The bigger, faster tracks and the aerodynamic innovations of the early 1960s had some chilling, unintended consequences. For one thing, longer tracks and more aerodynamic cars meant speeds rose sharply, and with those speeds danger increased exponentially. In 1964, three of the sport’s most popular drivers, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, and Jimmy Pardue lost their lives in separate crashes. When races were 100 miles on dirt tracks, gas mileage and fuel capacities weren’t an issue. But when the races became 500 miles long, suddenly teams began illegally hiding fuel wherever they could find a place in the car, at grave danger to the drivers.
This led directly to the development first of the rubberized fuel cell in 1964 and then the purpose-built stock-car frame and roll cage, which was developed by Holman-Moody in 1966, approved by NASCAR, and is in fact similar to the chassis still used today. The Holman-Moody chassis/roll cage unquestionably was a huge improvement from a safety standpoint, but it was, for all intents and purposes, the end of true stock cars and the beginning of stock appearing cars that can only be driven on a racetrack. And the less cars were stock, the more people were tempted to cheat them up, especially when it came to weight, fuel, and aerodynamics.
Journalist Bob Moore recalled one such example from the early 1960s. “One of the teams basically had extra gas stored in the car for every race. They went the whole season putting in extra gasoline at every race. It'd be different places, different times, because the competitor might find out where you had it hidden, they'd go and tell NASCAR, they'd check and it wouldn't be there,” he said. “This particular race team was extremely smart, extremely innovative, and they'd use every single way to hide gasoline you could possibly think of. Frame rails, roll bars, in the fuel cell, in the dashboard, wherever they could get it so that it would flow into the carburetor or the gas tank and give them an extra one to three gallons of gas.”
Racer Jack Smith said he saw rivals hollow out front cross-members, the center support that runs under the engine joining the left and right sides of the frame together, to hold extra gasoline. “They’d weld that up and take and run the fuel line like it was going through the side of the cross-member, but they’d hook it up to the cross-member, which had gas in it. And there were some that tried to put it in the roll bars.”
“They checked the fuel cells pretty closely. Couldn’t hold but 22 gallons,” added Bud Moore. “We all had a little gimmick going. Some of them had gas in the roll bars. Some had it here, some had it there. I did mine a little different. When we went through inspection, they checked the fuel cell and sealed it all up. I waited until a certain time and stuck an air hose in it and blew that jewel up and made it bigger. They never took the fuel cell back out of it after they checked it. I just put the air hose to it. Blow the cell container, stretch it. I’d get a gallon, gallon and a half, sometimes two more gallons in it.”
Crewman Barry Dodson would later use a similar trick when he worked for Petty Enterprises in the early 1970s. “We'd come here to Daytona. We always had the end garage stall. I'd hide in the trunk and open up the fuel cell to where it held two more gallons than it was supposed to. I'd tap on the quarter panel, and they'd open up the trunk and get me out,” he said.
Still, some car owners drew the line at what they would do with fuel. “Putting fuel in roll bars, I never did it because it was bad enough to have fuel in the rear of the car, much less having it up there around you,” said Cotton Owens. “But some people made special bars for the left door and put it in there. To me that was crazy, because the driver was sitting right there with it. You could hide three or four gallons like that, and that could make the difference between winning and losing. They had it rigged so it would free-flow from there into the tank. After they ran so long they had a valve they'd trip and let it run in the tank.”
Historian Bob Latford recalled one fuel-related incident that involved one of NASCAR’s most time-tested tricks: replacing an illegal part with one even more flagrantly illegal. “One time at Martinsville, Holman-Moody's car that Fred Lorenzen drove got caught. It was supposed to be a 22-gallon gas tank, and there was 22.9-gallons or something like that, and they made him take it out and take it away. And the team fussed and fumed and did the work, and they put a 28-gallon tank back in. They never checked the one they replaced it with.”
Arguably the funniest stories of all came from David Pearson, not in a NASCAR race but when he was driving for Bud Moore in the Trans-Am road racing series in the late 1960s. “When I drove Bud’s carone time I had some tires with water or lead in them. I go through inspection with those tires and then turn around and switch them [with lighter tires] or punch a hole in and let the water out,” said Pearson. “And he had a gas tank at Riverside [California] that all the fuel wouldn’t come out of when they drained it. They had a thing up in it that would just let so much of it drain out. So the inspectors told Bud that he had to get all the fuel out of the tank before they came back. So he got a bunch of the guys on the team to stand around the car and pee on the ground so it looked like they had drained all the fuel out.”
The Trans-Am series was also where one of Smokey Yunick’s most infamous cars surfaced, this one a 1968 Chevrolet Camaro. “While Number 13 may look like a ’68 Camaro, it has most certainly been ‘massaged,’” noted Hot Rod magazine in a 1996 retrospective. “Acid-dipped body parts abound, the front sheet metal drooped, all four fenders were widened, the front subframe was Z’d to lower the car, the floor pan was moved up, the windshield was laid back and thinner safety glass was used throughout the car. The list of tweaks is endless. Smokey even pulled the drip rails in closer to the body! … The engine was fitted with a pressurized, quick connection that allowed the driver to quickly add oil to the engine from the interior during pit stops. Because the driver was an active participant during pit stops in the cockpit, a cable-ratchet mechanism from a military helicopter was used to release the shoulder harness so the driver could perform his necessary tasks.”
Another popular “innovation” of the day—although admitted hardly as exotic as some of Yunick’s tweaks—was lead, or more specifically how the heavy metal was used. In an effort to make cars lighter in race trim, crew chiefs over the years would make replica car products out of lead and replace them with the real articles after the car went through inspection.
“I've seen everything from lead radios to lead watercoolers. Everybody's tried to cheat on weight. Weight used to be a big thing,” said Richard Childress, who began racing in the 1960s as one of the so-called “independents,” small-budget, small-resource teams who had little chance of beating the well-funded teams like Petty’s. “There's so many different stories you could tell. There was a team one time that was running lead inside the wheels on the right side. This was when we had the weight situation. Those tires and wheels would each weigh about 50 pounds extra. And to watch those guys pick those things up and come back around the car with ’em on the first pit stop was pretty amazing. That was the slowest pit stop of the day for those guys.”
Latford said he saw teams make race weight by filling their tires with water and then changing them during early pit stops. Like Childress, he also saw plenty of lead parts, too. “A lot of guys used to put water in their tires before they rolled across the scales to give ’em weight. Then after they went over ’em, they'd change tires,” Latford said. “A team was caught with a radio in their car that looked like a regular radio, but it was made of solid lead. They used to put Thermos bottles in the cars and fill ’em with mercury, before they figured out how dangerous it could be.”
In fact, the lead trick was one that stayed in fashion for several decades. In a 1988 interview with NASCAR Winston Cup Scene’s Deb Williams, NASCAR Competition Director Dick Beaty showed off a virtual gallery of confiscated lead parts, including a replica of a fuel filter that weighed 60 to 70 pounds. Another was an oil tank full of lead.
“That thing must weigh 200 pounds,” Beaty told the racing publication. “When the cars were weighed only once, that was placed where the oil tank would be located, complete with lines running to it. As soon as the car was weighed, the lead-filled oil tank would be removed and the true oil tank placed in the car.” Beaty said he had also caught teams using lead goggle holders and, in one instance, a lead helmet, which sat in the car while it was weighed and was exchanged after the inspection.
“I had a helmet one time that had lead in it. I’ve still got it,” Pearson admitted. “You’d just switch helmets. That thing must have weighed 50 pounds. You just left your helmet in the car when they weighed it, then wore another one in the race.”
Then there was the ever-popular buckshot method of lightening one’s car, a method that saw occasional use from the late 1950s until the early 1990s. “I remember people coming in a shop near mine in Spartanburg [South Carolina] and buying a thousand pounds of gun shot,” said Jack Smith. “They’d take them and put them in bags and put them in the car right inside the quarter panel or in the doors. They’d have a lever up under the dash or on the side looking like a door handle, connected to a knife that would get the bags open. Underneath the bags would be holes, and the gun shot would roll out on the track. First thing you know, other cars would hit the fence because the lead shots were going out and getting in the racing groove.”
Smith professed admiration for the creativity of Junior Johnson. “Junior had one of the best things I ever seen. Somebody on his team brought a two-gallon water jug. Somebody in Tennessee had shown him something, a liquid metal of some sort. It wasn’t mercury; it was something heavier than mercury. They filled that jug up and put it in the car. They’d weigh the car. Right before the race this old boy would put that one up and put a real water jug in there. It’d lighten the thing 200 pounds. Everybody had a water jug in their car. Man, you take that much weight off, it’s a lot.”
As flagrant as this all seems today, at the time nobody made too much of a deal about other guys cheating, as long as it didn’t get too far out of hand.
“This has always gone on,” said Bob Moore. “The whole thinking to the deal was, even at the beginning when they came up with the first set of rules, these are the rules, but we understand you may go beyond these rules. We'll let you go beyond them to a certain point, then we're going to cut your hand off. The driver's ability could make up a lot of difference. And that was part of what made the beginning more creative, rambunctious, interesting. You never knew from week to week who was playing a game, who was cheating here, who was cheating there. You'd learn what this guy was doing and then you did it. The idea was, you try to be the first and let them catch you.”
“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,” said Robert Yates. The son of a Baptist minister in North Carolina, Yates worked his way up from a gofer at Holman-Moody in the early 1960s to the owner of a two-car Winston Cup team led by 1999 Champion Dale Jarrett. “We used to have a deal where you couldn't close off your grille. Banjo Matthews was great at getting a grille small. We finally learned that the more you tape them off the faster they would go. So we put this plastic door screen back in behind there. Joe Gazaway, he would start looking in the grille. It was his job to inspect the grille and make sure you didn't have any kind of blockage in it. One time we put a water bottle with a pump on it and a nozzle so when he stuck his head down in there we shot him right between the eyes. It was that kind of a fun deal.”
“I think the reason for the creativity was what you'd call shade-tree engineering, where people actually worked on their own cars pretty much,” said Martinsville Speedway’s Dick Thompson. “I know the Wood Brothers used to do a lot of experimentation themselves and were way ahead of a lot of people. Sometimes you'd see another mechanic walk over to the car and start to get down on his hands and knees and start to look under the car, and they would just say in a very quiet voice but very menacing, ‘Don't look under there.’
“In those days, when a team brought cars to the racetrack, each car was pretty much individual,” Thompson continued. “They're kind of cookie cutters today. Everybody's using the same roll cage, the same this and that.
“Basically, everybody doing their own engineering was saying, ‘Lets see what I can get away with,’” said Thompson. “They were pushing the limit. NASCAR really had to watch things. Even after you went through inspection, they had some tricks up their sleeve. There were times when the so-called independents bought a factory car and they would sit down and [review the hidden features of the cars] with the previous owners. There would be switches on that car they had no idea what they went to.”
Many times, those switches would be used to operate hydraulic pumps that would lower the car on the track and raise it before inspection. “Jim Hurtubise, at Riverside one time, they were using lowering devices on the car, little microcranks,” said Latford. “He got in the car at the start-finish line and was getting ready to start the car. You used to have starter buttons. He put his hand up. The switch was down here, and the car started to fall.”
Latford saw plenty of other tricks, too. “There was the old thing of putting wood or charcoal in the springs before they'd go out to qualify. And of course, the first bump you hit, the charcoal or wood would fragment, and there'd be splinters down on the apron of the first turn, but you couldn't prove where it came from, so there was nothing you could do,” he said. “The other trick was freezing the shocks at the desired height. And after it pushed out in line and sat there, it would thaw, the car would settle and away they go.”
Bud Moore used a similar trick. “We had pieces of plastic that we’d stick underneath the springs to hold the car up,” he said. “We’d take stones and stick them underneath the springs in the front and let them down real easy. The rocks would hold the springs up through inspection. Then when you had the first bump the springs would crush the rocks and let the car drop.”
According to Martinsville’s Thompson, the acknowledged master of chicanery in those days was Junior Johnson, a man who grew up in the hardscrabble country of Wilkes County, North Carolina, and had served time in a federal prison for running moonshine. Johnson, whose rugged persona and hard-ass driving style would later earn him icon status as the subject of Tom Wolfe’s magazine profile, “The Last American Hero,” knew every trick in the book.
And he had a very fundamental attitude about breaking the rules, one he explained in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Juliet Macur in 1998. “With the rules in those days, it was easy to cheat,” said Johnson. “You just worked on what NASCAR didn’t check. If they didn’t check your gas tank, you had a bigger gas tank. If they didn’t check your engine, you had a bigger engine.”
Of course, Johnson would bend the rules even on the parts that NASCAR did check. “I think the funniest thing I ever saw, I was watching a race at Bristol one time in the late 1960s, watching Junior Johnson drive, and I had my binoculars on Junior,” remembered Thompson. “It seemed like when he'd come out of the pits, going down the backstretch, the car would drop down. But every time he'd come in to make a pit stop, NASCAR would run out, stick that measuring stick under his car, and it was totally legal. As he went out, then, the car would start lowering. It turned out later on that he had hydraulics in there, and he could lower the front end.”
“The cheating, being innovative, Junior was noted for it,” Latford added. “He didn't break the rules; he just found things that were not covered by the rules. He'd find a space between the lines, so to speak, and do things that weren't covered. Then they'd come up with another rule to cover it, and he'd have to go do something else.”
Well, maybe that isn’t exactly accurate, because Johnson might be best known for building a car that was blatantly illegal, so completely beyond the spirit of the rules, let alone the letter of the law, that he earned himself a permanent spot alongside Smokey Yunick in the NASCAR scofflaws’ hall of fame.
The year was 1966, the place the old Atlanta Raceway. NASCAR was in the midst of one of its darkest eras, thanks to a battle of wills between Big Bill France and the Big Three automakers in Detroit, who were locked in a rapidly escalating horsepower war and were trying to bring ever-more-radical power plants to stock-car racing.
A year earlier, Chrysler had launched a NASCAR boycott that lasted about half a season, after France banned the automaker’s omnipotent 426 hemi engine because it was far more powerful than any rival production engine from Ford or General Motors. Without defending champion Richard Petty and the other top Plymouth and Dodge drivers of the day, the 1965 season had been a disaster for track owners and fans alike. Yet history would repeat itself—sort of—in 1966, when Ford teams sat on the sidelines as the year began. The second boycott was again caused by an engine ban and again sidelined the defending champion. This time, though, it was Ford’s overhead-cam 427-cubic-inch engine that was banned and 1965 titleholder Ned Jarrett on the sidelines.
Eventually a compromise of sorts was reached between France and one of Ford’s top factory teams. Star racer Fred Lorenzen, a driver with movie star good looks and charm to burn, was slated to return the blue oval brand to action August 7 at Atlanta in a car owned and prepared by Johnson, who broke ranks with Ford, apparently due to concessions he received from France over how his car would be prepared.
The car in question, along with Smokey Yunick’s black-and-gold Chevrolet Chevelle, which competed in the same race, was the most outrageous, bodacious, and flagrantly illegal car to ever compete in a NASCAR event. Dubbed the “Yellow Banana,” Johnson’s 1966 Ford Galaxie had its top chopped three to five inches—depending on whose estimate one believes—and its windshield was laid back at least 20 degrees. Its nose nearly touched the ground, and its rear quarter panels were swept upward to produce downforce, a modification that made the supposedly straight Galaxie sheet metal curve more like a banana.
Just how bogus was the banana? Thirty years later, Speedworld journalist Matt McLaughlin would say that the Yellow Banana looked about as much like a stock Ford Galaxie as his granny looked like Heather Locklear. In point of fact, it looked better suited to compete as an NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) funny car than it did as a NASCAR “stock car.”
“They literally had to lift Lorenzen up and slide him into the driver's seat,” remembers Bud Moore, who covered the race for the Charlotte Observer. “There was no way he could climb in it normally because the roof was slanted. And the front windshield was also sloped at an angle. The left side of the car was down about three inches lower than the right side of the car. Because Ford was struggling to stay in the sport, NASCAR basically turned their back on this deal and said, ‘This is fine.’”
Not that Yunick’s black-and-gold No. 13 Chevelle was any more legal, given that it was built to roughly 7/8 scale relative to its stock counterpart and carried an oversized engine, among a laundry list of infractions. Among the other “innovations” on Yunick’s car that weekend were a built-in roof spoiler, offset frame and removed drip rails on the roof.
Amazingly, both cars sailed through tech inspection, much to the outrage of Cotton Owens, who owned the Dodge that points leader David Pearson was driving that weekend. “The Chrysler guys went berserk when they saw the cars Johnson and Yunick slid through tech inspection,” Moore said. “Cotton decided that one of the advantages of Lorenzen's car was that it was sitting so much lower than everybody else's. So what Cotton did, he fixed up Pearson's car where the whole car would literally drop about three inches. And NASCAR figured it out on Sunday morning, so they went to Cotton and said, ‘OK, you cannot let Pearson use this device.’
“The four springs would compress, and the car would drop. Well, NASCAR said he couldn’t use those springs. You've got to use regular springs. Well Cotton refused to do it, so he pulls the car out of the race. In that same race, Curtis Turner was driving for Smokey, who decided his engine was going to be about 20 cubic inches more than anybody else's. But the weird thing is, Turner is leading most of the race, and he blows up, so they never catch Smokey's car. Lorenzen crashes and Cotton pulled his car out. There was so much cheatin' going on that weekend, it was fun covering it, because every day it was a new deal.”
One of France’s most dramatic uses or misuses of power, two flagrantly illegal cars were allowed to compete in order to appease auto execs in Detroit eager to get Ford and Chevrolet racing again and the Atlanta track owners, who wanted all three automakers competing to revive attendance, which had sagged badly in 1965–66. The Yellow Banana would never race again, because the factory Ford teams soon returned, the fans were appeased, and France had no reason to look the other way for the good of the sport. The Atlanta race in 1966 would forever represent the high-water mark—or low-water mark, depending on your point of view—for cheating, innovating, creative engineering, whatever one cares to call it. When the teams arrived at Daytona in 1967, NASCAR was waiting with its first body templates.
The teams had some new tricks of their own. Ford, which had a serious horsepower disadvantage, had been secretly using its wind tunnel in Michigan to smooth out the contours of its Fairlane race cars. “We didn’t call it cheating, we called it ‘competition tuning,’” said Ford engineer Charlie Gray, who oversaw the automakers stock car efforts in the 1960s. “I guess some people claim I’m the reason why they have templates. We didn’t have any horsepower. We had the 427-wedge engine, and we were running against the hemi Dodge. We had to find some way to run competitively. We used to go in and spend 24 hours at a time in the wind tunnel. Nobody knew that. Nobody knew about wind tunnels at that time. They [NASCAR] claimed that some of the things on our automobiles were a little bit different than stock. Well, we didn’t think so. Anyhow, they [NASCAR] came with the templates at Daytona in 1967.
“In 1965 and ’66, especially ’66, the cars that ran at Daytona were very droop-snooped. They looked like anteaters. You couldn’t run templates on those things. But in ’67 we were into it pretty hot and heavy with our Fairlanes, so NASCAR came with the templates. For some reason our Fairlanes, in 1967 at Daytona, the rain gutters [along the roof] ‘fell off’ before they got to the racetrack. I can’t figure how that happened. Lin Kuchler [of NASCAR] came to me and told me about it. When the next race came around, all the rain gutters were back on. That’s just an example of something somebody found that worked. But things like that were usually corrected by the next race.”
The 1967 Daytona 500 ultimately would be captured by Mario Andretti, but only because of a late-race engine failure in David Pearson’s hot-rod Dodge, which had been carefully “engineered” by Cotton Owens to lower its center of gravity and dramatically improve handling.
“In 1967 (for the Daytona 500), I moved the floorboards up inside the car three inches, just pulled the top and all down around it and welded it back together,” Owens said. “It no sooner hit off my trailer than everybody was under it. Richard Petty had his whole crew under it. I took the body of the car and dropped it over the chassis three inches lower than it would have been. Looking at it from the outside it looked like any other stock automobile. But if you got your measurement from the top to the floor you saw it. I called NASCAR about it before I built it, and they said anything was OK as long as what went under the car was in good workmanship. That was the ruling. We cut that thing up, lowered the roll bars, moved the floor up in it, and welded it back together. I took it as low as I could without it being too obvious. I still met the ground clearance requirements, but I got the roof of my car down. The advantage was getting the car lower through the air. It was the fastest thing there. Something happened with the engine with less than a hundred miles to go or we would have won.”