Wednesday, December 11, 2013

COMMENTARY: Why Tungsten Matters

Elliott (L) before the fall
For approximately 30 minutes Sunday night, Chase Elliott was the undisputed king of short track stock car racing.

Elliott, son of former NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Bill Elliott and himself an insanely talented wheel man, became the first driver in history to win the prestigious Snowball Derby at Florida’s Five Flags Speedway, after prevailing in the previous day’s Snowflake 100 Pro Late Model event.

And then, it all came apart.

A post-race technical inspection revealed a piece of tungsten ballast attached to the chassis of Elliott’s machine, and with tungsten expressly prohibited in the Snowball Derby rules -- in BOLD FACE TYPE – the violation cost Elliott both his trophy and $20,000 winner’s purse.
The disqualification triggered an immediate firestorm of controversy, with some observers questioning whether the infraction was serious enough to warrant stripping Elliott of the win. Others rode to the young driver’s defense, saying he likely had no knowledge of the illegal ballast and supporting his claim that the violation was little more than an oversight.
None of that matters to me, and here’s why.
In racing, some things are illegal because they give a performance advantage. Some are illegal because they are too costly. Some are illegal because they compromise safety. No matter what, they're all illegal, and in my opinion, that should be the end of the story.
The offending tungsten. (
I don’t buy the whole, "it was illegal, but it didn't give me an advantage" argument, and neither should you. It's a cheap cop-out used by guys who have just gotten caught with their hands in the cookie jar. The argument that tungsten ballast offers no competitive advantage is also ludicrous, on a number of counts.
In many race cars, ballast is inserted into chassis frame rails in blocks that are approximately 2 5/8 inches x 3 5/8 inches. In that configuration, a 25- pound block of tungsten measures approximately 3.75″ long, while 25 pounds of lead is nearly 6.5″ long. Concentrating more weight in less space allows more precise chassis adjustment, and in a division where left-side weight percentage is regulated with a fine-toothed comb, there is no such thing as an inconsequential  advantage. Roll center and center of gravity can also be more precisely set with tungsten than lead, giving teams even more of a handling edge. 

If it truly offers no competitive edge, why would NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide teams with unlimited budgets spend thousands of dollars on tungsten ballast? Clearly, they understand that there’s something important to be gained. If it wasn’t better, it would not have been on Chase Elliott’s car. Bet on that.
Here’s another point to ponder.
Racers fail post-race inspections all the time, for a wide variety of reasons. Some of infractions are fairly minor, while others are more blatant. Each of those nefarious deeds, however, was undertaken for one simple reason: to make the race car faster.
Not fancy, just effective.
When was the last time you heard of someone getting caught doing something illegal that made their car worse? Never, that’s when! And there’s a good reason for that.
I was not at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, and I know little or nothing about the specifics of Chase Elliott’s violation. But I'll bet dollars against donuts that the tungsten ballast in question was mounted low and to the left, rather than high and right. It was mounted there for a reason, and it did what it was intended to do. Big advantage or small, nothing on these race cars happens by mistake.
Some argue that in a Snowball Derby pit filled with $200,000 transporters, a few thousand dollars in tungsten is hardly the end of the world. That may be true, but not one of those high-dollar Toterhomes ever won a race. It may make its owner more comfortable getting to the track, but it does nothing once the green flag flies.
Teams don't need a fancy hauler to compete. My Super Late Model team gets to the track in a modest, 24-foot box trailer pulled by a Ford F350 dually. It’s nothing fancy, but it gets us where we’re going every week, while leaving us a little more money to spend on our race car.

The problem with a high-buck item like tungsten is that once somebody has it, everybody’s got to have it if they hope to keep up. If I suddenly have to spend $20,000 on ballast for my race car -- instead of melting down used wheel weights from the tire store -- it's going to dramatically hasten my exit from the sport.
Nobody can prevent a rich man from spending his own money. But race tracks and sanctioning bodies can -- and should -- prevent him from spending his money in ways that diminish competition or break the rules.  Elliott’s car had an advantage, and it was illegal.
It’s as simple as that.


  1. Anonymous4:02 PM

    The rule book said no,he got caught, so DQ. Simple as that.

  2. Wayne4:29 PM

    Dave you are spot on. That piece of Tungsten can be placed much more precise. More so as a front to rear percent balance. I remember this same team having a motor issue and being sent home without the flag. They have not been back to race in that series since. Maybe more folks are guilty of the same but they have not been caught yet.

    1. Anonymous10:30 PM

      Not allowed back. Sold one of his cars to Bubba Pollard and he was DQ'd from the same series. Chase Elliott is super talented. Bill Elliott and Ricky Turner are super cheaters.

    2. Anonymous5:17 PM

      Bill Elliott is a class act and always has been. Any chance your being a little overly dramatic? Super Cheater?

    3. Anonymous5:52 PM

      look up disqualified in this series. You see how often it happens? You guys are blowing this way out of proportion. Its racing and getting an edge and pushing bounderies is part of it just as it is in another other sport and life in general for that matter. Not to mention it may have been an oversight, but that doesn't make for such a good story, does it? They were disqualified so there is your justice. Feel better?

  3. Well put Dave!! Anyone who believes its not an advantage is uneducated we race in a world where 1/16" of an inch matters and the field is separated by a couple tenths.

  4. Of course its an advantage, but that kid will never get lead poisoning like the rest of us haha!

  5. Anonymous6:57 PM

    If he hadn't gotten caught cheating before, i'd say no harm no foul. It was an oversight. Rumor has it he can't run the PASS series for cheating.

    1. Anonymous11:30 AM

      That's not a rumor. It's a fact.

  6. Anonymous7:55 PM

    Should be the same penalty if the engine connecting rods were too light. No, wait- those penalties are not enforced when TOYOTA gets caught cheating!!!!

  7. My comment on Facebook was if there was no advantage why did they have it in the race shop to begin with. Well put Dave!

  8. Anonymous11:22 AM

    I agree, rules are rules, he should be thrown out for it.

    But..... how can we stop this from happening in the future? As an asphault short track "junkie" we see this too much. I'm tired of tech determining the race outcome while I'm driving home. I'm tired of racers not following the rules. How can we fix this? How does the dirt community avoid this?

    1. Unfortunately, you cannot legislate morality.

  9. Anonymous11:25 AM

    Tungsten is used by Cup teams because of the sheer amount of weight they need to strap on the car, just like K&N cars. They weigh ALOT more than your 2800 pound SLM.

  10. Spot on Dave, in a year no one will remember this race as he continues his climb to the Cup Series. Rules are rules or else some nut would bring a $750,000 car to win $20,000 purse. BTW, I like your hauler set up. Classic. How many races did the Petty's, Allison's, etc win pulling a race car on an open trailer?

  11. The other issue that will become a concern is as all sport grow increasing closer to health and safety awareness (illegal shots to the head, illegal collisions at the plate, et al), lead poisoning is the next issue at hand with teenage short track racers participating in many Super Late Model events. Tungsten is not toxic compared to lead, and you wonder if the issue will become a health versus overall cost issue in the future. Remember CART tossed Kyle Busch from a Truck race in Fontana because of his age and the federal Master Settlement Agreement prohibited competitors at race meets with tobacco advertising from being under 18.

    The tungsten vs lead rule will be something Late Model racing will have to discuss as some areas with lead bans may legalise, and mandate, tungsten in order to evade the ban on lead. That's why tungsten replaces lead in wheel weights in many situations today.

  12. Anonymous9:02 AM

    If you do the math, a stick of Tungsten is 36 pounds and costs now about $1600. Each Cup car may conservatively have 400 pounds aboard. There are 43 cars in each race.

    11 sticks per car X $1600 X 43 cars = over $3/4 million worth of Tungsten silently going in circles every Sunday.

  13. Anonymous2:30 PM

    God Father, Is or when is your team going to run the Snowball Derby