By Jerry Jordan, Editor
If NASCAR’s suspension of Chase Elliott on Tuesday for retaliation was the equivalent of dropping the hammer, then Wednesday’s massive penalty for the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 team using a counterfeit part is the equivalent of a wrecking ball – and it sends a message that breaking the rules will not be tolerated.
“After, you know, inspecting the 14 car at the R&D (Research and Development) Center, and a deep investigation, we found the engine panel and NACA duct to be counterfeit. That’s a significant penalty. It’s an L3 penalty. It’s not something that we have seen in the past but we did find it on the 14 and we assess the penalty to the team.”
NASCAR hit crew chief John Klausmeier with a $250,000 fine and a six-race suspension, plus the loss of 120 team points, 120 driver points for Chase Briscoe and 25 playoff points. It appears to be the single-most severe penalty in the history of NASCAR.
Sawyer explained that at several points during the season, NASCAR has brought cars back to the R&D Center in Concord, N.C. and basically stripped them down to the nuts, bolts and washers. In fact, it has been joked about that the teams get their cars back from NASCAR in buckets. It was during one of these intense inspections, which took place on Tuesday after the rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, that NASCAR found the violations on Chase Briscoe’s car.
In this case, the part in question is a panel under the engine that allows airflow through the racecar to allow for cooling and it is a single-source part, that “you cannot mess with, you cannot counterfeit. We’ve been very clear with that,” Sawyer said. The airflow goes into a hole below the windshield and through the NACA to the openings in the back of the car. Upon finding the counterfeit part, it was removed from the car, placed on the ground for further inspection and then presented to Sawyer and John Probst, NASCAR’s Sr. Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer.
“The part in question was the NACA duct itself,” Sawyer said. “That is supplied by Fibreworks (Composites) and when you buy the engine panel it is already installed. Again, it is a single-source part as we have already talked about.”
Interestingly, Fibreworks Composites, which makes the panels for all teams in NASCAR, was founded by Guenther Steiner in 2009. Steiner is the Team Principle of Haas F1, which is the Formula 1 team owned by Gene Haas and situated on the SHR campus in Kannapolis, N.C. Earlier this year, Fibreworks Composites, located in Mooresville, N.C., received local grant incentives for its expansion codenamed Project Weave, according to the Iredell County, N.C. Board of Commissioners meeting agenda on January 3, 2023.
Stewart-Haas Racing has decided not to appeal the penalty and the 120-point penalty drops Briscoe to 31st in the points.
Asked if he was surprised by the violation, Sawyer responded, “To be honest, I was a little surprised that they would go down this path. Talking with the race team, they have some process and procedure within their race shop that they feel like they need to button up and they will. So yeah, we were a little surprised just knowing and them knowing, as well the severity of it and that it would rise to an L3 penalty.”
In the past, NASCAR has issued a Level 2 penalty when a single-source part was altered but this case was different, Sawyer explained.
“When you counterfeit a part and it falls into a bucket with engine and messing with tires and things, fuel, that isn’t going to be tolerated,” he said.
So, did the part in question and the alterations give the No. 14 team a competitive advantage? Briscoe finished the Coca-Cola 600 in 20th place, overall. Sawyer said teams don’t take such risks for no reason but in NASCAR’s viewpoint, it isn’t about whether the team figured something out it is more about the integrity of the rules and the part alterations.
“I would say from the, from the performance side, no different than the other part and us judging intent, it’s not really what we get into, but knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way shape or form from a performance advantage,” Sawyer said. “So, the way we would check that is we have a template that basically we can put in the opening of the NACA duct. Obviously, the NACA duct not being there would be a major performance enhancement. So, anything that you would do around that area would be some, some gain, you know, or they wouldn’t have done it.”
Sawyer also said teams can expect more inspections and more cars being brought back to the R&D Center because after a year of having the car, as well as, the team engineers combing through everything in the off-season, it is likely they have found ways to gain an advantage. He said NASCAR will continue to enforce the rules and “keep the garage a little bit off balance there, so if we need to bring more cars home, we will do that. Again, our part of this, as the sanctioning body, is to keep a level playing field.”