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Shifty operators

NASCAR teams will do anything -- yes, cheating -- to get ahead

The practice, as with most shady activities, has several polite euphemisms. Working in the gray area. Pushing the limits. Taking all that NASCAR gives you. Translate these phrases into one dirty word: cheating.

Following the season-starting Daytona 500, NASCAR fined 10 teams a total of $102,000 for competing with various unapproved components. In March, after the first- and second-place cars at the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 failed NASCAR's postrace inspection, the crew chiefs for each team were suspended for two races and fined a total of $60,000, while their drivers were stripped of 25 Nextel Cup points apiece.

If these fines, suspensions, and penalties were meant to be deterrents, they haven't worked. In the past four weeks, NASCAR has found 12 violations, collecting $54,000 in fines. This recent track record, combined with NASCAR's history of cheating since the sport's birth, makes it likely that some, if not most, teams will challenge the legal barriers this weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway.

''If there are 48 cars in Sonoma this weekend, I think there will be 48 guys pushing the limits," Kevin Lepage, driver of the No. 37 Dodge, said several weeks ago. ''We push it, but in one area. Other guys push it in 10 areas. You have to push that limit. If not, there's no use going to the racetrack."

Just as pitchers have scuffed balls and defensive ends have jumped snap counts, crew chiefs and drivers, including some of NASCAR's most famous, have practiced trickery. The sport was pioneered by bootleggers who disguised their high-powered sprinters as everyday commuters.

As an owner, Junior Johnson was known for cars that teetered on the legal edge. Richard Petty's philosophy was ''cheat neat." Darrell Waltrip was nabbed during qualifying for the 1976 Daytona 500 for using nitrous oxide, the substance that drivers of today's tuner cars squirt for speed bursts.

After qualifying for this year's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, Todd Berrier, Kevin Harvick's crew chief on the No. 29 car, was caught running an illegal fuel cell that contained less than the full tank of gas required for the two-lap sprint. That same weekend, the Chevrolets of Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch finished 1-2. After the race, NASCAR discovered Johnson's No. 48 was too low and the quarter panels on Busch's No. 5 were too high. NASCAR spanked the teams with fines, points penalties, and suspensions, but allowed the Hendrick cars to keep their first- and second-place finishes and their purses -- $428,066 for Johnson and $244,800 for Busch (NASCAR has not taken away a win since 1955).

''The talent's getting better in the garage," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. ''They get to the limits sooner than they ever have and push the limits more than they ever have."

In 1990, when he was Mark Martin's crew chief, Pemberton was involved in one of NASCAR's most significant incidents. Martin won the Pontiac Excitement 400, but after the race, NASCAR found the car's carburetor spacer, which fits between the carburetor and intake manifold, measured 2 1/2 inches, a half-inch bigger than the legal size. Pemberton pleaded his innocence, but NASCAR stripped his driver of 46 points. That year, the second-place Martin, who has never won a Cup title, finished 26 points behind Dale Earnhardt.

Pemberton is on the other side now, overseeing the legality of each car, but he still recalls the uncertainty leading up to each Daytona 500. During those winter months, Pemberton was not designing a car; he, like his fellow crew chiefs, was devising a theory.

This go-fast plan was based on previous races; results from wind-tunnel visits; lap times at track tests; and conversations with driver, car chief, and engineer. After Pemberton considered these variables, he came to a conclusion: Marry this engine with these tires upon this body over these shocks, and he might have a car capable of winning NASCAR's biggest race.

Sometimes, however, these interlocking pieces don't fit. The car's quarter panels could be too high. The best-performing springs could make the car too low. A crew chief's theory may not meet NASCAR's rules and regulations. That's when teams cheat.

Line dance
Each car must comply with NASCAR's version of the Constitution, a 96-page rulebook containing gearhead terms -- flat tappet camshaft, female tower connectors, Vectran HS V-12 fiber cables -- that would puzzle radio hosts ''Click and Clack." Before each race, NASCAR refers to the rulebook when inspecting each car, ensuring fairness and preventing a vehicle with an unfair advantage to scoot away.

''If you don't inspect one car and inspect another, shame on the guy who doesn't get inspected if he doesn't lap the field," Pemberton said.

The justices who interpret this supreme law of the land are the 60 inspectors who travel to each race and conduct inspections -- once before first practice, again before qualifying, and a third before the race. The pre-practice inspection is a morning-long routine that blends an airport's X-ray procedure and a corner garage's end-of-month inspection. Inspectors hunt for illegal components as crew chiefs hope to claim an inspection sticker granting them track access.

Last month, on a Friday morning in Long Pond, Pa., crew members lined up at the Pocono Raceway garage. After the gate opened at 8, the crew from Jeff Green's No. 43 car was the first to push a vehicle into the template inspection line. NASCAR has 32 angled templates, which they fit over each car, checking the components' heights and lengths to ensure conformity. At the super speedways, each component must be accurate within 70/1,000th of an inch. If not, a car must return to the garage for repairs until it fits the template.

''They know what to expect and know how to get it right," said inspector Randy Hedger. ''Most issues are body related, and the inspectors will tell them to go fix them."

As the No. 43 passed through, each inspector initialed a line on the report. The document, given to each crew chief, is separated into 11 sections. For a car to pass, the report's 139 lines must be approved and initialed by an inspector.

Once Green's Dodge returned to the garage, more inspectors surrounded it. One examined the ignition system to check for a traction-control device. Another connected a computer to the engine to measure its compression rate. Another slid a magnet over the chassis to make sure it was made of welded steel instead of a lighter material. Finally, inspectors checked the car's weight (at least 3,400 pounds and 1,600 pounds on the right side) and height (at least 51 inches) before placing a round inspection sticker on the windshield.

''They're on you," said Glen Skillman, shop foreman for Ken Schrader's No. 49 team. ''They're on you to keep everyone the same."

That morning, inspectors discovered a prominent team -- Hedger didn't reveal its identity -- had tweaked the wheel tubs underneath the car to improve its aerodynamics. In this instance, NASCAR's meticulous inspection uncovered the fraud. But for every infraction NASCAR spots, dozens more slip through.

''There's a fine line," said Mike Bodick, who works for Jamie McMurray's No. 42 Dodge. ''I won't cross it. I will not push the limits. But I'll take everything they give me. There are always limits. There are gray areas people use. You try and stay away from them, but you're always looking for an edge. You're competing."

Reformed rogue
At Pocono, while most teams cruised through inspection, one car repeatedly failed the templates' measurements.

''The 13's got issues," inspector Billy Berkheimer said of the car, whose crew eventually fixed the problems.

The driver of the No. 13 was part-timer Greg Sacks, who was missing valuable practice time before his only race this season. Twenty years ago, Sacks piloted a Chevrolet, which was not sponsored, at the Firecracker 400. The journeyman won, prompting nearly every NASCAR insider to question the car's authenticity. Sacks's crew chief was Gary Nelson, branded creative by some and a cheater by others.

In ''Cheating," author Tom Jensen chronicles one episode in which team owner Felix Sabates, Nelson's boss at the time, explained one of the crew chief's slipperiest maneuvers. Nelson, Kyle Petty's crew chief in 1989, once poured buckshot into the car's frame rail. Once Petty passed inspection and started a race, he yanked a spring release and scattered several hundred pounds of buckshot onto the track, making his car faster and lighter.

Like Pemberton, Nelson is now a NASCAR employee who watches over his former garage mates. Nelson, Winston Cup series director for 10 years, is NASCAR's managing director of research and development. He heads the Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., where he oversees reviews of safety, cost containment, and close and legal competition.

Two weeks ago, NASCAR impounded nine engines following the Batman Begins 400, hauling them to the R&D Center for teardown and study. NASCAR has heard whispers of an illegal metal matrix, a substance made by compacting metal and graphite in a foundry. The resulting material is lighter and stronger than steel, which would allow a crew chief to reduce an engine's weight and increase its durability. Nelson has not uncovered the material, but said impounding engines is a more comprehensive alternative to postrace inspection, when the blocks from the top five cars are dismantled and studied for irregularities.

Nelson is also on the hunt for traction control, found in most passenger cars but barred from Nextel Cup races. A traction-control device, installed in the ignition system, regulates the spin of the rear tires. Tire spin is controlled by feathering the throttle, but a driver racing with traction control could mash the gas through a turn without fear of breaking loose and slamming into the wall. After an inspector has checked the ignition system, he or she places a yellow tie-on around the ignition box. A team would have to break the seal -- similar seals are also placed around the carburetor and fuel cell -- to access the system.

''I've always felt that this sport is a sport of athletes," Nelson said. ''If you change it by allowing traction control and change it to a sport of engineers who happen to have the best processor to prevent wheel spin, we think that's the wrong direction for what we're trying to accomplish."

These precautions have not prevented rules from being bent. Earlier this year, before the Golden Corral 500, Skillman spotted one car with altered quarter panels, which must measure 35 inches from the corner of the deck lid to their bottom corners. The team had reshaped the panels so they flared inward at one location. When the inspectors laid their tape measures against the panels, they still measured 35 inches. But that inward curve dropped the panels an inch lower, improving the car's side force, which can help prevent a vehicle from spinning out.

While security at the teams' shops is tight, the garage on race weekend is an open area. Competitors work side by side, close enough for a crew member to slide under his neighbor's car. Naturally, Skillman tried the same thing with Schrader's quarter panels (NASCAR has since cracked down on the practice).

Pemberton said that when teams cheat, their opponents find out and sometimes drop hints with NASCAR. Crew members, however, said this isn't so.

''I've never thrown anybody under the bus," Skillman said. ''If I see somebody doing something, I'm going to do it, too."

Count Lepage in this group. His team constructed the Dodge he will drive this weekend after studying the body shapes of his competitors and sculpting a similarly styled racer.

''I think we'll be able to run even better and compete against the 40 other cars that are built like mine instead of being one lonely car out there," Lepage said. ''I knew I didn't have a prayer before. We were bringing a knife to a gunfight earlier in the year."

This year, Lepage has missed five races after failing to qualify. Of the races he's run, he admitted to being less than legal on occasion.

''We've done some things during the race," Lepage said. ''If we'd won or been in the top three, NASCAR probably would have fined us. I'm not going to get into what we've done, but we've done some things to enhance the performance of our racecar. In today's business, it's risk vs. reward."

Steering a fine line
On Page 26 of the rulebook, there is a phrase NASCAR cites when announcing a penalty: ''detrimental to stock car racing."

In reality, teams and officials talk as if it's not a proper description of cheating. Hedger said that on occasion, when he has found an illegal part, he'll grin, pull aside the offending crew chief, and praise him for his ingenuity -- then turn him in.

On May 16, 1982, as Bobby Allison's crew chief, Nelson equipped his Chevrolet with power steering, a system not specified in the rulebook. Allison won by four laps, prompting a NASCAR official to call Nelson the next morning and tell him that power steering would not be allowed in the future.

''The rulebook said, 'production-like,' " Nelson recalled telling the official. ''I think more production cars come with power steering than cars that don't. I wish you would consider that."

The following week, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough installed power steering in their cars. Today, the feature has become standard, a result of the cops-and-robbers interplay that shows no signs of conclusion.

''They have a lot of room in which they can play," said Hedger. ''That's what makes this sport fun. They've got things where they can try to outthink us. They're trying to outthink us and outthink each other. We all enjoy it."

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