The late Smokey Yunick, the greatest rule-bender in motorsports history, described slipping past NASCAR inspectors as "walking under a snake's belly." And that was long before the rule book became the airtight list of guidelines it is today. Cheating is a time-honored racing tradition, but it rarely makes as many headlines as it did at this year's Daytona 500. Six Nextel Cup teams got collared—including the cars of Michael Waltrip, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne—resulting in five crew chief suspensions, 500 total points docked from drivers and owners and $250,000 in fines.
When most tricks gain just 0.1 seconds per lap, is cheating worth the risk? It can be, when the difference between starting first and 35th is less than 0.3 seconds. Where exactly are the gray areas in which scofflaws have been nabbed while looking for speed? Grab a lug wrench and read on.
Rules of the Road
The Nextel Cup rule book is surprisingly gaunt—an easy-to-digest 184 pages about the width of a bumper sticker. Those who wrote it equated brevity with no wiggle room. Those who read it have a different philosophy.
"A competitor interprets the rules with a different set of eyes," says crew chief-turned-team owner Ray Evernham. "You look for what isn't covered or what isn't as specific as it could be. Those are the places where you can find an advantage. You aren't breaking rules. The stuff you're doing just isn't covered."
Room of Doom
Yunick used tricks like putting a basketball in an oversize gas tank for inspection and then deflating the ball before the race, or building a car exactly seven-eighths the size of the stock model. Now Cup cars inch through NASCAR's techinspection line at least three times each weekend and are pored over by 50 yellow-clad inspectors wielding more than 30 templates to measure exteriors. The first check takes up to 10 hours, but officials promise speedier lines once the Car of Tomorrow debuts in March, thanks to nine radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that chat with computers to confirm chassis legality.
The first place a team might look for extra speed is the very spot where power is cooked. But the engine is also the first place NASCAR looks. Teams juice horsepower by redirecting microscopic air paths around the carburetor or, when they're really desperate, adding extra sparks to the combustion chamber through fuel additives. That once meant stowing a bottle of nitrous oxide beneath the driver's seat. Modern solutions are more exotic and harder to sniff out. Such was not the case when Michael Waltrip's Toyota was busted after a gel in the fuel lines left an unusual smell trailing from his exhaust following Daytona 500 qualifying.
The Highs and Lows
Teams want their cars to slip through the air as slickly as physics will allow, which means getting low to the ground. That's no easy task when trying to meet minimum and maximum heights above the ground and at the roof's tallest point. Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was suspended from last year's Daytona 500 when the No. 48 Chevy was caught with a device that lifted the rear windshield three-quarters of an inch, just enough of a bubble to roll the airflow more smoothly over the roofline and away from the rear spoiler.
Since the rear spoiler became common in the 1970s, it has grown from a quarter-inch sliver to a league-mandated six-inch blade reinforced with metal brackets. On intermediate tracks, this wing keeps the back of the car glued to the ground; on superspeedways, teams do whatever they can to get it out of the airflow—or at least through it. The Evernham Motorsports car of Elliott Sadler came to Daytona with holes drilled through the bolts holding the spoiler in place, passing air through and dumping it into the trunk. The Car of Tomorrow will eliminate the need for spoiler jockeying, thanks to uniform wings issued to teams each race.
Team engineers spend hundreds of hours in a wind tunnel with a rule book in one hand and a smoke gun in the other. Why? To see if a 200 mph breeze will reveal any surface that can be smoothed or rounded to suck out excess pools of air. Most teams focus on the window posts, side panels and fenders, where NASCAR templates leave room to breathe. During Speedweeks, Kasey Kahne's No. 9 Dodge and Matt Kenseth's No. 17 Ford were found to have small holes in the rear wheel wells, sucking air out from under the car and leaking it into empty spaces in the trunk.
Rubber Meets the Road
The only NASCAR no-no bigger than messing with fuel is toying with tires. Goodyear supplies the rubber, distributed each Friday morning along with a list of recommended tire pressures for the weekend. In the old days, it was common to see crew members "soaking" tires back at the hotel, using a solution that softened the rubber and provided more grip. Now even the slightest rumor of chemicals in the paddock brings out a brigade of scientific tests, as happened when team owner Jack Roush accused Evernham of treating Jeff Gordon's tires during his 13-win season in 1998. Nothing was found.