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NASCAR on the hunt for control

The digital gadget threatening the very foundation of NASCAR racing is no bigger than a pager, which explains the high-tech surveillance equipment.

Move over, CIA.

In its campaign against traction control, NASCAR is going to great lengths to make sure the only things making decisions in its cars are drivers, not computers.

"The question is: Do we allow processors?" said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's director of competition. "If we do allow them, where is the sport going from there? It would be easy to say, "Put the processors on, we're tired of looking.' But we're not going to roll over that easy."

The guy standing in the corner of the track pointing the directional antennae at cars as they go by is Winston Cup technical director Steve Peterson. He is listening for the telltale sounds of an ignition system being manipulated by a traction control device.

Listening for cheaters.

"If you've got 40 cars going by, obviously all of them don't have traction control," Peterson said. "You're going to be able to pick up one or two, five or 10 cars that sound different from the rest. And we put that information on a computer graph."

Processors are common in today's digital world _ think pagers, cell phones, hand-held computers _ and in other forms of racing, especially Formula One and CART. But those series struggle to capture the American audience because the cars are too technical.

Not NASCAR.

"There's nothing digital that operates the engine on a NASCAR car," Nelson said. "All the other series in the world, F1 for one, that have decided to give up the war on traction control because they couldn't find it, they already had processors in their cars."

Compared with passenger cars, the vehicles in NASCAR's national touring series are antiquated, relying on carburetors and distributors to avoid computer processors.

"Staying with the good old mechanical pieces eliminates the need for processors and keeps us in the analog world," Winston Cup director John Darby said.

Traction control is enemy No. 1.

In simple terms, traction control keeps the tires from spinning when a driver accelerates out of a turn. It would provide a competitive advantage at tracks where drivers work the gas pedal in the corners. Now, the only processor is the driver.

"The driver determines how much to push on the throttle to control his traction," Nelson said. "His sensors are in the seat of his pants, the G-forces, all the different signals he gets."

Competitors are convinced traction control devices, which cost only a few thousand dollars, are used in Winston Cup. Contributing to that perception is the use of traction control, quite legally, during test sessions. Teams connect the devices to help "train" the driver by showing him the most efficient acceleration points.

"I'm not sure whether we run against it weekly or not, but I know it's out there because you can get it," said Eddie Wood, owner of the No. 21 Ford driven by Elliott Sadler. "But if the technology is there to have it, the technology is there to find it. I definitely would hate to be the first guy who got caught with it."

NASCAR means business.

Prerace inspection has slowed to a crawl as officials search for any stray wire that might serve as a connection for the device, which is small enough to fit in a driver's pocket and easily could be connected before and disconnected after the race.

Paying special attention to the ignition box, inspectors seal each connection with tape. If a seal is broken after the race, the crew chief has some explaining to do. Also after the race, inspectors tear the dashboards out and cut open the ignition boxes of several cars.

"If we trace every wire from Point A to Point B and reference exactly what it does and that somewhere in midstream there's not an additional signal being allowed to enter, we're pretty confident everything is working like it should," Darby said.

So far, NASCAR is not aware of any Winston Cup team using traction control in a race. President Mike Helton held up one of the devices during the drivers' meeting at Martinsville Speedway in April and warned competitors of an unprecedented penalty.

"It would be stratospheric," Nelson said. "We would have to penalize the guy who did it and send a message to every competitor in the garage who would ever consider it, not to try it."

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