Unlevel Playing Fields
By Bobby Markos
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “innovation” as a new idea, method or device. It is a praised part of humanity, helping to pave the way for our progressing way of life. But in the wild world of auto racing, the fine line between what is considered innovation and what is considered cheating is often blurred. Dale Jr. and the Dirty Mo Media crew prefer to lean towards creativity, and in the past few years of The Download have encouraged guests to come clean on the hidden techniques of the garage that spectators and oftentimes officials may not be aware of. On Episode 386, Dirty Mo has reached far into its archive of The Download recordings to find some of the best stories of innovation and creativity in racing engineering. Buckle up listeners, the tales in this episode are liable to change your perception of motorsports as you know it.
“We were not rule breakers, we were rule makers”
Three-time NASCAR Champion Darrell Waltrip originally joined The Download back on episodes 324 and 325, and filled Dale Jr. and Mike in on the world of innovation in the NASCAR garage of the past. Waltrip begins by speaking on his time with celebrated Cup star and car owner Junior Johnson, who was known for reading between the lines of the rulebook. During his dominant first two seasons with the team in 1981 and '82, where he racked up 12 wins both years, Waltrip faced constant scrutiny from NASCAR officials. Waltrip recalls a story where an engine once measured .00001 over the allowed limit of 358 cubic inches, and almost faced disqualification.
Otherwise, the team's “creativity” flew under the radar, using techniques such as packing the car’s frame with lead shot to make weight. Since NASCAR’s post race tech inspection didn’t include reweighing the cars, it allowed teams to create ways to meet the minimum limit beforehand, and then eliminate the excess come race time. Waltrip explained that the team had a hole in the jack stop of the chassis that was used during pit stops to jack-up the car, and inside the cockpit he had a wrench-controlled valve he could loosen to release the lead shot. He recalled a hilarious story about the process malfunctioning at Bristol, due to the lead possibly getting wet and not falling out when the valve was initially opened. A few laps later, the lead suddenly all released at once, and caused Waltrip to lose control of the race car, sending him careening down pit road. Fellow racer Dave Marcus, who was on pit road at the time, was thought to be the perpetrator and faced an intense investigation from NASCAR officials. Meanwhile, in Waltrip’s post race tech inspection, officials used a jack in the trick jack stop to look under the car, and the hole was covered and therefore overlooked.
“My car was bad, it was handling and it was cheated up”
In 2002, while behind the wheel of the Bill Davis Racing No. 22 Dodge, Virginia’s Ward Burton entered the history books by winning the 44th running of the Daytona 500. The previous year he claimed he had the car to win the race, leading the most laps before being caught up in the “Big One” on lap 173. When Burton appeared on The Download, he explained that the team had installed a second layer in the floorboard of the car. Had the wreck not happened, he believed he would have been in contention with Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. at the end of the race.
“It’s not cheatin’ til you get caught”
Todd Parrott made a name for himself serving as a crew chief for Dale Jarrett on the Robert Yates Racing team, bringing home 27 victories and the 1999 NASCAR Cup Championship during their time together. Before his legendary stint on the box with Yates though, he worked for Raymond Beadle under crew chief Barry Dodson. On Episode 330 when Parrott visited the Bojangles Studio, he revealed a story where he and a fellow crew member went down to the NASCAR garage where they kept the templates used during the tech process, and asked to see the long template for Pontiacs. Meanwhile, Parrott’s colleague distracted the official by asking him about his truck, allowing Parrott to snip the end off of the nose portion of the template. This modification gave way to the team extending the nose on their race car by an inch and a half, as well as the decklid of the car, bringing about more downforce during race time.
“My car was 60-percent left-side without the driver”
From the late-1960s to the mid-1980s, Florida’s Gary Balough established himself as one of the most talented, hard charging short track racers in the country, dominating both the pavement late model and dirt big block modified ranks. He won the big block modified crown jewel event, the Syracuse 200, four times including three consecutive years from 1976-78. He also won the Snowball Derby and All American 400 two times a piece, as well as the 1986 All Pro season championship. Balough surrounded himself with longtime “innovators” during his career, such as Mario Rossi, Pete Hamilton, Junior Hanley and Kenny Weld, picking up many tricks of the trade along the way. When he stopped by the Download during Episode 264 to discuss his biography “Hot Shoe, a Checkered Past”, Gary recounted many stories of racing creativity from the printed pages. For example, in 1973 at Syracuse, Balough and his team bolted two fuel cells together to allow for a shortened pit stop, but ended up getting caught by officials. Balough also described a pump system installed within the frame rails of a car to move around mercury, allowing for weight to be moved from side to side.
“Dale, where is the bottle? Dammit Tommy, I’m sitting on it”
Tommy Russell has a unique place in Earnhardt folklore, as he was a childhood acquaintance of Dale Earnhardt and went on to be one of his first car owners. Russell’s family was involved with the Carolina dirt racing scene, and got to know Earnhardt family patriarch Ralph, eventually going on to work on Ralph’s race cars and helping out in the garage. When Tommy wanted to put together a car of his own, he teamed up with Dale and began running at Charlotte-area dirt strongholds like Concord and Metrolina. On Episode 364, Tommy told the story about getting a two-barrel carburetor from NASCAR-legend Dink Widenhouse for their semi-modified late model racer. The new addition made quite a difference and the car became competitive, and the team began winning on a regular basis. After weeks, the car was protested and subjected to inspection. Tommy explained that the rulebook said the carburetor had to still be in production, and he wasn’t sure if the specialty part would pass muster. But when the promoter called Holley Performance Products about the part, the shop attendant asked “how many do you want?”, as they were luckily still in production. Tommy and Dale would receive their money, and continue on their winning ways.
An episode highlight centered around Dale Earnhardt’s first ever NASCAR Cup start, during the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. During qualifying, Earnhardt used a bottle of nitrous to “aid” their efforts, which helped them make the race. Dale Jr. was surprised to learn of his father using nitro, due to an encounter he had with him in the mid-1990s where Sr. chastised him for trying to buy a bottle for his late model. While working on his car, Jr. called someone who he found selling nitrous, and Sr. busted him, saying “if you ever put nitrous on your late model car, you won’t be going to the race track with it”.
“My heart, you could see it beating through my shirt”
Andy Petree is one of the most celebrated crew chiefs in NASCAR’s rich history, finding success with Phil Parsons, Dale Earnhardt and Harry Gant. When he stopped by The Download on Episode 339 to discuss his championship years with Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, Dale Jr. and Mike Davis were able to finagle some stories of innovation and creativity out of the Hickory North Carolina native. Petree explained the nuances of “psychological cheating”, meaning to lead a driver to believe they have an advantage when in reality they may not. However, sometimes this misconception may be worth more than an actual technological advantage, because of the confidence it gave the driver during race time.
In 1988, while working for the Leo Jackson Racing team, Petree won the Winston 500 at Talladega with driver Phil Parsons. Petree explained that during the Daytona 500 earlier that year, he had observed that race winner Bobby Allison’s car must have had an aerodynamic advantage due to the way it sounded and looked during the race. He explained to owner Jackson that if he wanted to win, they needed to figure out what Allison was doing to create the competitive edge. Although apprehensive at first, Jackson fabricated a cheated up manifold to help get air around the restrictor plate. As a result, Parsons brought the No. 55 Oldsmobile home first ahead of Allison at Talladega, his first and only win in the Cup series.
In perhaps the most elaborate story of the episode, Petree details the creation of an adjustable decklid he and fellow crew member Dean Jones fabricated in an effort to get around a newly-enforced spoiler angle rule. After building a decklid with hinges that would lay down flat and then return to its original angle for inspection, Petree and Jones set out to find an actuator for driver Harry Gant to use to maneuver the trick. Petree explained that one night, while driving his family’s Oldsmobile to the store, he noticed that the trunk had a mechanism that would pull the door shut. He pulled the car apart and found the motor that was used for the trunk lid, and fabricated it to operate the adjustable decklid on the race car. It was wired through the rollbars of the car, and triggered with an extra switch added to the radio box. Upon qualifying third, the stress of getting caught proved to be too much for Petree, and he instructed Jones to remove the mechanism in the hauler.
During a recent recording of The Download, Matthew Dillner surprised Dale Jr. and Mike by bringing Dean Jones in to corroborate Petree’s story, as well as bring in the actual decklid from the Gant car, which will now be on display in the Bojangles Studio.