Call it what you like, cheating isn’t going away

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Mask it with ornate terminology and justify it however you shall, but cheating is prevalent throughout the sports world – including motorsports – and it applies to more than just the most egregious skirting of the law.

As Bill Dwyer wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2015, “we have now reached, across the board, consistency of cheating on all levels.”

Regardless of the sport, athletes push the limits of legality on every play, lap or move.

Basketball players set illegal screens to get their shooters open. Football players hold jerseys to spare their quarterback from taking a big hit or prevent a receiver from completing a major reception. Soccer players flop on the slightest of touches, wriggling around on the ground like a carp pulled out from a lake and tossed onto the bank.

Whether looking for a call or daring a referee to make one, people in every level of sport push the boundaries of their given game’s ruleset in an attempt to gain an advantage over their opponents.

In each of these sports, these actions are also considered cheating – however minor the level of said cheat may be – and they’re penalized accordingly. That’s why websites like Bleacher Report and The Guardian have been able to write about cheating in great detail, listing the various ways teams and players have skirted the system in order to gain an advantage.

Some cases are more abhorrent than others, sure.

Signal stealing and underinflated footballs are looked upon less favorably than committing pass interference or intentionally fouling a poor free-throw shooter. Cases of steroid use and other body modification for the sake of on-field improvement are typically regarded as the worst-case offenses, yielding lengthy suspensions and tainting reputations for those involved.

Still, the general understanding is that each of the above are examples of cheating. Intent and the level of the offense matter only for penalties and perception. Sanctioning bodies may further clarify the level of the offense under different terms – rules infractions, fouls, etc. – but they are still cheating offenses.

Yet for whatever reason in modern motorsports many seem operate under the facade that we’re different and should be addressed as such – as though we’re the only ones pushing the envelope for the sake of performance despite living in a sports world where everyone is.

The take is understandable in that it tries to avoid associating racing with a word that’s become sour in the public eye after years cheating scandals hardening sports fans hearts. But to truly claim such a thing goes against the basic premise of the term, and seems upon first glance to stand opposite of racing’s history and tradition.

Ask most members of the old guard of motorsports, and they’ll tell you that cheating and racing are often synonymous.

Ty Dillon and Germain Racing paid homage to Smokey Yunick with their throwback paint scheme at Darlington Raceway (Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

ESPN wrote an article to that very tune just 10 years ago, highlighting the various ways teams have cheated in NASCAR in order to gain a performance edge with examples from the legendary Smokey Yunick, Michael Waltrip Racing’s fuel scandal and others.

The writer of the article is no longer revealed atop the page, but whomever it may be talks about cheating not with the negative connotation of the modern sports world, but a sort of aged romanticism that understands the importance of cheating and pushing the limit to NASCAR’s history.

The piece acknowledges that without people like Yunick, who pushed for innovation at the risk of severe penalty, the rapid advancements of speed and sophistication within NASCAR and other forms of motorsport may not have arrived.

The levels of cheating seen were often high in those days. Without the stringent tolerances and templates of the modern race car, rule-benders of the past tampered with their machines in creative ways, adding power to the motors and soaking tires for increased speed and durability. The risk associated with these moves were great, but the smartest minds in the garage often managed to escape without issue and fielded much faster race cars because of it.

While their more extreme examples of car modification are no longer seen, the very mindset that carried them to high speeds is still prevalent throughout the garage areas and race shops in the motorsports world. Teams now spend large swaths of money on engineering, coming up with creative ways to shave fractional amounts of time off each lap in order to gain a slight advantage over their fellow competitors.

Car parts are shaved down to the very limits of their specifications – a move that has required NASCAR to add 3D-printed patterns onto their new flange-fit XFINITY Series body in attempts to quell the minute alterations. Pit crew members have been accused of body-slamming cars during pit stops in the hopes of gaining an aerodynamic advantage.

The latest examples of the more modern, small-scale offenses came just last week, when Denny Hamlin’s wins in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series, and Joey Logano’s second-place run in the latter series were all deemed ‘encumbered’ leaving Darlington Raceway after infractions caught at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center during the week. The issues led NASCAR to announce a move to more severe punishments for specific rear-end infractions heading into the playoffs.

The infractions were minor given the historical context of NASCAR, but that’s a product of the time they occurred in.

If teams could get away with the wild cheating scandals of the past, you can rest assured that they would do it. But they can’t, so they alter the vehicles to the best of their abilities, pushing and occasionally crossing the current boundaries established by the sanctioning body.

When those lines are crossed, teams must be willing to pay the price – in perception, finances and the championship – that comes with the offense. The man burned most by such issues last week at Darlington said just as much before the weekend began at Richmond Raceway.

Joey Logano missed the playoffs after his sole win of the 2017 regular season at Richmond Raceway was deemed encumbered. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

“I think you could tech every car in the field and I’m willing to bet that many, many, many, many cars were not going to get through inspection,” Hamlin said. “It’s just we finished up front, so we got the treatment, as we should have.

“I think the reason people work in those areas is because there’s speed there. That’s why we always fight for every inch and every quarter and every thousandth of an inch on every part of the car, whether it be under the car or above it. We fight for every inch because there’s speed there.

“So it’s a tough game and you got to be willing to take the consequences when you pass over that line that gets drawn in the sand.”

Such is the modern world in sports, when the person found guilty of an offense admits that he’s likely just one of many committing the crime.

Much like the plethora of offensive linemen that will see penalties for holding defensive players to protect their quarterback over the coming weeks of the NFL season, the teams pushing cars to their limits for speed can justify any penalties as a necessary evil in the pursuit of peak performance.

None of them like being referred to as cheaters – just ask Martin Truex Jr., who stood out staunchly against the term despite his avoidance of a similar issue this year.

“It’s frustrating as a driver and as a race fan, to see people get so up in arms and upset about something as small as some of the things that we’ve seen… and accuse people of being cheaters,” Truex said. “The things that get said is kind of way over the top and not really fair, and it’s frustrating at times to see that, even if you’re not on the receiving end of it.”

But just because everyone’s cheating, or at least taking the risk of cheating, doesn’t mean that we can operate under the false assumption that no one is.

The truth is that cheating has been meshed into the very fabric of NASCAR since its inception. The sport was built by outlaws – moonshine runners and speed demons that often cheated the law during the week before ever laying a wheel on the race track.

The scandals of those days are rare in the modern world, but the push to match and exceed established limits – at the risk of cheating the system – is as prevalent as its ever been. And they’re only poised to continue. That’s not necessarily good or bad. It’s simply a fact we all must accept in the push for perfection.

Cheating exists at all levels of every sport on this earth, and racing is no different.

In his famous play “Romeo and Juliet”William Shakespeare once said: “That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While stripped from the romanticism of the above quote, the same can be said of cheating. The intent and level of the cheat are important for both penalty and perception, but in the end cheating is still cheating regardless of context.

You can cover it up with whatever terminology or justification that you’d like. I’ll continue to call a spade a spade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *