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Your Cheatin' Heart 

For NASCAR, The Song Remains The Same

When NASCAR driver Tony Stewart's car was impounded by the stock car racing organization in March -- for trying to cheat by tricking up the trunk -- some members of the racing world reacted as if they'd never heard of such a thing. Sports columnists were "shocked" that this kind of thing was going on in "this day and age."

"It's the first we've seen of anything this exotic," NASCAR President Mike Helton said with a straight face. But the only thing "exotic" was that Stewart's team's attempts at cheating were so blatant. Everyone knows cheating among stock car teams should be a lot more subtle than that. Still, there are appearances to keep up and big-money sponsors pouring in the kind of money the sport's oldtimers could have only dreamed about.

So when Helton stood before 43 Winston Cup drivers, their crew chiefs and assorted car owners in the garage at Dover International Speedway, on the morning of June 2 last year, he was angry. Helton, a no-b.s. grizzly bear of a man on his best days, had reason to be upset. Not even one-third of the way into the 2002 season, three of the 12 Winston Cup races to date ended with the winning car failing post-race inspection. It happened to Matt Kenseth in Texas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Atlanta and, a week before Dover, when Mark Martin broke a two-year winless streak at Charlotte. In all three cases, the cars were judged to be too low, and the team owners were fined after the race. Jack Roush, who owns the cars driven by Kenseth and Martin, was socked with a $50,000 fine after Charlotte.

But even a $50,000 fine is a small price to pay for a victory. In Martin's case, for example, his winnings in Charlotte were $1,280,033, making $50,000 appear to be tip money. Helton knew he had to do something, and do it fast. The form and methods may be different, the intent is not. "We seem to have a rash of cars after the race is over that cannot meet the minimum height," Helton said during the drivers' meeting at Dover. "So far, we have chosen only to use a fine as a reaction. I just want to make sure that everybody understood there are other options NASCAR can use if it keeps going this way."

Helton had a variety of weapons at his disposal. He could fine the teams larger sums of money, penalize them points or finishing positions, or even suspend an entire team. But what Helton won't do and can't do, is ever stop racers from doing what comes naturally, and that's breaking the rules.

It happened way back in 1949, when Glenn Dunnaway was disqualified for using illegal "bootlegger" rear springs at the first-ever NASCAR Showroom Stock race, the precursor of today's Winston Cup Series. It kept happening in the 1950s and 60s and continues to this day.

"Someone always will figure out how to get around the rules, even though we try to make them as clear as possible," NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. once said. "Lawyers and accountants have been doing that with the tax code for years."

What Helton and NASCAR managing director of competition Gary Nelson have done in the last decade is make it a whole lot tougher to get away with, expanding the Winston Cup rulebook from the size of a pamphlet to a novella, and sharply increasing the number of inspectors on the job, as well as their training and education.

"It Was Fun"

It wasn't always this way, of course. When NASCAR was a small regional racing series in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there was a little bit more humor in the cat-and-mouse game between racers and inspectors. Racing was less a business and far more collegial.

"It was a lot more of an individual sport a long time ago when it first started," remembered seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty. "When it first started it was strictly stock cars, then somebody said, "Why don't we put bigger springs in it?' or bigger shocks or bigger tires, whatever it was. Then somebody said, "You know, if we cut this window here, cut this fender.' There were no templates, so we'd just do it. Make the cars longer, shorter, narrower, higher, sideways, whatever it was. We used to run with no spoilers, so that was something that they [NASCAR] didn't have to check. They didn't have any templates. They checked the weight of the car and the height of the car and that was about it. Used to be we came down here, in an hour you used to do inspections. If you wasn't just really, really cheating bad you were OK."

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