Where the less-than-elite meet to cheat

“Well, I didn’t see anywhere in the rulebook where the wheelbase had to be.” This year’s Amelia Island Concours hosted a great seminar entitled “Racing Around the Rules,” in which various team owners and industry figures told a variety of tales about how they’d bent or broken regulations in IMSA and elsewhere. What’s fascinating to me about the presentation is the general good humor of everyone involved. As is also the case with NASCAR, there’s a certain statute of limitations, expressed or implied, on cheating in professional racing. If you got caught at the time, you might be a bad guy; if you reveal your secrets years later, it usually results in nothing more than a finger wag and a good laugh.

Sometimes the lack of censure can be frustrating; I raced the Pirelli World Challenge last year with a fellow who got caught forging Honda part numbers on non-factory parts. His penalty was to start from the back of the pack without those parts—at which point he passed the competition like they were all down a spark plug. Had I been in charge of SRO, the organization that runs the races, I’d have torn that car down to the transmission synchros afterwards. Instead, he got a check and a pat on the back. I think about that story now whenever I read some glowing tale of Junior Johnson or some other fellow who “gamed the system.” These aren’t victimless crimes; for every fellow grinning on the podium thanks to clever thinking, there are a dozen guys who hauled a thousand miles and spent their home equity for a back-row seat to the proceedings. 

The reasons for cheating in pro racing are many, varied, and fairly obvious. Winning races means more than prize money; it means sponsor involvement, talent retention, and prominence in posterity. People become very wealthy through racing, although it’s far more common to start the process as a wealthy individual and end it considerably less so. 

What’s less obvious, to me at least, is why people would cheat in amateur racing. Other than the people involved, nobody really cares. I’m a National Auto Sports Association (NASA) Regional champion and I was one bump in Mid-Ohio’s Turn 6 away from being a NASA National champion. This means precisely nothing to the world in general. Yet there are people who will go to bizarre lengths in order to win. A recent NASA National Champion was busted in regional tech a month before the race with a secret switch that cranked up his boost pressure. During the national champs, he frequently put two or three lengths on the second-place car down Mid-Ohio’s back straight. You think he threw that boost switch away after he got caught? Or do you think he figured out a better way to hide it? 

What’s more pathetic than cheating in club racing? How about cheating in the One Lap Of America, which is a self-described “eight-tenths” event? It used to happen all the time. One Lap has very few rules, the primary one being that you can’t have a support vehicle. There was a team that fielded a pair of supercharged NSXes and a Ford Econoline that trailed them at a distance. Was the van an illegal support vehicle filled with NSX parts? Or was it just a big coincidence? Another team fielded two cars—a Viper and an SUV. The SUV was hit in traffic by a distracted driver. A lot of Viper parts were spotted in the wreckage.

I saw so much blatant cheating during my first One Lap that I resolved to win the next one no matter how ugly the win was—and I did so by entering an E300 diesel in the “alternative fuel” class. We told everyone ahead of time that we had 400 horsepower from a Kleeman tune, which we did. What we didn’t tell anyone was that the Kleeman tune made the car wheeze and stall at unpredictable intervals. So once all the Volkswagen TDI entrants dropped out of the event, having been convinced that they had no chance, we disabled the tune and puttered around the track with about 170 horsepower to win our class in completely uncontested fashion. No, this wasn’t cheating, but it wasn’t exactly beating Ferrari at Le Mans, either.

What’s more pathetic than cheating in a road rally? How about cheating in autocross? The SCCA community is still talking about the fellow who decided to invent a Honda option that never existed—a “towing package” for the Civic that included a suspiciously autocross-friendly final-drive ratio. This fellow had a window sticker, documentation from Honda to the dealers announcing the option package, and correspondence from Honda on company letterhead detailing the ins and outs of the package. The “towing package” Civic was so fast that it sent people scurrying to Honda dealers, trying to get a towing-optimized Civic of their own. None of it was real, of course. He’d spent thousands of dollars to fabricate the whole thing. After he’d been welcomed back to autocross 20 years later, he got caught with an engine head filled with shimmed-up valves. He blamed an unscrupulous engine builder who preyed on millionaire Civic owners, or something like that. In the aftermath, one of the officials said, “Well, at least we didn’t have to read documents this time.”

After some thought on the subject, I think I’d award the prize for most pathetic instance of motorsports cheating to a fellow I met at a regional autocross in Dayton some 15 years ago. My brother and I were working a corner with him after our runs. About an hour into the proceedings, in the course of bragging about his accomplishments, he scanned the surroundings furtively and said to us, “You guys wanna hear something? I took the trunk lid off my STi and replaced it with a plain Impreza lid. Don’t have the spoiler. Saved like 50 pounds. Nobody even noticed. I beat a couple of jerk-offs in a Porsche 911 today doing that.”

“We know,” my brother snapped, by way of response. “We’re the jerkoffs in the 911, and we know perfectly well that your STi is supposed to have a trunk spoiler. But we’re not going to protest someone at a regional autocross where the prize is a two-dollar plastic medal.” The fellow’s face fell for a moment, then he perked up and said:

“Well, that’s just the way racing is, boys. Everybody cheats.”