When racers dominate, so do rumors and unfounded allegations
By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com
Fresh off his second dominating victory in the first three races of the 2004 POWERade Drag Racing Series, points leader Greg Anderson entered Gainesville Raceway's pressroom looking like a man who had just completed a marathon. He plopped down in a chair as the media surrounded him and wearily opened with, "Maybe now, just maybe, the rumors will stop."
It's probably an innate human trait dictating that if someone is beating us, and beating us badly, they must have an unfair advantage. For those who have dominated the sport from Don Prudhomme in the mid-1970s to Bob Glidden in the mid-1980s, John Force in the mid-1990s and now Anderson it's the cross they bear for their dominance. Instead of jubilation and self-satisfaction, they face poor sports and rumor-mongers who seem to revel in staining their hard work with the suspicion of cheating.
"If you're not willing to say someone might be smarter than you or working harder than you then the next conclusion you come to is that they must be cheating," said Jim Yates, a two-time NHRA champion who dealt with the same issues in his championship years of 1996 and '97. "Certainly the competition isn't smarter. We've been out here longer and been racing longer, so they can't be better than us, right? We didn't get stupid, so they must be cheating. It's human nature; the darker side."
Do something about it
But, as any frontrunner who's been the target of these behind-the-back allegations will quickly retort, the NHRA Rulebook allows for suspicious racers to file a formal complaint against anyone they think is cheating. The complainant must put up $1,000 to start the investigation and they need to direct the tech department as to which rule is being violated. If a rules violation is found, the whistleblower gets their money back. If no rules were broken, the money goes to the accused driver, minus a small fee to the NHRA. So far, no one has filed a grievance this season.
Coughlin, whose 2002 title chase was clouded by occasional murmurs of indiscretions, used the protest rule to prove a point to his naysayers. "I went up to one driver and said I'd put the money up myself for a protest just to shut them up. I also said they could pay me back double when they didn't find anything. He didn't take me up on the offer."
Six-time NHRA champion Warren Johnson, Pro Stock's all-time leader in national event wins with 92, likes the direct approach as well.
"If I think someone is doing something immoral, I'll point it out to them," Johnson said. "I like to address the person directly. I know I get credited with saying a lot of things I never say, especially lately. All I can say to that is if someone hears something I supposedly said then they should come and ask me about it before they go after me in the media. I'll tell them straight. They might not want to hear everything I have to say, but I won't lie.
"As far as people accusing me over the years, well, it might have happened behind my back. But, so far, no one has ever had the [guts] to say anything to my face."
Fade to gray
"What if someone is using an alloy that we've never heard of before?" Bruce Allen said as he waited in the staging lanes of the Phoenix event. "It happened in NASCAR. There's no reason to think it couldn't happen here. I'm not accusing any one, I'm just saying that something could happen where there really isn't a rule that covers it."
"It comes down to ethics and violating the spirit of sportsmanship," Johnson countered. "There are lots of gray areas that aren't addressed. If you exploit those areas are you being creative or are you cheating? I think a person has to look within and make that decision. In your gut, you know if you're exploiting something unfairly."
The constant overshadowing specter of cheating, which actually shifted away from its usual home in Pro Stock to other classes during 2001 and 2002 when parity ruled Pro Stock, returned in 2003 with Anderson's dominance of the class. Overall, Anderson won a record 67 elimination rounds, 12 races in 15 final-round showings, 14 Low Qualifier awards, and set 21 individual track records, including the national E.T. and top speed mark last season.
"We did have a meeting halfway through the season when people started talking and the basic gist of it was 'Enough is enough.' Protest or shut up," Coughlin said. "If you think something illegal is happening, go through the process and let the system work. It doesn't help anyone to take it to the media or to maliciously spread rumors. Of course, it didn't stop anything."
Is it worth it?
"I know I could cheat and get away with it," Johnson said. "The thing is that it's not worth it for me because I rely on sponsorship money to run. I'm not rich and I don't have access to somebody else's money. Plus, I'm a moral and ethical person and it wouldn't sit right with me to win even one round by cheating. I wouldn't risk my reputation or the reputations of the numerous companies that have stuck with me since 1975 when I turned professional."
"It's too big of a cloud to have following you around," agreed Coughlin. "There are a lot of things at stake out here. For us, our family business and name and our personal reputations are on the line. It's just not worth taking a chance. It would knock the fun out of it anyway."
Is it happening?
"I don't think Greg's cheating, no chance," Yates said. "It's obvious to me what's happening. He's come from out of nowhere and found a lot of success in a short amount of time. There's could be a certain feeling that he isn't deserving of his success.
"Greg's gotten smart. He spent 11 years over there at W.J.'s and I'm guessing he saw some things. I'm not a W.J. fan by any means, but you can't change that fact. He became the No. 1 engine builder in a year, basically. I would think he probably used some of the stuff he learned at Warren's shop.
"His braintrust is strong. He brought in a couple of NASCAR guys who just happen to love drag racing and they obviously brought a fresh look to the engine program."
Coughlin agreed. "I don't think Greg's cheating," he said. "That's a mature team over there. They've been around long enough to know the black mark they'd leave on the class if there were any indiscretions. I don't think he'd risk it. I know Greg and it's just not like him to do something like that. He's not wired that way."
While not specifically pointing at Anderson's program, 28-year veteran Johnson says he's seen this all before several times in the past.
"Teams come in and spend four or five million dollars and pacify their egos for awhile and then they're gone, poof, just like that," he said. "There are teams that have a lot more resources than others. They go out and buy up a lot of talent because they can't do anything on their own.
"If you have enough money you can scour the world to find the best lug nut specialist of all time. Then you'll get out here and know for sure that no one is putting on their lug nuts better than you. It's like that for every part of the car. That's how people buy a performance advantage.
"Two years ago Ron Krisher was running two or three mph faster than anyone, basically out of nowhere. People said we should just pack up and go home. Now the guy can't even qualify. I'm patient. I'll watch these guys come and go."
Dealing with it
"You have to just embrace it because it's not going away," Yates said. "For me personally, I loved it. They tore us down to tiny pieces 100 times. The reality is that's the way it is and you know that coming in. People filmed us, measured us, took pictures of every part of the car, whatever they could think of. We'd just laugh because we knew we weren't cheating.
"The thing is out here that ego is a big part of the equation. Our every move is scrutinized by millions of people. When I don't run well I get a ton of e-mails asking why. And lately they've all asked why Greg is running so well? I hear it a lot and I'm sure the other guys do too. That's where the problems start.
"Still, if you're clean, you're clean. The only way I could see how rumors would bother someone is if they were true."
An avid sportsman who has grown up in drag racing but is passionate about a number of professional sports, Coughlin says accusations of cheating are, in some bizarre way, a compliment.
"First of all you have to realize that drag racing doesn't hold a monopoly on this," he said. "Top teams in all kinds of sports are under the gun. For us, we actually tend to feel fortunate when it reaches that level. I guess you could say we work hard to be disliked. (laughing.)
"Maybe it's not the most opportune thing to have to deal with but we've always found a way to get past it. I learned year's ago to not take it personally."
"This is one of the things that makes motorsports interesting," Johnson said. "You see teams come from out of nowhere and just dominate for a few years. Then they're gone. I've seen it happen so many times in NHRA, NASCAR, Formula 1, you name it. It's been happening for 100 years since they invented cars. It probably happened before that with horses.
"If you can't prove cheating then don't say a damn thing. Personally, I think it's humorous to see how torn up some people get. Just shut up, quit crying, and go to work."
Coughlin concluded with some words of advice for anyone concerned about the accusations of cheating. "I hate to think anyone out here lets people get to them but if it bothers them that much then I have an easy solution that will stop all that in its tracks quit running so well."
This story is copyright 2004 National Hot Rod Association. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted in any form without the express written permission of NHRA.com.
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