Walking through any race paddock, you might hear this saying, “There are two types of people in racing — cheaters or losers.” The connotation is if you aren’t pushing the limits of the rules in some way, then you aren’t taking advantage of every opportunity for speed. And, if you aren’t looking for every possible avenue to find more speed, then when the checkered flag drops, you’re probably the loser.
The reality is, in racing, it is much more complicated than that. Utilizing just two categories — cheater or loser — is a broad and extremely harsh way of looking at the situation. In most cases, the folks who have won championships and changed the landscape of racing weren’t really cheaters; they were innovators. And sometimes, if I’m being completely transparent about racing, well, sometimes these people were completely cheating.
Smokey Yunick’s autobiography, The Best Damn Garage in Town, is a book I have read cover to cover — twice. The things he did to find a way around the rulebook were absolutely genius. When NASCAR limited the size of the fuel tank but didn’t mention anything about how long the fuel line could be, he created an 11-foot long, two-inch-diameter fuel line from the gas tank to the engine which could hold five gallons of fuel. This was not cheating; this was innovation.
Bending, But Not Breaking
Taking a cue from successful racers and crew chiefs of the past, my team decided to read between the lines of the rulebooks as we chased our own racing wins. Over the years, we have been both innovators and accused of cheating. Our first foray into the gray area of the rules was the early years of the 24 Hours of LeMons.
The rules stated you could add a fuel cell. Great, we did just that. Except, when we added our fuel cell, we went ahead and left in our stock fuel tank (more fuel capacity, yay!). In fact, our fuel cell just gravity fed into the stock fuel tank. That meant our OEM fuel pump still worked, the fuel gauge on the dashboard still worked (it read “full” for a very, very long time), and we didn’t come in for gas for hours.
When we did come in for gas, we filled the fuel cell and the stock gas tank at the same time, making for a quick fuel stop. Watching us fuel the car (into two separate locations: 1. stock fuel-filler door and 2. into the trunk) is when the sanctioning body realized they should probably update their rulebook. They did; for the next race, the rulebook read, “A fuel cell may be added, only if the stock fuel tank is removed.”
So, in the case of our race before the rule was added, we weren’t cheating, we were innovators. And it worked, as the sun set during that long race, we were in the lead.
The 24 Hours of LeMons changed its rulebook, making it more definitive regarding two separate fuel tanks (you can’t do it). Since our team were “innovators” and not “cheaters,” we took out our stock fuel tank to make the car legal. But, since we learned that long driving stints and fewer fuel stops were the keys to doing well in an endurance race, we installed a 32-gallon monster fuel cell into our car. And since we wanted to fill that 32-gallon beast quickly, we had a team of fuelers with several huge 10-gallon NASCAR fuel dumps. Worked like a charm, and our Big Sausage Pizza Delivery team earned a 24 Hours of LeMons “A class” win.
The folks at LeMons looked at transponder data and realized I drove around in the car for over three-and-a-half hours without pitting (all while peeing in the driver’s seat). They changed the rules again, making a limit to fuel-cell capacity (no more than 32-gallon cells allowed) and fuel-jug size to fill a car could be no larger than the small five-gallon cans. This was all done in the name of safety. The rules changed again, and our vehicle was illegal again — post-race — which means we were innovators and not cheaters.
Attack Of Frankenstein
After we lost our significant fuel cell advantage, we decided to step up our game at The 24 Hours of LeMons in another way to make our car faster. How do you make a $500 Acura Integra faster? Simple, you put a Honda Civic SI B16 VTEC head on top of the Acura Integra B18 block.
This is known as a Frankenstein motor and is common amongst Honda nerds. Can this be done for less than $500? Uh, nope. We thought we had disguised the engine quite well. However, in tech inspection, the folks spied the oil line for the VTEC, and we were had.
Since we previously won The 24 of Hours of LeMons overall, they slapped us with a 1,500 lap penalty — which we deserved. Even though we didn’t win that race (hard to overcome a 1,500 lap deficit), we did earn the LeMons penalty record. In this situation, we were not innovators. The Frankenstein engine was not a gray area of the rules. We clearly spent over $500 on the car; therefore, we were dirty, rotten cheaters!
Taking Full Advantage
We got back to reading the rules carefully to find an advantage versus blatant cheating when our team was invited to compete on The Forum Wars, where we brought out a Shelby Mustang GT. The rules dictated the car had to have DOT-legal tires. The rules did not dictate the treadwear number of the DOT legal tires.
The SCCA and other sanctioning bodies require a 200-treadwear tire. The Forum Wars left that out of their rules, so we showed up with a Hoosier 30-treadwear tire. We won the event and set the fastest lap out of every car that competed in the event (GT-Rs, ZR1s, 911s). The internet went crazy, stating we “cheated” because we used racing tires. No folks, we brought DOT-legal autocross tires. Other teams didn’t, and other teams lost. Simple as that. On that day, they were the losers.
When we moved onto NASA Honda Challenge, our goal was to build the best Acura Integra possible within the rules. In 2016, NASA allowed for a very specific engine-management system and coil-on-plug system from AEM for Honda Challenge 4. We built the car around the system, tuned it to perfection, and won the Honda Challenge championship that year.
After the race, NASA put the car on the dyno and didn’t like the numbers it was making with the AEM Infinity system (too much). Since the system was legal, there was nothing to be done about it; the championship was ours. When the rules came out for 2017, guess what? Stock ECUs only for Honda Challenge 4. That meant our perfectly legal 2016 championship car would be a cheater if we showed up with it at the first event in 2017. It also meant off to the wrecking yard to find a stock ECU.
NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip said it best, “If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot. If you cheat and don’t get caught, you look like a hero. If you cheat and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me where I belong.” For me personally, I’ve been a winner, I’ve been a cheater, and I’ve been an innovator. My advice is to look through the rules for an advantage, but don’t blatantly break those rules. Because if you do, then you might just look like a dope.