Too Soon, Junior! 1970s NASCAR’s Nitrous Problem (If You Ain’t Cheatin’, You Ain’t Tryin’, Part 3)

As long as competitions have had a rulebook, competitors have tried to find a way around it. Sure, all motorsports are like this, but it’s only NASCAR that turned it into a catchphrase.

As we enter the Gen-7 era, however, NASCAR’s emphasis on parity and cost control has taken the design of the cars out of teams’ hands. The future of the sport will see a lot less patience for the kind of “innovation” that used to be dismissed with a wink and a “boys, have at it.” This series is my chance to pour one out for what we’ve lost. Join me as I investigate the most innovative, ingenious, and downright illegal designs in NASCAR history. After all, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.

Nitrous oxide was first isolated in 1794 by Thomas Beddoes and steam engine pioneer James Watt for medicinal purposes, but before the end of the 18th century it was being used recreationally at “laughing gas parties” by the British aristocracy. For its anesthetic uses, it is on the WHO’s List of Essential Medicines, and was first mass-produced in liquid form by Edgar Alan Poe’s cousin George. So what the heck does this have to do with NASCAR? 

Well, the chemical compound nitrous oxide (N20) consists of two atoms of nitrogen and one of oxygen. While it isn’t flammable at atmospheric pressure, under high temperatures and pressures it breaks down into nitrogen gas (N2) and oxygen gas, (O2) at a rate of 36.33 percent oxygen, compared to atmospheric air’s oxygen concentration of 21 percent.

Normal combustion engines mix fuel vapor with atmospheric oxygen to achieve combustion. Using nitrous oxide instead allows for more efficient combustion due to its higher oxygen content, and therefore the engine produces more power. On a big naturally-aspirated V8 like the kind used in ‘70s stock cars, nitrous can add about 100-150 horsepower in short bursts. The problem, though, is that nitrous oxide, like all other fuel additives, is illegal in NASCAR and always has been. 

(As if that ever stopped anyone).

Because nitrous bottles get used up quickly, and don’t magically recharge every time you cross the finish line, (sorry to break it to you, Midnight Club 3 fans) NASCAR teams could only take advantage of that 100-horsepower boost for short distances – for example, in qualifying. Which is why the front row of the 1976 Daytona 500 looked a little bit. . . odd.

To be fair, NASCAR in the Malaise years of the mid-1970s generally looked a little odd. The automakers had all pulled factory support after the oil crisis of ‘73, and the muscle-car era was over, forcing stock-car teams to race “personal luxury coupes.” Petty Enterprises ran ‘74 Chargers until the end of 1977, because Chrysler didn’t make any better cars.

After NASCAR mandated a maximum engine capacity of 358ci regardless of manufacturer in 1976, qualifying speeds were expected to be lower come Speedweeks. It came as a bit of a surprise to spectators when Dave Marcis ran laps around the 185.5-mph mark. It was an even greater surprise when both AJ Foyt and Darrell Waltrip eclipsed that. By the end of the day, Foyt sat at the top of the timing sheet with an average lap speed over 187 mph. All three drivers had set lap times roughly a second faster than they had practiced, and there was a noticeable gap between the three of them and fourth place Ramo Stott.

Something was fishy, and NASCAR decided to investigate. They brought the Foyt, Waltrip, and Marcis cars in for a further post-qualifying inspection, and officials poked over the cars for seven hours, searching them inch by inch for the hidden nitrous bottles they knew must be there.

Officials found the nitrous in Foyt’s Hoss Ellington Chevy almost immediately, but it took them a lot longer to figure out where Waltrip’s DiGard Racing crew chief Mario Rossi had hidden the canister. The DiGard crew reportedly had a hard time keeping in their laughter as officials hung on to the wedge bar that had been converted for nitrous storage. After Bill France threatened to hack the Monte Carlo into pieces until he found something, Rossi gave in, concerned someone would blow themselves up if they accidentally hacked into the pressurized canister. Waltrip later said, “If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot. If you do it and don’t get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope. Put me where I belong.”

Independent driver Ed Negre alleged that the rest of the top guys, including Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Cale Yarborough, had concocted a little plan to draw NASCAR’s attention to the nitrous users. 

They held back in qualifying, alleging “fouled plugs,” and intentionally created a gap on the timing sheets wide enough that NASCAR would have to address the growing nitrous problem. In so doing, they let a couple of independents sneak through, and accidentally created the most obscure front row in the history of the Great American Race. After Foyt, Waltrip, and Marcis had their times “disallowed” for “technical infringements” – NASCAR’s rulebook made no mention of cheating or disqualification – independent drivers Ramo Stott and Terry Ryan led the field to green in the 1976 Daytona 500, a race that would be better known for its final-lap crash between Petty and Pearson.

Although the hidden nitrous systems were Foyt and Waltrip’s downfall, Dave Marcis’ time was technically disallowed due to a “movable aerodynamic device on the radiator,” a statement that gave rise to one of my favorite tall tales of NASCAR cheating.

Now, I have not been able to confirm this story in any of my research, nor do I remember when I first heard it. With a solid half-hour of research, I wasn’t even able to track down the forum, podcast, or YouTube video where I first heard it. Regardless, I think it’s such a great story that I have to share. 

Sometime in the late 1970s, a car builder wanted to put a nitrous system on his stock car. Unfortunately, NASCAR’s inspection had gotten better. They were used to looking for signs of nitrous delivery systems, and it would be impossible to hook up all the wires and injectors and everything after inspection, because someone would see. What this car builder decided to do was to imbed the nitrous bottle in the front bumper of the car, and have it release the gas straight up into the air. With the car traveling at full speed, the nitrous would be sucked into the engine’s normal air intake, and would make its way into the cylinders the old-fashioned way, almost completely undetectable – that is, unless the driver got in a crash, and a massive explosion gave away the bottle’s location.

Now, my best guess is that this story arose from the “movable aerodynamic device” on Dave Marcis’ Dodge, which was just a radiator cover, and was later combined with the story of Rusty Glidden’s hood-scoop-mounted nitrous system in NHRA Pro Stock in the late ‘90s. 

Regardless, tall tales like the “7/8ths-scale” Chevelle and the bumper-mounted nitrous bottle stand the test of time on their own. We love to hear about this kind of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking from the days when racing was about pushing the boundaries of what was technologically possible, rather than being laser-focused on competition among drivers. The field is certainly closer now, and the playing field is much more even. I would never suggest going back to the time when five drivers in three years were penalized for hidden nitrous bottles, and even more than that have since admitted to using them.

Regardless, stories of wily tricksters in search of glory, outsmarting the authorities at every turn are a part of what draw us to NASCAR. Events like the 1976 nitrous scandal, as much as NASCAR would hate to admit it, are a part of the soul of the sport that we love. 

Or at least, they are to me. Put me where I belong.

If you have any more information about the story of the nitrous bumper, if you know it’s true or you can prove it’s false, please let me know. I’d love to write a follow-up to this column with more information.

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4 here.

Featured image sourced from Midwest Racing Archives

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

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