Allentown, PA: When Cary Richards’ Camaro ZL1 1LE took its place on the starting line in last month’s pre-race trials, all the attention was focused on the sporty stock car. A clear frontrunner to land pole position at the upcoming Pennsylvania 500––referred to by many as the “Olympics of Eastern Pennsylvania Racing”––the Camaro was hard to miss with its splashy orange paint job and pink acrylic rims. Richards didn’t disappoint, with the Allentown used car dealer leaving the competition in the dust and posting the fastest time in recent memory.
Then came the post-race inspection.
It was during this routine check of the vehicle’s components and fluids that Richards first knew something was wrong. The race officials spent an unusually long time huddled over the Camero’s open hood, drawing fluid samples and debating amongst one another in hushed tones. It came as little surprise when the PA announcer informed the crowd of a delay in the certification of the results, and before long, Richards spotted a grim-faced race director headed to his paddock with a clipboard in hand.
“I knew it was all over at that point,” says Richards from his home in Allentown.
The race director confirmed what Richards already knew: lab tests had detected the presence of a banned fuel additive in the Camaro’s tank, This was grounds for immediate disqualification and a month-long ban that would see the driver missing the most important race of his life. While such a disqualification wouldn’t normally make headlines, it’s the unique chemical properties of the banned substance that make the punishment so controversial.
Sold under the brand name Thompson’s Healthy Car (THC), the entirely organic additive has not actually been shown to improve overall vehicle performance in any measurable way. In fact, in many tests, THC has been shown to have an overall negative effect on power generation and acceleration, as well as leading to increased fluid loss and fuel consumption.
Loyal customers say that the additive plays an important role in allowing high-performance stock cars to regain some equilibrium between racing. As the substance courses through the vehicle’s fuel lines, it allows for a vital de-stressing of taxed components, leading to a healthier––though not definitively better-performing––race car.
“I’ve used this stuff for years, and I can say without a doubt that it doesn’t give you any edge out on the track,” says Richards. In fact, he says, THC can actually cause some unexpected malfunctions. “There isn’t even a radio in that thing, but last week I could have sworn I heard Pink Floyd playing while I was running some practice laps, and it also seems like right after I add it, the Camaro always breaks down in front of a 7-11 running a special on Cheetos.”
The public outcry surrounding the race soon reached a fever pitch. While Richards gracefully acknowledged his misstep and asked for forgiveness from his adoring fans, the disqualification was widely criticized on social media for its arbitrary and tone-deaf harshness. Attention was largely focused on the hypocritical double standard that promotes the use of certain additives and supplements while banning others, a nonsensical distinction that many suspect comes down to long-held biases.
“These racing competitions will allow drivers to fill their tanks with a high-octane, bright green blend of poison that’s essentially one step removed from rocket fuel, but a little additive that helps a vehicle to reset itself after a difficult day on the track is enough to get you banned? It just doesn’t make any sense, especially since Thompson’s has now been approved for recreational use in many states,” says longtime racing journalist Raul Ortiz.
Until the recent scandal, Richards was seen as the most exciting new talent to emerge from this corner of the state since Italian émigré Florens Jollotta’s legendary run in the 1980s. The bombastic Italian captured the hearts and minds of the racing public in a way rarely seen until now, with many in the community lovingly referring to the talented racer by his nickname “Flo-Jo.”
Richards is not expected to appeal the ban and has appeared contrite in all subsequent press conferences. Still, the incident brings to the fore an issue that’s long divided the more progressive side of the racing community from the conservative stalwarts who seek to uphold the sport’s integrity. Moving forward, Richards says he plans to continue using the substance to ensure the long-term health of his Camaro and only hopes the rulebook will eventually catch up to the public sentiment.
“It’s really just a vital part of my race preparation, and I’m not going to change that anytime soon, though it would be nice if they could figure out how to stop it from tinting your headlights red,” he says.