For a racecar driver, having a spotter can provide critical information that can help you win a race and avoid disaster. As I walk through the paddock at many NASA events, I often see many teams neglect this particular aspect of what I consider an easy and relatively inexpensive advantage over the competition. My advice to any racer: Get a spotter. Period. This is not new information, in fact we covered the importance of having spotters here on Speed News in the past with “A Guide To Race Spotting Equipment.”
When I have discussed this issue with different teams, they all say the same thing to me. “I’d love to have a spotter, but I just don’t have anybody with me at the track to do it.” Fair enough. However, the solution is to make finding a spotter a priority and get somebody. And then once you do get somebody, help them out. Hook them up with the right equipment and get them to the highest point at the track. A simple spotter bag that you can hand them and send them up the hill will go a long way toward their success as spotter. Remember, their success is your success.
We have covered radio equipment organization here before in Speed News, but today we are going to talk about how to build a simple spotter bag and include all of the key items to make your spotter a success and feel appreciated by you. This is an inexpensive endeavor that will pay big dividends. When volunteer crew members feel appreciated, volunteer crew members come back to the track with you. If they feel neglected, you will never see them again. Then you are back to step one, you have a spare radio in your trailer and nobody to use it.
A good spotter bag should have basic components for one of your friends to trudge up a hillside and be stuck up there for the length of the race. For a sprint race, maybe just 35 minutes. For an enduro, it could be 6 hours. Include the items that will make their stint as comfortable and successful as possible. The first thing that needs to go in that bag — besides the obvious radio and headset — is spare batteries for the radio. Multiple charged spare batteries are a must.
Radio batteries are the biggest challenge for spotters. On our team, when we buy a new battery, we label the month and year it was purchased with our trusted Brother P-Touch label maker. We have found over time quite a bit of degradation with the batteries. Additionally, we keep red adhesive page markers in our spotter bag so when a battery dies, we stick the red flag on that battery so we know it needs to hit the charger before the next session. This helps us differentiate between a dead battery and a charged battery floating around the bottom of our spotter bag.
Once the spotter bag is set up with the electronic components needed to ensure communication between the spotter and the driver, then we turn our attention to the human needs of a spotter stuck up on a hill. Things like sunscreen or a rain poncho. Don’t let you spotter get skin cancer or soaked on your watch. Toss these simple items into the bag and take care of your people. Renewable items that I replenish in our bags before each race are bottles of water and Cliff bars.
When I am in the car, I always have things that come up in my brain. I will think about them for a fleeting second and then need to get back to the task at hand, downshifting, deep braking and passing my competition. In the dynamics of racing, I will often forget these ideas. With a spotter equipped with a clipboard, pens and paper, I can quickly yell out over the radio, “I’m hearing a clunk in the left rear on right turns. I want to inspect the rear sway bar after this session.” The spotter will make important post-session notes that we will use to ensure the car is ready for the final event of the weekend and avoid a mechanical failure on track.
I also pack a cheap solar-powered calculator in the spotter bag for fuel mileage and split-time calculations. I understand that we all have calculators on our smart phones however, spotters usually have the RaceHero app going and are monitoring lap times. And if you really want to hook up a spotter, have a portable phone battery charger and cord in the spotter bag. Charged phones provide live lap timing. Dead phones provide nothing.
Along the lines of what a phone provides in this modern era, I still like having a standalone stopwatch that fits in your hand nicely and provides the ergonomics of starting and stopping the watch. We include a good stopwatch in our spotter bags along with a pair of binoculars. And because duct tape holds the world together and universally solves problems I include zip ties and duct tape in our bags. You can never go wrong with providing your teammates with some zip ties and duct tape at the track.
All the items I have described stay inside the team spotter bags. Each bag has a labeled laminated tag on the side that identifies the bag to our team. After each event I go through the bags, remove the trash and renew anything that needs replacing. At the next race, I don’t have to think about it and I can concentrate on driving. I just hand the bag to a spotter and send them up the hill.
Each of our spotter bags has laminated, easy to follow, photo instructions on how to operate the radio, change batteries and the proper vocabulary for spotting. We have learned the hard way that “Clear” sounds just like “Rear” in a racecar. If someone says, “On your rear” the driver hears “clear” and then turns in and you could have a collision. Instead we use car lengths to help the driver get an idea of how close someone is behind them. “You’re clear, two car lengths, he’s looking inside, clear, run your line.”
A simple tote bag, a few items like sunscreen, pens, Post-It notes and spare batteries can make a huge difference for a volunteer crew member. Set your team up with spotter bags, remember to charge the batteries and then you are set up for success during your next on-track outing. These bags won’t cost you a lot of money, but they can save you a ton of money by avoiding an on-track incident. Good luck and keep the shiny side up!
Rob Krider is a four-time NASA Honda Challenge 4 National Champion and author of the novel, “Cadet Blues.”