Inside the high-stakes world of spotters, racing's unsung heroes
Spotters watch over a NASCAR race
Quick: Name a race car driver. You’ve probably got at least a couple at the ready — Dale or Senna or maybe Mario (Andretti, not Nintendo.) If you’re one of NASCAR’s millions of fans, you can likely name not just drivers but team owners or even a few crew chiefs. It’s also true for IndyCar, or Formula 1 or Le Mans, where even the designers and engineers get sprinkled with a bit of fame.
But no race series ever makes much of the person who in many cases has just as much to do with driving the car as the racer themselves — namely, the spotter, the lookout perched on top of the track who’s job is to see everything with a hawk’s vision — not to be seen.
In America’s top-level motorsports, drivers would not last long without a second pair of eyes. IndyCars surpass 230 mph on the fastest of racetracks, and with the driver set deep within the cockpit, the two tiny pieces of glass hung on either side serve so little purpose they might as well be memorials to the first rear-view mirror. The speed and vibration blurs images beyond recognition, and the pods behind the rear tires block any unobscured view. A driver’s head is also wedged into place via thick padding, helping mitigate the strain of g-forces that can surpass 4.5g — meaning you can barely turn your head more than a few millimeters to either side.
A NASCAR driver lives in a slightly less intense world, with lower speeds, slightly better vision and less g-force to deal with. But mirrors are useless in a pack of 40-plus stock cars inches apart or bump drafting. Without outside guidance they might as well drive blind, and spotters are so essential NASCAR requires them on duty every time a car takes the track.
At just 28, Chris Wheeler has already worked for many of America’s top race teams; he’s spent years on the IndyCar circuit as well as time riding the NASCAR merry-go-round. Wheeler was my spotter during the 2010 IndyCar season, a year we finished fourth at the Indianapolis 500. This year, he has teamed up with KV Racing to spot for four-time Champ Car World Series champion and ex-F1 driver, Sébastien Bourdais.
The duties of a spotter sound simple: Relay clear, concise information to the driver via the radio as to the whereabouts of the surrounding race cars. Phrases like, “The #20 is two back and closing,” are commonplace. “He’s got a run, looking high,” too — which requires some knowledge of racing, but still, don’t we all watch enough to know?