It's hard to keep secrets in the garage with teams using digital cameras, eavesdropping and snooping to get ahead.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published June 11, 2003
[Times art: Steve Madden]
More than 20 years ago, up-and-coming Winston Cup driver Ricky Rudd was desperate to learn his competitors' secrets. He went to great lengths - and a few heights - to gather data.
Over a barbed-wire fence.
Up a tree.
Just before the 1981 season, Bobby Allison tested a new car at Daytona International Speedway. It was supposed to be a private session at the 2.5-mile track, but fortunately for Rudd, the security guard patroling the grounds never thought to look up.
"I was sitting in a tree on the backstretch with a stopwatch, notebook and binoculars," said Rudd, 46, in his 27th Winston Cup season. "None of us knew what he was running on the watch."
In the ultracompetitive world of racing, where adjusting a track bar a fraction of an inch can make the difference between starting third or 30th, teams spy on one another as routinely as drivers make left-hand turns. Digital photographs, eavesdropping, snooping in a cramped workplace - it's all part of garage espionage.
And everybody does it.
"You don't want to see people get a leg up on you, so you've really got to pay attention to what's going on," said Dodge team owner Ray Evernham, who won three championships in the 1990s as Jeff Gordon's crew chief. "The guys who are running good are running good for a reason. If you can't figure it out yourself, you've got to find out why."
It's not that hard, really.
NASCAR, in its efforts to create a level playing field among all manufacturers and teams, makes it hard for teams to keep secrets. At most tracks, the garage is a building, or series of buildings, with open-air stalls in which cars park side by side mere feet apart. Anyone can watch technical inspection. Illegal parts are confiscated and displayed on a table outside the NASCAR trailer.
Flea markets are more discreet.
"Good, bad, right, wrong - I don't know, but everything in our sport is done to keep somebody from getting a competitive edge," said Jimmy Makar, who oversees Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte as team manager for Joe Gibbs Racing. "That being said, everybody is looking for a competitive edge. You're always looking at the competition, especially if somebody is whipping your tail."
Digital photography is the latest innovation in the spy's arsenal. Teams have been known to dress someone like a fan - complete with multicolored T-shirt, cap and, of course, camera - for the purpose of capturing images of cars.
The images are blown up to scale using the Goodyear logo on the tire - the size never changes - so teams can get an accurate fix on an opponents' spoiler, wheel-well opening, front air dam - a host of critical measurements.
Radio scanners, popular among fans because they allow someone in the stands to listen to conversations between drivers and crew chiefs, are ready-made listening devices. Any time a top-10 driver reports the condition of his car, you can bet the entire garage is listening. Makar, who for years served as 2000 champion Labonte's crew chief, went so far as to script false conversations in hopes of misleading eavesdroppers.
"I love doing that," said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. "We all play that game. Everybody tries to deceive and mislead. Everybody brings you information, and most of the time the crew chief gets frustrated about it because it's, "So-and-so's doing this.' You have to say, "Well, look, we're doing this.' "
Though teams are not above stealing one another's trade secrets, apparently there is a code of honor among thieves.
"The trick is, when you see stuff, you don't tattle," driver Kyle Petty said. "Guys will see another guy get by with something, and they'll try to get by with it themselves, but you don't run to the NASCAR trailer and tell. There is a little bit of ethics involved. They're not double spies."
So, with a garage full of competitors and the sanctioning body conspiring against any team that wins a few too many races, what is the longest anyone could possibly keep a secret in Winston Cup?
A 45-minute practice session?
"Not long," Evernham said. "If you're running too good, NASCAR's not going to let you keep it. They'll take your car apart in front of everybody. The guys who can keep a good secret are the ones who only win by a little bit."