NASCAR competitors test gray areas
Editor’s note: NASCAR Race Hub on Tuesday begins a three-part look at what racers call the “gray area,” the murky region that borders the legal and the illegal in race cars.
At the old Charlotte Speedway on June 19, 1949, the very first NASCAR Strictly Stock race — the series that is now known as Sprint Cup — ended with race winner Glenn Dunaway getting disqualified because the car he drove had illegal “bootlegger springs” in back. The theory was that the heavy duty springs would hold the rear-end of his Ford level, even with several hundred pounds of corn liquor in its trunk.
Dunaway’s car owner Hubert Westmoreland sued NASCAR over the outcome but lost his case in court.
In the more than six decades since that first race, there have been all matter of cheating controversies in NASCAR: Oversized engines and gas tanks, undersized bodies, nitrous oxide, soaked tires and hopped-up fuel. If you can even imagine it, some enterprising racer has probably tried it at one point or another.
And a lot of what’s happened over the years comes down to a concept every racer understands, but a lot of fans and followers of NASCAR don’t. Racers call it the “gray area,” which is loosely defined as something not specifically addressed in the NASCAR rule book. Not coincidentally, that rulebook has grown from the size of a pamphlet to a novella as the sanctioning body has sought to eliminate gray areas.
Also not coincidentally, some of the most successful NASCAR racers of all time took great liberties in the gray area and great pride at doing so. One of them was the brilliant and fiery Smokey Yunick, who I interviewed in October 2000, less than a year before he died.
“Ninety percent of the so-called cheating that was innovated, it wasn't cheating,” Yunick told me, citing as an example a Chevrolet he entered at the Daytona 500 in 1968. “There was no rule on how big the gas line could be. Everyone else ran a 5/8-inch (diameter) gas line. That was adequate to supply the race engine with gas, no question about it. I chose to run a two-inch gas line, which was obviously much too big, but it was 11 feet long and it held five gallons of gas. Nobody ever [specified size]. A week after the race, the gas line couldn't be over a half-inch in diameter. The day that I did it, it was not illegal. That's how most all these innovations—so-called cheating—was not cheating the day it was done.”
“It was a lot more of an individual sport a long time ago when it first started,” remembered seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty. “When it first started it was strictly stock cars, then somebody said, ‘Why don’t we put bigger springs in it?’ or bigger shocks or bigger tires, whatever it was. Then somebody said, ‘You know, if we cut this window here, cut this fender.’ There were no templates, so we’d just do it. Make the cars longer, shorter, narrower, higher, sideways, whatever it was. We used to run with no spoilers, so that was something that they [NASCAR] didn’t have to check. They didn’t have any templates. They checked the weight of the car and the height of the car and that was about it. Used to be we come down (to Daytona), in an hour you used to do inspections. If you wasn’t just really, really cheating bad you were OK.”
Former bootlegger Junior Johnson, a driver and team owner who was inducted into the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class, worked the gray to perfection. Back in the mid-1960s, the cars were only weighed before the race. To Johnson, that constituted gray area, because the rule book only stipulated what the car had to weigh at the start of the race, not the finish.
“I know particularly at North Wilkesboro, when Cale (Yarborough) would start the race, he'd be all over the racetrack until the first pit stop,” said former crew chief Barry Dodson about the car Johnson owned. “They'd take those four tires off, and the rest of the day that car was a rocket. Little did people know those four tires had steel bands welded around them and they were poured with lead and they weighed a hundred pounds apiece. All of a sudden, he’s 400 pounds light. They (NASCAR) finally caught on to that when it took three crewmembers to get them over the wall. Junior always was a master at taking advantage of stuff like that.”
Tomorrow: Part 2 of the series.