Finding a way around the rules is part of the mythology and ingenuity of stock-car racing, said Dan Pierce, a history professor at University of North Carolina-Asheville. He has written widely on the history of NASCAR and detailed the sport’s roots in bootlegging for a History Channel segment on Appalachia.
Every sport has elements that are technically against the rules but are almost expected, like what goes on under the pile in a football game. From the very beginning of NASCAR, these gray areas were deeply ingrained. Drivers started looking for an advantage. Richard Petty even said that if you’re not cheating, you’re not racing.
Promoters of NASCAR have always tried to set a standard so everyone has a chance of winning. This set up a cat-and-mouse game with the mechanics and crew chiefs. They try to take advantage of a good bit of subjectivity in the rulebook.
Smokey Yunick was one. During an inspection after he was suspected of increasing his gas mileage illegally, his gas tank was off the car and he was told to fix several violations. He got in the car and drove off, saying they had missed one violation. The gas tank was still on the ground — Smokey had added a longer fuel line for extra gas. NASCAR started mandating the length of the gas line.
Junior Johnson was another legend who exploited gray areas. He recognized the importance of aerodynamics, especially on big speedways. Modifying the roof line was one way he pushed NASCAR’s subjective rules.
Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, is smart and not flamboyant, and NASCAR occasionally catches him at something and fines and suspends him a couple of races. You don’t know exactly what he has done or is doing, but he’s very creative.
NASCAR wants to keep quiet about cheating. With big corporate money, it is very concerned about image. The outlaw image of the sport brings people in, but if you’re a corporation investing $20 million, you don’t want to think anyone has an unfair advantage. NASCAR has tried to tighten the noose by becoming more scientific.
Today, adjustments that make a car go a tenth of a second faster are a big advantage. It takes computers and engineers to find those adjustments. Technological advances are so sophisticated that it’s a challenge for NASCAR to keep up with ways that race teams might skirt the rules.
It’s kind of like the IRS. As soon as they make a regulation, a smart person is going to figure out a way around it.
As told to Michelle Hiskey, for the AJC