tradition, but it rarely makes as many headlines as it did at this year's
Daytona 500. Six Nextel Cup teams got collared—including the cars of Michael
Waltrip, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne—resulting in five crew chief
suspensions, 500 total points docked from drivers and owners and $250,000 in
When most tricks gain just 0.1 seconds per lap, is
cheating worth the risk? It can be, when the difference between starting first
and 35th is less than 0.3 seconds. Where exactly are the gray areas in which
scofflaws have been nabbed while looking for speed? Grab a lug wrench and read
01 - Rules of the Road
The Nextel Cup rule book is surprisingly gaunt—an
easy-to-digest 184 pages about the width of a bumper sticker. Those who wrote it
equated brevity with no wiggle room. Those who read it have a different
"A competitor interprets the rules with a different
set of eyes," says crew chief-turned-team owner Ray Evernham. "You
look for what isn't covered or what isn't as specific as it could be. Those are
the places where you can find an advantage. You aren't breaking rules. The stuff
you're doing just isn't covered."
02 - Room of Doom
Yunick used tricks like putting a basketball in an
oversize gas tank for inspection and then deflating the ball before the race, or
building a car exactly seven-eighths the size of the stock model. Now Cup cars
inch through NASCAR's techinspection line at least three times each weekend and
are pored over by 50 yellow-clad inspectors wielding more than 30 templates to
measure exteriors. The first check takes up to 10 hours, but officials promise
speedier lines once the Car of Tomorrow debuts in March, thanks to nine radio
frequency identification (RFID) chips that chat with computers to confirm
03 - Fireworks
The first place a team might look for extra speed is the
very spot where power is cooked. But the engine is also the first place NASCAR
looks. Teams juice horsepower by redirecting microscopic air paths around the
carburetor or, when they're really desperate, adding extra sparks to the
combustion chamber through fuel additives. That once meant stowing a bottle of
nitrous oxide beneath the driver's seat. Modern solutions are more exotic and
harder to sniff out. Such was not the case when Michael Waltrip's Toyota was
busted after a gel in the fuel lines left an unusual smell trailing from his
exhaust following Daytona 500 qualifying.
04 - The Highs and Lows
Teams want their cars to slip through the air as slickly
as physics will allow, which means getting low to the ground. That's no easy
task when trying to meet minimum and maximum heights above the ground and at the
roof's tallest point. Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was suspended
from last year's Daytona 500 when the No. 48 Chevy was caught with a device that
lifted the rear windshield three-quarters of an inch, just enough of a bubble to
roll the airflow more smoothly over the roofline and away from the rear spoiler.
05 - Tell-Tail Sign
Since the rear spoiler became common in the 1970s, it has
grown from a quarter-inch sliver to a league-mandated six-inch blade reinforced
with metal brackets. On intermediate tracks, this wing keeps the back of the car
glued to the ground; on superspeedways, teams do whatever they can to get it out
of the airflow—or at least through it. The Evernham Motorsports car of Elliott
Sadler came to Daytona with holes drilled through the bolts holding the spoiler
in place, passing air through and dumping it into the trunk. The Car of Tomorrow
will eliminate the need for spoiler jockeying, thanks to uniform wings issued to
teams each race.
06 - Body Modifications
Team engineers spend hundreds of hours in a wind tunnel
with a rule book in one hand and a smoke gun in the other. Why? To see if a 200
mph breeze will reveal any surface that can be smoothed or rounded to suck out
excess pools of air. Most teams focus on the window posts, side panels and
fenders, where NASCAR templates leave room to breathe. During Speedweeks, Kasey
Kahne's No. 9 Dodge and Matt Kenseth's No. 17 Ford were found to have small
holes in the rear wheel wells, sucking air out from under the car and leaking it
into empty spaces in the trunk.
07 - Rubber Meets the Road
The only NASCAR no-no bigger than messing with fuel is
toying with tires. Goodyear supplies the rubber, distributed each Friday morning
along with a list of recommended tire pressures for the weekend. In the old
days, it was common to see crew members "soaking" tires back at the
hotel, using a solution that softened the rubber and provided more grip. Now
even the slightest rumor of chemicals in the paddock brings out a brigade of
scientific tests, as happened when team owner Jack Roush accused Evernham of
treating Jeff Gordon's tires during his 13-win season in 1998. Nothing was
HIS 'SOFT WALLS' TECHNOLOGY
The summer of 2000 was a bad one for NASCAR. Adam Petty
and Kenny Irwin had died after crashing into concrete retaining walls at New
Hampshire (Tony Roper, a Truck Series driver, would die the same way that
October at Texas). Smokey had been preaching about "soft walls" for
several years, and had even gone so far as to design his own crude version, made
from plywood and old tires.
He was leaning on his "moveable kinetic energy
barrier" as he talked about the deaths of Irwin and Petty.
"The only thing operating on nearly 100-year-old
technology are the barriers -- the same technology is being used that was used
in the first race ever run," he said. "Doesn't that show some lack of
responsibility from the people in charge? I figure, as soon as the right guy
gets killed, they'll come down here and look at it. I spent enough of my money
and time, and tried
Several months later, Dale Earnhardt hit the concrete
wall at Daytona and was killed. Smokey wasn't visited, but the path to soft-wall
technology was soon taken -- resulting in the SAFER barrier that lines most
MORE ON 'SOFT WALLS'
And some more on his own version of a life-saving
retaining wall ...
"I never figured the barrier I built would be the final answer. But
when somebody looks at it, I ask them, 'You've seen this barrier and you've seen
a concrete wall. If you were driving toward them and had two choices, which
would you aim for?' "
JUNKYARD, GOOFEY GET A BRIDGE
In the late-'90s, there was local debate about naming the
twin spans that replaced the old Seabreeze bridge, linking Mason Avenue to the
beachside. Smokey took on his own to name the spans after his two mammoth dogs
-- Junkyard and Goofey.
As always, he took it to extremes. He had official street
signs made, one with each dog's name, and attached them to poles alongside the
eastbound and westbound lanes. He then had pictures taken -- of him and each
dog, in front of the sign -- for posterity's sake. The Department of
Transportation had the signs removed within a day.
"By God, its bad luck to leave a bridge
unnamed," Smokey explained. "Something had to be done."
MOTORCYCLIST-TURNED-AUTO RACER FINDS GOLD
Paul Goldsmith was an accomplished motorcycle racer who,
in the late 1950s, began putting together a decent auto-racing career. One day
in the mid-'50s he walked into Smokey's Garage to announce his auto-racing
Smokey handed Goldsmith a box and asked him to open it
for him. It was one of those old gag items with a spring-loaded "mongoose
tail" coiled and ready to fly out when the lid of the box was removed.
"I caught that thing," recalled Goldsmith, whose reflexes impressed
"I told him right there, 'You're hired!' "
Smokey said years later. "Hell, Fireball (Roberts) couldn't catch the thing
... and he knew it was coming."
NEVER ON CRUISE CONTROL
For all his work on advancing automotive technology,
Smokey hated cruise control. He claimed it was a leading cause of highway
"So many of these wrecks are caused by someone
falling asleep at the wheel," he said. "And most of these people
probably had their cruise-control on. I'd say, 'Wake up fella, you're about to
miss one hell of a wreck.' "