Cheating Scandal Mars NASCAR's New Season

Days ahead of the Daytona 500 that begins the 2007 season, NASCAR is embroiled in its biggest-ever cheating scandal. Five racing teams have been busted for infractions small and large, including the team of two-time Daytona winner Michael Waltrip. Waltrip's crew chief and team director were suspended after an additive said to be similar to jet fuel was found in an inspection.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Veteran stock car driver Michael Waltrip apologized today for his team's role in a cheating scandal that's rocking NASCAR. Yesterday, NASCAR hit Waltrip's Toyota team with unprecedented penalties for rules violations. And the team is not alone. Four other teams were sanctioned this week, ahead of Sunday's season opening Daytona 500. Today, Waltrip qualified for that race.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: Scandal week at Daytona begin when four racing teams were penalized essentially for improper aerodynamic adjustments to their cars. Then came the moment that knocked NASCAR back on its heels. An inspector reached in to Michael Waltrip's car engine, a moment described by NASCAR official Robin Pemberton.

Mr. ROBIN PEMBERTON (Official, NASCAR): The inspector discovered a substance on the floor or inside the intake manifold that was not like anything that he has seen in any of his inspections of any other race car.

GOLDMAN: Pemberton wouldn't say what the substance was, but a source told the Associated Press it was an additive with properties similar to jet fuel. Tampering with fuel and a sock car's engine are taboo. NASCAR responded accordingly, suspending indefinitely the team director and the crew chief, who also was fined a record $100,000.

Waltrip was docked 100 championship points. The headlines screams scandal, but it was a bit of the same old, same old in a sport where the saying goes if you're not cheating, you're not trying. David Poole, a veteran NASCAR beat writer for the Charlotte Observer, says many drivers and their teams have made a habit of looking for loopholes in the NASCAR rulebook.

Mr. DAVID POOLE (Charlotte Observer): This is what I can't do. What can I do that does not mentioned here? It would be like you're eight-year-old. If you tell them, you know, don't touch that cookie, well, then your eight year olds is going to figure how you he eat the cookie without touching it.

GOLDMAN: But this week, teams have gone too far if the penalties are an indication. Waltrip and the four other drivers who lost points represent the first time NASCAR has taken away points before the season started. Last year, NASCAR threatened to ramp up punishment for cheating. Now, it is cracking down, says Poole, after a second straight Daytona scandal. Last year, eventual winner Jimmy Johnson had his crew chief kicked out.

Mr. POOLE: So we're writing about cheating for two years in a row still about the Daytona 500. NASCAR is asking ourselves that we won't necessarily want that, I believe.

GOLDMAN: Today, a remorseful Michael Waltrip met with reporters and said he was very disappointed and sad.

Mr. MICHAEL WALTRIP (NASCAR): I don't think we'll ever put this behind us, but we'll certainly try to - try to do better in the future.

GOLDMAN: Waltrip said he was so embarrassed, he almost pulled out of Daytona altogether, which he didn't, nor did NASCAR kick him out. That some say is the best way to deter future cheating. But some say that will never happened in a sport where drivers are walking and willing billboards for sponsors, who pour millions in the race teams and keep NASCAR thriving.

That critical relationship was spoofed in the movie "Talladega Nights," in a pre-meal prayer delivered by fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, played by actor Will Ferrell.

(Soundbite of movie, "Talladega Nights")

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): (As Ricky Bobby) Also due to a binding endorsement contractthat stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious. And it cools you off on hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade's release of mystic mountain blueberry. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.

GOLDMAN: Michael Waltrip is driving for Toyota, which is entering its first season in NASCAR's elite Nextel Cup Circuit. A Toyota spokesman said despite the difficult beginning, the company has no thoughts of discontinuing its association with Waltrip.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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