"If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin' " is one of the greatest, most-fabled adages to ever waft through the NASCAR garage. It is also on life support.
Because these days, if you're cheatin' you might not be eatin'.
The effort to circumvent the rules is not extinct, but marked unapproved advantages are mighty difficult to come by. During the past decade, NASCAR has become far more precise with its measurements and tolerances of those measurements.
To be credible, it had to.
Longtime fans, and certainly former competitors, are nostalgic about the days when Smokey Yunick devised a two-inch-in-diameter fuel line that was 11 feet long and held five gallons of gas. Anything to outrun the next guy.
It was a badge of honor back then. And, as far I can tell, with time and evolution its legend only becomes more admired every day. Even NASCAR's chief policemen, like vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, can't deny the intrigue of many of those old school cheating stories.
But those days aren't realistic anymore.
This is an era in which NASCAR scrutinizes illegality like never before. An era in which NASCAR penalizes cheating to an unprecedented degree and rules with zero-tolerance in the name of appeasing the dollars that make the wheels turn. An era in which two of the most reputable, respected men in auto racing history, Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs, were hammered for a combined 75 points and $300,000 in penalties. An era in which one of the most composed racers to ever drive at NASCAR's highest level, Matt Kenseth, shows as much frustration as might be emotionally possible for him. And an era in which I couldn't help but harken back to tales of the days when cheating was considered ingenuity and legends were built by painting gray black.
So I called one of the greatest innovators -- don't call Tim Brewer a cheater -- the sport has ever seen.
"It wasn't about cheating to me. It was a game," Brewer said, laughing. "You knew what them other guys was doing, and the goal was simple: Do it to them before they could do it to you. It was a game, a great game. And, man, I loved it."
Brewer, in fact, was so good at circumventing rules he said NASCAR brass has been known to joke that it might behoove them to ask his thoughts on other folks' tendencies, violations and transgressions. He's somewhat troubled by the current culture -- his tone makes that obvious. But he understands why the culture has evolved as it has.
"It's real simple -- corporate America," he said. "You got everybody asking for more money out of their sponsors to make their race cars run faster and be more productive. With that, you brought in all the media -- radio, TV, news print."
With journalism, Brewer said, came the unwavering need for competitive credibility.
"And you brought in credibility that NASCAR has to have to go and support their playing field," he said. "You can't come in there and have a bogus official in an NFL game. You can't stack the deck in a Major League Baseball game, because of credibility. NASCAR has to do the same thing."
After his competitive career ended, Brewer was hired by ESPN as a broadcast analyst. He recalled a certain day at the racetrack in 2011 when NASCAR president Mike Helton entered his office, the Tech Garage.
"Helton had a 1949 rulebook. It was two pages long," Brewer laughed. "He looked at me and said, 'How many pages do you think you're responsible for?'"
In 2013, the NASCAR rulebook is 190 pages long. How many Brewer is responsible for is up for debate. He figures several. Maybe dozens.
NASCAR officiating has come a long way. It had to, in the name of the aforementioned credibility. Back in Brewer's heyday the body templates were wooden, and if NASCAR took issue with something, a man could walk up with a file, a hammer or a hacksaw blade and beat his way into tech-approval.
These days, lasers tell the tale. (Brewer noted that NASCAR offers teams built-in template tolerances of a quarter-inch, so when they tell you they were a tenth off, it's really more than that.) When a team presents its car for inspection, that car belongs to NASCAR. It's nerve-wracking.
"The first time [crew chief of the No. 48 team] Chad Knaus walked in and saw the new laser measuring device at the NASCAR Tech Center, he never said a word and walked straight out the door," Brewer said. "It takes the wind out of your sails."
Knaus, Paul Wolfe -- crew chief of the No. 2 team -- and the like have arsenals of engineers working diligently to find every plausible advantage. These engineering staffs run simulations for hours on end in the effort to gain even a minute fraction of time on the racetrack. And those innovations that teams do find must be pre-approved by NASCAR before they reach the racetrack.
"Knaus spends a lot of time on details. He understands execution. He's like me. I don't work too good with handcuffs on," Brewer said.
"It's not fair to a guy like Paul Wolfe, who's got his guys sitting and working on creative innovations, and where they get you is unapproved parts. If you don't take it to NASCAR and show it to them, it's not approved. I don't care what it is."
In Brewer's day the gray areas weren't especially defined. Someone once asked him if he ever read the rulebook. That was ridiculous, he said. He studied it meticulously, read it to his advantage and then executed that advantage with one goal: "don't get caught."
These days, tolerances are defined to the width of a quarter and the weight of a couple of paperclips. NASCAR has gone to the extent of the law to ensure it offers a fair platform for every competitor. That is appreciated by some, loathed by others. And it is called into question when a driver, owner and team are hammered for an infraction the vast majority believes was not of their own purposeful doing.
Kenseth called the harsh penalty against his team this week "grossly unfair" and "borderline shameful" and was adamant that it offered no competitive advantage to his team. Brewer doesn't disagree.
"Joe Gibbs did not gain anything by having that connecting rod in that engine," Brewer said. "But Mike Helton and those guys, when they put out those bulletins and say connecting rods must weight 525 grams, minimum, that's what they have to go by. You don't think it's etched in stone?
"This ain't like going up against the judicial system, [with] judges, 12 different people [on a jury], lawyers, district attorneys, all that stuff. You don't have that luxury here. Here, you've got NASCAR. And the only way you're going to get out of this thing is if [chief appellate officer] John Middlebrooks decides this was an honest mistake, which I truly believe it was."
Brewer said he sent Gibbs an email Wednesday evening with the suggestion that he have NASCAR weigh all eight connecting rods and supply an average.
"Because if there's anybody in that garage area that's not going to have anything to do with cheating, it's Joe Gibbs. Period. He and Roger Penske are some people that don't bring up cheating, because it's not going to happen," Brewer said.
"They're not normally going to go to the racetrack with anything -- I mean anything whatsoever -- that they would even remotely be challenged on, because their credibility means so much to them."
After the 25-point, $100,000 penalty NASCAR levied against Penske Racing two weeks back, which stemmed from the team allegedly boring out the holes in the rear-end housing to enable Joey Logano's No. 22 and Brad Keselowski's No. 2 cars to shift under load and thereby turn better, many inferred that Hendrick Motorsports -- and specifically the No. 48 team -- tattled on them.
Jimmie Johnson said that is untrue and sarcastically noted how impressed his team is by "the No. 2 car's staff and their ability to have somebody just stand and watch other teams."
This back-and-forth is nothing new.
"Have you ever tried to keep a secret in that garage area? There ain't no way in hell!" Brewer said. "Shoot, back in my day, one of the best NASCAR inspectors in the garage area was [Richard Petty's crew chief] Dale Inman. I went to [then-Winston Cup director] Dick Beatty and said, 'Beatty, you need to put Inman on payroll.' He said, 'What?' I said, 'Because he's the best damn NASCAR inspector you got."
Brewer chuckles often at the thought of his shenanigans. He pulled so many stunts, he can't begin to recall them all. He plans to try someday. He still picks on Andy Petree about the 1992 Daytona 500, when he out-cheated Petree to the pole. Petree, Brewer said, devised a spoiler that laid down 20 degrees in the rear.
"It must not have been too damn good, then," Brewer recalls telling Petree back then. "Because my cars are on the pole."
He won't give up the details on his innovation that day.
Asked which man is the greatest cheater in NASCAR history, he belly laughs.
"Read the book, baby! Read the book!" he howled. "Smokey Yunick wrote a book on all the stuff he got away with. Gary Nelson, he's done all that stuff. But brother, when I write mine it's going to be about all the stuff I got away with. That'll be the determining factor on who says who got away with what. And I did."
So how many of his 53 career wins included something illegal on his race car?
"Every one I ever went to," he said.
NASCAR was quite different on myriad levels back then, before the rash of Fortune 500 companies entered the arena. It's wonderful -- and necessary -- that some of the world's most successful corporations invest in the sport, but it required a different approach.
"Back then, you were going up against men named [David] Pearson, [Richard] Petty, [Cale] Yarborough. Maurice Petty, he was a very tough individual," Brewer said. "Harry Hyde? Whew! When you went up against Harry Hyde, he would stand dead in front of you and tell you he fought in two world wars. And he said, 'When I stand in front of a man, I'm going to be fair with him and tell him what I think. If I like him I'm going to tell him I like him. If I think he's a son of a bitch, I'm gonna call him a son of a bitch. But I'm going to tell him why.'
"That's the men I grew up with. And you damn sure better say, 'yes sir' and 'no sir,' because those guys would kick your ass, dude. You think ol' Bud Moore wouldn't pull a knife on you in a heartbeat, you got another thing coming. I grew up with men you had to respect."
When he was about to pull a stunt, Brewer corralled the two best minds on his team and had a midnight powwow at the shop. They'd tinker around with a new idea and keep it between them. All the rest of the crew knew was to shut up and keep the car covered up.
"The greatest crew chief of all time -- no matter what anyone else ever does -- is Leonard Wood. He saw me pull some stunts like you wouldn't believe, and he never said a word to NASCAR. He'd call me a scoundrel. I know what the word means. It's not good."
A certain depression accompanies NASCAR's evolution for Brewer.
What was always so fun for him is no more.
"I never one time said I cheated," he said slyly.
"I call it self defense -- I ain't takin' no damn knife to a gun fight."
What in the world is wrong with Tony Stewart? The entire Stewart-Haas team is a non-factor all year. What gives?
-- Randy Robertson, Pell City, Ala.
Stewart has no idea what gives, Randy, which is precisely where his frustration lies. And rest assured, he's losing patience. He has long expected optimum performance from himself and certainly demanded it from those supplying him equipment and strategy. Now he's the face of the company. The name on the door. The bottom line.
"It's not easy, for sure. I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it's even worse as a driver/owner," Stewart said. "When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you, knowing that you're responsible for everything, versus just being the guy driving the car. It's hard, but it's also what makes it more gratifying when things go right."
Seems like you're a huge fan of "Duck Dynasty." What's your favorite episode, and have you spoken with Clint (Bowyer) about his recent appearance on the show?
-- Jackson in Lebanon, Va.
The ESPN "30 For 30" documentary series notwithstanding, "Duck Dynasty" is my favorite show on television by a notable margin.
Willie and the boys are my kind of guys. I felt that way based solely on the show, and he validated that thought this year in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500. I was busy documenting Jimmie Johnson's triumph via mediocre Integra photography when Willie walked up. He says, "Hey! We love you, man! We watch you all the time!" I grinned (completely shocked) and said, "Feeling's mutual, hosses." Then we took a photo. I hear all manner of grief about the show being staged. So what? Every show is staged. The difference is every show isn't funny. "Duck Dynasty" is hilarious.
As for Bowyer, he says his appearance on the show was a blast, specifically the camo limo scene.
"When Willie found out that, he's like, 'you don't really have that limousine, do you?' I'm like, 'Well, hell yeah!' He's like, 'Well, we got to have it.' Then, the next thing was, 'Well, how am I going to get it to Monroe, La.?
"This thing is an '89 Cadillac limo. It's built for fun and for a laugh, not necessarily for a road trip. I had to spend a little money on the old girl to get her roadworthy enough to get to Monroe, La."
The funniest part of that episode, by far, was Uncle Si calling Clint "Cliff Bowyer" and busting his chops that real drivers don't wreck upside down and on fire. The first time I saw that, beer shot out my nose.
That's my time this week. Thank you for yours.
I lost my daddy five years ago this week. He taught me country music, the value of hard work and the dogged refusal to quit or even compromise. He lives on.