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JENSEN: Elliott's amazing '85 drew NASCAR's ire

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FOXSports.com on Lycos presents three excerpts from former NASCAR Winston Cup Scene executive editor Tom Jensen's new book, Cheating: An Inside Look at the Bad Things Good NASCAR Winston Cup Racers Do in Pursuit of Speed. Part I examines 's 1985 and what his team did to win 11 races but fall just short of the Winston Cup championship to Darrell Waltrip. If Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress, and company attracted a lot of scrutiny during their halcyon days in the 1980s, it was even worse for during his famous 1985 season, when he won 11 races and became the first driver to claim the $1 million "Winston Million" bonus by scoring victories at Daytona, Talladega, and Darlington. When Elliott came back from two laps down under green-flag conditions to score an improbable victory at Talladega, his car became the target of rumors, speculation, and increasingly zealous post-race inspections for the rest of the season and beyond, a degree of attention that to this day the team says cost it the 1985 Winston Cup championship. The team spent so much time trying to rebuild its cars after post-race inspection that burnout set in, leading to a slump late in the season, especially on short tracks. But on the superspeedways, Elliott's Thunderbird was untouchable. There were many theories about why Elliott ran so well at superspeedways: Some said engine builder Ernie Elliott coaxed more horsepower out of the team's Ford engines than anyone else; others say it was aerodynamics. "Everybody thought he was doing something crazy," Humpy Wheeler, the president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, said of Elliott's all-conquering Ford Thunderbird. "In February 1985 at Daytona, somebody came up to me and said, 'Bill Elliott wants to see you in his trailer.' So, I went over there. "He said, 'I don't know what to do with this car. It is absolutely flying, and I know they [NASCAR] are going to come down on me. And I haven't done anything to this car.' "I said, 'Well, you've just got to run it like it is and let things work themselves out.' What it was was what we ended up calling ducktailing. That car body was so aerodynamic that, when the air came off the back of it, rather than come straight back it was coming back like this [Wheeler brings his hands together in a Vshape]. That's why people couldn't draft him. They'd get up there to draft that car and it would just stop them. That was not an infringement of the rules as much as it was simply a different body style that did a quirky thing, which led to a lot of people cheating that year to try to catch up with him. It caught up with him at Talladega, because he makes two laps up under the green. That did it. That right there ushered in the [new more aerodynamic] back window for the GM cars the following year, but there was a tremendous amount of cheating going on in that period trying to catch . And, for a while, he didn't know what he was doing." Or did he? Aerodynamicist Louis Duncan thinks he did. "Bill Elliott's car was so fast at Talladega that it lapped the field under green twice. He obviously had many good things. He had good pit stops, he had good motors, good bodies, everything about the car was really right," Duncan said. "At that time, there was a long template, a wooden template, no cross templates and no specific height measurements. That particular car probably maxed out the gray area without being officially cheated up. It was actually a smaller car than the rest of the Thunderbirds. The roof height was lower and the body was narrower. It had been lowered and narrowed so that it was approximately 7/8 scale of a full-size car." Duncan said, in his mind at least, aero work did not constitute cheating. "Cheating is where you have an illegal shock or you do something that's intentionally against the rules. NASCAR allows gray areas and a little bit of leeway and a little bit of tolerance on the templates," he said. "Working within that tolerance and leeway is not cheating, it's working ... to make your car as good as you can make it." Arguably, Duncan's interpretation is a liberal and charitable one. Almost any reasonable person would conclude that if, and it's a big if, Elliott's car was indeed substantially smaller than those of the competition, it would constitute a substantial and illegal advantage. Not that it would be the first time anyone had tried such a trick, of course, Smokey Yunick's 1968 Daytona car was undersized, and in the early 1960s, teams already were trying to drop the noses of their race cars as low as possible at superspeedways. When asked if it were possible to get away with running an undersized body back then, NASCAR Managing Director of Competition Gary Nelson, who in 1985 was a crew chief competing against Elliott, put it this way: "All I know was I had the same opportunity to put my car through the same inspection process that Elliott's car went through. They were just smarter than me that day." He declined to elaborate. To this day, remains vague on the specifics of his 1985 performance. "We were able to bring the sport to the next level and focus on certain things that either other people didn't think of or weren't willing to work for or whatever," he said at Daytona in 2001, a loosely phrased way of saying he outfoxed the competition. Whatever the source of Elliott's success, his car passed both pre- and post-race inspection at Talladega that day, so by NASCAR's definition it was legal. But the team came under incredible scrutiny for the rest of the 1985 season. "I think that [Talladega] said a lot to NASCAR about what we could do and the potential that was there," said Bill's brother Dan, who built gears and changed tires for Elliott's team, which was owned by the late Michigan industrialist Harry Melling. "I honestly think that's the reason the car was picked apart after a lot of wins. "The only blessing I can say that we had was, I guess, some of the inspectors were real fair-minded about the competition. They [NASCAR] did a lot of things that year specifically aimed at us, just to slow us down. The only thing that slowed us down was physical burnout, because there were so few of us." The team's dominance even earned them a stern rebuke from NASCAR President Bill France Jr. At Darlington in the spring of 1985, the Elliotts were summoned to France's office at the track. "Very little was said," recalled Dan Elliott. "The only thing I can remember him (France) saying was, 'You will not come here and stink up our show.' He said we could win the race, but not by a lap. In other words, we wouldn't embarrass the field." This was exactly the same kind of heavy-handed treatment that Kiekhaefer endured in the mid-1950s and would encounter in 1998: Win a lot and you become a target of the inspectors. "Elliott came in there and won 11 races in '85," said Bob Moore. "Everyone was sure that Ernie found an illegal way to get a lot of horsepower. Talladega was a perfect example. There is no way they were supposed to be able to do what they did at Talladega. [NASCAR] supposedly destroyed four or five engines trying to find out, so Ernie couldn't put 'em back together. A lot of people are under the impression that they let Elliott get away with it, or in 1998, they let Gordon get away with it, or they let Petty get away with it. That is not the case. NASCAR is doing everything they can." Ultimately, Elliott and his team set many records in 1985, but came up 11 points short of a Winston Cup title. Whether they lost the title because NASCAR put them under such intense scrutiny or whether they won as often as they did because they had an edge over other teams is open to debate. Likely, it was both. And if that wasn't enough controversy for one season, there was the inaugural running of "The Winston," a high-dollar no-points race NASCAR bills as its all-star event. The racers who compete in it have their own, more blunt description: They call it "checkers or wreckers." Win or crash trying. In the second excerpt from Tom Jensen's Cheating: An Inside Look at the Bad Things Good NASCAR Winston Cup Racers Do in Pursuit of Speed, the author looks at another memorable -- and questionable to some -- 1985 race, The Winston's maiden voyage. Find out why some questioned Darrell Waltrip's win, and get crew chief and fellow NASCAR on FOX analyst Jeff Hammond's take on controversy.

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