Sports Nut

Racing on Crooked Wheels

Last Tuesday, NASCAR fined Jeff Gordon’s crew chief (the head coach of Gordon’s team) $25,000 for using an illegal intake manifold during a race. (Stick with me—you won’t need to know what an intake manifold is.) Gordon himself got stripped of 100 Winston Cup points (the points they add up to determine each year’s champion).

Gordon won the race in question, but the interesting part is: Even after it came out he’d been cheating, the victory stood. Gordon kept all the prize money, too. His Winston Cup ranking didn’t change a bit after losing the points. Indeed, the whole thing’s already been forgotten.

Lesson: Cheating in NASCAR is sort of expected.

Last year, I spent some time with NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield’s team. One of the pit crew guys, in a moment of candor, told me that in this sport cheaters are actually admired. Other teams respect your skills if you manage to slide something by. With countless templates and rules—defining body types and engine specs down to the millimeter—stock car racing is in large part a matter of beating NASCAR’s careful inspections. Each time the sport issues a new bylaw, teams hit the wind tunnels and engine simulators looking for maximum performance at the very edge of legality. When the car gets to the racetrack, the.

This spring, the Mayfield team got nailed for using an illegal fuel additive to boost horsepower. A crewmember poured STP in the tank at a pit stop. Blatant, flat-out cheating (and Mayfield didn’t even win), yet the cheater still works for the team, and nobody thinks less of him or of Mayfield. It’s a part of the sport: You hope you don’t get caught, but if you do … aw, shucks. A few weeks later, Mayfield finally did win; this time NASCAR fined the team for a too-low roof-line, which altered aerodynamics. But here, too, the victory stood. (Mayfield claimed the roof got bent when he jumped on it celebrating his win.)

To all this I say: Keep on cheating! We need a sport where the results are often completely unfair. Where regulations are meant to be flouted. Where wussy rule-followers finish last.

Yes, baseball nostalgists remember Gaylord Perry’s Vaseline pitches and various pine tar/corked bat incidents. But generally, the George Will in each of us flares his indignant nostrils at the very thought of cheating in baseball. And that’s as it should be. You’re right to be outraged when the Indians steal signs from the Red Sox with a centerfield camera. And not just because it’s those offensive-logo-wearing goons vs. scrappy, everyday heroes like my Sox. It’s because cheating clashes with baseball’s core values: sportsmanship, hustle, fair play. Same in football, where they even use instant replays to make damn sure everything’s fair. Cheating is frowned on in nearly every sport, and amen to that.

But cheating fits right in with NASCAR’s core values. In a sport where they’re literally running out of places for sponsor names (no more room on the car or driver, few naming rights left to sell); where the major corporate involvement comes from oil and tobacco; where Confederate flags dot the grandstands; where burning fuel, leaking brake fluid, and littered beer cans and Winston butts congeal in an odious, environmental dystopia … In a sport like this, doesn’t playing unfair just seem like the right thing to do?

Baseball is America as we’d like to be. NASCAR is America as we really are. In its own way, it’s beautiful. I wouldn’t change a thing.