Commentary

Looking for an extra edge ever evolving in sport that demands it

Few things are a given in life, but crew chiefs looking for an extra edge in NASCAR outside the rulebook? That's a way of life, writes David Newton.

Updated: August 9, 2007, 12:21 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- One of Gary Nelson's many jobs when he went from Winston Cup crew chief to NASCAR series director in 1991 was to write a set of rules to discourage cheating.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr.
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. committed just one of the high-profile transgressions in 2007.

Because Nelson was one of the best at bending the rules, then-NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. felt no one was more qualified to write them.

"I had this belief that I could write the rules so well that nobody could find any gray area," Nelson said with a laugh. "I was proven wrong just about every time.

"I would say to a crew chief, 'Look, it's clear in the rulebook that you can't do that.' The crew chief would answer, 'By the way, I read it, it says I can do it.' That other perspective created a constant gray area and still does."

Cheating, or pushing the gray area as those in the sport like to call it, is in many ways the foundation on which stock car racing was built.

Everybody knows somebody who has done it.

Nobody wants to admit it.

"It's definitely sort of the history of the sport," said Nelson, who now runs an independent consulting firm. "In competitive stock car racing, everybody searches for an edge.

"Many times, the racers would look where the officials weren't looking."

Cheating is looked at differently in NASCAR than in most sports. Although it's not condoned, it's also not totally discouraged.

Some might even call it healthy for the sport.

"In our sport, it's just sort of accepted," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for corporate communications. "Gaining that advantage in racing has evolved from the day chariots were made. This guy wanted to beat this guy, and he would look at everything on his chariot or horses to do it.

"I don't think it will ever go away."

As the sport has grown, there has been a more intense effort to shrink the gray areas to protect integrity. The rulebook has gone from 63 pages in 1997 to 99 this season, 183 if you include rules on the new Car of Tomorrow.

Penalties also have increased significantly. Tony Eury Jr., the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., was suspended for six weeks and fined $100,000 when an illegal wing bracket was discovered on the car. Earnhardt was penalized 100 championship points. The same fate awaited crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus -- and their respective drivers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- when they decided to flare the right front fenders on the cars just a few weeks after the Earnhardt infraction.

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"The pressure is on us to make sure everyone is on a level playing field," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's director of competition. "The incredible amount of competition out there is what forces everybody to go to the last degree to get every advantage they can.

"In the early days, there were less rules, so you could bend all you want. As people went over the line, that's what created the rulebook."

Nelson credits France, who recently passed away, for taking a stand.

"He taught me the future of the sport depends on how well that rulebook was written and how well those rules were enforced," he said.

Nelson recalled the early days of working on the rulebook during the annual summer meeting.

"At the end of the first five years, we said, 'Well, next year we don't have much work to do,'" he said. "By the 15th year I went to those meetings, it had gone from one day to three and three days wasn't enough.

"So there's still a lot of innovation out there."

Not guilty!
Michael Waltrip was almost in tears as he sat in front of a packed media center at Daytona International Speedway in February.

Michael Waltrip
AP Photo/John RaouxMichael Waltrip managed to qualify for the Daytona 500 this season, but it was hard for him to muster a smile after he did.

His crew chief and director of competition had been suspended indefinitely, and he had been docked 100 championship points after an illegal substance was discovered in the engine of his No. 55 Toyota.

Even worse to him, he'd been labeled a cheater.

But Waltrip never admitted knowing about the substance. Neither did his crew chief and competition director, nor anybody else associated with the team.

"I've never known a crew chief that deliberately broke the rule," Hunter said. "They will tell you it's a part failure or accidental. If it's on the track, we didn't know."

Ray Evernham, whose $60,000 fine for using unapproved suspension parts on Jeff Gordon's car in 1995 was the largest in the history of the sport until this year, insists he never has truly cheated.

He was defiant when the governing body suspended all three of his crew chiefs at Daytona, fined them a combined $100,000 and docked the teams a combined 100 points for infractions he insisted were within the rules.

"Cheating is when you break a black-and-white rule, when you run a big motor, put something in your fuel or soak your tires or run your car light," said Evernham, now an owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

"If you look at my history, all of the things I really got in trouble for were things I still consider gray areas because I don't feel like the rulebook had anything. Right down to Daytona this year."

Evernham said NASCAR was wrong to penalize him because it since has had to rewrite the rules to cover specifically the issues it had with his cars.

"If I wasn't right, why would they rewrite the rules?" he said. "Because I went in there and proved when I appealed that the rules weren't sufficient and we were in the gray area. That tells me I was right."

Nevertheless, Evernham lost the appeal -- as most do.

"Look at the unapproved part I got the gazillion-dollar fine for," he said. "There is no unapproved parts list, so how would you know what is not approved?

"I don't condone cheating. I hate it. I hate to compete at something where I don't feel like I'm getting a fair shot. But I do love engineering and ingenuity."

Taking the Fifth
Robbie Loomis, who replaced Evernham as Gordon's crew chief before moving to Petty Enterprises last season, thought long and hard when asked whether he had ever cheated.

We don't like to talk about it, but as far as competitors, we accept it because we have a respect for each other that we're all trying to win. Back in the day, the races were established by the guys that won the most were the guys that pushed the envelope the most.

Robbie Loomis

"I always like to be honest," he said. "Do I have to answer that?"

Nobody likes to answer that question. Knaus, whose ingenuity has resulted in numerous fines as the crew chief for 2006 Nextel Cup champion Johnson, declined to even talk about it.

"We don't like to talk about it, but as far as competitors, we accept it because we have a respect for each other that we're all trying to win," Loomis said. "Back in the day, the races were established by the guys that won the most were the guys that pushed the envelope the most."

Asked to name the best cheater of all time, Loomis immediately changed cheater to creative.

"I'll say Gary Nelson," he said. "He was creative and always coming up with something that would give him a leg up."

Nelson, along with Junior Johnson and Smokey Yunick, are considered by most to be the best ever at bending the rules. Former Cup champion Darrell Waltrip once said NASCAR's hiring of Nelson was like "letting one of the inmates run the asylum."

Nelson worked with Waltrip at Hendrick Motorsports after earning a reputation for being a great "innovator" with DiGard Racing and Bobby Allison in the early 1980s.

He is credited with being the inventor of a device that emptied lead buckshot hidden inside the roll cage when the driver pulled a lever to lighten the weight of the car during a race.

Nelson's memory still gets fuzzy when asked about the device.

"The guys that are listed [as the best cheaters] earned their spot on that list by having been caught," he said. "But there's no record of me paying any fines or being caught over the years.

"So I don't know what the criteria is to be listed with those guys when I don't have a record."

He definitely fits Pemberton's criterion.

"The ones that were the best cheaters are the ones that we probably don't know about," he said.

Pemberton, who was fined a total of $85,000 as a crew chief from 1985 to 2001, also belongs on the list. He was fined $40,000 in 1990 when a carburetor-spacer plate was found in Mark Martin's car after a win at Richmond.

But ask Pemberton for examples of when he broke the rules and he'll say, "There's none."

"I don't know if it's a statute of limitations or whatever it is, but sitting around at times talking about times gone by, the occasional stuff will come out that we chuckle about," Pemberton added. "It's all in good sport."

Banana to T-Rex
Every now and again, somebody will build a car just within the rules but so far into the gray area that NASCAR will ban the whole machine.

That happened in 1966, when Junior Johnson brought an experimental Ford -- nicknamed "The Banana" because of its bright yellow paint scheme -- to Atlanta.

It happened again in 1997 when Evernham brought the famous T-Rex to the all-star race in Charlotte.

Johnson and Evernham were allowed to race the cars that weekend, then told never to bring them to the track again.

"T-Rex was built completely 100 percent within the rules," Evernham insisted. "There was nothing illegal about that car until the night we won the race. Then they just made it illegal."

Nelson said it was a simple case of eliminating the problem before it created a new set of problems. He used open-wheel racing as an example, citing how everybody had to rebuild their cars with the engine in the back once inspectors let the first one pass.

"The responsibility of the decision-makers at NASCAR is to stop those kind of things from happening," Nelson said. "Don't obsolete all of the cars overnight because you let one guy build something that was unique.

"So you take your rulebook and make that one car obsolete and save all the other cars in the garage."

Junior Johnson
AP PhotoJunior Johnson was an innovator. "A lot of it wasn't bending the rule. They didn't have rules for it. Then when you create something that gave you an advantage, then they would take it away from you and you were accused of cheating."

Johnson kept inspectors on their toes more than most. Many would argue that most of the ingenuity in the garage originated in Wilkes County, N.C., where Johnson transferred his knowledge from hauling moonshine through the mountains to stock cars.

"A lot of it wasn't bending the rule," Johnson said. "They didn't have rules for it. Then when you create something that gave you an advantage, then they would take it away from you and you were accused of cheating.

"It was all the time working not for what they had in the rulebook but beyond that that would give me an advantage. Some of it was borderline, and some of it might have been overboard."

Johnson did it all in his day, from running an oversized engine to offsetting springs. He once was suspended for 12 weeks -- later reduced to four weeks -- for using an illegal carburetor in Tommy Ellis' car at Charlotte.

He said NASCAR's problem was then -- and remains today -- that there are too many things on a car that can be altered.

"NASCAR's rulebook covers 99 percent of what the rules call for that they can control," he said. "That other 1 percent is what causes them trouble. People will hunt for it, find it and then they will cheat."

What bothered Johnson more than anything were the inspectors who let stuff slide when they knew it was illegal.

"That's two-way cheating," he said.

There's less of that today than ever with three times the number of inspectors and more than 300 team members policing the garage looking to see who has an edge.

Nelson said the Car of Tomorrow also will discourage cheating because the gray area is so much smaller.

"The gray area today is a hole drilled in a piston inside of a shock absorber," he said. "It's not a hood moved over six inches or the back panel twisted or offset to the right for an aerodynamic advantage.

"Things that were measured in inches 15 years ago are now measured in thousandths of an inch. But competitors will never stop trying to gain an advantage. That's their job to be competitive."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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