One of the more interesting but largely overlooked stories of the recently completed season brought back a flash from the past.
NASCAR busted driver Michael McDowell and his crew chief after discovering “weight pellets” hidden in their car’s frame during the October Talladega race. That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book — hiding illegal weight in a car — and in sort of a mischievous way it’s fun to know that such low-tech fudging still exists in today’s high-tech world.
NASCAR of course failed to see the nostalgic humor. It docked McDowell 50 points and suspended his crew chief.
The driver and team, however, didn’t do anything that hasn’t been done — or at least attempted — before.
Back in The Day drivers were known to load buckshot into their car panels. The load of lead pellets would help the car pass minimum-weight requirements in pre-race inspection. Once the race started, the driver would pull a hidden lever or string, opening a chute and allowing the buckshot to dribble out.
As the lead pellets gradually spilled out, the car became lighter and lighter — and faster and faster.
Of course the lead pellets didn’t simply disappear once they hit the asphalt. They flew everywhere and piled up with the “marbles” and other race track refuse.
Following a race at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway one night, NASCAR inspector Bill Gazaway walked around the track scooping up handfuls of buckshot.
Driver Coo Coo Marlin said that during the race the lead pellets were flying thick and bouncing off his windshield like hailstones.
“I thought at first somebody was shooting at me,” quipped Coo Coo.
NASCAR never caught the buckshot-spraying culprit(s). Gazaway had his suspicious but he didn’t have any proof – the evidence was scattered around the track.
But he issued a warning that his inspectors were going to start taking longer and harder looks at the cars’ panels and if they caught someone with a load of lead, woe to them.
Gazaway, who looked and talked like “Dragnet” detective Joe Friday, wasn’t a man to be trifled with. The buckshot quickly vanished.
Afterward I was told by a certain driver (who I shan’t name, since he’s still active in the sport) that he knew a better way to beat the inspectors: Use water instead of buckshot to fudge on the weigh-in.
Once the race started, the same lever or string could be pulled, opening the same chute. But instead of buckshot being sprayed everywhere, the dribbling water would evaporate on the hot pavement.
Granted, there might be some suspicious splatters on windshields on back in the pack, but getting spritzed wouldn’t be nearly as bad as driving through a hail storm of buckshot.
Understand, I don’t know for sure that this certain driver ever tried the water-trickling trick — but I don’t know for sure that he DIDN’T. All I know is that he talked about it in theoretical terms.
I also noticed that in some races his car seemed to go faster and faster as the race went on, and that his shoes were soggy after it was over.
Could have been mere coincidence.
Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at email@example.com.