In case you haven't heard (and if so, where have you been?), New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was busted Sept. 9 for secretly videotaping the New York Jets' coaches and stealing their hand signals. That revelation and resulting $500,000 fine has been condemned as a crime of the most heinous order, a violation of the NFL honor code that is being compared to something out of a spy novel.
Whatever, dude. Here in the racing world we've got more espionage going on than they did during the Cold War -- and it's certainly nothing new. Not in IndyCar, Formula One or, yes, even NASCAR.
2007 has provided one of the most exciting seasons in F1 history, but the on-track action has been overshadowed by a spying scandal that contains more international twists than a Tom Clancy novel. The drama has crisscrossed Europe from London to Italy to a courtroom in Paris, where on Thursday McLaren was hit with a $100 million penalty and banished from F1's coveted constructor's championship. To put that fine in perspective, that's roughly the total estimated value of Dale Earnhardt Inc., Robert Yates Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, or Michael Waltrip Racing.
Why such a pop to the pocketbook? In a nutshell, McLaren's now ex-chief car designer, Mike Coughlin, was caught with a gigantic pile of top-secret Ferrari data sitting in his house, apparently obtained through his friendship with former Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney. That data was tested and applied to the McLaren rides of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who just so happen to be outrunning Ferrari in the F1 points standings.
"There has certainly always been a gamesmanship to trying to figure out what your rivals have figured out with their car that you haven't with yours," said three-time world champ Jackie Stewart. "But there's a difference between trying to replicate a design idea that you've seen with your own eyes in the paddock and blatantly stealing the data behind it. There's nothing gaming about stealing."
Eyeballing, however, is as storied a racing tradition as spraying champagne in Victory Lane, and it happened last weekend from Belgium to New Hampshire to your local Saturday night short track. The fastest teams are always swarmed by "recon walkers," mechanics who stop by to chat about the weather, but are really trying to get an up-close look at the car that's been whipping their butts.
"If you're winning races, you're everybody's best friend," said Robbie Loomis, Petty Enterprises executive and former championship crew chief. "Guys you haven't seen in weeks are suddenly stopping by to ask about your family while you're getting the car ready on race morning. And you know they aren't listening to a word you're saying, they're trying to see what kind of shocks you're putting in the car."
During Jeff Gordon's heyday of the late '90s, crew chief Ray Evernham was so worried about protecting his racing recipes that he wouldn't allow TV cameras to come anywhere near the No. 24 Chevy during test sessions, and fans who stopped by the race shop were left wondering, "Where are the cars?"
The answer -- behind a series of partitions designed to keep any spies disguised as tourists from easy access to his cutting-edge methods. Evernham is no longer a crew chief, but his perimeter lives on. That's especially true at nearby Hendrick Engines, which employs a security system straight out of "Mission: Impossible."
In the American open-wheel ranks, info-harvesting has long been taken to an extreme that only a man like Belichick could truly appreciate. Since wings were introduced to IndyCar racing in the 1970s, the angle of those wings, front and rear, have long been the difference between a great-handling car and a vehicle that drives like a washing machine.
High-dollar outfits such as Penske Racing spend hour upon hour in the wind tunnel determining the optimum setting for those wings for every type of track. Information they don't much want to share with the competition. Thus, those big, black, blanket-like covers that are thrown over each wing whenever the car is sitting in plain view on pit road or in the garage.
But the next time you are at an open-wheel race, keep an eye on the unkempt guy in the A.J. Foyt T-shirt standing at the exit of pit road with a tricked-out digital camera. There's a pretty good chance he's not simply a fan with a pit pass. More than likely he's on the payroll of a rival team snapping wing shots while the cars roll by at a pedestrian 60 mph.
"If you really sat down and thought about all the looking over one's shoulder that takes place in racing, you'd become a bit of a paranoid basket case," admits 1998 Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever, now a team owner. "In the digital age, one might think it would be harder to obtain sensitive information, but in reality it might be easier."
What you say or don't say over the radio during the late stages of a race can be a bit of a game. You don't want to tip your hand when it comes to pit strategy in particular.
Every open-wheel series, home and abroad, runs its races under a cloud of flying digital data. Radio frequencies deliver constant information from the car to pit road, from tire pressures to brake bias to chassis adjustments. Those frequencies are constantly encrypted and re-encrypted for protection against radio poachers.
In NASCAR, such in-race data transmissions are illegal, but that doesn't mean that there isn't radio-powered info to be procured. Teams can watch a rival's live telemetry the same way as any fan at home, through a subscription to NASCAR's online timing and scoring service or via its pay-per-view package of on-board television cameras. But the most common method of a stock car stakeout is simply good old-fashioned eavesdropping.
"What you say or don't say over the radio during the late stages of a race can be a bit of a game," said Chad Knaus, the crew chief for defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson. "You don't want to tip your hand when it comes to pit strategy in particular. We have someone scanning other teams' radio frequencies and we know they have someone listening to ours. So when I want to share information with another Hendrick Motorsports crew chief, let's say [Gordon's crew chief] Steve Letarte, I'll either send him an instant message or I'll just climb down off the pit box and go down and talk to him."
But there's no way to IM or fire off secret hand signals to a driver. That means waiting until the last possible second to reveal one's strategy, or finding new ways to communicate.
"In the heat of the battle, sometimes you can't worry about coming up with something clever or some sort of code word and you just say what you have to say and get on with it," Loomis explained. "Actually, it's more fun to win that way. Because you know that they knew what you were going to do, and you beat them anyway. That's a great feeling."
Kind of like beating Bill Belichick on a Sunday afternoon.
Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."