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I never learned to love stock car racing. But I do love the cheating. Who wouldn't? There's never been a better set of rule-benders than the guys in NASCAR's race shops – when it comes to mechanical deception, they are Leonardo Da Vinci and Sun Tzu rolled into one, with a touch of Machiavelli thrown in.

If you want to make a car magically weigh 300 pounds more on the scales than it actually does, or make a 500-cubic-inch engine measure out at 358, these are the people to talk to. And the greatest cheaters of them all were the car makers of NASCAR's golden age, a rough-hewn but brilliant collection of moonshine runners, dirt-patch farmers, Second World War pilots and shade tree mechanics.

The cheating began with NASCAR's first official race, back in 1949 – the winner was disqualified when a tear-down revealed illegal rear springs. Evading the rules soon developed into an art form, with speed-enhancing modifications that became ever-harder to detect.

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By the 1960s, NASCAR builders like Smokey Yunick had come up with ingenious alterations like lightweight wooden roll bars painted to look like steel, frozen springs that dropped the car below legal height as they warmed up, and gas tanks with inflated basketballs hidden inside them. (When the tech inspectors filled the tank to check its capacity, everything looked perfect – then the crew deflated the ball, allowing the tank to hold extra fuel.)

Illegal mass reduction was virtually standard procedure. To meet minimum weight requirements, builders made helmets and radios out of solid lead, and left them in the car when it went onto the scales. Some teams filled their cars' frame rails with shotgun pellets that could be dumped during the race through a secret hatch. Others used liquid mercury that drained out through hidden ports that the driver could open with a wire.

It's generally agreed that NASCAR cheating reached its high-water mark (or low water mark, depending on your view) in 1966, when Yunick built a Chevelle that looked exactly like one off the production line, but was actually one-eighth smaller, reducing aerodynamic drag and making the car dramatically faster.

That same year, the legendary Junior Johnson showed up with a Ford Galaxy that became known as the Yellow Banana, due to both its colour and its deceptively revamped body – Johnson had cut the car apart and rebuilt it with sleeker angles to reduce drag.

The Banana and the mini-Chevelle soon led to the use of body templates that were dropped over every car before a race to ensure that it was the same size and shape as the original. But the tech inspectors found themselves in a losing arms race against some of the best, most determined cheaters ever born. Instead of obvious body modifications, builders installed windows that subtly shifted at speed, and panels so subtly reshaped that the differences were nearly impossible to spot.

After his basketball in the gas tank trick was uncovered, Yunick came up with an ingenious new way to carry extra fuel – a coiled, sewer-pipe-sized fuel line that could hold five gallons all on its own. Junior Johnson created a spark plug with a tiny slot cut in it that made his engine read smaller than it's actual size when air was pumped into the cylinders to measure their displacement.

Then came the infamous fake restrictor plates. NASCAR gave every team a metal plate with a standard-sized circular hole in it. The plate was installed on the bottom of the carburetor, and restricted air flow into the engine, so everyone's car would produce the same amount of power. Then someone created a plate made of thin cardboard and covered with silver foil from a cigarette package. The plate looked fine when inspectors peered into the carburetor, but when the engine was fired up, it got sucked into the engine and blown out the tailpipe.

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I started learning about NASCAR cheating back in the 1960s, when Yunick wrote a column in Popular Science magazine called "Ask Smokey." As a young gearhead, I was deeply impressed by Yunick's combination of practical knowledge and technical vision. The skills that made him such a brilliant cheater also made him a legendary problem solver and inventor – among Yunick's creations was a Pontiac Fiero with an "adiabatic" engine that used thermal energy transfer to achieve 51 miles per gallon back in 1983 (an incredible figure for those days).

Engineers like Yunick made the cars the stars. Which raises the great question of racing: is the competition supposed to be a test of the drivers, or the cars? Like many gear-intensive sports, the wrong equipment can relegate even the best driver to last place. In the early days of NASCAR, when the cars were based on the ones that customers actually bought in the showroom, racing involved powerful brand loyalties. Fans rooted for Ford, Chevrolet or Chrysler, and a checkered flag meant an instant bump in sales – the slogan "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" really meant something in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

The modern era has downplayed the importance of car brands – NASCAR's new Car of the Future design and its strict body-shape rules mean that every car on the grid is nearly identical, distinguished largely by its graphic design and, of course, its driver. Back in the day, Junior Johnson and Richard Petty drove themselves to the track, but current NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon are wealthy superstars who crisscross the United States on private jets, then shuttle to the track in turbine-powered helicopters.

The emphasis on the drivers has shifted the sports' centre of gravity. Everyone knows the drivers, but no car has the iconic status of Richard Petty's No. 43 Dodge Chargers (painted in Petty Blue) or the No. 3 Monte Carlo driven by Dale (The Intimidator) Earnhardt.

Like most enterprises, modern NASCAR is more tightly controlled and regulated than it once was. The NASCAR inspection centre looks like a space shuttle manufacturing shop, and it's harder to cheat. But there's still some cheating going on. Star driver Jimmie Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus has been fined numerous times for infractions that include illegal shock absorbers, lowered roofs and tweaked fender shapes. But it's not like the old days, when builders like Yunick and Johnson bent the rules like rubber.

I flew down to North Carolina last year and spent a day with Johnson in his race shop and came away deeply impressed by his force of personality, intelligence and deceptive humility. Johnson represents old-school NASCAR at its best: as a teenager, he ran moonshine for his father in souped-up Fords that looked stock from the outside, but had oversized motors and beefed-up suspension. He went on to become a NASCAR legend and the protagonist of The Last American Hero, a story by Tom Wolfe that profiled Johnson and detailed his long, fast run from the law.

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I don't think it's a coincidence that America's race to the moon and rise to world pre-eminence coincided with NASCAR's golden age of cheating. Men like Johnson and Yunick understood machinery and how to improve it. And they overcame a social system that would have relegated them to its lowest rungs – they rose to wealth and prominence through sheer inventiveness and force of personality.

And through cheating, of course. But theirs was the only kind I like – the kind that makes things better.

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