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The Guide to Cheating in Dirt Track Racing

Simply put, cheating is breaking the rules. Everybody, and I mean everybody, breaks the rules. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re driving in a 15 mph school zone, look down at your speedometer. “That’s different,” you say? Not hardly; speed limits on the street are rules, and if you speed, hey, guess what? YOU are a cheater! Don’t try and deny it – everyone cheats. Still don’t believe me? Check your tax forms from last year! So, armed with the knowledge that everyone cheats, we’re going to look at cheating from alpha to omega, how to cheat on the track and get away with it, and what to do when you are caught. Don’t worry about taking notes, though, since your track promoter is reading this article too.

Cheating is good, and we are going to tell you why. We will also talk about why racers cheat and how. The top ten common cheats from around the country in several car classes will be explained. We’re even going to tell you how to be slick enough to get your “cheater car” through technical inspection and how to pick the right areas to push the boundaries. To cap off the article, we’ll explain what to do if you are caught cheating and lastly, we pay homage to the “best of the best” cheaters.

Is it good for the sport?

Yes. Just the thought of a racer cheating makes the races more interesting. A good controversy adds to the show. Remember the public relations motto: any news is good news. It’s doesn’t matter what they are saying just as long as they are talking about you. Cheating also makes perceived good guys and heroes. People will come back and watch race after race to see their hero win. By the way, a hero is someone that is perceived not to be a cheater, the good guy who beats the cheaters. Finally, if you have a good guy, you’ve gotta have a villain. The drama between a good guy and a villain keeps fans coming back. Ergo, cheating is good for the sport. Take that, tech inspectors!

Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. It's drama and good for the sport.

 

Why do racers cheat?

It’s how we are wired. Human nature. We try to get away with whatever we can get away with without being caught. In competition, this is exacerbated by the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. We feel like we have to cheat to because we know that our competition is cheating. If you are getting beat on the track, it has to be because everyone else is cheating because it can’t be that they are better drivers, right? If your competition is cheating, you will only race for so long before you feel that you must cheat too in order to compete. The biggest reason that racers cheat, though, is that winning feels good, and it’s easy to get addicted to that feeling.

Everybody bends the rules, and there’s some truth to the saying, “if you’re not cheating, you’re losing.”

 

Ten common cheats in circle track racing

Cheating is not hard. Everyone cheats, but cheating without getting caught is an art form. It takes skill, intelligence and discipline. If you are missing any one of these three things, you’re going to get busted. Picking the right areas or the right rules is the key to not getting caught.

10. Making aftermarket parts look stock

The most common cheats in local short track racing involve taking aftermarket high performance parts and throwing a coat of flat black paint on them. A shiny new MSD Blaster coil is easier to hide with the label peeled off and a can of flat black spray paint covering the bright red finish. Mount the newly painted coil against a freshly-painted flat black firewall and it’s barely noticeable. A tech inspector would have to scratch the paint to identify the cheat. 

We know a racer at the local track, let’s call him Racer X, that took an aftermarket Offenhauser intake manifold and used a grinder to remove the manufacturer name and casting number. Using a little bit of dull silver spray paint evenly applied to the rough surface to smooth it out, then a healthy treatment of old grease and grime over the manifold, Racer X then installed this manifold on a factory stock four cylinder for competition. We are proud to report that the racer was never caught and he won several feature events. These particular cheats are used mainly in the factory stock type classes. 

9. Tires – Size matters, and so does softness

Tire size can make all the difference in the world, and while it’s easy to catch it’s worth the effort. At a local track the tire rule reads, “a maximum tread width of 8 inches”. Almost every competitor started out by using a 225 X 15 tire. One by one, the cars started showing up with 235 X 15 tires. Then the 245 X 15” tires starting turning up on the right side wheels. At each step, the tire width became the standard, and the track had no choice but to let it go because everyone was competing with the same tire widths. In this case, it was worth risking the next step up. 

If there’s not a spec tire rule, measured width or a go/no-go gauge will be the standard. Knowing how your tire is going to be measured in tech is the first step to getting an advantage.

Many times a track will dictate how wide a rim can be but nothing is said about the outside diameter of the tire. Many racers will use a taller tire to take advantage of the gear ratio they have in the rear end. This is common in the factory stock and sport compact classes. The sport compact class will also change from 15-inch rims to 14-inch rims depending on the gear ratio and the rev limiter in the car. Ideally, you want to run out of gear at the end of the straightaway, just before you hit the rev limiter. Moving up a size from the stock rim might be the answer, and your track tech won’t know all the different stock rim options for every different car in the class.

Tire compounds are equally important and can make a ton of difference in traction. There are tire softeners on the market that the manufacturers claim cannot be detected but change the hardness of the tire for more traction. It’s been reported, and we cannot confirm or deny, that the home brew of diesel fuel and paint thinner (1:1 ratio) has been used with great success. You can support the tire on jackstands and paint the tire’s tread like you would paint a wall. Let the tire sit between coats and use at least three coats. 

A good practice is to coat the tire on one day, let it sit overnight and coat the tire again the next day. The following day you can coat the tire again and let it dry overnight. On the fourth day the tire is ready to be mounted on the car. We have heard of racers using transmission fluid to soak their tires in, but we have not yet confirmed the success of this method. These cheats are mainly used in classes where spec tires or DOT-legal tires are the only authorized rubber.

Crew Chief Brian Pattie was caught with "soaker" tires at Bristol in 2005 and suspended for 6 races.

 

8. Brake bias without a bias control

Ahhh, Braking techniques on dirt can be tricky. In stock classes where bias controls are not allowed, there are a couple of useful cheats that can help you turn left and keep up your momentum through the corner. In street cars, the natural bias of the brakes is more toward the front because of the weight shift of the car under braking. On dirt, heavy front brakes cause the car to push up the track and slide on the dirt.

So, when the rules state that you must have four working brakes and no brake bias controller, a simple fix is to install a BB in the front brake line coming out of the master cylinder. Yes, a BB, from a Daisy Red Ryder. Most stock brake lines are sized so that a BB will fit into the double flare fitting at the master cylinder and still allow some fluid to pass. That way, if the tech inspectors jack up the car and step on the brakes, there is enough pressure to hold the tire from turning, but not enough pressure to cause a serious nose dive when you jam on the pedal. Presto! Instant increased rear brake bias.

Brake pads on GM calipers can be viewed through a hole at the top of the caliper. Through the hole, about half of the brake pad is visible. That’s where the tech inspectors check for brake pads. Great! That leaves us a quarter of the pad on either side of the caliper opening that we can remove and still look like an unaltered stock pad. By reducing the inside and outside front right brake pads by 50%, you also reduce the braking power on that wheel. That leaves the left front brake providing the “real” braking which pulls the car to the left. As luck would have it, on the circle track, left is the direction we want to go. Viola! Instant help in left turns by creative redneck engineering.

As luck would have it, there is a manufacturer that makes and sells over-sized and under-sized GM calipers. AFCO provides this explanation in their catalog: 

Oversized Metric Calipers:
Can be used in the rear of open wheel modifieds and street stocks racing on dirt surfaces to increase rear brake bias. 
Can be used on the front of open wheel modifieds and street stocks racing on pavement surfaces.

Undersized Metric Calipers: Can be used on the right front of open wheel modifieds and street stocks on dirt surfaces to reduce right front braking bias to aid in corner entry.
Can be used on the rear of open wheel modified and street stocks racing on pavement to reduce rear brake bias.

The bottom line is still the same; changing brake bias without a brake bias control. Is it cheating? The rules just say ‘no bias controller’ and ‘must have OEM type calipers and pads on all four wheels.’ 

7. Working with weight and weight transfer

Many tracks and series have rules that state that an engine can’t be moved back in the chassis, but nothing is written about moving the engine forward in the car. Some builders will move the engine forward and toward the left wheel and balance it out with weights added to the rear of the chassis. This particular cheat is only good in classes where shocks and springs can be used to control the chassis setup. Left side weight helps getting the car through the corner, and front weight can help with steering control. On front wheel drive cars, weight on the front left helps with steering and traction. There have been cases, and we have seen them at the local tracks (Racer X again), where front wheel drive sport compacts have moved the entire front end over to the left to improve the left side weight, but that is not advisable unless you are a master fabricator. 

Even straight-line racers use engine setback for chassis setup. When the rules don't allow engine setback, consider moving the engine forward.

 

If the rules say that you must use stock springs on your car, there is hope here too. The way we read that rule is that you can go to a salvage yard and get stock front springs off of a dump truck and put them on your car and still be in the rules. They are stock springs, after all. The rule doesn’t specify which chassis the stock springs come from. A stiffer front right spring can help transfer weight to the back left during corner exit. The more speed you can carry through the corner directly translates into higher speed on the straights.

6. Managing traction

Davis Technologies is one manufacturer of electronic traction control that is “sensor-less” and not much bigger than a matchbox. The portable unit detects wheel slip by monitoring rpm (tach) signal, and retarding ignition timing to “soften” the engine power. Reduced engine power reduces torque to the driving wheels and therefore can assist traction by keeping them from braking loose. According to Davis Technologies, the unit is driver-removable, very compact, easily hidden and the wiring is simple. Just three wires are required; an rpm signal wire, a positive and a ground. 

They also say the traction control unit lowers lap times and produces cooler tire temps. Just by turning on the system, lap times can drop by 1-3 tenths. Consider this if you used it for an entire race and conserved your tires from lap 1. By the end of a 100-lap race, lap times can be as much as 5-15 tenths faster per lap than without the system. It can be useful in any class but the IMCA modifieds have become sensitive to traction control issues. For more information on Davis Technologies traction control, check out their “How Does It Work page. 

The Davis Technologies electronic traction control unit. Effective, and in most series, illegal.

 

5. Stock-appearing torque converters 

TCI manufactures a number of really fine torque converters for circle track use. One of the greatest inventions to come along in a while is their “stock appearing direct drive” torque converter. This is actually a direct drive unit that has an OEM converter case around it. Rotating weight is significantly reduced because the unit requires no fluid inside. 

Because the transmission input shaft is driven directly from the engine, reaction is far greater than through a stock torque converter. According to Scott Miller at TCI, “These satisfy the rulebook requirements while delivering a distinct performance advantage”. Scott also told us that “more drivers are using this than you realize” on the circle track. However, he would not tell us who.

4. Put your rotating assembly on a diet

Reducing the rotating weight can significantly improve your performance on the track. The rear wheels can get power quicker if there is less rotational weight to turn. So how do you reduce the rotating weight? Get the crankshaft milled so that weight is taken off. The edges of the crank can be “knife edged” so that it cuts through the air and oil easier. SCAT Industries in Redondo Beach, California specializes in lightweight and race engineered crankshafts that are “off the shelf” ready to run. 

A lightened crankshaft with leading edges milled to minimize windage and cut through the oil easier.

 

Transmission gears can also be milled to reduce weight. When the rules require three gears (two forward and one reverse) you can take advantage of eliminating any extra gears. We know of a racer (yep, Racer X) that had the entire first gear milled down to the point where it was simply a spacer. Talk about removing rotating weight. Racer X used second gear to get going and yellow flag laps and third gear was for race speed. Remember, less rotating weight means quicker response. 

3. Get better fire

Pertronix makes an ignition module for GM distributors that fits perfectly inside the cover of the stock ignition module. These ignition modules are on par with any externally-mounted ignition controls, and provide a much more powerful spark than the stock unit. We know from first hand experience that the ignition module cover can be removed from a stock unit and used to replace the cover on the Pertronix Flame thrower ignition module. If you don’t chew up the module cover when you are removing it, this “cheat” is visually undetectable. The fit is perfect and you get 40% more sparking power. Jim Hariston of Pertronix confirms that many of these units are being sold to circle track racers, but he was unwilling to confirm that they were being used outside the rules. 

Pertronix Performance Ignition Modules.

 

2. Getting Crazy with The Gas

Everybody has heard of nitromethane. It’s that stuff that the Top Fuel guys use. Smells bad and does not mix with gasoline. How about the nitro that does mix with gas and is not detected by smell? Nitropropane (C3H7NO2), like the chemical makeup shows, is an oxygen-bearing fuel. Oxygenated fuel burns hotter and more completely than regular fuel. Mix 20-25% mitropropane with gasoline for a virtually undetectable gain. Plus, it’s friendlier to the environment. 

Check out this cool article on HotRod.com concerning Nitropropane.

1. Rebuild your own stock shocks

Draining the oil from the left side shocks can give you the effect of a “tie down” shock in the lighter-weight cars. We have heard of racers that have drilled holes in their shocks, drained the oil out, and filled them back up with a heavier (or lighter) grade of oil. Usually a blend of at least 20% transmission fluid with a heavier grade of oil will stiffen up shocks. A lighter weight of oil will make the shock react faster for quicker weight transfer. Obviously the hole you drilled into the shock will need to be repaired by brazing a small bolt into the hole. Use care when dealing with heat around the shock. There are a lot of stories about racers burning themselves with hot shock oil when the shock tube is overheated and bursts at the ends.

Bonus Cheat: Read between the lines

The easiest rule to break is the rule that isn’t there or is not complete. Remember Smokey’s saying that “If it isn’t in the rules, it must be legal.” Take this example – the rules state that the car must have a torque converter. Our driver puts an old torque converter in the trunk and shows up for the race. The tech inspectors catch on that he is running direct drive with no converter and ask him for an explanation. Quoting the rules, our driver makes his case and is declared correct but it is explained that the rules will be changed to read that the torque converter will be mounted in the car. Our driver then bolts the torque converter to a sheet metal wall in the trunk. It is mounted, right? Again the tech crew catches the direct drive transmission and again the driver explains that the rules don’t say where the converter needs mounted. Again, our driver wins and the rules are rewritten to say that the converter will be mounted in the drivetrain in its OEM location. Be proud when a rule is written or re-written because of you!

Pushing your car through tech

Hang around the tech area. Make friends with the tech officials. Above all else, watch what they are checking. Trends will start to show up. If the tech officials check the carburetor’s throat size on every car in the class, you can be sure that they will check yours too.

Push your car through tech inspection with confidence, even if you know that you are going to get busted!

 

Know the rules. If the rules clearly say not to do something, then don’t do it. The rules are a guidebook for the tech inspectors. They will check for everything that is written in the rules. 

Wear your poker face. If you’re pushing your car though tech and you look shifty or nervous, the tech officials, much like policemen, will pick up on your apprehension. If you are shaking like a Chihuahua when you go through tech, you’re gonna get busted. If you don’t have a straight poker face, have one of your crew members push the car through tech.

Respect. Build respect with your competitors and the track officials. If you are perceived as a good guy that would help anybody get out on the track, or that guy that has high morals and ethics, the tech officials will spend less time looking at your car. That reputation as a straight shooter will go a long way in creditability. 

Build an “easy find and easy fix” into your car. Some tech inspectors feel like they are not doing their job if they don’t find something wrong with every car. Give it to them! Especially if the tech inspector is a “one bullet” Barney Fife from Mayberry type. You’ll know which tech inspectors will bite on this one because you’ve followed rule number one by hanging around the tech pad and watching everything. Build something obvious to the inspector that is easy for them to find and easy for you to fix. Make it look like an oversight if you can. Sometimes you give up one thing to hide another. Let them find the one you don’t want so that they will not continue looking for the cheat you do want.

Ask for the tech inspector’s opinion or help. Most of these track officials are volunteers that love racing and want to be around it. Asking for their advice or for their help makes them feel good and will endear you to them.

Keep your mouth shut. If you do bend the rules, don’t say anything to anyone. Not even your wife, husband or significant other. Sooner or later, that trusted party will get mad at you and the information will come out, be it at divorce court or at the track. The more people that know about your offence, the more likely you will be thrown under the bus.

Alright, you get caught; so what do you do now? Deny, deny, deny. You must have plausible deniability. Explain that it was not your doing. It was probably that way when you bought the car and you never saw it. Maybe your mechanic did it and you didn’t know about it. Just deny, deny and deny. If you’re in the gray area, keep fighting the good fight. Just keep talking and making your point. In a calm voice, explain why you are following the rules. Above all else, keep fighting and keep talking.

Stay calm and talk in a mild tone, but be firm. Smile a lot. Make sure that the track officials get the feeling that you are still a good guy.

Don’t talk in front of the other drivers if possible. Get the track promoter alone and discuss the infraction. Make your case and keep a good tone. Explain that it was something beyond your control and it will never happen again. Offer a resolution by fixing it before the next race. Let him know that you appreciate that he is in a tough spot and you want to work with him on finding a good solution. Explain that you are working with him to make the racing at this track better for everyone. Win his heart and mind.

When to cheat again. Obviously, look for a rule that isn’t there and try it again the next race.

Why do we have Rules?

You might ask, “If everyone breaks the rules, why do we have them in the first place?” I think we can all agree that there are some pretty good reasons to have rules in racing. Let’s take a look at some of those reasons:

The late, great Fireball Roberts avoided chemical dip fire retardant used to treat driver's suits. Fireball was fatally burned in an on-track crash and survived 30 days in the hospital before succumbing to pneumonia. Never cheat a safety rule.

 

Safety

We don’t need to look any further than NASCAR to illustrate this point. Fireball Roberts’ death in 1964 prompted rules for better driving suits, Joe Weatherly’s demise earlier that year in Riverside was the impetus for the window net, and years later, Dale Earnhardt’s death promoted the rule for the head and neck restraint system. 

Joe Weatherly believed that a shoulder strap would break a driver's neck in a severe crash, so he never wore one. This photo of the 1964 wreck at Riverside that claimed the life of the two time and defending NASCAR Series Champion is a clear evidence that safety rules supersede the competitive edge.

 

Were these rules in response to losing great champions that were fan favorites? Perhaps, but most likely, they are in response to our ever-increasing litigious society where a sanctioning body can be sued by family members of the deceased in a wrongful death suit. 

Competition

The International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) sanctioning body promotes itself as a cost affordable and competitive series by limiting the amount of costly exotic parts that car builders can use in this series. Does it keep everyone from trying to get an advantage by installing “illegal” parts? If you believe that, I have some swamp land in Florida to sell you. For the most part, rules help keep the honest guy honest, and as we have already determined, everybody cheats. NASCAR’s legendary king, Richard Petty, supposedly once said, “I know they are cheating because I am cheating and they’re beating me.”

The King says, "Cheat neat and you'll get by with a bunch of stuff."

 

When is it cheating?

The most obvious answer is, “It’s cheating when you get caught.” David Newton wrote an article for NASCAR.com in which team owners were open and honest about their attitudes on cheating.
“I’m going to sit here and lie to you, “ Robert Yates said. “I’d never cheat.” Richard Petty is quoted in the same article as saying, “I always told my guys, ‘Cheat neat and you’ll get by with a bunch of stuff.’ I don’t particularly tell my guys to cheat. I just tell them not to get caught.”

Robert Yates lied about cheating.

 

Other notable NASCAR cheaters

The most monetarily penalized crew chief in NASCAR’s 60 year history is Robin Pemberton. Checking NASCAR’s top ten biggest fines list, Pemberton shows up in three of the ten spots. Remembered mostly for the 46-point penalty for a carburetor spacer infraction on Mark Martin’s car, which cost Martin the Championship by 26 points. In the spirit of using a cheater to catch cheaters, NASCAR hired Pemberton to be the vice president for competition of NASCAR. He has held that position since 2004.

The Ray Evernham / Jeff Gordon combination drew a lot of complaints from fans and competitors as being deliberate cheaters. Officially, Evernham was one caught and fined once as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief. In 1995, Evernham was fined $60,000 for using illegal suspension parts at the Charlotte race on the #24 Dupont Chevrolet.

In the most blatant case of the fox guarding the henhouse, NASCAR hired Gary Neslon in 1992 to enforce the rules. He later became the Vice President of NASCAR’s R & D facility in 2002. Often called an “innovator,” Nelson was considered a cheater by those that did not like “the gray area”. As the crew chief for Bobby Alison in 1983, NASCAR inspectors made a habit of tearing Nelson’s car down during the season because they believed he had been hiding extra fuel somewhere on the car. Nothing was ever found. Allison went on to win the Winston Cup title that year. Although never fined for the offence, Nelson has been credited for the legendary invention used by Darrell Waltrip that emptied lead birdshot that was packed inside the roll cage. NASCAR weighed the cars prior to the races to ensure that a minimum weight was met. There was no after-race weight inspection. By packing the roll cage with lead shot, and allowing the driver to drain the shot out systematically during the race, the car would lighten up and continuously gain speed. By hiring Nelson to enforce the rules, NASCAR demonstrated that they understood that “it takes a thief to catch a thief”.

Junior Johnson, the last American hero, was known for having cars that seemingly always had more power than any other cars on the track. Without too much fanfare, let’s just state the record. Junior was suspended for 12 weeks for an illegal carburetor and finished NASCAR as an owner in 1995 with a $45,000 fine for using an illegal manifold. Remember the earlier discussion about how NASCAR only weighed cars pre-race? Junior Johnson supposedly had heavy rims on his first set of tires. About 100 pounds each, in fact, so after the first pit stop and tire change, the car weighed 400 pounds less.

Junior is quoted as saying, “There’s a difference in cheating and creating. I was creating.” Another Junior trick in his own words: “You could run a 500 cubic-inch motor and it would check at 358 or whatever they wanted. All you do is file a slot, a tiny channel, out from the edge of the spark plug hole. So when inspectors attached that little pump that measured cubic inches by air pressure, that slot lets off air, just enough to make the engine look legal. Come race time, you put a washer around the spark plug and tightened it down, and off your driver goes with your big engine.” 

Finally, we get to the legend. Nobody was better reading the rules, and between the lines, than Smokey Yunick. Acknowledged as one of the greatest automotive minds of our time, Smokey proudly claimed that by operating in the gray areas of the rulebook, NASCAR was forced to write rules to counter his innovations. He estimated that in 1970, over half of the NASCAR rulebook was dedicated to him. Operating in the gray areas of the rulebook, Yunick said, is not cheating. He did consider four things “real cheating”: 

1. Using a big engine. 
2. Using a big gas tank. 
3. Using expensive exotic materials to save weight. 
4. Very expensive aerodynamic rule violations.

The thought process of playing in the gray areas of the rules is backed up by Robbie Loomis, a Petty Enterprises vice president who was a crew chief from 1991-2005. “I think that’s our job, to find those areas of interpretation, the gray areas, and do just that. Interpret. There is a lot less room in there to find an advantage than there used to be, but that’s part of the challenge.”

Pick the right area to push the borders

Remember that rules are in place to improve competition, and there may even be a “catch all” rule put in place that addresses the “spirit of competition”. These “catch all” rules are instituted at the subject of the track’s discretion. Which means if you’re too fast on the track, you can be judged wrong without having broken any written rule. So even if there is no written rule, you can still be declared a cheater. 

Jimmie Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus have been caught cheating several times in the past couple of seasons. They still have managed to win three NASCAR Championships in a row.


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