Don Coble - Nascar Columnist
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- No other place on the racing schedule offers as many certainties as the Talladega Superspeedway.
A new package of rules will complicate matters but will not change the bottom line. Talladega is the place where most drivers will complain about restrictor-plate racing, where teammates will turn into enemies in the draft and where cheating will reach new zeniths.
Restrictor plates, dastardly de vices that limit the amount of gas and air into the engine to reduce speeds by more than 40 mph for safety reasons, have created a new level of creative engineering in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series garage. NASCAR has a barn full of illegal parts and pieces confiscated in the past 10 years at Talladega, but the guys who rarely crawl from under the hood to see sunshine know that for every person who gets caught, 10 go free.
''There's lots of ways to cheat when you're talking about restrictor-plate engines,'' one team manager said. ''At one time or another, everybody has fudged a little bit on the rules. By the time NASCAR catches on, most teams are already on to a new way of getting around the plate. It's a game everyone plays.''
The trick used to be finding ways to get air around the restrictor plate to increase horsepower. The restrict or plate is mounted between the intake manifold and the carburetor, so the challenge is simple: Find ways around the plate.
One team drilled pinholes through the four bolts that attach the carburetor and restrictor plate to the engine. Others have shaved the bottom of the intake manifold so it won't rest snugly and airtight against the engine.
Some teams have used tricked-up manifolds with moving internal pieces to better channel air through the engine.
Ricky Rudd once was caught with a hydraulic pump that was connected to his clutch. When the car was pressed lower in the 33-degree banking, it remained low. That allowed it to reduce the amount of air under the car, therefore reducing the amount of aerodynamic drag. As Rudd drove onto pit road, he simply depressed the clutch a few times and the hydraulic pump jacked the rear of the car back to within specifications.
Rudd got caught. Apparently a crewman had one too many beers during the week and bragged about the clever engineering to a member of another crew. There is no honor among thieves, presidential candi dates or grease monkeys.
In April, Jeremy Mayfield got caught with a gas additive in the tank of his race car.
Now that NASCAR has an inspection process that makes an Internal Revenue Service audit seem elementary, the quest to short-circuit the rulebook has shifted to other areas. The extent of the cheating was so widespread at last April's race at Talladega that nearly 40 cars flunked inspection before the first practice session and time trials.
Dale Earnhardt's Chevrolet, for example, needed a complete over haul before the sanctioning body gave it a seal of approval. The team had to cut off the trunk lid and rearrange both rear fenders. By the time it rolled onto the raceway, the back of Earnhardt's car looked like it had been rear-ended in rush hour.
''Some were too wide; some were too small; some were too skinny; some were too short,'' said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's top cop. ''It's about normal for Talladega.''
NASCAR has a list of new rules for Sunday's Winston 500. The restrictor plate is bigger to increase horse power and throttle response, but each car will have bigger rear spoilers and a metal strip running perpendicularly across the hood to create more drag. The engines are faster and stronger, but each car will have an aerody namic anchor tied to its rear bumper.
No matter what rules NASCAR brings to Talladega, race teams already will have ways to work around the handicaps. Talladega has been, and will remain, a cheater's paradise.
Which, as Nelson reminds us, is just normal for Talladega.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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