Deflategate Has Nothing On NASCAR’s Cunning Car Men

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So the NFL has their boxers in a twist over air in footballs? Isn’t that cute. In NASCAR, creativity with the rule book has been a part of the game since it’s inception. In NASCAR’s first sanction event, race winner Glenn Dunaway had his victory taken away for illegal springs to improve handling. The truth is, if someone like clever car man Smokey Yunick were employed by the New England Patriots, they wouldn’t have played with air in footballs; heck, he probably would have taken metal particles, inserted them in the footballs, and put magnets inside the receiver’s gloves.

“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying.” Urban legend attributes this axiom to “The King,” Richard Petty. His 198th career victory at Charlotte in the fall of 1983 was attained with a car whose engine measured 381 cubic inches. One small problem: it was supposed to measure 358. Oops. The 43 team was also put left-side tires on the left and right side tires on the right. Petty was allowed to keep the win, but  was docked 104 points and fined $35,000. More than that, it cast a stain on one of the most respected names in racing. For his part, Petty played the “I just drive the thing” card. His brother Maurice fessed up to the transgression, and he later said it bothered him that this would tarnish Richard’s legacy.

All-Star Engine- Conspiracy theorists have had all sorts of fun with the car Darrell Waltrip drove to victory in NASCAR’s first all-star race in 1985. Car owner Junior Johnson told DW that the pistons, rods and other parts he built for his car wouldn’t last more than 150 miles, so he’d better take care of the car. Waltrip was cruising along in second, when in the late stages of the race, Johnson came on the radio and asked his driver what he’d rather win $50,000 or $200,000. Some may accuse the three-time champion of not being all that bright, but the answer to Johnson’s question was a no brainer. A freshly inspired DW cranked it up, and passed Harry Gant for the win. Just as he took the checkered flag, sure enough, the engine blew. How convenient. What interesting timing. Of course, Waltrip denies any chicanery. Like that small town pizza lawyer, he says that car was all “perfectly legal.”

The Yellow Banana– Waltrip’s all-star wasn’t the only questionable car fielded by Johnson. In the mid-60s, there was a full on war among the manufacturers in NASCAR. For a time, Chrysler boycotted NASCAR after Big Bill France outlawed the 426 Hemi engine. Later, a 427 engine built by Ford was cast aside. When France got Ford to return, Johnson showed up with a 1966 Ford Galaxy, at least it looked like one…..a little. The infamous “Yellow Banana”- driven by the dashing young Freddy Lorenzen- had a nose that nearly touched the ground,  a chopped roof line, and all manner of modifications to improve aerodynamics. Lorenzen could barely get in the car. Given the politics of the hour, Mr. Magoo conducted the inspection, and the spectacle was allowed to race- along with a another similarly suspicious Chevy Chevelle prepared by Smokey Yunick. For all their skullduggery, Johnson’s car wrecked, the engine on Yunick’s car blew, and a Plymouth took the checkered flag. NASCAR showed up with templates at Daytona at the outset of the 1967 and a brand new set of standards that cars must meet.

A fine line separates innovation and illegality. No conversation concerning questionable racing practices is complete without mentioning mechanical master Smokey Yunick. The man was as much a scientist as he was a mechanic. We’re talking about a holder of numerous patents, including variable ratio power steering and the reverse cooling system pushed the envelope like no other. While there were regulations regarding the size of the fuel tank, Yunick found he could stash an extra five gallons by using an 11-foot fuel line two inches in diameter. He also reportedly masked fuel tank by putting an inflated basketball, and then deflated it at race time.

Yunick- who also prepared a car that Jim Rathmann drove to an Indianapolis 500 win in 1960- had shall we say, a creative way of using loopholes in the rule book to gain an edge. That infamous Chevy Chevelle referenced earlier is said to have been a 7/8 replica for increased aerodynamics. Motorheads argue about all the modifications made to the car Yunick attempted to enter in the 1967 Daytona 500. There were allgedly raise floors, lowered rooflines and all manner of “adjustments.” There’s talk of there being more than one car, and that what Yunick did was set the body a couple of inches back on the chassis to adjust the weight distribution. The World War II veteran originally from Pennsylvania was an arch-nemesis for France, and eventually he grew tired of rattling swords with NASCAR’s founder and left the series in the 70s. The guys who really know their stuff debate vehemently how how much Yunick REALLY did, such talk is above this observer’s pay grade. What we do know is the man was a folk hero, a Paul Bunyan among gearheads.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There was Carl Edwards and the missing oil tank lid, country legend Marty Robbins and his illegal carburetor at Talladega, holes drilled in tires and much. much more. When you think about it, it all makes sense in a sport pioneered by moonshine runners eluding the law in their souped up jalopies. It makes spit balls and stickum look like child’s play.