NASCAR watchdog knows turf Countdown to Daytona


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Gas tanks are supposed to be in the back of cars, not in the glove compartment. Buckshot is supposed to be in hunting guns, not in the hollow tubing inside a stock car.

Tell that to NASCAR's new technical director, Gary Nelson, the former crew chief who used to one-up his fellow competitors all the time.

"If you were going to rob a bank, would you hire a priest or a crook?" asked driver Davey Allison. "I think NASCAR got the right man."

Maybe it is NASCAR's latest plan to get rich quick. Prior to Sunday's pole qualifying, Nelson handed out fines totaling $3,250. On the bad boy list: Rick Mast, Harry Gant, Jimmy Spencer, Jimmy Means, A.J. Foyt and Stanly Smith, who was placed on probation when eight feet of extra fuel line was found in his car.

"He has flat put us back to work," said Allison's crew chief Larry McReynolds. "Every night I left the shop this winter, I thought he was our worst nightmare. But the more I've thought about it, I've become convinced that having Gary in there will turn out to be a blessing. No one is going to be able to get anything past him, and that should make racing better."

Nelson, 38, howls with laughter when he hears the remarks.

"Everyone in this sport is under such intense pressure," he said. "I encourage good humor like that.And, believe me, I've heard it all."

Simon Templar, better known as The Saint, has nothing on Gary Nelson. About five years ago, Nelson actually told the world his tricks.

In an article in Winston Cup Scene magazine, he related how he concealed 75 pounds of buckshot in the frame of Darrell Waltrip's car to get an advantage. When a screw was turned on the pace lap, the buckshot would begin dropping out in a steady stream around the track, thus lightening the car for the race. Waltrip won five of the six races in which the buckshot was used.

Nelson also wrote about how the DiGard team had a hidden gas tank in the glove box in 1981, though he says he had nothing to do with it. Nelson did, however, admit to circumventing the rules in 1982.

NASCAR had said the fuel cell had to measure nine inches tall, 33 inches wide and 17 inches long.

"At the time we were using a rubber bladder inside the fuel cell that was an inch larger than the cell we were running," said Nelson. "What it did was wrinkle all up and not hold near the gas you were allowed. None of the other teams checked it. But I did. The tank was supposed to hold 22 gallons, but because of the wrinkled bladder it would only take 19."

Nelson got the dimensions and made a new fuel cell. "It fit their dimensions, but there were no wrinkles or buckles inside. The bladder fit perfectly. When we went to Daytona, our car held 22 gallons. Everyone else's held 19, maybe 19 1/2 ."

So when Bobby Allison won the Daytona 500 in 1982 in Nelson's

Buick, the car ran out of gas in victory lane. When Geoff Bodine won in Nelson's car in 1986, it ran out of gas on the way to victory lane.

Nelson is also the man who simplified the changing of engines during competition, setting the world record at 11 minutes, 36 seconds.

"I always enjoyed being on the leading edge," said Nelson. "OK, I've done most of the stuff. But I never got caught. I never had to pay a fine. While everyone else was working the latest trend, I was working on something else. When NASCAR was looking at the front end, I was working on the back."

But Nelson was starting to get bored with being a crew chief. Near the end of last season, he told Felix Sabates, who owns the Kyle Petty car, that he wouldn't be back. Shortly thereafter, NASCAR called.

Now Nelson, who says he always looked at racing like a tax adviser looking for loopholes, is busy making sure no one else is able to find any.

"I'm making everything as black and white as I can," said Nelson. "I've taken new cars off showroom floors and brought them to the track. We have a template, a metal pattern, of each to fit our race cars. They're supposed to be 'stock cars.' If anyone has a problem seeing how their cars should look, we take them to the showroom car for a look.

"My goal is to create a level playing field on which everyone can compete fairly," Nelson said. "If I can do that, I'll be happy."

Plus he is going to enjoy watching the competitors watch him.

"If when I'm checking these cars, I find someone has done something innovative, I'll admire it," he said. "And then I'll tell them to cut it out."

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