Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chapter 4, Part 1

If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot. If you do it and you don’t get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me in the category where I belong. —Darrell Waltrip
As the tumultuous 1960s came to an end, NASCAR was at a crossroads of sorts. The Big Three automakers scaled back their involvement in racing as they began to scale back their manufacturing of high-performance muscle cars for the street. The old phrase “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” seemed less relevant as Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler all phased out their respective 400-plus cubic-inch big-block engines in the early 1970s and starting building economy cars like the Vega and Pinto.

With less factory support to rely on, corporate sponsors entered the scene. R. J. Reynolds joined forces with NASCAR in 1971 to take over sponsorship of what had been known since the 1950s as the NASCAR Grand National series, renaming it the Winston Cup Series. Corporate America mainstays such as Coca-Cola, STP, and Gatorade became sponsors of race teams. Where a stock car once might have had its quarter panels festooned with the name of a local car dealership, now they became 170 mph billboards hawking beer or soft drinks. Teams started to look for sponsors to help foot the bills, and sponsors wanted to be associated with fast cars. And for some teams, the easiest way to run fast was to bend the rules—or break them altogether.

“The factories were getting out, so guys were trying to find ways to make more money by winning races,” said Bob Moore. “That was when we first got sponsorships. So to help attract attention to themselves, they wanted to win. It's like anything else. The more visible you are when you go into somebody's office, the better chance you have of them saying, ‘Oh yeah, we'll give you $50,000 or $20,000 or $10,000, whatever.’ And also, when Richard [Petty] won the 27 races [in 1967], the other competitors got tired of Richard beating them to death. So they decided the only way to beat the boy was they had to cheat to beat him. So that was part of this equation that was going on back then. They were convinced he was cheating, they didn't know how he was cheating, but they figured the only way to beat him was to outcheat him.”

Little did they know that Petty wasn’t cheating, but he had found that putting as much weight as possible on the left side of the car would make it handle better. Petty and his teammates could actually adjust the weight balance of the car from inside the cockpit with a device called a weight jacker. It was a huge competitive advantage at the time, though not an illegal one.

“I’ve got pictures of Richard Petty getting in his car at a short track when he blew the engine in his car and got into Jim Paschal’s car, which was owned by Petty,” said Ford’s Charlie Gray. “He was over a lap down. He was getting in his car and had a socket wrench in his firesuit, in the left-hand pocket. Within 40 laps he was running faster than anybody. We all knew he was running a weight jacker.” 

“The left-side weight on the car [was] something that nobody was doing, and the rule book didn’t address it because, in those days, they weighed the whole car, and the car was supposed to weigh 4,000 pounds,” said Humpy Wheeler. “It didn’t matter where the weight was.”

As always, Junior Johnson was a force to be reckoned with, whether his cars were 100 percent legal or not. “If you wreck a car, you always try to build it back better. You'd keep adding little things and little ideas to it,” Johnson explained. “Over a period of two or three years, first thing you know you've found something you like that really helps you. In the late 1960s, I had cars that were offset, motors moved back in them, wheels that were moved forward or backward depending on where I was running. Many, many things that I was doing were an advantage. Moving the wheels underneath the car to the left, widening the car out. There were many things that would help a car handle better.”

Although not formally educated, Johnson figured out what the paid engineers knew about chassis setups. In general, the car would be fastest with its weight lower than higher. It would also be offset to the left as much as possible and back toward the center of the car rather than at the ends.

“In the early ’70s [with Cale Yarborough driving] I did an Oldsmobile that I moved the wheels on, moved the motor back, moved everything to the left side. Moved the wheels further to the left side and to the front. It kept the front end down where it wouldn't lift up. It's a tremendous advantage to get the car down on the racetrack,” Johnson said.

One of Johnson’s favorite short-track enhancements was to start the race with trick tires and then change them on the first pit stop. “Junior, he was a master at self-defense,” laughed Barry Dodson. “I know particularly at North Wilkesboro, when Cale would start the race, he'd be all over the racetrack until the first pit stop. They'd take those four tires off, and the rest of the day that car was a rocket. Little did people know those four tires had steel bands welded around them and they were poured with lead and they weighed a hundred pounds apiece. All of a sudden, he’s 400 pounds light. They finally caught on to that when it took three crewmembers to get them over the wall. Junior always was a master at taking advantage of stuff like that.” Eventually, NASCAR would decide to weigh cars both after the race and before.

“Talk about creative,” said former crew chief Larry McReynolds. “It was against the rules because they were 80 or 100 pounds light [per tire], but you think about the places where they always kicked butt—North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, the road courses, Richmond—that's places where that was so important. And it was done pretty regular. NASCAR didn't weigh cars after the races then. They do now.”

Johnson was pretty sharp on the aerodynamic front as well. “If you remember his race cars, they always had pretty extravagant paint schemes,” said McReynolds. “It wasn't because Junior thought that was pretty. Paint schemes can cover up a lot of stuff. You can put several different colors and maybe some pinstriping, where if you painted it solid if would have a totally different look. Most of Junior's cars had some pretty creative paint schemes to them, because he was hiding aero stuff. If he had something that was supposed to have a sharp edge but a radius was a lot better, he put in a paint line or maybe a pinstripe. It gives it that edge look but it’s a radius the whole time.”

“Junior Johnson was a stand-on-the-gas, go-for-it kind of racer. He was a good racer,” said Robert Yates, who worked for Johnson in the 1970s. “He didn't care about something being pretty as much as he wanted it effective. It was quite a university there. I learned a lot about how to build engines. If you had some idea about something new or different, he would really wake up to it. ‘Let's do it.’ I'd say, ‘I don't know, it might not be legal.’ He’d say, ‘That's all right.’ He was the type of guy that you sort of wanted to be on his side if there was going to be a fight. His theory was let's design something and design it wrong, but be able [to make it legal] in seconds. I probably have some of his mix in me. He's one of my big heroes. He would be aggressive. He wasn't a right-by-the-book kind of person. His adrenaline pumped when he was fudging things. That was racing back then, doing things differently. There just weren't enough policemen. There were too many of us trying to beat the system.”

In doctoring his cars, Johnson ran into the same problem Yunick had 10 or 15 years earlier. “I had people who worked for me who would talk, couldn't keep their mouth shut,” Johnson said. “Couldn't keep things a secret very long. But I could go back late at night and do things myself, and nobody would know anything about it. When I did that, I could get by with a lot of stuff. And it wasn't that you were cheating. There weren't a lot of rules. It was just that you found a way to beat everybody because you had done enough homework to be where you were at.”

One place where Johnson and many other teams did their homework was on the weigh-in scales. Getting a light car through became a high art.

“We decided at Martinsville to run light was really a good deal. We figured out a way to beat the scales. In fact, we beat the scales a lot of places,” said Yates. “Just knew how to drive the car on it right. You could beat the scales at every racetrack, I believe, except Charlotte. I even figured out a way of beating the Charlotte scales by putting a piece of tape under the left rear tire and timing it and turning my steering wheel a little bit so we could pitch the weight to the right side. I could beat every scale just a little bit just knowing how to drive the car on there. Finally, NASCAR put separate scales out for each of the four wheels to eliminate that.”

  “We used to have the old grain scales that we'd roll the cars across,” Dodson recalled. “ We didn't have the digital stuff you have today. If you were one of the last cars to be weighed, you could take a little magnet and hang it on the bottom of that car and change the reading on the scale by a hundred pounds.”

“When they ran them across the scales and weighed each wheel, we always had somebody standing around with their arm propped on the car or something like that,” said Bud Moore. “You could get by fairly good on a lot of stuff. We were supposed to weigh back then probably 3,700 pounds. We were usually a hundred pounds light.”

Perhaps the most clever way to beat the weight limit was discovered by a young mechanic named Gary Nelson, who worked with Darrell Waltrip at DiGard Racing in the late 1970s.

Nelson came up with a variation on the old drop-the-buckshot trick that racer Jack Smith said he first saw in the early 1960s. Nelson’s execution was brilliant in its simplicity: The buckshot was dumped into the frame through a hole under the battery and released from the jack plate on the frame rails. So whenever NASCAR inspectors went to look under Waltrip’s car, the very first thing they did was put a jack under the side of the car and lift it up, which covered up the spring-loaded release plate. When he’d release the buckshot, Waltrip often would get on the team’s radio and announce, “Bombs away!” Instantly, the car was 75 to 300 pounds lighter, depending on how much buckshot had been put in to begin with.

To be continued ...

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