Thursday, July 4, 2013

Talladega 1997

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from my Cheating book, which was published in 2002.

In the second half of the 1990s, NASCAR again had its hands full trying to sort out exactly who was cheating and who wasn’t. Some of the most pitched battles, both on the track and in the inspection lines, involved bitter rivals Jack Roush and Ray Evernham, though they had plenty of company in the scofflaw department.

Roush and NASCAR got into it at Talladega on May 9, 1997, two days prior to the rain-delayed Winston 500. When the Roush Racing Ford driven by Jeff Burton rolled through inspection on that day, NASCAR officials were surprised to find its roof was unlike any they had ever seen on a superspeedway car before.

At the time, NASCAR used four templates to measure roof dimensions: the so-called “long template” that runs the length of the car from nose to rear spoiler and three others that fit across the width of the roof at its front, center, and rear, respectively. The body on Burton’s car, a body that was built not by Roush but by an undisclosed third-party vendor, fit all four of NASCAR’s templates. Everything else about it, however, was wrong.

The roof flaps, thin strips of sheet metal designed to raise up in the air and keep the car from flipping in the event of a spin, were mounted five inches forward of the NASCAR-mandated location. NASCAR officials admitted this modification offered no performance advantage—after all, they only deployed if the car was out of control—but were incensed nonetheless.

Tampering with a safety feature of the car was one offense they took very, very seriously. Ironically, Roush himself had designed the flaps, working in concert with NASCAR to improve safety in accident conditions.

But in a display that shocked the garage, NASCAR officials literally cut the roof off the car in the garage at Talladega, destroying the car.

Officially the explanation for the stiff punishment, which included a $20,000 fine in addition to the destruction of a $150,000 race car, was that the flaps were improperly mounted. “The fact is, we know the roof flaps work in the position they’re supposed to be in,” said NASCAR’s Kevin Triplett, who had been promoted from his PR capacity to become director of operations, in an interview with Winston Cup Scene’s Tom Stinson. “There’s no way of knowing whether they would work or not [on Burton’s car], and that’s a chance we’re not willing to take.”

Of course, as always in stock-car racing, the reality was a bit more complicated than the public explanation. Several Winston Cup crew chiefs said the roof did indeed fit the four templates, but had been “scalloped”—lowered everywhere except where the templates fit in an attempt to greatly reduce aerodynamic drag.

In fairness to Roush, his team bought the body from an outside supplier, one the team would not do business with again after Talladega. Still, scalloping was not a “gray area” miscalculation. It was an aggressive attempt at chicanery, and NASCAR responded forcefully.

Gary DeHart, crew chief for 1995 Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte, would later call it “the squirreliest thing he’d ever seen in racing.” Fellow crew chief Robbie Loomis agreed, saying it was the most outlandish modification he’d ever seen a team try to get through the inspection line.

1 comment:

  1. Timely post Tom. Great linkage from today's events to an era that really isn't that long ago.