These past two weeks, NASCAR had been buzzing with accusations, counter-accusations, explanations and more official inspections than ever. Or at least it seems like it, doesn’t it? The appeal of the #33 was denied by the National Stock Car Racing Commission and RCR and Bowyer are left in the same place that many drivers have over the years. NASCAR’s decisions stand more often than not. Their word is law. This piece, however is not about whether or not Bowyer’s car had one innovation too many, this is racing after all. They’re all an innovation or two away from “stock” cars.
There are many well known sayings about cheating in NASCAR. Quips like “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” come easily to mind. Famous tales of racing innovation and legends of stock cars have grown as much from the garages as from the track itself. In 1949 at the first Strictly Stock race sanctioned by NASCAR, more than 13,000 people watched Glenn Dunnaway take a borrowed Ford through the dirt turns and beat an impressive field including Jim Roper, two of the Flock Brothers, the fearless female racer Sara Christian and Lee Petty.[i] Dunnaway collected $2,000 in prize money and the dubious honor of being the first driver ever disqualified for cheating in a NASCAR race.
Whether or not he knew it, (he argued that he did not) Dunnaway’s 1947 Ford had modifications to make fast whiskey runs. Wedges stiffened the springs to better corner through the turns, a common and simple modification made by moonshiners. The modified springs were discovered at post race inspection and Dunnaway was immediately disqualified.[i]
This race also set an interesting precedent of NASCAR having the final say as a sanctioning sporting body. The owner, Hubert Westmoreland, sued NASCAR and Bill France for $10,000 for disqualifying his car. The court determined that NASCAR made the rules and had the final say. In 1949 the enforcement of these rules made it clear that NASCAR was a legitimate racing organization. It also established a very basic rule, it was necessary to abide by the rules and regulations of NASCAR if you wanted to race in NASCAR.
The improved technology of the inspection process does not mean NASCAR has changed all that much from when official inspections were held in barns down the road from the track. After the post-race inspections at the 2008 Tums Quick Pack 500 at Martinsville Speedway, a team was penalized for racing a car with sheet metal that did not meet NASCAR’s minimum thickness requirements. The team had used an acid dipping process to thin the metal, making the car lighter.[ii] This trick echoes of master mechanic and car builder Smokey Yunick’s legendary rule bending. To one race, he brought a car that appeared to meet all the requirements of NASCAR, until measured, wherein it was discovered that the car was seven-eighths the size of the other cars, but perfectly scaled.[iii] While NASCAR uses a number of templates and measuring systems to try to catch these modern day Smokeys one has to wonder where the line can be drawn between innovation and cheating. NASCAR officials measure the frame of the car, test engine parts, and even mark specific parts to try to ensure an equal field at each race. It is not just one or two teams who are trying to find a way to out smart the rule book, they all are. But, like they say, it’s only cheating if they catch you.