Friday, February 17, 2012

Another Cheating Escapade

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from the 2004 update of my book about cheating in NASCAR. 

In the two and a half years since the first edition of Cheating wrapped up, NASCAR has undergone myriad changes, many of them dramatic. Brian France has replaced his father, Bill, Jr., as NASCAR’s CEO. After 33 years as the sanctioning body’s prime benefactor, R.J. Reynolds and its Winston cigarette brand opted out of title sponsorship of NASCAR’s top series, which is now known as the Nextel Cup. Union 76, which had been the official fuel of NASCAR for 50 years, was replaced by Sunoco, and for 2004, the NASCAR point system was overhauled for the first time since 1975. Former Winston Cup Director Gary Nelson assumed a new position, managing director of competition, and now runs NASCAR’s $10 million R&D center in Concord, North Carolina, a spectacular facility that opened in January 2003. He was replaced by the popular John Darby, a gruff chain smoker who has earned a reputation for being a straight shooter.
A new generation of drivers, the so-called “Young Guns,” has emerged as superstars. Men like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Kasey Kahne have pushed veterans Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, and Terry Labonte out of the headlines. An entire pack of mid-level drivers—Ted Musgrave, Chad Little, Bobby Hamilton, and Johnny Benson, to name just a few—have been bumped out of NASCAR’s top series to make room for the Young Guns.
Yet for all the changes, one thing has remained constant: The Winston Cup garage—now the Nextel Cup garage—is still a place where crew chiefs, engineers, and mechanics push the letter and the spirit of NASCAR’s rule book. And lest one think the early chapters of this book exaggerated the creativity and out-and-out deviousness of NASCAR’s top crew chiefs, the 2002 and ’03 seasons saw some of the most extraordinary rule-bending in NASCAR’s history. And several infractions and the subsequent penalties doled out by NASCAR had a direct impact on the Winston Cup championship race, especially during the 2002 season.
Not surprisingly, the trouble began at Talladega in April, where penalties were doled out to no less than five Winston Cup crew chiefs and one Busch crew chief for rules violations that occurred during the weekend at the Alabama track. Most all of these were relatively benign, as rules offenses go. John Andretti’s crew chief, Steve Lane, earned the Alabama daily double, with fines totaling $1,500 for both a non-conforming rear spoiler and a too-thin fuel cell. Michael McSwain, crew chief of Ricky Rudd’s Robert Yates-owned Ford Taurus, and Paul Andrews, crew chief of the Dale Earnhardt Inc., Steve Park-driven Chevrolet, each received $1,000 fines for using axles that didn’t meet NASCAR specs. The cars driven by Brett Bodine and Jimmy Spencer were found to have fuel-system issues, specifically oversized fuel-filler necks that could have held a little bit of extra gasoline, while a Busch crew chief was fined for using an aluminum brake pedal.
The next weekend at Martinsville, Roush Racing’s Jimmy Fennig, crew chief for young phenom Kurt Busch, was caught with a rear-deck lid that failed to conform to NASCAR templates, while three more crew chiefs were fined the next race at California Speedway, all for minor infractions. Soon, the penalties and offenses both would escalate.
Another Roush crew chief, Ben Leslie, was fined $50,000 after his driver, Mark Martin won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend. Martin’s car was found to be one-eighth-inch too low in post-race inspection. It was the third time in the last 18 Winston Cup races that the race-winning car was ruled to be too low. Yet another Roush car, this one driven by Matt Kenseth, had flunked the height test after winning at Rockingham in February. Generally speaking, the lower a car sits, the better it handles and the less aerodynamic drag it has.
“NASCAR set the height rule and it doesn't matter whether it is one inch or one-eighth of an inch,” crew chief Leslie told Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer after being penalized. “With 600 miles of racing there is a great deal of wear and tear and adjustments that have to be made on the car. Still, NASCAR has to draw the line somewhere and we didn’t measure up to that line. It’s a steep fine, but those are the rules of the game.”
Some pundits in the Winston Cup garage wondered if $50,000 wasn’t a cheap price to pay for breaking the rules, given that the Coca-Cola 600 purse was a robust $280,033 and the championship purse at the end of the season was worth an extra $4.25 million.
For its part, NASCAR had seen enough of too-low cars. Faced with public pressure from fans, the media and teams themselves, sanctioning body officials decided to up the ante for scofflaws.
What happened next was unprecedented. NASCAR President Mike Helton came into the weekly pre-race meeting of drivers, crew chiefs and NASCAR officials prior to the start of the MBNA Platinum 400 June 2nd at Dover International Speedway. Helton laid down the law, threatening for the first time to impose penalties more severe than simple fines. “So far we have chosen to use a system of fines to address these violations,” Helton told the drivers and crew chiefs. “We just wanted everyone to know there are other options available if it continues.” 
Two weeks later, Jim Long, crew chief for two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte’s Hendrick Motorsports team, earned a $25,000 fine after being caught with a bogus fuel cell in pre-race inspection at the Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at Michigan. “The penalty was a result of the team attempting to increase the capacity of the fuel cell through pressure,” NASCAR officials said—the same trick teams had been using since the advent of the fuel cell nearly four decades earlier. Surprisingly, given Helton’s edict at Dover, Long’s only punishment was monetary.
The perpetual game of cops-and-robbers between NASCAR and the crew chiefs took a much more serious turn in early summer, as the Winston Cup circuit rolled into Daytona for the annual Fourth of July weekend race, the Pepsi 400, formerly known as the Firecracker 400.
This was the very same event that Greg Sacks won under mysterious circumstances in 1985, driving a DiGard Racing “R&D car” wrenched by none other than Gary Nelson. In 2002, though, Nelson was working with NASCAR, and the perp in the latest caper was a brilliant young crew chief named Chad Knaus, who had learned his craft working for Ray Evernham on Jeff Gordon’s car at Hendrick Motorsports, where he had worked from 1993-97. Knaus had worked his way up at Hendrick from a general fabricator to tire changer to manager of the entire chassis and body construction of Gordon’s cars during the team’s heyday.
After leaving Hendrick, Knaus bounced around among several Winston Cup teams, including joining Evernham’s fledgling Dodge team, before returning to Hendrick Motorsports prior to the start of the 2002 season. Knaus was paired with young rookie Jimmie Johnson, who came on like gangbusters after a brief, and frankly unspectacular stint in the Busch Series. Both Johnson and Knaus were whip-smart and by turns fiery and clever, the perfect faces for the new NASCAR.
The Johnson-Knaus team took the Winston Cup circuit by storm in their first season, winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and three races during the year. Johnson, like his mentor Jeff Gordon, combined both ferocious driving skills and casually elegant, made-for-TV good looks.
When Johnson and Knaus arrived at Daytona in July, they already were fourth in points, still in contention for a Winston Cup championship, an almost unheard of position for a rookie driver and team to be in. Prior to the start of practice at Daytona, however, the team got caught with a particularly egregious offense: offset bolts on the rear-trailing arms.
Trailing arms are long, steel beams that run from the center of the underside of the modern Winston Cup car, back all the way to beneath the rear axle. The trailing arms move up and down with the rear springs and axle as the car goes around the track.
Johnson’s Daytona car carried a trick designed to make the car sit lower in the rear and therefore, presumably, have less aerodynamic drag and more speed. The front bolts on the trailing arms were offset, yet designed to look normal from the outside. Essentially, the rear-trailing arms are like levers. If one can move the point where the lever pivots, it will allow the car to drop lower at speed.
“You look at the bolt, it looks like a normal bolt,” explained NASCAR’s Nelson. “You look at it from the side, it’s offset. It’s all about the rear springs at Daytona and Talladega. They have a minimum; they can be no weaker than 345 pounds per square inch. If you think about it in real simple terms, the spoiler is held up in the air by the rear springs. We regulate the size of the spoiler, and all the air [that passes over the body of the car] is catching that spoiler. If you can get that spoiler to drop down another quarter of an inch, that’s the same thing as taking a quarter of an inch off the top of the spoiler.” And that translates into faster speed.
“The only way to get it to drop down is to make these (the rear springs) lighter,” Nelson said. But NASCAR has a machine to measure the stiffness of rear springs and those that fail the 345-pound minimum are easily detected.
“So how do you make the spring travel more and still pass the spring-rating machine inspection?” asked Nelson. “You make the springs sit at an angle, where only half the coils are compressed, rather than all of the coils compressed. Or you take this,” he said, holding up the bolt off Johnson’s car, “and move the trailing arm back for leverage. And if we measure from the center of the bolt, but the trailing arm is actually longer, it’s pretty ingenious. You have more leverage against it. It doesn’t take much to make a quarter-inch of difference.”
NASCAR’s reaction was swift. On July 10, the sanctioning body fined Knaus $25,000 and, more critically, penalized Johnson 25 driver points and car owner Rick Hendrick 25 car owner points. Knaus took the penalty in stride. “Being creative is my job,” Knaus told Charlotte Observer reporter David Poole. “If I am going to get fined and penalized for being creative, then that’s just part of it.”
In discussing the incident, Knaus used one of the most time-tested crew chief arguments: The other guys are cheatin’ more than we are. “I’ll guarantee you a lot of the cars out there weren’t the fairest cars, or the most strict on the rules,” Knaus told the Observer’s Poole. “A lot of people go out to the speedways and try to find an edge. They find it in many, many different ways. The No. 48 Chevrolet is one of the most legal cars in this garage. The reason our car is going so fast is we have an awesome driver and an awesome team and that’s all there is to it.”
Six other crew chiefs were penalized by NASCAR that weekend, but the point penalty levied against Johnson was particularly severe, especially given that the bolts were detected in inspection prior to the car ever taking a lap on the track. Several drivers and crew chiefs said a nonconforming part discovered prior to practice should be treated with far less severe a penalty than if the same part had been caught in a race.
“By penalizing Jimmie, they are sending a message that trying to stretch the rules will not be tolerated,” said his teammate Jeff Gordon, who co-owns Johnson’s car with Rick Hendrick. “But I believe if you go on the track, you deserve to be penalized. Something caught before the car even makes it out there—take it away and make sure it never comes back. That's enough.”

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