Home / Cup Series / Spotters: The Unsung Heroes of NASCAR Safety — Part 2
(Photo: Jennifer Coleman NKP)

Spotters: The Unsung Heroes of NASCAR Safety — Part 2

For part one of this feature, click here.

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William Jones

There is a reason why some cringes at the thought of being a spotter. They are one of only two people who truly decide what happens on the racetrack in NASCAR, and the other holds the steering wheel. Unlike a crew chief, who theoretically could cover their eyes with a sock on the final restart, a spotter must be on their very best from green to checkered.

With an urgency to succeed mixed with the importance of keeping everyone safe, how can a spotter possibly keep it together? Well, even after decades of spotting, the nerves still exist, says Curtis Aldridge.

“I don’t eat before a race. I just don’t, I can’t,” Aldridge admits. “When I drove cars, I didn’t eat and I don’t eat now. As quick as the green flag drops, the butterflies are gone and it’s total intensity and focus on the job at hand. When the race is over, it’s like [exhales], ‘wow, I’m starved.’ I’ll always hide a plate of food or something in the fridge because I could eat a horse when the race is over.”

For Joey Meier, who calls the shots for Brad Keselowski, having a car he knows will contend for a win on a weekly basis can alone raise his stress level.

“Go low, go low, go low.” (Photo: Matthew Thacker, NKP)

“During the National Anthem, you do get a butterfly feeling, you get an anxiety level,” Meier says. “Especially if you know that you [have] a really good car or if you’re coming into the Chase races, then you can definitely get nervous. Or any restrictor plate race, you automatically get nervous because you know you’re getting ready to go to work.

“NASCAR has always talked about how we are a safety device first. That’s our primary concern with the limited head
restraints and the visibility out of these racecars nowadays.”

Earl Barban, spotter for Jimmie Johnson, tries to avoid the word nervous, as he knows it is all just a part of the job.

“I don’t know if nervous is the word – a little antsy for it to get going,” Barban says. “It’s exciting. It’s what we come here to do. You just want to make sure you so a very good job and that you give them what they want to hear. You don’t want something to jump up and surprise you, so it doesn’t surprise them.”

No matter the level of preparation, every race has its round of close calls. Many of them come down to luck.

“I can tell you that I’ve crossed my fingers when I’ve said ‘clear’ before,” Barban says. “I’ve closed my eyes really quick to hopefully make it through to the other end. I don’t want to admit too much of that, though.”

Meier has a distinct method he uses while spotting in which he always strives for the safe side.

“The one thing I try to do is – the driver has a decent amount of visibility directly around his car,” he says. “Not very far away, but directly around his car. I don’t know if other spotters do this or not, but I won’t tell Brad where we can go. I will always tell him where he can’t.

“I’m not going to say ‘clear’ on the side of being wrong. I don’t have a problem with saying ‘not clear’ if he is. If I say ‘still outside’ and Brad moves up and he’s clear, I’m cool with that. But I don’t want to be on the other side of being wrong.”

With his piloting experience, Meier not only finds lessons learned from the cockpit, but also by how he handles the danger aspect from the spotter’s stand.

“When I’m the guy up front flying an airplane around, I have passengers behind me,” he explains. “It’s the same responsibility that I feel as a spotter. The difference being is, on the roof, I have no danger in my job if I mess up. I only have a danger to the drivers that are around my driver.

“The danger level is not so much self-imposed danger as a responsibility. You never want to be the guy that messes up.”

Spotters can be just as competitive as the drivers in heated on-track moments. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Along with the danger level, Mother Nature can have her effect on a spotter’s afternoon. Having grown up in the Florida heat, the summer months on the schedule take little impact on Meier’s mindset. However, the colder months do lead to some preparation beforehand.

“I’m from South Florida, I love being hot,” Meier says. “Hot temperatures bother me zero bit. Now cold, I’m the other side of the baby. I overdress with long johns, rain pants, plastic. I overdress when it’s cold.

“If you’re thirsty, you better bring water. If you’re cold, you better bring a jacket. Apparel-wise, we’re not allowed to wear shorts but we can wear lighter pants, you can wear shorter socks, things of that nature.”

As with a driver, the level of adrenaline overpowers all, reaching an ultimate high when one is racing for position.

“When you’re racing for position, your adrenaline – if it doesn’t go up when you’re side-by-side with somebody, you should find another job,” Meier says. “Most of us in the garage, 95 percent or more have either worked on cars, driven them or have been a part of racing for so long that it’s our nature. We are competitive. We are as competitive on the roof as these guys behind the wheel.”

With so much on the line on a weekly basis for spotters, does it all truly pay off when you get to walk into Victory Lane? Though they may arrive a few minutes late – having to walk from the roof to the infield – they still believe that it’s worth it.

“Those guys get right to Victory Lane,” Meier says. “One of the things we miss is the champagne shower, which I don’t mind because I still have to fly the airplane on the way home. We’re able to get across the track relatively easy and get there, congratulate the guys. The thrill of victory is still there.”

Difficulties of Racetracks

Unlike drivers, teams and cars, racetracks don’t often change — sometimes drastically — from year to year. From the plate racing of Daytona and Talladega to short tracks, road courses or mile-and-a-halves, the yearly schedule presents a long list of difficulties to work with for spotters.

“The anxiety level is high because there is so much that’s out of our control,” Meier says. “You want to be able to control what you can. But the restrictor plate races are the most fun for me because we are more involved at a plate race than any other track. We don’t control anything, we’re just more involved.”

Letting the drivers work their magic, Meier knows how to keep the messages quick in the midst of disaster.

“The driver doesn’t need to know, ‘Oh hey, look, Kasey Kahne, driving the Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, blew a motor. And he’s putting oil all down in turn 1,’” Meier says. “That took a long time to say. You’re trying to get that driver to slow down as quickly as he can, and what lane is available. So [I say], ‘Back it down, back it down, go high, go high.’

Aldridge, who has worked with NASCAR veterans Terry and Bobby Labonte on the plate side in recent years, has come to peace with the lack of control at those events.

Teams can use up to five spotters when racing on a road course. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

“Even though there is nothing in the world you can do about it — you’re running three- and four wide — you know the wreck is coming. You know it,” Aldridge says. “There isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. You’re covering a football field a second. And if you’re in that pack and they get turned, you either missed it or you didn’t. It’s not like there is too much we can do to affect getting through that wreck.”

Thankfully, the spotters only have four plate races a year. On the short track racing side, there are six races that present new challenges no matter the car with which you’re working.

“The ones that might make me the most apprehensive – one will be Bristol,” Aldridge notes. “The reason is you’re cutting laps over there at 16 seconds, so that means you’re on the straightaway for four seconds, in the corners for four seconds. If I’m entering turn 3 and there’s a crash in turn 4, by the time I can key it and get the information out, my guy is there.

“Short tracks are a lot more intense. You’re in there wheel-to-wheel and fender-to-fender all the time.  Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville, where you’re always around stuff. You’re passing or being passed.”

Meier finds similarities between plate racing and the short tracks, where all the cars are running similar speeds around the circuit.

“Bristol, you spot similar to a restrictor plate race, as dumb as that sounds,” Meier says. “It’s all about relative movement. All the cars are essentially going the same speed. You’re looking for one car that comes out of place, like how a porcupine sticks his head out. You’re looking for that one little thing that happens.

“Quite honestly, as a spotter, if you spend a lot of time directly looking at your car, you’re really not doing your job. Like a cat hanging in the curtain, you’re just ready to pounce because you got to be quick.”

During the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, one can imagine the level of fatigue for spotters, who stand and watch for more than four hours in a warm May night in North Carolina, is quite sizable.

“You look forward to a yellow flag, for sure,” Meier admits. “During pit stops, even during a green-flag run, we’re going to have close to a minute of downtime coming down to pit road, getting back up to speed. Our job is to be on that mic button for the four hours we’re there. During caution flags, we do take a drink. We get hydrated before and after and take a bathroom break if we really, absolutely, positively have to.

“Clayton Hughes spots for Martin Truex Jr. and they led 588 of 600 miles in the 600 [in 2016]. His job was easy because his car was really good. The further back you fall in the pack, the worse your car runs. And the more torn up it is, you work harder as a spotter.”

A style of racing that truly stands on its own is road course racing, where the spotter cannot see the car for the full circuit. In addition to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen require multiple spotters, where they will all work together to insure a safe lap.

“What makes Indy difficult is that it’s such a large track,” Meier says. “Where we stand, we are actually on the inside of the track on top of the pagoda. So, we only see half the track. Working with two spotters is automatically more difficult because we have to worry about transitioning from one spotter to the next.

“And then Watkins Glen, because again, you’re at a racetrack where we can’t see the whole track. We’re relying on up to four or five spotters around that facility. They’re difficult for different reasons, but it really has to do with us not being in control of our visibility.”

Meier notes the similarity to how the Motor Racing Network broadcasts races through radio, where their transitions have become as smooth as their voices.

“At Watkins Glen, you talk to the car when you can see it,” Meier says. “What’s nice is, [he and the other spotters] can’t see the car at the same time. So the guy on the frontstretch is the primary spotter, he loses the car going up the esses. Right when I lose the car is when the other spotter takes over, because he sees him.

“It works out really well at Watkins Glen. Not at Indy, we definitely have definitive hand-over points, and that’s a little more crucial. There definitely a timing thing, like an MRN that we deal with.”

Technology

With spotting being a fairly straightforward task at face value — look at a car and tell them what’s going on around them — the technology to accommodate is pretty simple, too.

But despite having a Sprint Fan Vision device to check close-up camera angles and running orders, no piece of equipment trumps a nice pair of binoculars.

“Most of your restrictor plate races, you live off binoculars,” Meier says. “A lot of us use a very familiar fixed-focus wide view. Kind of a football style. There is no focus on it, it just gets us a little bit closer. Once you started using them, you realize how helpful they are.”

Some binoculars and a sip of water and you’re all set. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

At a track like Pocono, where the spotters must watch cars at some of the toughest angles, binoculars will be more than essential.

“We’ll use them for sure at Pocono getting down into turn 1,” Meier says. “Down in turn 1 is probably the hardest top two or three visibilities down there when they’re four- or five- or possibly six-wide on a restart. You live off your binoculars, you take care of them as you take care of your radios.

“In 2016, they had lap times on their dashboards. Well, I usually give lap times. I stopped doing lap times and [Keselowski] got kind of nervous early in the year when I wasn’t talking on the radio so much.”

The headsets used by top NASCAR spotters are different than ones used in the garage area. Unlike the typical button located on the right ear muff to key the mic, spotters will have a button wired out of the headset to hold their binoculars with both hands instead of one.

“I’m very, very involved with my radio headset, microphone, it’s a unique setup,” Meier says “We do have a button that’s wired off our headset that allows us to keep it in our hand so we’re able to hold onto the binoculars with two hands and still have a button in our hand as well.”

A Close-Knit Group

During driver introductions, there is no shortage of children and happy faces walking behind the stage. Though they’re competitors on the track, the camaraderie off the track is just as obvious.

The same can be said for the spotters, who have formed a close-knit relationship over time. Having to work side-by-side with the people who are driven to beat you, being nice can sometimes be difficult.

Or… maybe not.

“Heck, no! I’m going to try to have my guy win all the time,” Barban jokes. “The camaraderie is good up there, we have a group that hangs out, goes to eat, just like everyone else in the garage. These are your friends and you have to work with them every week so you can’t have them hating you.”

Meier says he and other spotters spend a lot of time together outside the racetrack.

“We have a very close-knit group,” he says. “There are 40 of us now for this year. And of the 40 today, there are probably 35 that I go to lunch with on a monthly basis here or there. We sometimes stay in the same hotels, we ride together in the same cars.

“My biggest competitors two years – we had a dust-up there at Texas Motor Speedway and it was Jeff Gordon and Brad. Well, I ride to the track with Jeff’s spotter, Eddie D’Hondt. But most of those guys up there – again, I’ve been doing it for 19 years, and some of those guys have been doing it for 25 or more years. There is a lot of experience on the roof right now.”

Aldridge finds himself in a unique situation, as the No. 32 team has not had the funding to compete up front against the big teams. Knowing full well about his team’s lack of pace, Aldridge made sure to let other spotters know.

“We signal to each other,” Aldridge says. “I do this [points finger] and they’ll know I’m staying high, so go on about your day. It just making sure that the guys up there with me on the roof know that I’m not going to be in their way.

“We all have a real friendly rapport. It’s like a lot of things, they got to get to know you a little bit. But once they see that you’re professional about your job and you’re good to work with, then it’s one big happy family.”

Even more elbow room is appreciated. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade, NKP)

Recognized as one of the closest teams in the history of motorsports, Team Penske bleeds teamwork on nearly every aspect of the organization. Meier and Tab Boyd, who spots for teammate Joey Logano, have a strong relationship that expands beyond just lunch and talk.

“Tab and I obviously have a co-worker relationship here at Team Penske,” Meier sats. “But, ironically enough, way back years ago when we worked for different teams, I actually flew Tab around on one of the airplanes that we co-existed with another Busch team with ours at DEI. Well, before I worked with Tab, he was one of the passengers I flew around for a whole season.

“Then, we were fortunate enough to where we raced together in 2008, the street stock race in Rockingham. As far as working together, the only time we worked directly together is at a restrictor plate race when teammates are a big portion of when you’re going to pit.

“When the race starts, we’re on our own. We do share rides back to the hotel because the three of us – with Josh Williams, who spots for Ryan Blaney – we do all three series, so we share a lot of car rides to and from the hotels.”

Biggest Achievements

Above all, the thrill of being a part of the winning team is what keeps it going for these dedicated men.

“Where I think I helped the most would have to be the 48th running of the Daytona 500 that Jimmie Johnson won,” Barban recalls. “It was his first win, that was in ’06 so I had already been racing for quite a while and had never won that race. Heck, led all the way up to the last lap and finally, to spot for Jimmie and to win the Daytona 500 was my most exciting and what I felt the most achieving moment.”

For Meier, bringing Roger Penske his first Cup championship in 2012 exceeds all other achievements.

“Anybody in the garage strives for championships,” Meier says. “And I have been fortunate enough as a spotter to win a handful of championships, mainly with Martin Truex Jr. and Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. But the culmination of anybody in the garage is a Cup championship and we were fortunate to do that in 2012, to have the championship here at Team Penske.”

Holding a more philosophical point of view on the question, Aldridge finds no more self-worth then calling a safe race.

“Keeping all my guys safe has been the biggest thing,” Aldridge says. “Keeping my guys where the fenders are all on the car at the end of the day and that they’re able to go home to their families.”

Recognition

Unlike certain job positions, it’s always good when the spotter is not being talked about. Though they have a significant effect on the race, the acknowledgment from most isn’t there. Most people can’t identify a spotter and many go without notice when the race winner heads to Victory Lane.

The spotters, however, seem to like it that way, preferring to be under the radar instead of in the spotlight.

Joey Meier with one of the year’s best views at Bristol. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade NKP)

“We’re up there doing the job we’re supposed to be doing,” Barban says. “As a team, we do get the accolades. Winning is much better than losing so just that self-satisfaction that maybe you did something right. That’s enough for myself.

“I don’t need someone to hold my hand up, I feel pretty comfortable with doing a good job and if we win, I’m just as excited as everybody else.”

Correlating spotting and piloting, Meier realizes that sometimes a job well done goes unnoticed.

“Most of the time, a pilot can only do his job,” Meier says. “Because anything less and it gets noticed. Most of the time when a pilot gets talked about, it’s in the paper saying, ‘Survived by wife and kids.’ Because he made a mistake.

“A spotter can only do his job. I’m willing to give up any recognition to get rid of any blame. As we’re behind the scenes, and that’s how we need to be, I think we have a definitively important role.”

With a strong involvement in social media, Meier has received his share of fandom, as he sees it as a great opportunity to gel with the fans.

“We have a lot of interaction available,” he says. “On Twitter, I’m grateful to have I think 18,000 followers. Some of the spotters are known. TJ Majors is probably the best-known spotter, he has t-shirts — ‘Door, Bumper, Clear’ shirts. Some spotters are known, but not as much as the drivers of course.

“The interesting part about it is nobody knows our faces. They’ve listened to us for years but with social media, they now can put the face with the voice. I have been called out in public, somebody has turned around and said, ‘I’ve listened to you for 10 years, I recognize your voice.’

“As far as having my face splashed all over, it’s not like I’m Matthew McConaughey or Tom Selleck. I don’t need the recognition. I appreciate the fact that my team wants me doing the job, and knowing there’s only 40 of us on the roof who can do the job, and I’m one of those 40. That’s a pretty cool fraternity to be in, even though we don’t all have hero cards.”

Aldridge mirrors Meier’s thought, saying a spotter is there to help the driver do their job.

“I tell people that we will never be the heroes but we can always be the zero,” Aldridge says. “If I make 20 good calls in a row and we get through wrecks and then I make the one bad call, my name is mud.”

“I used to tell people that if we have a good day, it’s because of me. And if we didn’t, it’s because my driver didn’t listen.”

About Zach Catanzareti

Check Also

Brandon Jones Wins First NASCAR XFINITY Pole at Daytona

Brandon Jones continued the weekend’s young-gun trend Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, winning the pole …