An experienced spotter can make a significant difference in how your car finishes races. A
When I first wrote this piece over three years ago, the head tech official for the ARCA Series used it as a guide for all spotters who were associated with those teams. What I have come to know is that there is an art to spotting for a race car. To be good at it takes a lot of observation and knowledge of what the driver needs.
A spotter is like a co-pilot in an airplane in my opinion. In many cases, the spotter should be able to “fly” the car if need be, or have the kind of experience and knowledge needed to do that. In short, the spotter must understand the duties of the driver and anticipate his needs so that correct and useful information can be relayed in an instant.
I have spotted for stock cars and road racing cars. I have been watching and listening in on teams’ live race communications in all divisions including short track and NASCAR Cup races for as long as there have been radios. When I was a teenager growing up in Daytona, I was at every race watching the cars and the moves drivers made. I saw when they got good information from the spotter and I saw when they did not.
In the past few years I have spotted in the Grand Am series including the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race, doing 18 hours some years. I have my style and others have their style. The best style is the one the driver likes.
I know when I’m on my game and when I’m slacking off. When on, the driver knows it and although I get very little feedback when it’s good, the driver always wants to make sure I’m with him. When I find myself drifting off (after four or five hours in the rain) I snap back to it and remember why I’m there.
From all of that, I formed some opinions as to what a driver needs and what the spotter should know in order to do a better job of spotting and keeping the car out of trouble. I offer some of my thoughts on the subject keeping in mind I don’t even begin to think I know it all. I just have some thoughts that might help those who are new and those who wish to improve.
This is the view atop the spotter's tower at Daytona before the 2005 24 Hours of Daytona r
In order for to do a good job at spotting, you need to be educated about racing first. You need to watch a great deal of racing with the object of seeing how drivers work the traffic and how they react to traffic working them.
If possible, early on, listen in on spotter/driver communications and get a feel for what sounds right and what makes sense. As a boy I remember watching races and trying to figure out who was fast and how they worked to pass other cars.
I could pick out a crash situation a good two to three laps ahead of time by observing a conflict early on. I would tell my buddies, watch the number so and so cars, it’s fixing to get ugly. Sure enough, nine times out of ten they would get into each other and the crash was on.
Back in the 1960s, radios were not used and the driver was on his own. Conflicts between drivers happened a lot of times because a driver cut off another car for a lack of knowledge about the spacing between them, not on purpose. With the advent of radios, we now see much cleaner racing with fewer missteps.
Draw on your past experience gained just plain watching races. How many times have you said to yourself, “Man, that guy needed just a little help from the spotter and that crash wouldn’t have happened?”
Once you have taken on the role of spotter, do a lot of practice before an actual race. Work with the driver in testing and practice sessions. Get to know how much information he wants and needs from his perspective. It matters not what you think, although you can offer suggestions. In the end, it’s what the driver feels comfortable with that works best.
You’ll inevitably need to do your first race. This trial by fire is the fastest way to learn. I remember having never spotted before and being asked to help a Goody’s Dash team from back home that was racing at Martinsville. They asked me to spot and I said sure, “How hard could it be?” Afterwards, I realized that I knew nothing about this art and I got informed in a hurry in case that happened again.
You develop your communication style around what the driver needs and likes. Some drivers need a lot of talk to help stay focused and others may be distracted by a lot of verbiage from the spotter. You need to know how your driver reacts to communication and what kind is tolerable.
Imagine for a second that you're trying to follow your car and clear him at Daytona, with
For an example, most drivers don’t want or need for you to tell them how to drive. In special cases when the spotter is the crew chief, dad, car owner, or a consultant who is there to help improve the driver and/or team, moving the driver up going into the corner or telling him about other mistakes is acceptable. But be diplomatic. You’re dealing with, in many cases, large egos.
And you can always tell a driver when he is doing great. “Nice way to work that traffic,” and, “Good clean pass, way to go,” and, “Now that line worked much better,” are typical, accepted ways to help the drivers know when someone is paying attention to their smart moves. They really appreciate being rewarded with kind words, just like the rest of us.
Keep your communication short and to the point. “Clear high” tells the driver he is OK to move up off the turn after passing on the inside. “Fast car coming, two behind” says that a faster car is moving up to overtake and how far it is behind. The closing rate can be told by starting with “five back,” then “four back,” and so on. The driver gets a feel for when to expect a challenge and can drive his line until it’s time to fight or move over.
Get used to the radio and how quickly it keys up. One of the most annoying problems with race radio communication is when you key up and talk at the same time. Words get cut off of the beginning of the transmission if you don’t wait a second before talking. If a situation is coming, key up several seconds before being required to speak. If it’s a continuing situation, keep the microphone keyed up all the time you’re with the situation.
Work with the driver to define the terminology to be used. “Clear low” and “clear inside” mean the same thing. On a flat track, “clear low” doesn’t make as much sense as “clear inside.” A simple “inside” or “outside” will usually suffice unless the radio is not clear. A longer sentence may be understood more easily, like “you’ve got a car looking inside...he’s inside your quarter…halfway inside…at your door…”