A Look at Our Favorite Cheats in Motorsports

FIA Lead art_edited-1Since the advent of motorsports, people have found ways to cheat. Different forms of racing tend to attract different kinds of cheating. The rule sets of class racing dictate what is and isn’t allowed but there are always grey areas in the rules. Learning to exploit, or creatively interpret, those grey areas is a skill every competitive racer must learn to do. Of course, there are those who don’t bother to read in between the lines in the rulebook, instead they devote their efforts towards clever (illegal) solutions and the means to conceal them from the stewards.

The mentality of the cheater ranges from shear defiance of the rules to casual ignoring. Statements like “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” and “We’re all cheaters just to different degrees,” comfort the cheaters racing with legitimate competitors.

Gaining an illegal edge over the competition can be as simple as shorting a course or as complicated as hiding a major engine modification. Usually cheaters do not advance themselves from the bottom of the ranking to the pole, they are more often found already near the top looking for that little advantage to push them into a superior position.

180px-FIA_logo.svg copy

The Federacion Internacionale de l’Automobile (FIA) is a global sanctioning body for motorsports.

How The Rules Work

It is important to understand the two basic forms of motorsport rule sets. There are Open or Unlimited classes, and Spec or limited classes. The difference in how each rule sets read is usually a matter of perspective. In an Unlimited class something is only illegal if it is specifically named as not allowed- all other creative means of gaining an advantage are permissible by the sanctioning body. These type of classes are very rare among professional motorsports as they favor whoever has the biggest wallet.

On the inverse side, Spec and limited class rule sets read such that everything is an illegal modification unless the rules state it is allowed.  This narrow and specific set of rules constrains the scope of modifications racers can make to their vehicles. Theoretically, competitors end up with nearly identical vehicles, and the competition boils down to driver skill. However as it is said in limited class racing; “All vehicles are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Cheats And Cheaters

The list of cheats and cheaters is longer than anybody can list but we are going expose 10 techniques, and individuals/teams who have gained infamy for their determination to win at all costs. To limit the view of our exposé we will primarily focus on road racing and techniques applicable to gaining a questionable advantage. This is not a how to guide, we do not endorse these behaviors so please don’t try to pass them off on tech inspectors.

1. Fuel Tampering

Racing Fuel is almost always a specifically listed component in the rules of a given class. Pump gas, leaded race gas, alcohol, nitromethane and other fuels are specifically allowed or disallowed because of the performance gains each one can offer. Except in the highest forms of motorsports, where mandatory fuel sampling is part of technical inspection, it is rare to be tested for illegal fuels. Few tracks and sanctioning bodies have the equipment to distinguish one fuel from another when they are similar in composition.

Royalbroil Wikipedia

Many aftermarket fuel additives are available to change the composition of race fuel.

Additives to change the composition of fuel are readily available but offer little gains. Creative cheaters may turn to more exotic chemical blends. According to chemical engineer and dirt track racer Bobby Kimbrough; nitromethane does not mix well with gasoline but there is an alternative to achieve similarly explosive effects; “Nitropropane (C3H7O2), like the chemical makeup shows, is an oxygen-bearing fuel,” Kimbrough said. “Oxygenated fuel burns hotter and more completely than regular fuel. Mix 20-25 percent nitropropane with gasoline for a nearly undetectable gain.”

Oxygenated fuel burns hotter and more completely than regular fuel. Mix 20-25 percent nitropropane with gasoline for a nearly undetectable gain. -Bobby Kimbrogh

2. The RedBull Formula 1 Front Wing

Aerodynamics are the name of the game in the ultra high tech world of Formula 1. When lap times are separated by hundredths of a second every bit of aerodynamics can help make the car more slippery, and hold the tires better. Already at the top of their field, the 2011 RedBull Formula 1 team employed a dynamic front wing. In order to skirt the rules set forth by the FIA, the wing was not influenced by the driver the only input was the airspeed over the wing.

Luca Barni Wikipedia

The 2011 RedBull Formula 1 car used creative aerodynamics to close the gap between the car and ground.

Formula 1 cars are held to an incredibly tight standard for weight, ride height, aerodynamic surfaces, and other features. At a stand still the wing sat in a legal location, with ride height in spec. As the flow of air increased with speed the wing would deflect down and close the gap between the car and the asphalt. This grey area drew the attention of many teams and the FIA but no penalty was levied.

3. The Brabham BT-46C


The “Fan Car” was piloted to the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix win by Niki Lauda before a new rule disallowed the design in Formula 1.

The 1978 Brabham “Fan Car” is one of those somewhat strange but genius solutions to a simple problem. A hovercraft uses a large lift fan to inflate a skirt and float itself over obstacles. What if the fan direction was reversed? The Brabham BT-46C was sucked on to the road surface by a large fan located at the back of the car which pulled a vacuum under the car and sucked it down onto the track. The resulting down force did not add drag by placing wings in the path of the air flow and therefore kept the car aerodynamically clean. Niki Lauda won the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix before the FIA put an end to this unique engineering perspective.

4. The Multitude of Spec Miata Tricks

Spec Racing classes often employ a spec motor rule. Engines must remain as they were delivered from the manufacturer, no internal modification permitted. To regulate this rule engines are monopolized by specific approved vendors permitted to seal and tag. The other option being an original motor is inspected at tech, and then sealed on the spot, often with a colored zip tie, or a unique shade of nail polish. Should the engine be opened, the seal will be destroyed, and the owner will not have the exact color to replace it.

Kdildei Wikipedia

Spec Miata is a class where sealed motors are often tampered with.

Many ways around this rule exist in racing. All racers hang around shops, and if you have a racing engine built, you probably are buddy-buddy with the builder. Greased palms, and secret hand shakes may ensure some sealed motors are more equal than others. If you’re not the social type, you can always break the seal, make your modifications, and creatively reattach it. Many sealed motors are safety wired with a special wire and tag not reproducible by the owner. Measures as drastic as cutting the bolt head off and gluing it back on for access to the internals are not uncommon for cheaters.

5. The Tyrrell Racing Car

In 1984, the Tyrrell Racing team’s Formula 1 car employed a simple yet devious arrangement to gain an advantage. The minimum weight for non-turbo charged Formula 1 cars was reached by including a few water tanks for “liquid cooled brakes.”


The Tyrrell Formula 1 car in 1984. Photo courtesy Luca Barni.

This water would be included at weigh-in before the race, expelled on the track to cool the brakes during the race, and refilled before the car came off the track. The resulting weight savings made for an underweight car during the race but legal whenever it was inspected.

6. Dynamic Balast

Both limited and unlimited classes often include minimum weights. A lighter car is a faster car, suspension doesn’t have to work as hard, engines and drivetrains are stressed less, and reduced inertia means better handling. Car builders go to great lengths to minimize weight in their vehicles. Thin wall tubing ranging from .035-.065″ is often substituted for thick wall .095-.25″ structural members. Such weight reduction may or may not be legal in different applications. Vehicles are almost always built underweight so that the minimum weight is met with advantageous additions; a bigger fuel cell, an extra battery, a spare alternator, etc. When a car still does not meet minimum weight, a ballast is required to add weight.


Conventional ballasts offer little to no benefit. Dynamic ballasts shift the center of gravity where the car needs it under braking or acceleration.

Why add weight that doesn’t serve a purpose? Many creative engineers turn this detriment to their careful design, into a slick traction feature. Classes that disallow traction control and similar driver aides can benefit from the distribution of a ballast. Many racing organizations specify the type and location of the ballast, if it is required. Bypassing this stipulated rule, weights can be mounted on slider bars, such that under breaking the center of gravity (CG) is shifted forward to the front wheels where the majority of breaking occurs. Under acceleration the weights slide back, and shift the CG towards the rear end. If the vehicle is rear-wheel-drive this shifted CG will aide in rear wheel traction under hard acceleration.

7. Hiding a Port and Polish Job

Most limited and spec classes specifically disallow any type of porting and polishing on the cylinder head. They often go so far as to supply OEM casting lot numbers of acceptable parts. In racing where restrictor plates even the field of cars, flow numbers are the key to edging out the competition. Legitimate means pursued by limited class racers include trial and error flow bench testing the stock head after head to find the best. Surprising amounts of variation are found from casting to casting. In the most devious of our cheating techniques, determined racers can conceal a ported and polished head, making it look like a stock OEM casting. Upon visual inspection a ported and polished head has obviously smoothed and opened ports through which air/fuel mixture can flow. A stock casting has not had the sand mold imperfections, and gritty texture smoothed out.


A ported runner blends into the stock casting, the differences in texture are obvious. Needle gun, etching, and sand blasting can restore the stock appearance.

To gain a massive advantage in head flow numbers, limited class racers will take a stock cylinder head, mildly port the runners so as not to draw conspicuous attention to the increased volume, and then roughen the interior to mimic the finish of a cast part. The method for roughing up the surface varies from cheater to cheater and head to head.

With an aluminum head aggressive sand blast media referred to as “black beauty” or a needle gun, that is often used for paint removal, are used to peen the surface of the aluminum.

With steel or iron heads etching is the preferred method. The same way an artist applies a “stop out” to an etching plate to preserve white areas, known as “aquatint.” The inside of the port is finely dotted with an irregular speck pattern of wax, spray paint or other hydrophobic (water repellent). The port is then subjected to an acid bath of either muriatic, sulfuric, or phosphoric acid. The “bite” of the acid pits the surface for a convincing texture similar to a casting.

8. Modifying Tires

Tires are often a controlled substance as much as fuel in both limited and unlimited class racing. Spec tires are the norm from Formula 1 all the way down to Spec Miata. Tire restriction is designed to keep costs down, tire lifespan predictable, and performance controlled. Aside from tread patterns, and obvious size restrictions that affect the contact patch, the rubber compounds determine the grip a tires holds on the pavement. Rubber compounds are a closely guarded chemical mix of oils, catalysts, and vulcanizing techniques.


Commercial and private tires softening mixes are used to change the rubber compound properties.

If you can run the same tire as your competitor but have a stickier compound your traction will out pace the field. Braking, acceleration, and cornering will all improve. The black magic of tire compound converting is analogous to the alchemical quest to convert lead into gold. Everyone has different softening compounds they can rub into the to tread of a tire, from store bought to garage concoctions of nasty solvents. Some unproven but commonly held magic potions include ingredients like diesel fuel, paint thinner, ATF, and acetone.

9. Chassis Geometry

Many limited class rules specify the racecar may not adopt aftermarket suspension geometry. The purpose of this restriction is that a small import or domestic car does not end up with exotic inboard pushrod suspension where caster, camber, toe, bump-steer, scrub radius and all other technical geometry considerations are idealized. Cars in limited classes are meant to compete how they were originally designed to handle, if that means some undesirable characteristics that’s what everyone deals with.


Suspension geometry can provide improved handling far beyond traction. Photo Courtesy Glen Duncombe.

A well behaved racecar inspires confidence, and therefore is faster. The relocation of suspension pivots, just a few degrees can make huge changes in the suspension geometry of a stock vehicle. Factory design cars are meant to be stable, forgiving, and safe. These handling characteristics to not usually lend themselves to the nimbleness demanded out of a road race car. Spacers in the front suspension can alter the castor for more responsive steering. Bent tie rods and control arms can induce a camber change throughout travel.

10. Cheating the Cubic Centimeter Tester

After an enlightening conversation with Kimbrough, we learned one final trick we’d never encountered. In Bobby’s own words “There’s no replacement for displacement.” A phrase known far and wide to fans of horsepower and big engines. Before and after a race vehicles are often “impounded” for tech inspection, a process the driver and one crew member can attend. Displacement rules are some of the most clear cut, and where cheating is a difficult task to get away with. After a race, a competitor may be asked to pull a spark plug and submit to a cubic centimeter (cc) test where a graduated cylinder and plunger are connected to the cylinder and the motor is turned over without spark.


Using a leak down tester and a graduated cylinder, tech inspectors can measure the displacement of a single cylinder.

The air in the engine cylinder is transferred to the graduated cylinder and a little math is used to determine to size of the engine. While a huge displacement discrepancy will send up red flags, a few cc’s over eight or more cylinders start to add up. If a few cigarette butts, say two to four, are dropped in the plug hole discreetly before the tester is threaded to the head they will displace several cc’s of volume that will not but pumped in to the graduated cylinder. The reading will show low, and the engine will pass. According to Kimbrough; because the filters are soft fibrous elements they will simply burn out the next time the engine is running, leaving no damage or tell tale sign of the trick.

Now go forward with knowledge of cheating! How will you use it; for good or bad? 

About the author

Trevor Anderson

Trevor Anderson comes from an eclectic background of technical and creative disciplines. His first racing love can be found in the deserts of Baja California. In 2012 he won the SCORE Baja 1000 driving solo from Ensenada to La Paz in an aircooled VW. Trevor is engaged with hands-on skill sets such as fabrication and engine building, but also the theoretical discussion of design and technology. Trevor has a private pilot's license and is pursuing an MFA in fine art - specifically researching the aesthetics of machines, high performance materials and their social importance to enthusiast culture.
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