Editor's Note: This story was first published in January 2004, prior to the last NASCAR-sanctioned races held that year at the Rockingham, N.C. speedway.
Randy Hedger inspects the front suspension of Ryan Newman’s No. 12 Dodge while Troy Snipes rolls under the racecar’s chassis, using a magnet to check bumper-to-bumper for lighter—and illegal—aluminum parts.
“We know if it’s magnetic steel, it’s got the strength we want,” says Hedger, a NASCAR official from Kannapolis, N.C. (pop. 36,910), adding that racing teams in the past have attempted to reduce car weights to gain an advantage on the track.
Before their morning job is finished, Hedger, Snipes and four dozen other NASCAR officials will examine, test, weigh, and measure 46 cars in the garage at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham (pop. 9,672). They’ll peek under hoods, inspect helmets and safety harnesses, and check tire pressures before drivers are allowed to take qualifying laps around the track.
Across the garage, Billy Berkheimer’s crew measures within a fraction of an inch the contours of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 Chevrolet. They examine each car body, making sure that it falls within acceptable measurements of the four car models—Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Dodge Intrepid, Ford Taurus, and Pontiac Grand Prix—qualified to compete in NASCAR races.
Officials have stepped up inspections in recent years to ensure the safety and fairness of the competitive, high-speed sport, in which drivers race around some of the tracks at up to 200 mph.
The rules, covering everything from engine size to maximum speed on pit road, are outlined in detail in NASCAR’s 83-page, official rule book, which contains thousands of guidelines that racing teams must follow to avoid penalties and monetary fines. Still, the teams continue to test “gray areas” in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage.
“They all try to get away with as much as possible,” says Berkheimer, a NASCAR inspector from Mooresville, N.C. (pop. 18,823). “What we try to do is maintain fairness by making sure that all of them are equal when they go out onto the racetrack.”
Drivers don’t always agree with the rules or how they’re enforced, but most respect the officials and the inspection process. They realize it’s the best way to maintain a level playing field, improve driver safety, and keep the races from slipping into chaos. “Somebody has got to be in control, whether we agree with them or disagree with them,” veteran driver Bill Elliott says.
Without uniform rules and officials to enforce them, the teams with the most money would dominate the sport, says Rich Hubbs, John Andretti’s car chief. “They really protect our future,” Hubbs says of the officials. “If there were a few cars that were hands above everyone else, then it would be boring and we wouldn’t fill the stands.”
Gentlemen, check your rule books
On race day, as fans are filling the stands, officials fan out around the track to monitor—and officiate—the race. Flagman Jimmy Howell climbs into the flag stand, scorers in the control room prepare to count the number of laps each car makes, and pace car driver Buster Auton leads the pack around the track before the green flag is waved.
Officials communicate via radio, signaling when a driver bumps another car, if a pit crew is being cited with a penalty for a pit road violation, or where there’s debris or oil on the track.
“I’ve got a piece of metal on Turn 3,” an official reports, speaking into his headset after a crash. Within minutes the object is removed so the race can resume.
When an accident occurs, technical safety supervisor Jamie DiPietro grabs a camera and takes photographs of the wrecked cars in hopes of identifying problems and preventing future injuries or mishaps.
“We can’t tell them (drivers) what to do because they have to be comfortable to be able to drive, but we can make suggestions,” says DiPietro, 38, one of two women on NASCAR’s inspection team.
Chief engine inspector Mike Butler remains in the garage area, ready to declare any car with a mechanical problem or a blown engine out of commission.
As the sport evolves, officials must stay on top of the technical changes and update NASCAR’s rule book to reflect those changes.
“The officials are the ones that take the rule book from a written application and put it into real life,” says John Darby, director of NASCAR’s Nextel Cup (formerly Winston Cup) series. “They are the ones responsible for enforcing the rules.”
In January, NASCAR launched a training program for its officials and inspectors at its research and development center in Concord, N.C. (pop. 55,977). The program is designed to train existing officials, and to recruit and train new officials as positions become available, says Joe Garone, NASCAR’s director of officiating.
The program is needed, officials say, because compared to other sports, auto racing is becoming increasingly technical. “In baseball, you have a bat, a ball, and a glove,” Darby says. “In our sport, we have a machine that has over 5,000 moving parts.”
Most NASCAR officials were involved in some aspect of the sport before they began working for the stock car racing association.
Hedger, for example, drove a racecar in upstate New York for 25 years before going to work for NASCAR in 1999; Garone worked for Bill Elliott’s racing team from 1996 to 1999; and Butler built racecar engines in his machine shop in Kirkville, N.Y., prior to inspecting them for NASCAR in 2000.
Between mid-February and mid-November, NASCAR officials spend much of their time on the road—or in the air—flying by corporate or commercial jet across the country to officiate 36 races in the Nextel Cup series.
During that time, Linda Hedger doesn’t get to see much of her husband, Randy, and son, Adam, who also works for NASCAR, unless they’re officiating a race close to home that she can attend.
Still, she’s glad her husband is doing something he enjoys. “He loves it,” Linda says, as a racecar roars out of the garage to take a qualifying lap. “His eyes light up when he talks about it.”
And while Adam, 25, and his father both are NASCAR employees, often their hectic schedules keep them apart. “Some weekends I don’t even get to see him,” says Adam, an inspector in NASCAR’s Busch series.
After the checkered flag is waved and the winning driver takes his victory lap around the track, NASCAR officials return to the garage for one final inspection. The engines, carburetors, shocks, and other key components of the winning cars are dismantled and examined to make sure they adhere to NASCAR’s rule book. Then, officials get a couple of days off before they travel to another racetrack and start the inspection process all over again.
“It’s a pretty involved process and it happens about three times a weekend,” Darby says. “It’s something that keeps everybody moving and jumping.”