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Dodge Appeal Overturns NASCAR Ruling

by Larry Roberts

April 23, 2001

Long ago, my brother-in-law, a practicing attorney of many years experience, pontificated a truism to me that has stuck with me for several decades. "Larry," he said, "justice is expensive."

That thought came back to me recently as I perused the recent legal happenings at NASCAR. That hoary organization doesn't break even the slightest rule. A step out of line on the smallest item and not only does the miscreant get a verbal slap-on-the-wrist, but a monetary fine as well.

And if there's an obvious attempt at fraud and a cover-up, the team and the driver may be forced to sit out a couple of races.

In other sports, having to spend some time on the bench may cause some inconvenience to the team in the temporary loss of a key player. But if a NASCAR car-and-driver are in the garage for any of the 32 Winston Cup races and the problem was due to illegal modifications, it can have a direct financial effect on the team. Big-buck sponsors like DuPont, Kelloggs, Home Depot and the rest spend millions of dollars to get their names emblazoned on the hoods of `their' Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac or Dodge, and if that racer is parked on race day, fans and TV viewers don't get that corporate name-brand exposure.

But being very cognizant of the needs and desires of corporate America, NASCAR officials are much more likely to impose a fine than a driver set-down.

So last month, three Winston Cup team crew chiefs were given fines for mechanical inconsistencies. In two cases, the problem involved front suspension A-frames that were too thin. The fine in these cases was $1000 per infraction. In another case, the braces that support the front fenders of a race car were found to be adjustable. This modification wouldn't mean much on the family station wagon, but on a NASCAR racer, a different profile on a body panel can enhance the aerodynamics of the car to add either a significant increase in its top speed or alter its aerodynamics so that its downforce is changed to give the suspension a slightly better bite. NASCAR is very careful to ensure that all the cars that compete have an equal chance at winning the race.

But sometimes a seemingly blatant alteration is accidental and doesn't even involve a misinterpretation of rules. After the recent Winston Cup race at the short, high-banked track at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Dodge driven by John Andretti, nephew of Mario and cousin of Michael, was found to be slightly lower that the allowed dimensions as laid out in a template that had been approved by NASCAR for the newly accepted Dodge Intrepid race cars. The fine imposed on Andretti's crew chief Greg Steadman was a whopping $20,000. Petty Enterprises, the team that fields the Cheerios-sponsored Intrepid, took exception to the fine and the implication that the prestigious Petty team would cheat. On an appeal that involved considerable close, time-consuming and expensive examination of Andretti's Dodge, it was discovered that cracked chassis welds had caused the car to settle a bit and lower its height. This not only affected the height of the car, but it changed its handling characteristics enough to prevent Andretti from making a run on the winning Ford of Elliot Sadler. Andretti was less than a half-second behind the Sadler car. Had he gone on to pass Sadler and win the race, it would have been the first NASCAR Winston Cup checkered flag for Dodge in nearly two decades.

The on-track crash that damaged Andretti's Dodge involved a late-race collision with veteran NASCAR driver Bill Elliot and the irony of the matter is that Elliot was also driving one of the newly-approved Dodge Intrepids and both cars are under the aegis of Dodge itself.

Although it won in a court of appeal, Dodge is still awaiting a Winston Cup on-track victory.

First it had better stengthen up those welds.