NASCAR inspectors aim to keep competition even, safe

As long as NASCAR has been in existence, so have competitors looking to sneak an advantage into or onto their car without the sport's officials catching them. Think of Buford T. Justice chasing 43 Bandits at once. Sometimes, though, as evidenced by substantial penalties meted out this season to Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Buford's hot pursuit pays off.

During technical inspection (which happens several times during a race weekend), NASCAR officials are basically looking for any performance modification to the engine, chassis, suspension or body work that gives a competitor an unfair advantage.

Officials concentrate on engines, making sure they are the correct size in cubic inches and do not have any illegal parts such as lighter weight alloy cranks, pistons, valves, etc. They are very specific on what parts are allowed and what they can be made from. They take fuel samples throughout the weekend to make sure teams are not enhancing the fuel that is provided to them at the track by NASCAR. The engines of the winner and selected other cars are totally torn down post-race to make sure they conform to the rules. Fuel additives and injection systems for substances such as nitrous oxide (which increases a car's horsepower in short bursts) are also something they are looking to find.

Fuel tanks are regulated as to their size and how much fuel they can hold. Even so, teams figured out a way to get more fuel in their cars. One team once used more than 1,000 feet of fuel line, coiled up along the frame rail on the side of the car, to get an extra five to six miles per tank. Now NASCAR regulates how much fuel line is allowed.

The car body has to fit all templates that NASCAR uses to make sure the teams are not getting an aerodynamic advantage, especially at the bigger tracks. Believe it or not, teams came up with a way to get through inspection with a device that would alter the car's aero during the race. The new Car of Tomorrow gives teams much less room to play with regarding aerodynamics. Also, NASCAR has toughened up in penalizing teams. They used to let some things slide with the instruction that the particular item they had found was not to be brought back ever again. Now, drivers are fined precious points and crew chiefs are suspended for several races.

Tires are the most critical component of the car, and teams have found many ways to alter them to gain an advantage. They used to soak them to make them softer and produce more grip. Now NASCAR mandates that all tires are leased at the race track and must be returned to Goodyear before the teams leave the track. Each tire carries a specific serial number that NASCAR monitors the entire weekend.

Shocks and springs are highly regulated as well. NASCAR issues springs at some tracks for safety reasons. Teams used soft springs to get the rear end of the car to squat during qualifying. This proved to be dangerous, however, as cars would bottom out on the track, so NASCAR again modified the rules.

NASCAR is also able to monitor the cars somewhat with onboard telemetry. Officials will watch for indications that the car might have traction control systems on board that might limit tire slippage coming off corners at smaller tracks. They'll watch RPMs to make sure the car is geared within the allowed ratios. If one car is significantly different than the others it is given additional inspection to try and find out why.

In the old days, comparatively speaking inspectors were backyard mechanics. Today, many of them are engineers who know exactly what to look for and where. But then again, the teams have engineers in their employ, which takes the cat and mouse game to a new level.

The bottom line is NASCAR reserves the right to confiscate any part or even an entire car for complete study at their research center or at selected other expert organizations for testing of parts and components.

Buford T. Justice (the T is for Tech) has come along way, for sure.