We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.
Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.
Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.
Five biggest scandals
As October looms, so do the final six rankings of our NASCAR 75th anniversary celebration top five all-time greatest lists. A few weeks back we listed the greatest cheaters, and the immediate response on social media was, “Yeah, but what about that time that one guy did that thing that was so scandalous?!” For those who wondered, “Why TH isn’t McGee responding to me?” it’s because I knew this week’s list was coming.
From rule benders to rule breakers to people who seemed to have forgotten there were any rules at all, it’s time to grab a list of policies you’re totally going to ignore, a redacted court document and a suspended NASCAR license as we present our top five all-time biggest NASCAR scandals.
Honorable mention: NASCAR’s D.B. Cooper
On May 2, 1982, a man identified as L.W. Wright competed at the Talladega Superspeedway in a Chevy Monte Carlo, starting 36th and finishing 39th despite having never run a Cup Series race before or since. As soon as his run in the Winston 500 was over, he vanished, taking the money he had received from investors, parking the race car purchased from Sterling and Coo Coo Marlin, and then disappearing for 40 years, despite the efforts of authorities and lawyers to track him down.
He resurfaced one year ago, speaking with longtime NASCAR journalist Rick Houston at a secret location and still proclaiming his innocence. We broke the news here on ESPN with this May 2022 story.
5. The King’s big engine
There are only three rules that even the shadiest of racing innovators still shake their heads at: “rocket fuel” gas additives, illegal use of tires and running an engine that is larger than regulations allow. On Oct. 9, 1983, the King of Stock Car Racing found himself caught up in a royal mess that involved two of those three NASCAR no-nos.
Richard Petty earned the 198th win of his career, the latest step in his much-hyped march toward the magical 200-victory mark, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, holding off fellow Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons and Terry Labonte. But in postrace inspection, the famous No. 43 Pontiac was found to have a 381.983-cubic-inch engine, well over the allowed 358-cubic-inch limit. What’s more, during the final pit stop, the team had bolted left-side tires on the right side, also way against the rules.
After three hours of deliberation, it was determined that the win would stand, but Petty was stripped of 104 points and handed a then-record $30,000 fine. Years later, mechanic Maurice Petty, himself a Hall of Famer, confessed to it all. That night, big brother Richard (in)famously said, “We have accepted NASCAR’s penalty. I’m only the driver, and I didn’t know anything about the motor or tires.”
4. Wendell Scott’s missing trophy
On a cold Dec.1, 1963, evening at Jacksonville Speedway Park in Florida, the poor-but-proud powder blue No. 34 Chevy of Wendell Scott outlasted a field of 21 rivals, taking the checkered flag a full two laps ahead of second place Buck Baker. As was the motorsport modus operandi at the time, though, protests were filed and the hand-scored lap sheets kept by NASCAR and the individual teams were rounded up for review.
Baker was declared the winner, taking the Victory Lane photos and collecting the trophy. Later that night, NASCAR admitted a scoring error and declared Scott the rightful winner, but Baker and the trophy were long gone.
“They all knew I had won that race,” Scott said decades later. “But they didn’t want a Black man kissing that beauty queen in Victory Lane.”
That’s right, Scott was the first — and, until Bubba Wallace in 2021, the only — Black race winner in the NASCAR Cup Series. NASCAR didn’t give Scott a new trophy for years, finally righting that inexplicable wrong in 2021, 57 years after his win. Scott was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.
3. Aaron Fike’s heroin confession
NASCAR’s original drug-related scandal took place in 1988, when Tim Richmond, amid rumors that he was suffering from AIDS, was suspended for testing positive for banned substances and the sanctioning body’s very loose “We’ll test only if we have our suspicions” approach was born. That policy stood until April 2008.
What changed? Aaron Fike, a Truck Series competitor who had been arrested one year earlier for heroin possession, admitted to ESPN that he had raced with heroin in his system multiple times, even finishing in the top five the same week he was arrested. Fike’s confession forced NASCAR to overhaul its drug policy, publishing a formal list of banned substances and implementing random drug testing more in line with other major sports.
That new policy led to another giant scandal, the May 2009 suspension of driver and five-time Cup Series race winner Jeremy Mayfield, who tested positive for methamphetamines and began a yearslong series of lawsuits. For the full story behind Fike’s confession, read this ESPN The Magazine story from April 8, 2008.
We touched on this briefly a few weeks ago in our list of top five biggest cheaters, but the details of what took place on Sept. 7, 2013, at Richmond International Raceway are worth diving into. Entire chapters of books and endless hours of podcasts have been dedicated to that night, but here’s the SparkNotes version: In the final cutoff event for the 10-race Chase postseason field, driver Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing was sent a code by his crew chief Brian Pattie — “Is your arm starting to hurt? Must be hot in there.” — immediately followed by a Bowyer spin that brought out the caution flag with less than 10 laps remaining. Then, with three laps remaining, MWR GM/VP Ty Norris ordered Brian Vickers to make a green-flag pit stop.
It was all designed to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. move up in the field and make the Chase cut. It worked. For a minute. Then NASCAR cracked the MWR code.
MWR was fined a record $300,000 for manipulating the outcome of the race and the postseason, Norris was suspended; all three crew chiefs were placed on probation; and all three drivers were docked 50 points, which knocked Truex back out of the postseason field. Embarrassed sponsor NAPA cut ties with the team, putting Truex’s career in jeopardy (he recovered with Furniture Row and Joe Gibbs Racing) and setting MWR on the path that would ultimately end with its closure two years later.
1. Jimmy Hoffa vs. NASCAR
Yes, you read that right. The infamous union leader, who has inspired Hollywood movies with his questionable business practices and inspired a million conspiracy theorists searching for his final resting place, went to war with NASCAR. It didn’t go well.
It started in 1960, when driving ace Curtis Turner and entrepreneur Bruton Smith needed funding for their under-construction and already-bankrupt Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hoffa’s Teamsters union stepped up, offering the needed cash in exchange for the formation of a NASCAR drivers’ union. The Federation of Professional Athletes (FPA) was born, and Turner, along with fellow superstar Tim Flock, recruited the paddock with the promise of more prize money, a pension plan, health and death benefits, safety advancements, even scholarship funds for the children of deceased members.
NASCAR founder and president Bill France didn’t have so much of a problem with all that, but he was adamantly against something Hoffa was asking for in return, the establishment of horse track-style betting windows at speedways.
“Organized gambling would be bad for our sport,” France wrote in an open letter to the FPA. “And it would spill innocent blood on our racetrack. I will fight it to the end!”
He did, going to court vs. the Teamsters … in Florida.
“We went down there to Daytona with all these super-high-powered, high-dollar New York lawyers,” Flock recalled shortly before his death in 1998. “And those country lawyers of Bill France’s just whipped ’em. Our guys would be pouring their hearts out in the courtroom, and the judge would be sitting up there reading comic books and magazines. We never had a chance.”
Drivers bailed on the FPA, which folded in 1962, and Turner and Flock were slapped with lifetime bans. Turner returned briefly in 1965, but Flock remained on the outs until his death in 1998, finally elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014. Turner was voted in two years later.