So there is cheating in stock-car racing. Please, tell me it ain’t so.
According to news reports, the biggest show in the NASCAR circus — the Daytona 500 — has been the scene of high controversy these last few days, with serious allegations of cheating and even some fines and suspensions. And they haven’t even run the race yet.
Anyone who follows NASCAR is likely to believe that Michael Waltrip and the accused crew chiefs and owners are all guilty as charged, and probably guiltier — and it won’t come as much of a surprise, either.
Matter of fact, NASCAR fans sort of admire cheating. Some of the best drivers in the game were caught at it — and certainly suspected of it — without losing any of their folk-hero status. The most celebrated and successful driver/owner in the history of the sport — Junior Johnson (subject of the iconic Tom Wolfe magazine story) is widely regarded as one the most deft and accomplished cheaters in the history of racing.
Fans certainly don’t love Junior any less for that. And probably they love him more.
In other sports, the athletes juice themselves and then deny it and hide behind lawyers. In racing, they juice the car and everybody piously denies any wrongdoing while winking and spitting tobacco and repeating the old NASCAR mantra — “cheat neat.”
If you don’t get caught, it ain’t cheating.
Stock-car racing is, at its core, about defiant rule breaking. Before he made millions banging fender panels at Darlington and other sanctified NASCAR tracks, Junior Johnson made his living hauling moonshine. He could out-drive any revenuer alive and that was the game. Junior and his daddy were making a product that people wanted and would pay honest money for. The feds didn’t approve. So …
Johnson eventually got caught — but not on the highway — and went away for a little while. When he came back, he stuck to driving during the daytime for prize money. It was probably safer, and certainly there was no threat of jail if you got caught doing something wrong.
After all, what was wrong? The idea was to make the car go faster, and there were lots of ways to do that. Lots of rules, too, about what constituted a “stock” car. What you did was find ways to bend those rules a little. Just enough to boost your car’s horsepower or keep it out on the track just a little longer between pit stops.
The NASCAR police tried to enforce the rules. They’d weigh every car before a race to make sure nobody was shaving metal to get under the minimum weight. But there were ways to beat that. A very experienced and successful crew chief once told me about standing next the track during a race, “and all of a sudden, this one car went by and I felt like I’d been shot in the legs. Turned out, that driver was carrying bbs — you know, shot pellets — in the rocker panels or the tubing of the roll cage. That way, he’d make the weight. Then, he had a way of dumping that shot, to make the car lighter, once the race started. Worked real good, too. But pretty soon, the tracks were getting to be covered with bbs and NASCAR caught on and started looking for that one. So you just started looking for other ways.”
In the old days, drivers would find a way to hide a canister of some kind of fuel booster — “nitro” — in the cockpit and give the carburetor a little shot at the right time. NASCAR tumbled to that one, too.
Which is sort of the nature of the game. Somebody comes up with something that gives his car a little edge and if it is egregiously underhanded — nitro canisters and bbs would qualify — then NASCAR starts looking harder for violators. In many cases, a slight alteration of the body of the car will result in better aerodynamics and more speed. Then NASCAR can either decide it is legal, and then everyone copies, or it can outlaw the change, in which case everyone starts looking for some other fix that will squeeze out that last little measure of speed.
One of the NASCAR people who decides what is allowable and what is not is a former crew chief named Robin Pemberton. When he was working as a mechanic and crew chief, NASCAR routinely fined Pemberton. In fact, until this week, he was at the top of the list in lifetime fines.
Takes a cheater, NASCAR must have decided, to catch a cheater.
And somehow, that seems okay. If Michael Waltrip was putting jet fuel in his engine and got caught … well, it ain’t the same as Sammy Sosa putting cork in his bats and steroids in his body. NASCAR ain’t baseball.
– Geoffrey Norman is editor of the website vermonttiger.com.