Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: NASCAR Masters of Competitive Engineering (Or a Nice Name for Cheating)

Got some emails last week asking if we ever did any while I was with Harry Hyde and the K&K team in 1966. I never said we didn’t. “Competitive engineering,” a nice name for cheating.

At Atlanta, there was something of a dust cloud on the backstretch during the pace lap when everyone who had chalk tablets in the front springs hit the brakes, busting them to drop the front end. A NASCAR official commented to Harry that he hoped we weren’t involved. Harry didn’t bother to point out that our K&K Dodge was equipped with torsion bars in the front rather than coil springs, and we hadn’t figured out how to get a chalk tablet in there just yet.

By the way, Harry was the inventor of the taped up front end. He had his crew tape one up before qualifying one day after getting the inspiration, but NASCAR made him take the tape off. Harry told the crew to get another radiator ready to put in after qualifying. He then took his closed pocket knife and closed off all the vanes on the radiator in the car, bending them down flat and effectively cutting off the airflow. We picked up almost half a second. NASCAR later decided that taping up the front end was OK.

Still on the subject of competitive engineering, there have been many stories about Smokey Yunick’s inventiveness. Smokey was the guy who said that when the NASCAR rulebook declared “fuel additives” to be legal, he considered nitrous oxide to be a fuel additive. One of the most recalled and most classic Smokey stories concerned the time they tore down one of his engines and fuel systems completely. NASCAR left the car sitting there with no carburetor, no fuel lines, no tank, no nothing. Smokey asked if they were through, and when they said they were, he got in, fired it up and drove it back to the garage.

I also heard a story once about how they found a little drainage pitcock at the bottom of one of Lee Petty‘s rollbar setups back in the ’50s, and when they turned it, fuel ran out. I never had the nerve to ask Mr. Petty about that.

I will relay the story that I was sitting on the pit wall at Daytona, timing practice (quite common in those days with no timing & scoring monitors), when Richard Petty was outrunning everybody by a pretty good margin. I looked down at my stopwatches and noted aloud that Petty was really flying. A noted car owner, sitting beside me, said, “Yeah, t&%*!”

I asked in a rather sarcastic manner how he could make such a statement about a fellow competitor.

“Because he’s outrunning us by five miles an hour, and we’re cheatin’ a bunch!”

For the record, Richard won the Daytona 500 that year by a full lap, with it ending under caution two laps early because of rain. Cale Yarborough was second, right behind him but a lap down driving Banjo Matthews’s Ford No. 27.

You very seldom remember second place finishers if the margin is that wide, but Cale and I had made friends that year because we were garaged side-by-side. The previous September, Cale had taken that No. 27 over the first-turn wall at Darlington after tangling with Sam McQuagg in a battle for the lead in the Southern 500. That crash showed up in the movie Red Line 7000. Cale mentioned to me that he had led every race he was in the year before, and I said I didn’t think he led a lap of that Southern 500 before he went out of the ballpark.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Go look at that film. I never led a lap, but when I went over that wall, I was ahead of Sam by half a car length.”

How did we (the K&K team) do in the 1966 Daytona 500? Blew an engine at 112 laps while running in the top 10. Gordon Johncock was our driver. The car didn’t sound right when it went through the tri-oval on the lap before, and I was hoping the problem wasn’t terminal until Gordon pulled into the pit with what looked like milk running out of the exhaust pipes.

About the author

John has done it all in racing over the past half-century, filling every position from flagman, to track promoter, to award-winning newspaper editor all over the Midwest. Back with Frontstretch in 2014, John’s e-newsletter column Potts’ Shots appears every Thursday while he dips his toe in the site’s IndyCar coverage. John resides in Indianapolis.

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