Let’s be honest: Cheating has been a part of NASCAR since its first race at the Charlotte Fairgrounds on June 19, 1949.
Winner Glenn Dunnaway was disqualified for having “altered shock absorbers” and the victory was given to Jim Roper.
I recall an era when cheating was rampant — or at least it seemed that way. Not a race went by without NASCAR’s confiscation of an illegal part and the accompanying punishment decree.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, rules bending and breaking was simply a part of the game. Teams would push the envelope to gain a competitive edge, and NASCAR inspectors would do their best to nab them.
I always believed teams had a huge edge. They built and prepared the cars and thus well-paid crews and crew chiefs were free to use their imaginations. Believe me, they did.
Inspectors did not have that advantage. They were a small, underpaid group that worked long hours with relatively few tools.
However, they did their best — and were often successful.
But not always.
“Here’s the deal,” Hall of Fame team owner and mechanic Bud Moore once said. “I’ll do 10 things to the car. NASCAR is pretty good. It will find seven of ’em. But I’m still three to the good.”
It reached the point where fans enjoyed the weekly cat-and-mouse game between NASCAR and its competitors. And some of the perpetrators were so daring and imaginative they became celebrities.
For many fans, it seemed just as much fun to learn what such sly team owners as Junior Johnson and Hoss Ellington or crew chiefs Gary Nelson and “Suitcase Jake” Elder were up to as it was to watch any race.
As prevalent as cheating was during this time — I always maintained that there wasn’t a perfectly legal car in any starting lineup — there was one name never associated with it, not in the slightest.
The name was Richard Petty, the undisputed “King” of NASCAR.
But that changed on Nov. 6, 1983 at what was then known as Atlanta International Raceway.
Racing for the family-owned, vaunted Petty Enterprises team with crew chief Robin Pemberton, Petty had a good start to the ’83 season.
He won two races by early May at Rockingham and Talladega. But as the season progressed, he grew more uncompetitive.
He told his brother and engine builder Maurice “Chief” Petty that he needed more horsepower to change that.
I can just imagine the response of his irascible younger brother: “What the hell do you think I’m trying to do?”
Although he did have two victories, Petty came into the Atlanta Journal 500, the next-to-last race of the year, with only five top-five finishes.
The problem became obvious after qualifying. His Pontiac was two miles per hour slower than that of pole winner Tim Richmond. Petty started 20th.
But as the race wound to a close, things changed. Petty’s team changed four tires during the eighth and final caution flag.
On the restart, Petty moved into second place. Then with 22 laps remaining, he shot past Darrell Waltrip to take the lead for the first time in the race.
“He went by me like I was tied down,” Waltrip said.
Petty went on to win by 3.1 seconds. The fans were jubilant. They had seen Petty earn the 198th victory of his career.
But something was amiss.
While Petty’s Pontiac was in victory lane, it was clear the tires on the right side had left side serial numbers. The inspector who spotted this knew what it was: a clear rules violation.
He radioed the control tower: “I think we got a problem down here.”
There was another, more serious problem.
During routine teardown in the garage area, it was discovered that Petty’s engine was oversized — WAY oversized. It measured 381.963 cubic inches, well over the 358 c.i. limit.
It took NASCAR three hours to determine Petty’s fate. Understandably, the press corps, irritated as their final deadlines approached, figured the sanctioning body was trying to find a way to get Petty off the hook.
Not so. Petty was fined $35,000 and stripped of 104 Winston Cup points. Before the race he was in fourth place in the standings, 84 points ahead of Harry Gant — which is exactly where he remained after the penalty.
The penalty was harsh for the time. Petty’s fine was then the highest in NASCAR history.
But then, Petty was allowed the keep the victory.
This was a major topic of discussion. Many contended that the only reason there was no disqualification, as was given to Dunnaway, was the Petty name.
Indeed, Petty might have been disqualified had there been a second-place car, Waltrip’s, available for the required tear down.
Waltrip drove for the cagey Johnson. And his Chevrolet was long gone, having made a very quick, very surreptitious exit from Atlanta.
But there was no doubt Petty’s car was illegal.
Pemberton admitted the team installed left-side tires on the right side.
“We weren’t trying to get ahead,” he said. ‘We were just trying to get even; to compete with the cheating by other teams.”
I was privileged to speak alone with Maurice, who confessed he had indeed built an engine that was radically too large. He had his reasons.
“I was tired of seeing us get beat constantly by others who routinely broke the rules,” he said. “We were just not able to keep up — so I decided to do something about it.
“Maybe it was the wrong thing to do. I’ll take the blame for it. Richard is my brother and I love him. I’ll do anything for him. And I am the one to take the full blame. But if I might have to do something like this again, well, that’s what I’ll do.”
The 1983 Atlanta incident remains one of the most controversial in NASCAR’s history.
Could it happen again? Certainly. But it is highly unlikely.
I believe cheating is not as prevalent in NASCAR today because, frankly, it’s much harder to do.
The sanctioning body has the manpower and, more importantly, the technology to conduct inspections more efficiently and thoroughly than ever in the past.
And its penalties and fines are much harsher. Sure, teams try some tricky stuff, but they are paying much higher prices for doing so.
Maybe we no longer have the days of the scraps between the “good ol’ boys” and the NASCAR police.
But we still have cheating in NASCAR — and we always will.
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