While at a recent seminar, which had a section on spotting, I realized that my presentation in the past was near complete. It is good to listen to experienced professional spotters at the top levels of our sport tell how they do it. To be good at it takes a lot of observation and knowledge of what the driver needs.
A spotter is like a copilot in
an airplane. 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.
In the past few years, I personally have spotted for stock cars and in the Grand Am series, including the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race, doing 18 out of 24 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 am on my game and when I am slacking off. When on, the drivers know it and although I get very little feedback when it is good, the drivers always want to make sure I am with them. When I find myself drifting off (after four or five hours in the rain) I snap back to it and remember why I am there.
From all of that, I have learned from the pros 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 what I have learned on the subject, keeping in mind I don’t even begin to think I know it all. I just have some information that might help those who are new and those who wish to improve.
In order for a person to do a good job at spotting, they need to be educated about racing first. They 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 car, it’s fixing to get ugly. Sure enough, nine times out often they would get into each other and the crash was on.
Back in the ’60s, 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/HER perspective. It matters not what you think, although you can offer suggestions. In the end, it is what the driver feels comfortable with that works best.
You will 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 Goodies Dash team from back home that was racing at Martinsville. They asked me to spot and I said sure, “How hard could it be?” Afterward, 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.
For example, most drivers do not 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 that is there to help improve the driver and/or team, moving the driver up going into the corner or telling them about other mistakes is acceptable. But be diplomatic. You are 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 typically accepted ways to help the driver 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 and “fast car coming, two behind” says that a faster car is moving up to overtake and how far behind it is. 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 is 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 is a continuing situation, keep the microphone keyed up all the time you are 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.”
What the Driver Needs
The driver needs the following from the spotter:
* Help in lining up before a race. Tell the driver if he is out of his appointed starting position or if he needs to move back to allow another car to get to their position.
* Knowledge of when to expect the green flag. “Green next time by” or “one lap to go, I’ll give you the green,” are ways to alert the driver to the start or restart of the race.
* Notice for caution lights. Announce caution lights, or impending cautions and hazardous track conditions. Keep looking ahead to spot trouble before your car gets into it.
* The proximity of crashes and where to go. If you feel the driver needs the information, tell him where it is clear. Never, ever talk while the driver is upon a sudden situation and can see well enough to make his own decisions.
* Communication with the officials. The restart lineup may be relayed to the spotter for use in letting the driver know where to position himself after a caution. Penalties and warnings are other instructions the official may ask the spotter to relay.
* Clearance all around the car. Let the driver know when it is clear all around so he can run his line. This information might not sound important, but to the driver it signals a time when he can relax, not slow down, somewhat during a long run, and possibly run a faster line.
* Who is closing and how fast? If a faster car is closing, let the driver know so he can be prepared. If for position the driver can judge if he needs to be aggressive, or if not, allow the other driver to pass. If you know you are holding up a car halfway through a long race, it is wise to let the other car go. Later on, the situation may reverse itself. The car that was faster 20 laps ago might have worn his stuff out and is now backing up to you. If you are considerate, chances are he will return the favor. If you blocked him, get ready for a long delay.
* If there are slow cars ahead. Giving notice about slow cars on the track can help avoid trouble, especially when your car is involved in a race for position with another car. There is no need to call out too soon. When your car is a quarter lap or less from the slow car, go ahead and let the driver know. If it is a really slow car, speak sooner if you feel the need.
* Information about the car. You might be able to spot trouble with the car before the driver or crew notices anything. Your vantage point is usually high and you can see all or most of the track. If you see tire smoke, fluids spilling, or a sudden push developing, let someone know.
* Laps run and laps remaining. Let the driver know when the halfway point has come, when there are 10 to go or if it will be a green, white, checker at the end after a late caution. Smart drivers will conserve their energy and tires for a late race surge for the win.\
* Lap times versus leader. Some drivers need lap time information to judge how they are doing against the leader. If they are the leader, they might want the gap between them and second place called out. If your car is faster and is pulling away, it might be prudent to take it a little easy and sandbag to save those tires for later on in the race.
* Moral support and encouragement. Offer support to the driver, especially during long cautions. Tell him what he did right and possibly what might make the run better. If you are pitting, give complete and precise information, especially when the pits will be open and where your car’s pit is located, as the driver comes down pit road.
* Directions to victory lane. In all of the confusion of winning, the driver might get disoriented burning all of those donuts and lose track of where victory lane is located. Help him along while you enjoy a mutual win.
Every driver is different when it comes to their personalities and thinking processes. You need to get to know your driver’s way of thinking. Does he need encouragement or does he need to be restrained?
The spotter may be in a position, depending on the relationship with the driver, to manipulate their mood and strategy if needed. After an inadvertent spin or bad start, you need to reinforce the fact that whatever happened is over and we need to move on with the rest of the race. You might hear, “Did you see what that guy did?” or “Wait till I get to his bumper, I’m gonna pay him back big time …”
In these cases, do what you can to calm the driver down and encourage him/her to see the big picture. “Hey, I don’t think he knew you were there” or “That’s OK, we can make it up, let’s get ready for the green..”
Never, ever encourage a response to an incident. It is your job to remain calm and to direct information that has a positive effect on the outcome of the race for your team. If you cannot do that, then you don’t need to be in that position.
Before the season and/or before a particular race, do some planning with the driver and crew chief about strategies and alternatives in the event certain things take place. For example, some teams choose to pit during an early caution in a longer race that requires a stop, so that when the rest of the field pits, they will be at the front for the final stint.
This only works well if you have gotten behind due to a spin or flat tire that put you to the rear and you need to get back up front. The drawback to this is that the late pitting teams will have fresher tires (if everyone puts on new rubber) and be faster.
Preplan contingencies, such as what to do if a caution comes out and you need to make an adjustment. The spotter must, in most cases, eye the pit entrance to make sure pit road is open. He must also tell the crew what is happening with the car so they can be ready. And, he has to keep track of the pace car’s location and relay that to the team so they don’t go a lap down.
A flat tire going into Turn 1 may not get noticed by the crew, so the spotter can relay the situation to the crew so they will be ready. The driver may say, “I’ve got a tire going down,” but not know which one. The spotter may be able to eye which tire so the crew can have the correct size and pressured tire for that corner ready.
On the restart, if the car behind is laying back and making a run at your First Place position, tell the driver so he can make him lift and brake, “wait, wait, wait …” then say “go, go, go” once the car behind has committed to lifting. Oh, the possibilities.
In the Seat
Spot like you are in the seat beside the driver, or better yet like you are the driver. In my spotting for road racing,
I have a great time. The Daytona Prototype cars run with the GT class, who are a bit slower, so that there is always overtaking of these cars. At times you are clearing your driver as quickly as possible so he can move over to set up for the next turn.
You are letting him know that ahead is a very slow car. This is important because the closing rate may be too quick for the faster car to avoid a collision. This holds true for circle track racing too. If you are side-by-side with someone racing for position, you need to know about a slow car on the inside so you can either crowd the other car to make him lift if you are on the outside, or move the other car over enough to get by the slower car if you are on the inside.
Know that you must “feel” when the driver needs to be cleared, just like if you were driving. Never clear too early, but don’t hesitate either. Know when a driver needs the information and what information he needs. When your driver is passing a slower car on the outside down the straightaway, he needs to know exactly when he is clear so he can either take the normal line into the corner or stay up. It’s either one or the other and if the information is delayed, he may lose valuable time if he could have taken the low line.
In this case, by all means, key the mic early and as soon as clear happens, say “clear.” If it happens to be a sudden announcement, I usually say two words, “you’re clear,” so that if I cut off the first word, “clear” comes through.
There are a few advanced techniques you can develop and use when spotting. When you get comfortable, you can begin to look well ahead and watch other cars at times when your car is all clear. And let the driver know every time he is all clear. That gives him a chance to relax his guard a little until he reaches new traffic in order to reduce fatigue.
Watch for future conflicts developing and, if need be, alert the driver to them. If two cars get to racing side-by-side up ahead, they may be slowing down and this may be an opportunity to be alert to an opportunity to pass both cars if they were to get together and move up the track.
Be on the alert for caution situations, not necessarily waiting for the caution to come out. If an obvious caution situation develops, tell the driver immediately so he does not get into it. The flagman may be looking in another direction, as often happens, and the actual caution may come out too late for your car to avoid a problem.
If a car blows a motor, tell the driver to “stay high in 3 and 4, oil on the track” so he doesn’t go flying in there and then slide to the wall. This kind of knowledge is a bit advanced and only veteran spotters are good at it, but it will help your racing program a bunch if you can develop a holistic approach to your spotting duties.
Good driver/spotter relationships often are a significant part of winning races and championships. The longer you work together, the better it gets. Talk to other veteran spotters and let them help you to get better. These guys are going to be beside you at every race and a sort of camaraderie can develop in many cases. Good luck and speak clearly.