The Unfair Advantage

By Hot Rod Jimmy


…it has been a part of motorsports since it began in the early days of Model T racing and Henry Ford’s 999 car.

It is not something that just normal racers can do. There are dumbed down ways of doing it, of course. The name of this article comes from Roger Penske, and the Late Mark Donohue and the things they did in racing. More specifically it comes from their days in the SCCA Trans-Am series where even the car manufactures cheated. Roger called it, “The Unfair Advantage.”

Smokey Yunick and Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins had exploiting the rules of racing down to a fine art when they raced. A lot of it is in the way you ask… Back in the day, Terry Cook, former editor of Hot Rod Magazine, told me a few things that the Grump had explained to him. He said when you were asking a track steward, or an NHRA tech guy, a question about something you may or may not do, you needed to word the question where the only way it could be answered would be “YES.” Smokey explained that he never broke a rule, or intentionally broke a rule. He liked to exploit the grey areas of the rules.

Smokey Yunick in front of his garage

In the history of pro/stock racing, NHRA started out as a very popular sport. The concept was to take the racers that were basically professional Super Stock racers and turn them loose in a class with fewer rules and head up starts. Early on, it seemed the class was fairly even. Jenkins won the Winternationals, and then the Gatornationals bang, and then another bang. Chevrolet did not see another win that year except for Mike Fons winning in Denver.

In 1971, the Mopars and the hemi showed even more that they were the things of total dominance. The late Ronnie Sox won six of the eight national events that year. NHRA decided that they had to make some changes to Pro/Stock to make it work as they envisioned it. They brought in Bill Jenkins to consult on changes. What ended up happening was the weight breaks that led to Bill Jenkin’s domination of the sport for almost two years. Weight breaks! The Hemis had to carry almost a pound more weight per cubic inch than the small blocks. This, as well, caused the entry of small blocks into the class. At the 1972 Winternationals, Jenkins showed up with small block powered Vega…the rest, as they say, is history. Was it cheating? Well, no. Was it taking advantage of things? …oh you betcha…

1972 Winternationals

One of Jenkins questions revolutionized Pro Stock. There was a statement in the rule book that the driver roll cage had to protect from 360 degrees. He asked a simple question: does that mean the bottom too? He was told that the cage was supposed to protect like a ball or sphere. The tube-chassis Chevrolet Vega was born from this.

Another great one from the Grump was the transmission spacer. He read the rules over and over again. There was no rule—at least not one that he could find. The best cheating ideas come from ideas that end up being so simple, it astounds people; even yourself. Jenkins showed up with his Camaro Pro Stocker at the NHRA Winternationals with a spacer from the scatter shield about two feet back to the transmission. This moved the weight of the transmission back to right where he wanted it. NHRA caught it though. They found in the rules that it said that the transmission needed to be attached securely to the scatter shield. So Jenkins and friends spent all night at Roger Lamb’s shop cutting up a Lenco Transmission case to make a spacer out of a transmission case. They ran the car for the weekend, did okay, did not win the race though, and went home. NHRA issued a ruling the next week that the transmission with operational gears in it had to be bolted directly to the scatter shield.

You know, there is a saying, “The reasonable man excepts the way things are and does not try and change them. The unreasonable man does not except things the way they are. Therefore, all change is dependent on the unreasonable man.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Okay, considering all the things that people like Jenkins, Dale Armstrong, Don Garlits, and a great many others have done for the search for speed, quickness and winning, I propose a question: Is it cheating, or is it innovation? To me, growing up, if a car was winning, it was a combination of a lot of things. First, and foremost, when it comes to racing, the ‘grey matter’ matters. The number of ideas that flow into building and racing are astounding. It seems with a lot of racers and racecar builders, the ability to think out of the box is a blessing and a competitive edge.

Racers’ ideas and car building travels the same timeline that everything else does. Funny car racing is a great example of this. Many things have happened over the years to change the sport and how it is looked at.

Great innovators like Dale Armstrong pushed right past it all; like with Kenny Bernstein’s Batmobile car. After that car hit the track, all bets were off on the aerodynamics of funny cars. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Kenny Bernstein, 1981

One cool thing that was not against the rules then but it is now is the creation of a wind tunnel. It has to do with creating an air vortex that sucks the car into the ground at speed. The faster you go, the more downforce it creates. It is done with the bottom of the car. It originated in Formula one racing. When using the pan on the underside of the car, it has a slight inversion to it. It causes the wind to enter like the venturi of a carburetor. As the speed increases, pressure drops and the downforce already being exerted on the car becomes magnified. In formula one, it helped the cars comer better. In drag racing, it created more downforce and increase it on the tires. As we all know, a drag car needs big time traction all the way down the track. So much power is created that these cars can spin the tires at 300+ miles an hour.

More and more aerodynamic work has created things that both help and hinder the cars. In funny cars, a lot of things are done for downforce. The angles had to change to give the car less resistance to flow. The greenhouses became narrower which helped on both ends of the spectrum. The body between the sides of the greenhouse and the edge of the car could be used for more downforce. The rear spoilers became very large. The side flow helped get more air into the “Spoiler box.” There came a time when they had too much downforce. The trend began to remove the center sections of the spoiler box.

With nostalgia funny cars, NHRA and the like wanted the cars to maintain the shape and look of the cars they represented; like you had stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the days before 1978. Many of the cars are from that time period and had to be modified to fit the 127-inch wheelbase chassis. The old funny cars had 122 inches of wheelbase. Bodies were already being changed to take care of aerodynamics from almost the beginning. Don Prudhomme’s Snake III car kind of pushed those boundaries. It was one of the first cars that had the wheel reliefs in the front to lower the body. Get the body down and it becomes a lot slicker.

Don Prudhomme’s Snake III, 1973 NHRA Supernationals

Many of the nostalgia cars have slipped in a lot of the older cheats and the like. The things that have been there for years. If you look for them, they are there. They blend in, it seems. Great paint jobs and lettering helps hide a lot of it.

Then comes the Victory Race Cars phase III 1969 Camaro body. It had a bunch of tricks. It was presented to NHRA and they approved it. It stayed approved until it showed up at the California Hot Rod Reunion and won everything but the timing lights a few years ago. It had to be changed before the March Meet. The outrage from other racers was loud enough that it got changed. Had the car lost the second round, I don’t think it would have been as big a deal as it was.

In the early days of the SCCA Trans-Am series, all kinds of things were happening as far as unfair advantage is concerned. While a lot of people might think that Smokey Yunick might have been leading the way, this was not the case. Don’t get me wrong, Smokey was in there and swinging away. It’s just that Roger Penske and Mark Donohue were well in the mix as well.

Roger Penske (second from the left), 1970s

In the early days of Trans-Am, there was a rule that 1000 special cars had to be produced in the engine/body configuration that was raced. Chevrolet and Ford both embraced this; Ford with the Boss 302, and Chevrolet with the fabled Z28. As I understand it, Chevrolet got a late start—sort of late to the dance as it were. They were not going to make the 1000 car deadline in time. So what to do… They lied to SCCA and told them that they had produced 996 Z28 versions of their 1967 Camaro. Years later Chevrolet admitted they only produced 661 of the 302 powered Z28s.

Donohue took the Camaro bodies that they had (two) to California to acid dip them. For whatever reason, they left them in the acid a bit too long. The roofs were paper thin after the process. Penske went to work at obtaining more bodies from Chevrolet but it was going to take a while.

They had to use these bodies for the race cars. They had to figure out a way to use the too thin bodied cars as they were. So, they did a couple of things. They attached the top of the roofs to the top of the roll cages. They used spray-on insulation on the inside. Then, like a big bow on top of everything to cover it up, they installed vinyl roofs. The vinyl roof was an option on the Chevrolet Z28 meaning it was legal to race. Later in the season in a rule trading deal with Roger Penske, the vinyl was removed. Makes one wonder how they did it to make it look good. Most likely they had fresh bodies to use or put whole new roofs on the cars.

Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, Trans Am One

Another thing that Penske did was reduce the number of pit stops needed throughout a race. They wanted all the time on the track to be racing, not sitting there fueling the car. What they came up with was brilliant and it was right out there in front of God and everybody. They knew that fuel was very temperature sensitive, so they developed a new fuel tank. They built a dual wall supply fuel tank with an inner tank full of fuel and an outer take filled with dry ice. This allowed them to reduce the temperature of the fuel in the tank; and in doing so, compress the fuel. The early SCCA Trans-Am series gave us so many hacks into making things work better in auto racing; it is pretty close to unreal.

Just because drag racing was a lot more of a wide-open sport did not mean that there were not things going on. Drag racing is a sport that, throughout its history, has had engine science that always bordered on the hyper side of crazy. Fuel racing is one of the best examples of all of this. It is one of the best examples of kicking the slats out and going for wall-to-wall horsepower.

Don Garlits, not known (in any way, shape, or form) as a cheater, kept some great secrets to his success on the track. Did some great innovations. Some he could keep to himself, and some he could not. The enclosed cockpit; his innovation. The mono wing concept—something he did that didn’t catch on with other racers—is still a great innovation. The stabilizer section is a great idea to keep the car straight on the top end. Other ideas that you could not see? In one of the later front engine cars…port nozzles. He set them up on the underside of the intake manifold so other racers couldn’t see them and know he had that extra row. On Swamp Rat 34…duel fuel lines that were part of the bottom of the chassis—though NHRA would not allow Big Daddy to use them in his return to the Top Fuel ranks. I like the idea and still think it could have a viable usage. The bad call to them is if the car was to crash and break apart, fuel would go everywhere. Still pretty much a stellar idea. Then again, what else would you expect from one of the greatest drag racers of all time?

Don Garlits, 1965 Dodge Dart

Nitrous has played a role as well. The cheat first showed up in NASCAR and dirt tracks. It is not easy to figure this whole one out. It is more the search for horsepower that you cannot afford to attain. Big, high dollar teams buy the best of everything. They use the best of everything. They use their funding to the max. For the little guy that is out there trying to go fast, it often results in just being on the track with no real hope of a win. When nitrous oxide came on the market, this was something kinda small. It produced a bunch of horsepower. It was pretty much self-contained. It added nitro levels of power to a poor man’s set up. And it didn’t kill parts as much as a nitro fired engine would. Running nitro is not cheap and never has been.

The first time I ever remember someone getting caught for it was at the old Ontario Motor Speedway (OMS). NASCAR had made their first venture out there. A Grand national stockcar rolled around for qualifying and checked a number that nobody ever saw this car do. They were waiting for the car to roll across the sticks to see what all this noise was about. As the driver brought the car down to a lower speed, it did not want to idle. He was having some kind of problems with the actuating system for the NOx. He had the switch under the driver’s seat. The switch had gone bad for some reason. He was slowing up, coming to the sticks and having to hold the car down. He ripped out the wiring and the juice shut off.  A tech inspector was already standing by the door to the car. It had all been noticed.

They adjusted the frame to fit the bottle set up; up close to the front. The wiring and the like was used on a control valve on the bottle. A small fuel line went from the frame rail to the supply side of the crossflow radiator, through the upper radiator hose, and on into the engine. It passed through the bottom of the intake manifold, and came out the bottom…to what? Port nozzles! It is the old adage—when something goes right, nobody sees it. When something goes wrong, the whole world is looking at you.

The drag racing version of this happened with Jerry Eckman in Pro/stock. I have only heard bits and pieces of it. I could not separate the wheat from the chaff on this. It did happen though. It is fun to look it up in the drag racing forms on the internet. Everyone has a different story.

One of the greatest crew chiefs in drag racing history used NOx on a funny car—a world championship funny car. His idea was to stop the lean out of the back two cylinders. It worked pretty much from what I understand. I suppose you could argue for days whether it was legal or not. As I see it, he used one of the fire system bottles to supply the NOx. That is pretty much frowned upon.

When this same person was running alcohol, he had a cute little deal that nobody ever found. I got this from some friends I will not name. This worked really well. So, I do it in a tribute to him. I am sure this story has floated around all over the place and tons of people know about it. He had a small supply of nitro in some kind of container. He had an actuation system for turning it on and off. Knowing the legend of this man, he would have had it hidden very well. Leaving the starting line he flipped it on, the nitro flowed into the fuel line, and completely depleted itself by the time it crossed the finish line. A great example of the term “Unfair Advantage.”

As well, there is a way to add fuel to a non-fuel car without a doubt. Most rules state you can’t add things to the fuel. But what about the oil? A crankcase is a whole bunch of windage and blow-by. Drag racing engines are set to crazy clearances as well. If you add a couple of tablespoons of Nitro to the oil, the engine sucks it up into the cylinders as a natural effect of the engine running. This one is very tricky. You have to only put in a very small amount. A killer crankcase fire might be the result. The guys who did this and got caught knew their limitations and used this successfully for years.

Now to the gospel of brother Yunick. Here is a guy close to genius level in building race cars. He had a great passion for it. He was simply one of the best. He is what I like to call a four-waller. He bounces off all the walls, then jumps outside the box. There are so many things he did. I have to say, I love every one of them. Smokey said he never cheated, just exploited the rules. I think he did a bit more than that…but who am I to say? I have looked all over the internet and read a lot of things on Smokey. Some people just write stuff and then never follow up on it. This is a short article, so I don’t have the room to do a lot of follow up—I will try though.

The man did a lot of things and they are things that people do as routine now. When he was racing at Indy, he took a Drake-Offenhauser and reversed the firing order. He decided he needed to do this for a lot of reasons. He explained, “With an engine turning clockwise, with the driver door open. If you rev the engine the door raises up. If you turn the engine counter-clockwise the door goes down. The engine will help the car stick to the track. The torque is now moving the right direction.” Pretty much everything racing on oval tracks today turns counter-clockwise.

At the NACAR race in Charlotte in, I want to say, 1967, Smoky showed up with one of the first Chevelles. A lot of people will tell you it was a 1967, but it was a 1966 Chevrolet prototype body given to him by Chevrolet. It was one of the first races that templates were used in. NASCAR measured the car; it was off. Smoky argued, and correctly, that the templates would not fit a car on the showroom floor at a Chevrolet dealer. They took the templates down to a dealership in downtown Charlotte and measured a stock Chevelle (1967) and they did not fit. NASCAR allowed the car to race. Was the car 7/8th sized like all of the people say it was? No, not at all. Was the body altered? That would be a yes, and add a ‘big time’ to that. Every place the templates should have fit the car, they would have. Smokey knew this was going to be the first time they used them. So, he made a set to build the car with. He worked on the body to get it as slick as he could. What threw everyone off was the fact it was really a 1966 car. As well as the differences it had in being a prototype body from Chevrolet.

NASCAR Virginia 500, April 23, 1967

He loved to get more fuel into the car so he would not have to pit as much. While we talked about the way Penske did this in Trans-Am; NASCAR was a lot tougher nut to crack. They have always been very strict about their rules. You most likely have heard about the basketball in the fuel tank trick. Well, he didn’t use a whole basketball. He used the Blatter from the inside of a basketball; placed it where it was attached to the bottom of the fuel take from the inside. The air valve used was a bicycle Schrader valve. It looked just like a stem to a tire sticking out the bottom of the tank. He would inflate it before getting the car teched. Then, before the race, he would deflate it. The result was a fuel tank that was bigger than everyone else. His car could stay out longer, and win the pit road game every single time.

He would use a large fuel line. Then he would run it back and forth under the car 5 times. The fuel line itself was said to hold almost five gallons of fuel. He made his roll cages where he could fill them with fuel as well.

On the back of the 1967 Camaro he used for Trans-Am racing, there was a fuel filler neck that was amazing. The whole car was amazing to me. It used the filler neck to vent the air under the car at speed creating a ground effect to pull the car to the ground and make it handle better. The car had all of the rain gutters ground off and body panels filled.

The car is owned by the Vic Edelbrock Jr. estate now. I was told if you ever had an opportunity to see the car parked next to another 1967 Camaro, you would be amazed at how much the body was reworked.

Smokey did a lot of engine work as well. He used the car to help, though. Everything was fair game to him. His first ideas for increasing the pressure of the engine compartment was using the cars gutted heater. He reversed the flow and had the heater motor pushing air into the engine compartment. And guess what? It wasn’t even close to being in the rule book.

Smokey used the pressure plate and bell housing as a basic supercharger. He measured the space between the pressure plate and the inside of the bell housing. He made six impeller blades that mounted to the pressure plate and positioned them at a slight angle just like a turbocharger. He had an opening on the bottom of the bell housing (pulling air from the low-pressure area) and an opening on the top to pressurize the engine compartment. He sealed the engine compartment somewhat and the car on the track would run engine compartment pressures of 7 to 12 PSI above atmospheric!

Smokey stomped on the Tara. He made good on the promise of speed and engineering it into the car. So many people in sports want to make it just about the human element. The engineering to these cars is a human element. If Smokey taught us anything, it is that.

Back to nostalgia nitro to wrap this tale up. We have cheating going on because the class has restrictions. I had been hearing a lot about fuel pumps and the cheating going on there. The subject is one of the main tales around the nitro fires in the pits. This kind of thing is always the case in racing.

The fact of the matter is, fuel pumps can be changed, and they can be made to flow more. It isn’t that hard to do. Nostalgia is limited in two places—well three really: air, fuel, and aerodynamics. You have to run a 21 GPM fuel pump, you have to run a 6-71 blower, and you have to maintain the selected rules of body modifications. People are doing it. They are not getting caught for the time being…but, this too, will change.

It comes down to that drag racing adage that is as true today as it ever was.

“If a little bit is good, a lot is better.”


Veteru Eamini Nitromethane

1 Comment

  • FYI, the Don Garlits car pic, is not Don Garlits next to that car!!! It’s Emery Cook the Driver. So not sure if I’m reading it wrong or major typo on your part. Just want to clarify. I know my grandfather when I see him! Would be nice to have that fixed.