It has been said that racing is an analogy for life: the struggles, the hard work, the victories and defeats. Racing has it all. And just like in life, in racing, communication is everything. Knowledge is power and being strapped into a racecar with a helmet on, a driver often can’t see the big picture. Drivers are isolated. This is where a spotter comes in handy. A spotter is the eyes in the sky. He or she is the one who provides split times, info on cars in blind spots, warns of yellow flags and helps with race strategy. A driver with a spotter will almost always be more successful on track versus a driver who is out there on his own.
GREEN, GREEN, GREEN!
One of the biggest advantages of having a spotter occurs during race starts. Many times, as cars are approaching Start/Finish for a green flag, drivers behind row one or two can’t always see the flag station. Drivers are concentrating on their position, the gear they are in, and their RPM. Oftentimes, the flag will drop and the driver won’t immediately see it. A spotter watching the flag station with the microphone already open can decrease the reaction time it takes a driver to smash the gas. Our team has had consistently better starts just because our spotters are watching the flag man like a hawk. When the starter’s elbow twitches one sixteenth of an inch, “GREEN! GREEN! GREEN!”
The first step in having a spotter is the ability to clearly communicate between the driver strapped inside the racecar and the spotter up in the tower. Hand signals are not going to work here. Our team uses Sampson Racing Communications, radios for the car, the driver’s helmet and the crew. We use SRC gear because Shawn Sampson is a NASA racer and he has his SRC motorhome and radio trailer at many events to assist racers at the track. One of the tricks to radio equipment is the initial proper installation (which Shawn and his staff will assist you with), organizing the gear and keeping batteries charged. The article on the toolboxes built to be setup for charging radios can be found in an earlier Toolshed Engineer column titled Communication Organization.
For the car, we have been through a number of radio systems over the years. We had a battery-powered handheld radio duct-taped to a roll cage once — not recommended or approved by NASA. We have moved up to a dedicated hardwired radio installed in the car with a roof-mounted antenna and radio control access by the driver. I have made the mistake of mounting radios in the rear of the car for weight distribution, only to regret the decision when I wanted to adjust the volume — pretty tough to do when the radio is in the trunk and I was wearing a five-point harness. Radios, when they don’t work properly, can be extremely frustrating to a driver and crew. This is not the place to save money. Buy the right radio for your racecar, you won’t regret it. Pro Tip: Place your push-to-talk button on the left side of the steering wheel so you can hit the button with your left hand to communicate while at the same time making shifts with your right hand on the gear lever.
For the driver, you will need to connect your radio system inside the car to the driver’s helmet. This can be done two ways depending on the helmet design. Most helmets don’t come with any communication abilities and these components have to be custom added to the helmet. The process is pretty simple, and the SRC crew can knock it out right at the track. The system is simply a microphone in front of the driver’s mouth and a jack for ear buds to be plugged in. Note to drives: Don’t forget to put in your ear buds. If you don’t have the tiny speaker/earplugs in your ears you can yell at the crew all race long but they can’t talk back to you. Stilo has helmets (competitionmotorsport.com) that have speakers in them and don’t require a driver to remember to put ear buds in and plug them into the radio jack on the helmet. I haven’t tried one of these helmets myself, but everyone that I have talked to that uses them loves them.
For the crew, my recommendation is to spend the extra money and make sure they have headsets. Racetracks are loud places and holding a handheld radio to your mouth and screaming into it, while at the same time trying to hear the speaker on it is not a good plan. A radio headset makes hearing by the crew member much easier and the push-to-talk button is on the headset making activating the radio easy. The headset also provides confidentiality between crew members and drivers. Often spotters from different teams are hanging out together at good viewpoints of the course and you don’t always want your competitors hearing your race strategy. www.sampsonracing.com
For spotters, it is crucial they can see as much of the track as possible. Spotters need to scope out the nice high ground and lay their claim to that spot for the race. For tracks where it isn’t possible to view the whole track from one location, you may need more than one spotter. For Buttonwillow, we use three different spotters on track to ensure full coverage. Having a bicycle, golf cart, or car to run spotters quickly to remote locations ensures they are in position when they need to be when the race starts. The first laps are always the most hectic and that is when you want your eyes in the sky protecting you.
Our team has a few things we do as normal operating procedure when it comes to radios. The first is a “radio check” as soon as the driver is in the car. “Spotter A to Car 38.” “Car 38 copies loud and clear.” “Spotter A copies Car 38.” If those three sentences make it over the airwaves, all is good. If there is an issue, then we start going through the list. Is the driver’s helmet connected to the car? Is the radio in the car on? Is the crew member’s radio on? Are we all on the same channel? Did the driver put in ear buds? These may seem like simple obvious things, but they often cause lapses in communication and can be resolved rather quickly. As a rule, each spotter always takes an extra radio battery with them out to their spotting location around the track. When a radio battery dies and you are two miles from the paddock, the race may be over by the time you get a new battery and get back into position. Take a spare.
Spotters do a lot of things for a driver, they help drivers back out of paddock spaces without running into stuff, they relay how much time is left in a race to help drivers manage tires, and best of all they keep drivers from crashing into stuff on track. When my spotter says, “Inside! Inside!” that is a clue to me not to move to the inside a take an apex and cause an accident. Then again when my spotter says, “He’s gonna look inside!” then I quickly move to the apex and take the line away. You see, knowledge is power.
Good communication throughout the team and with the driver allows for ideas to flow and for race-winning strategies to come to light. In endurance races, like the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, there are thousands of decisions that have to be made during a very long race. If a driver doesn’t have good communication with the pits, then they may come in for a fuel stop and find nobody is in the pits with fuel jugs. This has happened more than once at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. “Where is the pit crew?!” “They are at the gas pumps filling the fuel jugs, should be back in like 15 minutes.” Yup, pretty embarrassing.
For our team to be successful on the radios, we realized we all needed to be using the same vocabulary when communicating. I created a “Spotter Guide,” which I give to each spotter with a track map and an extra battery and send them to a nice location to see the race. The guide explains what “inside” and “outside” means in reference to the track/corners, and warns of certain words that don’t work like, “rear” versus “clear.” Which is it? Am I clear or there is a car to the rear? If we aren’t on the same page, then the car is going to the body shop after the race. One thing I like as a driver is information on car lengths. For example, “Honda Challenge car behind, four car lengths, not closing.” That tells me I have a class car behind me, and four car lengths means I can run my line and not worry about being dive bombed at an apex. I like my spotter to say over and over again, “The track is yours, run your line.” This way I know I can run a qualifying race line as opposed to a defensive line. When spotting really comes in handy is with multiclass racing, “Faster car approaching, ES class, he will take you in the next corner.” This lets me know a car that I am not racing against in my class is coming my way. I can give that car some real estate and let them by safely so my race and its race are unaffected. A rearview mirror doesn’t provide such detailed information. Only a spotter can.
I train my spotters to remain cool and calm on the radio, always press the push-to-talk button for one second before speaking (otherwise the first part of the sentence is lost), keep the microphone directly in front of their mouths and to watch flag stations for yellow flags. Spotters also help with what is going on with the rest of the field during a race. They tell me which cars have had mechanical problems and are out. They let me know who is behind me, what lap times they are running comparatively and offer words of encouraging advice like, “Go! Go! Go!” which I have learned means, “Run as hard as you can because the rest of the field is coming for you!” These words of encouragement work. I usually find a few more tenths.
When the equipment is working as it should, and a driver and spotter really get into a groove and begin to trust each other, lap times will fall. Working through lapped traffic becomes smoother and the driver can concentrate on driving and not managing the entire race. My brother Randy has been my spotter for all of our biggest races and I trust him completely. If he says, “clear,” I take the line without hesitation. Every championship we have earned, I give credit to the spotters for those wins. Without their guidance I would simply be lost out on track.
If you are thinking about investing in some radio infrastructure, my suggestion is to absolutely do it. You will be safer and faster on track for the money spent. Remember, communication is everything.