Cheaters Proof

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( Editor’s Note: So what do you do when confronted with a long-term medical recuperation, the mind numbing boredom of the off-season, and unreasonably, unseasonably snowy and cold weather? One alternative is to wash down pain pills with a copious amount of Colorado Kool-Aid, watch Jerry Springer and all those judge shows on UHF and let your mind turn to Jell-O. Or you can draw the blinds to the gathering storm, wish like Hell you had a fireplace, and curl up in the recliner and read a good book about the sport of stock car racing. Me, I’m flexible so I like to alternate so I ordered up a passel of books about stock car racing, and over the next few weeks will be reviewing them. As for my narcotic fueled ranting and raving you’ll have to check the SpeedFX message board. )

You can call it “cheating”, “bending the rules” or “mining the gray areas of the rulebook” but it’s been a part of stock car racing from the very start. In fact the apparent winner of NASCAR’s very first “Strictly Stock” race back in 1949 was disqualified for illegal rear springs after the race. In today’s increasingly political correct, and sponsor driven Winston Cup series, the mere allegation of cheating is verboten, and while no one will admit to cheating, most will quietly allege some of their competition is doing so. (Witness this year’s “traction-control” rumors.)

Now Tom Jensen has written a book on the history of cheating in NASCAR stock car racing called simply “Cheating”. (And subtitled a bit more awkwardly; An Inside Look at the Bad Things Good NASCAR Winston Cup Drivers Do in Pursuit of Speed.) Jensen is probably best remembered by race fans for his four years as Executive Editor at Winston Cup Scene from 1997 to 2001. The same concise and erudite writing style that served Jensen so well in that position is featured in Cheating.

Newer fans will be amazed by how blatant cheating was in earlier eras of the sport while older fans for whatever reason now reflect back on such outrages as Smokey Yunick’s 7/8th scale Chevelle or Junior Johnson’s infamous “Yellow Banana” Ford with bemused tolerance and even nostalgic fondness. (Let me assure you the Chrysler executives and race teams were none too amused by Junior’s tricked up Ford at Atlanta in 1966 back then.) Cheating goes on to note Yunick’s claim he was so cagey back in those days he was able to run a flywheel driven supercharger on his cars for a couple years back in the 50s with no one at NASCAR ever catching on to the chicanery.

Jensen’s book continues to chronicle the nasty little tricks crew chiefs tried to slip by NASCAR inspectors into the more modern era of nitrous oxide and carefully details the two major flaps caused by race winners caught with oversize engines at Charlotte in 1973 and 1983. (For newer fans not familiar with the 1983 debacle, you’ll finally understand why a lot of older fans claim Richard Petty has only 199 wins not the 200 usually attributed to him in the record books.) The book continues right up into the 2001 season (remember how the overladen tables of illegal parts were the big story at Daytona that year prior to the last lap crash on Feb. 18th?) chronicling how the cheating has grown more subtle and the increasingly detailed inspections NASCAR officials make to root it out all together. While Cheating doesn’t discuss the rules violations that resulted in teams losing points in the latter part of last year, it does cite precedent in NASCAR past for such draconian penalties and even discusses why some teams are more likely to suffer NASCAR’s wrath than others. (Don’t tell anyone, but NASCAR apparently makes up the rules as they go along, and has since the very beginnings of the sport. In some instances when it’s made for a better show they’ve not only allowed but condoned cheating.)

Even more knowledgeable fans might be surprised by the real story behind Jeff Gordon’s now mythical “T-Rex” car that won the 1997 Winston and Ray Evernham’s little prank played on the media and fans concerning that car and its importance to the team’s future.

Of course some of the information in this book will wind up categorized under “more information than I needed” by fans of some of the drivers listed as having won races with a “little help”. (Leave me to my ignorance about how Bill Elliott came back from two laps down at Talladega in 1985.) And it’s a bit disheartening to hear a blanket statement that most races in the mid 80s, a period a lot of us consider the Golden Age of stock car racing, were won by illegal cars, or at least cars that weren’t legal to the strict letter of the rulebook.

And naturally there’s the obligatory “serious journalist” swipe at the NASCAR Internet media by a guy born in an era when a downsized computer was the size of a three-quarter ton Econoline in the discussion of Jeremy Mayfield’s illegal fuel at Talladega in 2000 and the long delay in imposing a penalty. “Rumors and conspiracy theories ran wild, especially on the Internet, a haven for so much paranoid innuendo it makes Kennedy assassination buffs seem well grounded.” Hey, I was there for that skirmish and the print boys save for the normal apologists were just as apoplectic as we were.

All in all though, Cheating is a good read and a perfect remedy for one of those long cold afternoons where the sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine that lay between us and the start of the 2003 Cup season. I definitely recommend you purchase this book, or perhaps cheat by calling your local library 25 times using different voices to demand they stock Cheating then checking it out for free. After all it would only be appropriate.


Cheating: An Inside Look at the Bad Things Good NASCAR Winston Cup Drivers Do in Pursuit of Speed
By Tom Jensen
David Bull Publishing-250 pages-$24.95

Matt can be reached at Matt@SpeedFX.com

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