The cheating as we used to call it was fun. It was a little bit like outrunning the police with a V-8. It was fun. It didn't hurt anybody. —Robert Yates
To hear veteran racers tell it, clichéd as it sounds, the 1960s really were a simpler time for NASCAR mechanics and crew chiefs. With only a skeletal rule book and inspection process to deal with, car builders were given wide latitude in how they prepared their race cars. And they used it.
France had gradually conceded that his notion of running strictly stock cars was impossible. As NASCAR slowly evolved from half-mile dirt tracks to ever-larger paved tracks and the Big Three automakers engaged in a horsepower war to build faster cars, race speeds increased tremendously, which forced teams to structurally reinforce their cars for safety’s sake.
Race teams discovered quite by accident that if they beefed up suspensions and chassis for safety, the cars had less chassis flex and deformation at speed, which meant they handled better. And if they tinkered with the dimensions of the chassis and body, there were additional incremental performance benefits to be gained.
“It was a lot more of an individual sport a long time ago when it first started,” remembered seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty. “When it first started it was strictly stock cars, then somebody said, ‘Why don’t we put bigger springs in it?’ or bigger shocks or bigger tires, whatever it was. Then somebody said, ‘You know, if we cut this window here, cut this fender.’ There were no templates, so we’d just do it. Make the cars longer, shorter, narrower, higher, sideways, whatever it was. We used to run with no spoilers, so that was something that they [NASCAR] didn’t have to check. They didn’t have any templates. They checked the weight of the car and the height of the car and that was about it. Used to be we come down here, in an hour you used to do inspections. If you wasn’t just really, really cheating bad you were OK.”
“Inspections were very simple,” added reporter Bob Moore of the Charlotte Observer. “They would look at the body. There was no such thing as a template. The engine size was checked for cubic inches. The body was looked at, so your fenders weren't too low in this part or that part. But again it was all visual, eyeballing it. There was a stick that was run under the car to make sure you weren't too low. There was a certain height you had to be, and there was a measurement for that. It was pretty basic. There was no science to it, but most of the inspectors had a fair amount of mechanical knowledge, so if a spring was wrong or a carburetor was offset or whatever, you’d have to fix it.
“In the ’50s and early ’60s, the whole idea was there was a lot less written down. There was a lot more gray area then than there is now. And the whole ability of a crew chief, or a mechanic—because in the ’50s and early ’60s, there was no such thing as a crew chief—was, how far in the gray area can you go to outrun your opponent?” Moore said. “Even in the early ’60s, when Norris Friel was NASCAR’s technical director, he'd say, ‘OK these are the things that you have to do, these are the things we're going to check. Now we know you may go beyond this area, so watch it. We may even let you go beyond the area, but if you get too far or too big an advantage, we're going to take it away.’”
The atmosphere, while competitive certainly, was far more collegial and less cutthroat. Creativity was a staple of the stock-car racing experience.
“Part of the enjoyment was, how far can people go? How innovative can you get? There's always been people caught cheating. In some cases you get more than a slap on the wrist. But a lot of times, it’s just a slap on the wrist,” said Moore. “As long as you didn't go too far, you got away with it. You just kind of turned your backs. But if the guy you’re competing against thinks you're getting away with too much, he'll go to the officials and say, ‘This guy is half a second faster than everybody. There's got to be a reason why.’”
Petty advocated a philosophy he called “cheat neat,” which meant trick up your car, but not so blatantly as to draw the ire of NASCAR officials. “The big deal was cheat neat, you know what I mean?” Petty said. “Or cheat on 15 things and do two or three things that’s very obvious. NASCAR’d catch them, and they was happy as June bugs. You got through with what you wanted to get through with.”
Petty was one of several masters of experimentation in the 1960s, along with fellow NASCAR legends like Leonard Wood, Smokey Yunick, and Junior Johnson. And experimentation was the keyword of the day. Making stock cars go fast in those days was much more of a hit-or-miss process and much less scientific than it is today.
There were no computers or digital equipment to test with. When drivers arrived at Daytona for the first time in February 1959, for example, they were shocked to learn that cars ran around the mammoth 2.5-mile track faster together than they did alone. And no wonder the racers were surprised: They were used to banging fenders on half-mile dirt tracks at 60 mph, not running 140 mph around a superspeedway. They’d never been exposed to drafting or how to use it to their advantage.
But they figured it out quickly. “When we started running Daytona, that was the beginning of really trying to streamline for wind resistance,” said former owner/driver Cotton Owens. “We didn't know anything when we went to Daytona in 1959. No one knew you could go out there and draft faster with two cars than with one until we actually did it in the race. I set fast qualifying time at 143 miles an hour, but that was absolutely a stock automobile, with a stock engine. Even at that speed, my car would actually raise the front wheels off the ground going in the corners. We didn't know how to keep it down. Of course, we learned. Dropping the front end down, raising the rear end. Went back in 1960, we were already dropping the front ends on them. Just learned from trying it. Somebody showed up with a car all propped up in the rear and ran fast, and it was on then. Everybody copied it.”
And they tried other tricks as well. “Everybody was doing different things,” recalled driver David Pearson, Richard Petty’s main rival. “I remember the Pettys came to Daytona in 1960 or ’61 and Lee had a car with a vinyl top on it. Looked like a golf ball. They said a golf ball will go through the air good, so that should. Even back then people were trying different things with aerodynamics. You didn’t know as much then because they were just starting superspeedways. I heard all my life that the lighter a car is the better it is, and naturally the lower it is the better the air will go over it. If air went under the car, it would pick it up. At places like Daytona when we first started there, we’d find out that the car would be tight coming off the corner. What it was doing was picking the front end up with air getting under it. So they started lowering the front end. It was a lot of experimenting, seeing what would work, learning about it.”
“In February 1960, I went to Daytona. I’d go down the backstretch in my ’60 Pontiac and spin the wheels,” said Jack Smith. “I told the mechanics, and they said the car wasn’t streamlined enough, that all I was doing was running up against a wall and pushing the wall. Then two years later Ford Motor Company realized they could not run their cars through the air. Ford hired [chassis builder] Banjo Matthews. Banjo took the car and cut the floor pan out of it, lowered the car about four inches, changed the contour of the windshield. Then they found out that Ford would run. The word got out quick, and pretty soon Banjo had orders to build more race cars than he could do. He was the first one I ever knew that cut down or streamlined the cars. This was ’62 or ’63 at Daytona.”
Some of the teams had particularly inspired ways to get the noses of the cars down, which was vital for success at Daytona, as well as other new tracks that were built in the 1960s at Charlotte, Atlanta, Michigan and Rockingham, high-speed facilities that were inexorably replacing the old, slow dirt tracks.
“Joe Gazaway, [a NASCAR inspector and brother of chief inspector Bill Gazaway] came over once when we were down at Daytona in the mid-‘60s. I think we were getting ready to qualify,” said Bud Moore. “The Wood brothers had their car there. They had put the tarp over it. Leonard had some turnbuckles under the hood. He’d get under there and pull those turnbuckles and pull the front end closer to the ground and make it run faster. Joe happened to see his feet sticking out from under there. He picked the tarp up and smiled. He said, ‘Lenny, what do you think you’re doing?’ That was the biggest laugh.”
“In 1962 or ’63 you began realizing that dropping the top of the grille a little bit lowered everything on the front end,” recalled Wood. “All that stuff was figured out pretty early. Ford used to have a stack of shims under the radiator cradle, about an inch or so. It was really easy to take that stack of shims out and drop the nose an inch. It didn't change much. There wasn't a whole lot of that drooping the nose anyway. If you drooped it too much, you could visually tell it.”
“Leonard made a lot of stuff with his hands,” said Pearson. “He’d take the parking light areas and bend them in a little, just for aerodynamics. I got on to him one time when I was driving for Holman-Moody. His car was behind me, and I told him the front bumper looked like a nail coming at me the way he had it pointed right in the center. They would do things like that. Anything to get the air to flow a little better.”
The Chrysler contingent, led by the Pettys and Owens, had their own tricks, unique to the torsion-bar front suspension that Dodges and Plymouths used. “Once it became obvious that getting the car low was a good thing at Daytona, people started working on it. They dropped the sheet metal down on the nose, lowering it any way they could and still get by,” said Owens. “On the Chryslers, on the lower control arm, you had an adjusting screw. It went up into another arm that held the car up through the torsion bar. We had some [wooden spacers] that would bust when you went in the corner and would automatically drop the front end a full inch. Then when we couldn't get away with that we started machining the bolts and putting little Allen screws in them to let them fall down so far. On the rear they had an anchor back there. We'd slot those bolts to where it could come down so far just from the pressure of the car being on the track. It would automatically lower. It would hold them up long enough to get through inspection. You could just about jump up and down on the front end yourself, and it would automatically come down. The first little bump it got on the track would lower it. It would mean the difference of an inch or an inch and a half, and at Daytona that was a second or a second and a half on the track.”
Owens also borrowed a popular trick from drag racers of the day, swapping the heavy sheet-metal fenders and hoods for lightweight aluminum, which also helped handling. “We got away with that for a little bit,” he admitted. “Then the first wreck where it was actually seen that it was used, they [NASCAR] outlawed it. It was better because it was lighter. You could take all the sheet metal off the front end and put aluminum up there. You couldn't tell the difference in it, from aluminum to sheet metal. You painted it just like it was sheet metal. Front fenders, hood, bumpers. We were always busting the right front tire. So we got a lot of weight off it. That's where it really helped. It put more weight to the rear of the car.”
“Everybody was going wide open trying to change aerodynamics,” agreed Junior Johnson. “That simply came about because they had found about all the horsepower they could find. They had to go somewhere else. The easiest horsepower you ever found in your life is in the body.”
On the smaller tracks, fertile minds were also at work in the early 1960s. “Rex White ran short tracks with his car all lowered to where it was only about two inches off the ground on the left side and about six or seven inches on the right side,” said Owens. “Everybody saw him get around those tracks real good, so they started copying it. That brought on what we called the idiot stick. NASCAR used that to measure ground clearance under the car and wouldn't let you get any lower than that stick. They slid it underneath the car. That's how they measured them for height until, I guess, the ’70s, when they started measuring it from the roof.”
“Anybody could fudge the rules, but what you wanted to do was come up with something that was in the limits but was very beneficial to you,” said car owner Leonard Wood of how the teams worked in the 1960s. “Come up with something that nobody else has even though it's legal. Then it depends on how big a secret you wanted to keep. You didn't tell anybody anything. If somebody let you know something, you might help them. You'd tell him enough to pacify him but not everything that made it go fast. And that's what he'd do to you. If you were running a Ford and so did Bud [Moore] and Junior [Johnson], each one wants to look good. You weren't out there to make Bud or Junior look good. They were your competitors, too. You wanted to beat them as bad as anybody. You could share a little of this or that, but you never told him how to really make it go.”
... to be continued.