But the teams all saved their best tricks for the Daytona 500, then as now the most important race of the year. Daytona drew the most attention and sponsor interest, got the most exposure, and paid extremely well. But in those days, the annual January testing at the 2.5-mile superspeedway was not closely supervised by NASCAR, and cars didn’t have to test in legal trim. If a team was looking for a sponsor prior to Daytona and wanted to generate some buzz, all it had to do was bolt in a 500-cubic-inch motor for a January test session and run some blisteringly fast lap times. All of a sudden the word would get around about how fast it was running. There was no better or quicker way to attract a sponsor’s dollars.
And sometimes the big engines found their way into real races. In the 1973 National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, tensions were high among competitors, who felt that cheating had reached epidemic proportions. Even those doing the cheating were concerned. During a practice session three days after qualifying, pole-winner Charlie Glotzbach was found to have an illegal carburetor plate in his Hoss Ellington–owned Chevrolet. NASCAR disqualified his pole-winning time, forcing him to re-qualify. Ellington swore the offending part was used only in practice, not qualifying, prompting journalist Benny Phillips to note that “The penalty of disqualifying Glotzbach is like putting someone in jail on Saturday for being drunk on Wednesday.”
After the race, the cars of race winner Cale Yarborough, who drove for Junior Johnson at the time, runner-up Richard Petty, and third-place finisher Bobby Allison all had their engines torn down. Some 25 hours after the race was over, Yarborough was declared the winner, even though there were allegations that the first- and second-place cars were running oversized engines.
“Prior to the inspection Allison claimed he saw crew members from Petty's crew run over and, using rags to hide what they were up to, remove something from the engine compartment, while a nearby NASCAR official conveniently turned his back,” recalled Matt McLaughlin of the Web site SpeedFx. “Allison's car passed quickly, but there was obviously something up in the inspection garage, as the post-race inspection dragged on six hours. Rumors were circulating [that] Petty's engine was a little oversized and Yarborough's was way out of line.”
According to accounts from NASCAR journalist and historian Greg Fielden, track promoter Richard Howard blew his cool over the lengthy inspection process. “They give you a stamp of approval at race time and six hours later can’t give you a winner,” Fielden quoted Howard as saying. “I’ve been paying NASCAR inspectors to be here all week and ensure that the cars are legal. Now they tell me they might not have done their job and some illegal cars may have gotten by them. If so, what have I been spending my money for? If they rule against the order of finish that the fans saw on Sunday, I’m going to court. By letting the cars start, the NASCAR inspectors said that they were OK. Now they are reneging. I’m not bluffing about this. I’m sick and tired of seeing stuff like this be allowed to happen, possibly leading to the ruin of a great sport.”
Amazingly, NASCAR made an announcement the next day that the Yarborough-Petty-Allison finishing order would remain one-two-three because its post-race inspection was “inadequate” to determine the cubic inches of the cars involved. “The decision to let the results stand was made following a meeting of NASCAR officials after reviewing information that showed in a post race inspection the procedure used to check all of the engine sizes in the previous race inspection proved inadequate,” the sanctioning body said in a prepared statement. “Since the purpose of the pre-race inspection is to determine that the cars in competition conform to the rules prior to the actual running of the race and that this procedure was in effect for the Charlotte race, the results are official.”
Outraged, Allison threatened to sue, claiming NASCAR officials had told him Petty’s engine was a little oversized, while Johnson’s was “a whopper.” On October 11, Allison announced his plans to pursue legal action. “If you use the standards utilized by NASCAR, we ought give [former vice president and convicted felon] Spiro Agnew his job back,” Fielden reported Allison as saying. “If you get caught cheating, it doesn’t seem to matter in NASCAR’s eyes. I’m just one of 38 guys who got cheated. It was just a case of NASCAR having to discipline the little guys because they don’t have enough guts to do what’s right with the big guys.”
He dropped the idea after a lengthy closed-door meeting with NASCAR President Bill France Jr. on October 15. “I have received satisfactory restitution, and you can read that any way you want” was Allison’s only comment, though it was widely rumored that France had used his legendary powers of persuasion to calm the driver down. In fact, the rumor—never proven or disproven—was that France had given Allison a hefty check to settle the issue, perhaps as much as $50,000. Neither man would ever speak of the incident publicly again.
Twenty-eight years later, Robert Yates, who built the engine for Cale Yarborough’s Charlotte-winning car, confirmed that it was way oversized, but insisted that those found in the competitors’ engine bays were, too.
“I just built a big one,” Yates said. “There were so many ways of beating the system. Finally, I just got great big [with engine displacement]. We had 500-cubic-inch motors. I sent one to Martinsville, and [crew chief] Herb Nab called me back at the shop and said, ‘Man, this thing is so bad it's laying two streaks of rubber all the way down the straightaway.’ It was just a hog motor. We went to North Wilkesboro the next week and then to Charlotte, and by that time NASCAR knew that something was going on. So they were going to pull the cylinder heads off everybody. We won the race. We were there all night. They pulled the heads off and started trying to measure the bore and stroke. They didn't really have the equipment to do it. Eight different people checked our engine and came up with eight different sizes. They finally let us out at midnight. So what? Everybody else had big motors. From that day forward they started pulling heads off, that made you look around and say this is all fair now. I sort of was happy that it all got [more heavily policed by NASCAR].”
While it was Allison who had raised a stink at Charlotte that year, the proverbial shoe would be on the other foot a year later, when Allison ran afoul of NASCAR inspectors. At Ontario, California, Allison won the final race of the season, only to have his car caught with illegal roller tappets, instead of the solid ones mandated by NASCAR. The roller tappets, which fit between the camshaft and pushrods have less friction than solid lifters and thus produce more horsepower.
“He almost got away with it,” former NASCAR Winston Cup Director Dick Beaty said in a 1988 interview with NASCAR Winston Cup Scene’s Deb Williams. “I told one of the crewmen to hand me one of the tappets. At first, they pretended like they couldn’t get if off. I told him he was going to take it apart if we had to cut it. Finally, they got one out. The one he handed me was as cold as ice. He had a rag in his hand and it had a flat tappet in it. When he pulled the roller tappet out of the car, he kept it in his rag and handed me the flat one. Now, there’s no way a tappet that’s just come out of a car that’s run 500 miles is going to be cold. I grabbed the rag that was in his hand and sure enough, there was the roller tappet. If he had taken that [flat] tappet and heated it, he would have gotten away with it.”
But illegal engine modifications weren’t the only way enterprising teams tried to skirt the rules. In an effort to equalize competition among the various makes and hold speeds as well, NASCAR stepped up its use of restrictor plates. The way a restrictor plate works is very simple: It is a machined flat aluminum plate that fits between the carburetor and intake manifold and uses small-diameter openings to limit the amount of fuel-air mixture that flows from the carburetor into the engine, drastically reducing horsepower. Although NASCAR has used a variety of different sizes and configurations of restrictor plates over the years, in the contemporary motors used today at superspeedways, they cut horsepower from about 780 to 400.
From the onset of their use, however, restrictor plates have been a source of almost infinite temptation for engine builders and crew chiefs who want to tamper with the devices. During the running of the 1973 Winston 500 at Talladega, Marty Robbins, a country and western singer and part-time stock-car racer, finished 18th and turned race laps 15 mph faster than his qualifying speed, raising some eyebrows in the garage.
“Marty loved to race for a hobby. He didn't do it for money,” recalled Dick Thompson of the late singer. “He went to Talladega and he was running like a bandit, but what they had done, is they had fiddled with his restrictor plate. He won rookie of the race and everything, but he went to NASCAR and he told ’em, ‘I'm not running legal, I just wanted to get out there one time and race with ’em.’ Nobody would hold that against Marty ’cause he was such a great guy.”
“When they first started putting the plates on the cars, when I drove for Holman-Moody, old Jake [Elder] had a big restrictor plate taped up under the fan cover,” recalled David Pearson of the early 1970s. “Back then NASCAR would hand you the plate and you’d turn around and put it on. Old Jake just turned right around and stuck the one NASCAR gave him up under the fan cover and pulled the other one out and put it on the car. Looking at it, you couldn’t tell the difference. You can take a knife and go around those holes in the restrictor plate, open them up just a little and pick up 10 horsepower. We run the 125-milers [Daytona 500 qualifying races] that way. NASCAR came over and said they wanted to see it. All they wanted to do was look down in the carburetor and see that the plate was still on it. Jake got mad and jerked the seal off. They said, well since you broke the seal just go ahead and take the carburetor off. If he hadn’t done that we would have gotten away with it. But all I was doing was looking in my mirror and driving just fast enough to stay in front of them. I could have run a lot faster, but you’ve got to use your head when you’re doing something like that. But we got caught. There has been a lot of cheating going on with the plate. I would say there still are people cheating with it someway, somehow.”
Another master manipulator of the restrictor plate was former car owner Hoss Ellington, who campaigned cars for Sterling Marlin and the late Tim Richmond, as well as Charlie Glotzbach’s disqualified 1973 Charlotte car, among others. His most famous car was the one Donnie Allison drove in 1979, when he crashed with Cale Yarborough going for the win on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
“When the carburetor plate first came out, Hoss had a device,” said Bob Moore. “The restrictor plate was set in there. Hoss developed a pull device, and it would actually slide the hole completely open. It was incredible. It was so intricately machined it was almost invisible to the human eye. And he actually got away with it for a couple of races before they found it. Hoss was a little bit strange in that he enjoyed getting caught. Then he'd make a big uproar and cause a big stink. Unlike, say, Junior [Johnson] and a few others, whose whole idea was never to get caught, if Hoss got away with it, fine. If he didn't get away with it, fine.”
In 1986, Marlin’s Ellington-owned Chevrolet Monte Carlo was penalized for having an illegal fuel cooling system prior to the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in July. Marlin’s car had a hidden padded metal box filled with dry ice and a spiraled fuel line that ran through it. The dry ice cooled the fuel, making it more dense, so it would generate additional horsepower under combustion.
Pearson, who drove briefly for Ellington, said the outspoken owner loved the conspiracy aspect of cheating but was not mechanically inclined himself. “Hoss never did know what to do,” Pearson said. “[Engine builder] Runt [Pittman] was the main one on that car. He’s the one who did all the cheating and stuff. I know one time when I drove his car, Runt took a grease fitting and screwed a hole for it in the intake manifold. Hoss couldn’t stand it. He wanted to know what that grease fitting was for. Runt told him, ‘Don’t worry, it’s something that’s going to help it.’ Hoss couldn’t wait to tell people about it. But Runt was just messing around with him. It didn’t really do anything.”
For NASCAR Winston Cup teams in the 1970s, though, the clear performance booster of choice was nitrous oxide, or NO2. Known as laughing gas and used for years as a medical sedative, nitrous oxide injected into an internal combustion engine generates a tremendous horsepower boost—upwards of 100 horsepower over a short period. In the mid-1970s, many NASCAR Winston Cup teams hid nitrous oxide canisters in the bodies and frames of their cars. Though a tank might last long enough for only 30 to 40 seconds, used at the right time, it could mean the difference between winning and losing.
Nitrous oxide was especially popular during qualifying, when it could mean the difference between sitting on the pole and missing the race entirely. The biggest nitrous oxide scandal occurred in 1976, at the biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500. Pole-sitter A. J. Foyt and second-qualifier Darrell Waltrip both had their times disallowed after nitrous oxide was found in their respective cars. During the same race, Dave Marcis’s qualifying time was also disallowed because he was caught with a movable air deflector in his car, a device that could reduce drag and make his car faster.
Foyt and NASCAR President Bill France Jr., who had succeeded his father as NASCAR’s leader in 1972, nearly came to blows at Daytona back then, with the volatile Texan proclaiming he hadn’t used nitrous oxide. Twenty-five years later, prior to the running of the 2001 Daytona 500, Foyt still maintained he didn’t use the performance-enhancing substance. “He’s not talking to anybody about it, but if he was, he’d tell you the same thing he did back then: He didn’t do it,” said team spokesman Michael Rompf.
The ever-effusive Waltrip, however, admitted his team had nitrous in the car. “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,” he said at the time.
Prior to the 2000 running of the Brickyard 400, Waltrip spilled the whole story. “We went to Daytona and [crew chief] Mario Rossi took what we called the wedge bar and made that into a cylinder and packed it full of nitrous,” he told reporters Robin Miller and Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star. But NASCAR officials became suspicious of Foyt and Waltrip when their practice times were a second per lap slower than their qualifying speeds.
“So here comes NASCAR. They took my car into the inspection room and had people crawl all over it. We were trying not to laugh, but it was hard because they were hanging on that bar with the nitrous,” Waltrip said. “Finally, Bill France Sr. and Bill Gazaway came over and said if we didn't tell them where the nitrous was, they were going to go get the saw and cut every bar on the car out. Rossi got nervous they might cut into something and blow themselves up, so he told them where it was.”
The fears of a nitrous oxide tank exploding were not unwarranted, either. “In the nitrous oxide days, when everybody was doing it, I saw an oil tank blow apart down at Darlington one day on a race car, because the nitrous oxide went off in the car,” said car owner Richard Childress.
“The funniest one of those was G. C. Spencer at Talladega, because he had it in his car and it went off in the garage area. There was this loud hissing sound,” said historian Bob Latford. “Another time, D. K. Ulrich, one of the independents, had a cylinder hidden in the front cross-member. And when he crashed, it was stripped away from the car.”
Car owner Bud Moore said nitrous oxide was fairly common in the 1970s. “Several people got caught using it. They had it hidden all around. All you had to do was turn a little valve and shoot it into the air cleaner,” he said. “It’d raise the horsepower, 30 or 40 more, just like that. You run your first lap, got the speed up, then put that boost to it. Most of them had the bottle inside the seat. Tube ran out the seat bar, worked its way around, and got its way into the air cleaner. It was hard to detect.”
Although he denied using nitrous, Foyt did admit to Miller and Cavin that he wasn’t 100 percent legal all the time in the 1970s. “The biggest thing you could get away with was messing with the body of the car,” he said. “Cale [Yarborough] and I had Oldsmobiles that we narrowed, but somebody blew the whistle on us and NASCAR wouldn't even let us unload them off the trailer.”