Along with tires, parts, drivers need extra eyes

Auto racing: Spotters, perched above the track, on the lookout for trouble, have become essential to every team.

Auto Racing

October 16, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

They're perched high above the front stretch at every Winston Cup race - wearing radio headsets and leaning on a railing, standing straight or sitting on the edge of the roof, their legs dangling over the side, more than 100 feet in the air.

No matter their posture, however, they will be focused on the racetrack.

These are spotters, and it is each one's job to be the eyes of a Winston Cup driver, watching for trouble and helping him avoid it.

There are no NASCAR guidelines for the job of spotter - until last week, there was not even a rule requiring the use of one.

Still, there are no written rules, no test to pass for this demanding position. It is self-regulating.

"Well, they do have to be able to see," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter.

He was joking, but was nonetheless right. Eyesight must be strong and peripheral vision good - though some carry binoculars, most find the field of vision too confining. They can't be afraid of heights. They need calm personalities in the adrenaline-pumping heat of a race.

"I never thought I'd be able to talk calmly with three cars wrecking in front of our car," said Ty Norris, vice president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the man who serves as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s spotter during races.

"There can be a tremendous wreck, cars flipping and parts flying, and it's your friend in all that stuff and you have to be able to talk your driver calmly through it."

Once, during a race at Pocono, with fog hanging low around the track, the spotter for Terry Labonte's team offered this helpful advice: "Terry, watch out, there's an accident on the backstretch."

Labonte radioed back: "I know, you idiot. It's me!"

Hunter, the NASCAR vice president, remembers how crewmen used to stand on top of their teams' trucks in the garages during races and attempt to see trouble ahead on the track. If an accident was spotted, the crewman would radio his driver to slow down. One way or another, the job evolved.

At some tracks, such as Richmond, the spotter will work with his team's crew chief to help the driver around the track. They'll ask each other, "Do you have a better view?"

Most teams use at least two spotters at Pocono, Watkins Glen, Sears Point, Daytona and Talladega.

In addition to sharp concentration, spotters need strong, clear voices and the persuasiveness of a politician.

"It's the political aspects, getting other spotters and drivers to work with us, that worries me most," said Billy O'Day, whose first race as the No. 1 spotter for driver Kevin Harvick was at Dover last month. "I only knew a few guys up there, but I'm sure I'll learn how it works."

Spotters are often the lines of communications between the drivers. Earnhardt describes it this way:

"It's like me and Bobby Labonte, if we're riding nose-to-tail in the back of the pack and I want to tell him: `I want to stick behind you and get through the pack.' Ty tells his spotter. Or, if I'm leading, I'll tell Ty to tell so-and-so behind me, if he's a lap down, that if he just sticks there and doesn't try to pass me, I'll let him have his lap back when the caution comes out."

But when that cooperative spirit disappears in a hotly contested race, a spotter may have to be a driver's conscience as well as his eyes.

Earlier this season at Rockingham, Earnhardt was racing for all he was worth when Kurt Busch caused him to wreck. Earnhardt took his car to the garage and his crew worked on it for 50 laps.

When Earnhardt drove back onto the track, he immediately made his way to Busch's rear bumper.

"He bothered that kid for 25 laps," Norris said. "I had to yell at him [Earnhardt] and scream at him. He kept saying his radio was dead. I kept saying, `You know it isn't. That's enough!' I told him to let it go, that he was going to get a NASCAR fine."

For Donna LePage, spotting is even more personal. It is her husband, Kevin, who is driving down there. But she said being his spotter is more calming to her than standing in the pits or watching from the grandstand.

"The spotter's duty is to keep the driver safe," she said. "What better place for me to be? And Kevin knows I have his best interests at heart."

Obviously, spotters have a lot to do and need poise. But perhaps the most important thing they need is the confidence of their drivers.

"Jeremy [Brickhouse] has been a great spotter for our team," Busch said. "There's no question that it can be challenging up there some Sundays, but he always manages to pull us through the best he can. Sometimes I can't see a thing in front of me during a wreck, and Jeremy's voice is what I have to rely on to get me through it."

But every driver is different. Some want spotters to be cheerleaders. Some want them to be detailed. Others, such as Bobby Labonte, just want the basics.

"You want a guy who keeps his eyes on the racetrack," Labonte said. "But they only have to know a few words to work with me. Clear. Stop - if there is a big wreck. Caution. And green flag. That's it."

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