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Speed Reading: Cheating nothing new at Daytona
All week long, the heaviness of the word "cheating" has hung over the Daytona garage like a Florida thundercloud, a storm that came to a head with Wednesday's record-breaking fines levied against the No. 55 NAPA Camry of Michael Waltrip Racing.
Apparently someone with Waltrip's team, without Waltrip's knowledge, bypassed the local NAPA store in Daytona and drove down to Kennedy Space Center to steal some sort of rocket fuel from Launch Complex 39 and stuck it in the fuel line of the No. 55 Toyota Camry.
Or something like that.
Whatever the substance an entire sport, its biggest event, the world's largest automaker, and one of auto racing's most likable stars have all been shamed by one of the most tension-filled Daytona Speedweeks in recent memory. Five crew chiefs and one team VP have been sent home and their teams hit with fines approaching $300,000. Even squeaky-clean Jeff Gordon got in on the act, failing post-race inspection after his victory in Thursday's Duel 150 qualifying races.
Fear not, my oil-covered, down-trodden brothers and sisters. As with all things NASCAR, we have been here before. And if history truly does repeat itself, then anyone who doesn't watch the Great American Race on Sunday might just miss a true milestone motorsports moment.
Thirty-one years ago, Daytona 500 qualifying was rocked with another scandal that involved fuel additives, big penalties, big sponsors, big stars, and another Waltrip.
As the 37-car time-trial session roared ahead, NASCAR's attention was grabbed by the top three cars pole-sitter A.J. Foyt, followed by Darrell Waltrip and Dave Marcis. Marcis had clocked his two laps in with two very consistent times, but his jump over his practice times seemed odd. Meanwhile, Foyt and Waltrip had taken different route, posting first laps that were each more than two miles per hour faster than the second.
When the trio cars rolled back into the garage, NASCAR chief inspector Bill Gazaway pounced. For nearly eight hours he tore apart the Chevys of Foyt and Waltrip as well as the Dodge of Marcis.
That night it was announced that all three cars would have their times disqualified, Marcis because of a "movable air device over the radiator" installed by crew chief Harry Hyde, who would later be portrayed by Robert Duvall in "Days of Thunder."
But it was the rides of Waltrip and Foyt that shook the sport to its core. Hidden within the fuel systems of both Chevys were bottles of nitrous oxide or "funny gas." One quick pop of nitro into the air cleaner can mean a burst of up to 40 horsepower. It's a jolt that doesn't last long, but is certainly enough to knock a couple of big chunks off the stopwatch during a qualifying lap.
In other words, the exact same advantage that Michael Waltrip Racing was apparently looking for during this year's qualifying run. Just as MWR had been desperate to get Toyota and NAPA into the Daytona 500, big brother Darrell and his DiGard Racing team were anxious to put brand new sponsor Gatorade on the pole. Apparently a little too desperate.
Foyt's statement in '76 sounded an awful lot like Mikey from Wednesday night, saying, "I didn't know that (car owner) Hoss Ellington and the team were up to anything. I just drive it." To this day, the four-time Indy 500 champ refuses to discuss it, even this week.
DW was a little more up front about it all.
"There are a lot of things you have to do to keep up with the competition in Grand National racing," he told reporters after learning of the penalties. "It's common knowledge that cheating in one form or another is part of it. If you don't cheat you look like an idiot. If you do it and you don't get caught, you look lie a hero. If you do it and you get caught, you look like a dope. Put me in the category where I belong."
For a solid week, NASCAR and its competitors took a beating in the national media, painful even during a time when the league was thankful for any attention it could scrape up. It got even worse after the Twin 125 qualifying races, which were won by Waltrip and Marcis. The front page headline of the National Speed Sport News read "Two Cheaters Win 125-Mile Qualifiers."
That's when a little bit of redemptive magic swept onto the beach and through the World Center of Racing. ABC's Wide World of Sports was televising the final laps of the Daytona 500 live, joined in progress and hosted by Jim McKay with Formula One legend Jackie Stewart. When their cameras went hot, the cheaters were nowhere in sight, victims of blown engines and handling problems.
What America saw instead were the sport's two biggest stars, Richard Petty and David Pearson, locked in the midst of what is easily the most amazing finish in the history of motorsports. They diced through the final lap, wrecked each other coming off of Turn 4, and both spun helplessly into the infield grass only merely a three-wood's distance from the finish line. The King scrambled frantically to get his engine re-fired, but could only watch helplessly as The Silver Fox motored by with his bashed-in Mercury, taking the checkered flag at all of 30 miles per hour in a cloud of tire smoke and dirt.
In that instant, the entire nitrous oxide disaster was transformed from a black mark to a footnote.
"Yeah," Petty has often recalled with a smile. "I guess Bill France Jr. and the boys should've thanked me and Pearson for taking the heat off."
And you can damn well bet that Bill Jr.'s son, Brian, will be first in line to shake the hand of any man willing to deliver him from evil this Sunday.
Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images.