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Cheating par for the course in NASCAR

February 22, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Commentary

Like many Americans, I had paid some, but not much, attention to the motorsport known as NASCAR - until I learned there was cheating, lying and deceit involved.

This changes everything. It's like, no one ever paid any attention to Robert Hanssen before they learned he was selling lists of the Pentagon's favorite restaurants to the Reds.

Cheating in NASCAR? We expect that behavior in Major League baseball, but not here.

Actually in NASCAR, I'm told, that's not completely true. NASCAR began with bootleggers running from the feds, for heaven's sake. Race teams are almost expected to find illegal gimmicks that give drivers the edge. These are all tricks designed to make the car go faster.

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And that's cheating? I thought that was the point. It would be like penalizing a punter for kicking the ball more than 50 yards.

Prior to Sunday's Daytona 500, several teams were penalized for mechanical witch-doctory that changes the way airflow affects the car. Stuff like drilling holes in the car's wheels and shaving its legs.

Happens all the time. It's minor stuff, like corking a bat. Just good clean fun, and if you're caught, oh well, you pay the price and move on.

But this year, Michael Waltrip was found to have a "foreign substance," perhaps jet fuel, in his manifold. The car's manifold, I mean.

Obviously, being a guy, I know what a "manifold" is. And if you don't know, look it up for yourself, because I'm certainly not going to tell you.

Anyway, this was a huge deal, in part because tinkering with the fuel is a major taboo even in the shadowy world of NASCAR garages, and second because Waltrip was driving - for the first time ever at Daytona - a Toyota.

Nothing like a Toyota to make a Ford man love a Chevy. Or so I'm told. It's a foreign car. (Maybe that explains the "foreign" substance.)

Further complicating things for NASCAR purists is that, according to one of the race commentators, in the world of globalization, Toyotas are made in America, while Fords are made in Canada and Chevys in Mexico.

So many were pleased when NASCAR brass jumped ugly and disqualified members of Waltrip's staff. Saying he was ignorant of the whole affair, Waltrip himself took the "Animal House" defense: "What a shame that a few bad apples have to ruin a good time for everyone."

First, I don't quite get the logic of punishing the crew. It's like if a baseball player takes steroids and Major League baseball fines the batboy.

Second - and again, keep in mind I am basically clueless about NASCAR culture - I have a tough time believing a driver doesn't know what's going on with his own car. Doesn't the driver from time to time ever stop by the garage?

Mechanic: "Michael? No we haven't seen him; he went off to Cancun some weeks ago - so far he hasn't even dropped us a card."

Or are drivers like TV news talking heads: No idea what's actually going on, just high-priced talent paid to read the teleprompter.

Be quite a shock to the driver I would think if, without his knowledge, the crew strapped a couple of jet engines to his car. First lap of the race, "WHOA, where did THAT come from?"

NASCAR missed the boat, I think. I would encourage jet fuel. I know it would make me more liable to watch, as would circular saws popping out of the bumper a la Speed Racer.

But I watched anyway, and any boredom I may have experienced in the first two hours was more than offset by that last lap.

As a bit of insider information, I was talking to Britney Spears the day before the race and she said, "If some car crosses the finish line at Daytona in flames and sliding on its top, I'll shave my head."

True story.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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