Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Bruton Smith & Your Cheating Heart

You have to love the way Bruton Smith and SMI operate. After his savage late-race wreck at Vegas, Jeff Gordon called out track owner Bruton Smith. Gordon said the infield opening wall area where he’d crashed was dangerous. He said the track needed to install the SAFER barriers on any unprotected concrete wall on the inside of the track.

To make sure his comments got some play in the media, Gordon added that the Las Vegas track should not be allowed to host another NASCAR event until the needed improvements were made. That had to sting Smith, who used his first race weekend of the year to make a full-court press for a second date at Vegas.

What Smith did next was extraordinary. He said that Gordon was absolutely right. It was a terrible oversight by SMI management not to have already installed the barriers where the out of control No. 24 car augured in. And he said simply that before the next NASCAR race at the track (a CTS event this fall), the track will be fully lined with SAFER barriers and the suspect infield entrance will be reworked.

That’s going to cost some serious coin and, in terms of a major engineering project, there’s not a lot of time to work with, but Smith didn’t hedge his bets. He didn’t say he was going to “try” to do it. He said it was going to be done. And it will get done or some of Smith’s employees are going to be looking for new jobs.

Things might not have had such a quick outcome if Gordon had challenged the safety of an ISC track owned by the France family, the same friendly folks who run NASCAR. Undoubtedly, they’d have found a way to fine Gordon for some unrelated infraction just as they landed Tony Stewart in the doghouse last year when he challenged their credibility. They’d follow it up with the usual rebuttals, noting such improvements took time and NASCAR would not “react for the sake” of reacting and risk a “cure worse than the disease.” They’d study the issue. They’d debate the merits of various solutions and perhaps finally, grudgingly, they’d get the job done.

Either that or they’d issue a new rule forbidding drivers from impacting an inside wall with severe points penalties for doing so. (Don’t laugh. When a section of the outside guardrail was torn to shreds in a savage accident at Darlington, NASCAR couldn’t repair the railing so they issued orders drivers not run the high groove in that section of the track.) If you think NASCAR and the ISC would have reacted the same way Smith did to Gordon’s challenge, apparently you weren’t watching the race on Feb. 18, 2001.

Isn’t it interesting that Toyota’s Lee White was able to put numbers to the specific amount of downforce a team could gain by loosening the oil reservoir cover or by yanking a rear fender away from a crush panel? Apparently Toyota’s engineers had experimented with similar illegal strategies during wind-tunnel testing. So what’s the advantage of testing techniques that the engineers know are illegal and can’t be used? And what other sly but illegal tricks might those engineers have picked up testing the CoT in the tunnel?

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The Yellow Stripe: Like it or Not... Toyota's Here to Stay

It surely does seem based on Mr. White’s comments NASCAR officials need to give those Camrys an extra special going over in post race inspection. And they might want to check what’s in those fuel cells, too, especially since no villain was ever named in last year’s team 55 “rocket fuel” scandal at Daytona. Maybe the Toyota guys have just found a more subtle additive that’s not so obvious to the inspectors?

Nothing’s sadder than watching an old friend throw his friend under the bus. In the wake of the No. 99 cheating controversy, Elliott Sadler said he was sure that Roush was deliberately cheating. After all, when he drove for the Wood Brothers and they were a satellite team for the Roush organization, Sadler says the Fords he drove were routinely tarted up with things like missing shift boots to improve aerodynamics. So I guess what Sadler is saying, in effect, is that his first career Cup win, scored at Bristol in 2001, was suspect, and there ought to be an asterisk beside it in the record books noting Sadler won in an illegal car.

Related to the above: It’s hard to work up too much sympathy for Jack Roush’s indignant response to being labeled a cheater. You’ll recall back in 1998 when Gordon, the No. 24 team and Ray Evernham were dominating on the Cup circuit, Roush accused them of cheating as well. Roush claimed that the No. 24 team was doctoring their tires with some super-secret substance that made the rubber softer.

NASCAR took the allegations seriously enough they seized tires from Gordon’s car after an NHIS race and had a complex chemical analysis done on them. The results (or at least the publicly released results) of those tests indicated the tires hadn’t been monkeyed with. That led to Evernham’s infamous quip, “It’s just air, Jack.”

I’ll add another historical footnote about cheating for newer fans. Arguably, the Mother of All Cheating scandals erupted in the aftermath of the fall race in Charlotte back in 1983. NASCAR’s most popular and visible driver, Richard Petty, had been mired in a long winless drought. But that day in October, the King made a late-race surge to score the 198th Cup victory of his career. Almost immediately, it was found the King’s No. 43 Pontiac had left-side tires mounted on the right side of the car, a very serious rules infraction.

In that era, left-side tires were softer than rights, so installing the softer tires on the right of the car made it markedly faster. Tim Richmond had been penalized five laps for the very same problem at Martinsville that year. Further inspection revealed that the engine in Petty’s car was way oversize, 381 cubic inches as opposed to the standard of 358 ci.

Despite calls to strip Petty of the win (most vocally by runner-up Darrell Waltrip) Petty was allowed to keep the victory. The penalty was $35,000 and the loss of 104 Cup points. In the wake of the scandal, NASCAR officials said they were going to begin doling out really severe penalties for those caught cheating, even eluding to possible disqualifications. That process is apparently still a work in progress.

There is precedent for the winner of a Cup race being stripped of a win for cheating. In fact, in the very first race in NASCAR’s top division apparent winner Glenn Dunnaway had his victory taken away when his rear leafsprings were found to have been altered from “strictly stock.” (Altered springs were common on cars used to run moonshine. The stiffer springs allowed the liquor tripper’s car to ride level with a full load of shine to avoid police suspicion.)

The win was given to Jim Roper. It’s like so many things that NASCAR did right in the days of yore but no longer can seem to pull off. But like the song goes, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Drivers to Watch at Bristol

Rick Hendrick’s Glitter Twins, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson: Gordon has won five times at Bristol and Johnson had top-10 finishes at both Bristol races last year. You just know this pair can’t be locked out of victory lane forever.

The Brothers Busch: Kyle Busch won this race last year and Kurt Busch has won five Cup events at Bristol.

Darrell Waltrip: No, he won’t be racing this weekend, but you’re bound to hear a lot more about how many races he won at Bristol than about how bad the new cars and tires suck. That’s what FOX stands for. Fixating On the X-traneous.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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