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MAGNETS ON THE SOLES OF THEIR SHOES

8/18/2008
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Magnets on the gas pedal. Brilliant.

That's what Joe Gibbs Racing was busted doing during a post-race chassis dynamometer test of their Nationwide Series cars on Saturday afternoon at Michigan. During the test, which is used to measure horsepower output, the magnets kept NASCAR inspectors from being able to fully open up the throttles of Tony Stewart and Joey Logano's JGR Camrys. If you can't drop the hammer all the way, you can't accurately measure the amount of top end power the engine is producing, thus skewing the test results and not fully showing the team's Toyota-powered hand.

Publicly, most in the garage are calling it what it is at the tops of their collective lungs: cheating.

"Their asses need to be kicked out of here," rival car owner Richard Childress said on Sunday. "They're shiftless."

But most in the garage, though they only admit it off the record, admire the ingenuity of it.

"Magnets on the damn gas pedal," said a rival team engineer who asked not to be identified. "It's so simple it's brilliant. I think everyone is so mad because none of us thought of it. You don't want to get beat anywhere, not on the track or on the drawing board."

There is an unspoken admiration society among mechanics when someone, even a rival, finds a creative way to bypass the rules. And don't think this is just a racing deal. Sure, the other 31 teams of the NFL were quick to get in the finger-pointing line after the New England Patriots were busted illegally videotaping signals and walkthroughs of rival teams. But privately they were mad for not thinking of it themselves.

Whenever a NASCAR team gets busted for altering a part, like a tricked-out gas can or a bored out carburetor, those parts are confiscated and placed out on display all weekend long in or beside NASCAR's command trailer in the garage. Competitors file by those parts like they are a Smithsonian exhibit, taking in what they see in full-on Memorex mode.

"Who knows?" Our anonymous engineer says it matter-of-factly. "You might have a chance to do the same one day down the road. Or you might already be doing something similar and want to make sure you aren't doing what they did to get busted."

The amount of ire raised is also directly proportionate to the team that is caught. Had Morgan Shepherd's Nationwide team, which sits 28th in points, been caught with magnets, everyone would have smiled about it and gotten on with their lives, the same reaction we would've have had the 1-15 Miami Dolphins been the team caught with camcorders instead of the three-time Super Bowl champs.

But Joe Gibbs Racing is having a Patriots-like season, with 24 combined wins in Cup and Nationwide. Meanwhile, Toyota leads the manufacturer standings in each of NASCAR's Big 3 national divisions.

"Cheating in our sport is kind of a strange deal," says Junior Johnson, who won more than a few races in his careers as a driver and owner through what he calls "gray area engineering", an art form learned while outrunning revenuers in the foothills of North Carolina. "Everybody's doing it. And nobody seems to mind, they usually congratulate you for coming up with an idea. That is, until you start whipping everybody else on a regular basis. Then everyone else becomes squeaky clean and they start calling you dirty. Then you just get to work figuring out a different way to do what you was doing before."

When racers get together for dinner or end up stuck on the tarmac, they talk about racing. And those conversations nearly always turn into one-up competitions of did-you-hear-about-the-time tales of rule-bending.

They talk about legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick cramming a basketball into the fuel cell, which made the giant tank seem normal capacity during pre-race inspection. Then he'd deflate the ball prior to the race and—TA- DAH!—more room for more gas.

They talk about Darrell Waltrip's "bombs away" car, which came with a roll cage crammed with ball bearings. The car met the pre-race minimum weight, then dumped the extra ballast out into the infield grass during the race to become lighter and faster than its rivals.

They talk about fake helmets crafted out of lead, "big gas cans" that hid extra fuel, hidden nitrous oxide bottles, restrictor plate "lifters", and traction control devices crafted out of standard radio packs and ignition boxes.

And now they'll talk about the time those guys put magnets on the throttle pedal to make it feel like it was floored even when it wasn't.

Brilliant.