Another engine goes together. Courtesy of the Smokey Yunick Collection
Trying to figure out NASCAR's rule book threw me at first. Then, after studying the rules from all sides, I realized I'd made a colossal mistake. I'd been reading the rule book to see what it said. And all along what I should have been doing was finding out what it didn't say. After I started doing that, racing became fun in a big way. Here's a particularly crude example: A rule was passed prohibiting the porting of the exhaust manifold. This was when I was racing Hudsons. Now, Hornet manifolds were cast and molded in the side of the engine and were very rough; they badly needed porting. Still, that's what the rule said. On the other hand, although the rule said, "no porting," meaning no hand grinding to alter its shape, it didn't say that a guy couldn't put a suction pipe on the exhaust manifold and draw a slurry of sand and water back and forth in it.
That's just what I did. I built a machine like a suction pump, put sand into it like a liquid, then slurred all those abrasives back and forth in the manifold until all those bumps and lumps were gone. It did a hell of an efficient job, but it wasn't porting.
Another rule called for a certain gasoline tank size-22 gallons, I think, but it didn't say how big the gas line could be. I built an anaconda-sized fuel line that held an extra 5 gallons.
There was a rule saying you could run only so wide of a wheel rim, but the rule didn't say what the outside diameter had to be. So, in 1955, Herb Thomas and I took a Chevrolet to Darlington, put some 26-inch-tall tires on 16-inch legal rims, and won another Southern 500.
There was also a rule stating you had to use a standard, foot-and-a-half-diameter flywheel. On the damn Hudson, one of those buggers could weigh close to 40 pounds. By lightening it, you increased the speed coming off the corners. Because you weren't allowed to alter the flywheel's basic shape, I didn't. But I did remove the ring gear and radially drill a bunch of 31/48-inch holes 8 inches deep into the flywheel. Then I reinstalled the ring gear, now made out of aluminum
What I remember about the early racing was the competition. There was so much of it-so man
All the stuff I've mentioned so far were things you'd learn in the third grade. It was when you got up to the seventh grade that things became more advanced. For instance, there was a rule saying you couldn't alter the bore and stroke. But those Hudsons had a bad connecting-rod angle and something had to be done. So I left the bore and stroke alone and instead moved the crankshaft. Nobody said you couldn't. Similarly, a rule said you couldn't improve the weight distribution and handling by moving the engine back in the frame. But the rule didn't say you couldn't move the body forward. I would move it 3 inches.
Another rule insisted that the engine had to be centered left to right in the chassis, although the rule didn't specify where the wheels had to be located. So I shifted the weight bias to the left side of the car, lengthening up the A-frames on the right side and shortening them on the left. Or sometimes I'd just move the brackets over and keep the same lengths. Those "gray areas" of the rules were what I liked best. They didn't say you could do something, but they didn't say you couldn't either.
In that spirit, I used to hang a reserve oil reservoir under the dashboard that the driver-Herb Thomas, Paul Goldsmith, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, whoever-could get to. Whenever he felt the oil pressure fluctuating, he'd give it a lick and dump a little more oil into the engine. Sometimes I pressurized the cooling system the same way. Being secretive and often working alone, I did things nobody ever knew about. No rule said that an engine had to rotate in a certain direction, so I'd reverse the rotation and have all the torque loading on the left side of the car. Really, all I had to do was make up different cams, then turn the rear end upside down and reweld the spring perches. Not even my own drivers ever knew about that one.
Photo by Don Hunter
Times change and you have to change with them. I raced with NASCAR through the '40s, '50s, '60s, and into the '70s. In the '60s and '70s, as the circuit switched to the superspeedways and speeds rose like hell, all of a sudden it wasn't just the engine that required attention. It was the bodywork, too. Still, it was the same old deal. Live by what the rule book doesn't say instead of what it does say.
One rule said you had to have a stock hood, fenders, and so forth, but no rule said you couldn't drop the nose down. No rule stopped you from taking 5 pounds of body filler to build up a lip on the rear of the roof to simulate an airfoil and direct the air straight out the back, without sucking loose the rear window or raising the car's rear end off the ground. Another rule said you had to have a stock windshield. But it didn't say you had to have a stock roof or that the windshield had to be at the stock angle. Lots of times, after a rollover, you'd do roof bodywork and maybe you couldn't be completely accurate and happened to tip the windshield back an inch. Only a really ornery technical inspector wouldn't agree to call that an honest mistake.
One rule said you had to run a stock floorpan in a stock position-no belly pans. I used to spend weeks cleaning up a car's underside. Using more body filler, I blended the supports, cross ribs, and everything else that would catch the wind. Then I'd sink the rear end up into the chassis to get it out of the airstream and match the gas tank to the rear bumper. Afterward, I'd paint and wax it just like the rest of the car. That was the closest thing to having a stock floorpan and a belly pan you can imagine.
All along, NASCAR could have gotten me to "behave" by writing rules without ambiguities because I refused to cheat. There was no craft or fun in that. Whenever a rule appeared outlawing something, I instantly gave it up. I gave up some advantages because of that. For instance, to reduce the volume and get more fuel into the car, I used to chill my gasoline to near-freezing temperatures. As a result, I could sometimes get by with one less pit stop than everybody else. But once a rule turned up saying, "no freezing of fuel," that was the end of my doing it.