NASCAR moves to curb cheating

Suspensions and fines hit a record high, even as some defend a culture of 'experimentation.'

Whether it's tweaking manifolds for horsepower or twisting chassis to harness aerodynamic forces, NASCAR's pit-row mechanics have often tested gray areas in NASCAR's 180-page rule book.

Some call it cheating. Others call it innovation. Either way, the secret back-shop arms race to gain precious speed and grip may be curtailed, at least if new NASCAR boss Brian France has his way.

In a dramatic attempt to clean up pit row, Mr. France, the scion of the NASCAR enterprise, has this season levied a record number of suspensions, cash fines, and point deductions against wrench-wielding scofflaws, as well as wayward drivers and team owners.

To many, France's gambit is a welcome change for a sport where veteran driver Kyle Petty recently admitted to cheating "a million times." But at a time when corporate sponsors are increasingly downplaying the sport's roughshod roots, critics say that France's anticheating campaign is a misbegotten, even hypocritical, idea that doesn't mesh with the grease-dipped appeal of racin'.

"There's a culture in the sport that says, 'If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin',' and that's what NASCAR is fighting," says David Poole, the veteran racing correspondent for the Observer newspaper in Charlotte, N.C., the sport's epicenter.

This particular culture clash comes at a crossroads for NASCAR. In June, NASCAR don Bill France Jr., died, forcing his son Brian France, the chairman for the past three years, to go it alone and forge his own legacy. But to many fans' chagrin, that legacy is, in part, to leave in the dust the sport's dirt-track tradition in favor of luxury boxes and more races outside the South. Its international ambitions are clear with the addition of – gasp – the Toyota Camry to the previously all-American lineup.

Indeed, what actually had its beginnings in the bootlegging business has become a multi-billion-dollar corporate lovefest, with Fortune 500 companies lining up for sponsorships. And as more and more engineering prowess is housed in multicar garages such as Hendrick and Roush, smaller garages like the Pettys or the Wood Brothers have less chance to win.

NASCAR getting tough "is a response to the demands of big-time corporate sponsors who want to know they have the same chance to be in victory lane as any other team," says Jim Wright, a Florida sociologist, racing fan, and author of "Fixin' to Git," a memoir about NASCAR fandom.

But "the fundamental fallacy" in this thinking, he says, has to do with what gets downplayed: "The engine builders, sheet-metal guys, and crew chiefs have always been a part of the sport, and they make it a more interesting sport."

The crackdown is unprecedented. This year, eight crew chiefs have been suspended, including Steve LeTarte and Chad Knaus who, respectively, work for Nextel Cup leader Jeff Gordon and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, both of racing powerhouse Hendrick Motor Sports.

Total race-day suspensions this year, halfway into the season, amount to 42. All of last year, crew chiefs were suspended for a total of eight races. Infractions have included taping over wheel-well holes and flared fenders – creative ways to gain aerodynamic superiority.

But NASCAR itself bears some blame for allowing a variety of "gray areas" to linger in the thick rule book, insiders say. Stock car racing is not rigged, but NASCAR, from its beginnings, has been known to bend the rules – such as waving yellow caution flags for no reason – in order to consolidate a pack of cars at the end of a race to add drama, says stock car historian Alex Gabbard, author of "NASCAR's Wild Years."

"NASCAR has gotten criticized for the lack of consistency with cars or procedures through the race, and they're trying to ... send a clear message that this stuff won't be tolerated," says Dan Elliott, brother of racing legend Bill Elliott.

NASCAR, which has seen TV ratings fall this season, is hoping that its saving grace is the Car of Tomorrow (COT), a mandatory new car design that will be used full time next year. A throwback to the original "stock car" idea, the boxier, safer model is designed so that teams can take fewer aerodynamic liberties, thus moving the focus from the mechanics to the driver.

The COT is, essentially, a do-over, says Mr. Poole, the Observer correspondent: "What you have to do is build a new race car and say, 'OK, we're not going to let you mess this one up.' "

Still, many fans appreciate that stock car racing is tied to greasy fingernails, behind-the-scenes experimentation, and even getting away with something.

It's one of the many "ironic juxtapositions" of the Southern-flavored stock car culture that is both appealing and confounding, argues Roger Casey, who grew up among moonshiners in South Carolina before becoming an English professor at Rollins College in Florida. "What we have going on now is a continuation of the original mythology of stock car racing, where NASCAR itself is now playing the role of the law, and the people who are doing the cheating are the outlaws or moonshiners of the old days," says Mr. Casey.

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