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Inside the high-stakes world of spotters, racing's unsung heroes

Motoramic
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.

Chris Wheeler and his dad Packy high-fiving after the race

Chris Wheeler and his dad Packy high-fiving after the race

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?

The truth is far more demanding. At large tracks like Indianapolis or Talladega, a spotter might be over a mile away from their car they’re in charge of, and yet guys like Wheeler are still responsible for judging tiny gaps.

“If I clear Sébastien at over 200 mph on an oval based on a six-inch gap,” Wheeler explains, “that not only puts him at risk, but the other drivers on track, and even the spectators and safety crew at risk. It’s a huge amount of pressure. It forces you to execute on such a high level that I don’t know of any other job outside of the race car that can reach that level, at least during the race itself.”

So how do you judge a six-inch gap from a mile away, where cars look like a swarm of colorful bees racing towards you? I’ve spotted for race teams before, and even with a good pair of binoculars, it’s incredibly difficult to tell which car is yours, especially racing in a pack. Unless you're blessed with a bright pink machine, at a distance most cars look alike. If a spotter’s too cautious, a driver won’t trust their advice, meaning they must make those precise determinations with no help from the sky.

And while cautious might seem like the right call of the day, as Bourdais explains, that’s not always the case: “In these new IndyCars, you can’t see anything out of the wing mirrors. Nothing. So you can’t rely only on yourself. You need a good spotter, one you can trust, to help you make those tough calls.”

The good spotters earn the trust of their drivers, and in many cases, their wives and husbands too: “When I was spotting for you at Texas,” Wheeler recalls, back from our time racing together in 2010, “we were in that lead pack the whole night, and it kind of got crazy, wheels almost touching and stuff – hard racing, you know? After the race, your wife came to me and gave me a hug, thanking me for keeping you safe. That brought it home, just how much responsibility I have.”

I remember the race well, and I too was incredibly grateful for his judgment and concise calls at over 220 mph. When the green flag flies in IndyCar, it’s a joint effort between the spotter and the driver. Racing is a team sport. Bourdais concurs: “I know when he tells me something it’s really happening. That way I don’t have to second-guess, and have total confidence in what he says. I still have the wheel, so I make the ultimate decision in what to do. But I do so knowing what I’m being told in my ear is fact.”

Spotters at work during the race

Spotters at work during the race

That trust is what allows a driver to push to the max, and it can take entire seasons to build. In many cases, drivers and spotters become close friends. For guys like Wheeler, spotting is a full-time job. During an event, not only does he help with the immediate situations, he looks at how the race is evolving and what other car/driver combinations are doing – where they’re strong, where they’re struggling. He relays that information to the driver, as well as to the pit wall, helping the engineers plan the race’s strategy. For me, Wheeler played a role of cheerleader, too, pushing me to attack and go after the next car in line. Not every driver wants that level of involvement, but I enjoyed his calls to “KEEP DIGGIN’!”

A good spotter also works with rival spotters on the stand to form allegiances, ones the driver can choose to follow if they wish. This can become especially crucial in NASCAR pack racing; at Daytona, if you break out of the draft to form a new line, you need to know whether the driver behind you will follow. Otherwise you’ll get swamped.

Due to a passionate spirit for their life on the stand, spotters are known to be fiery. Fistfights happen: “If one guy’s driver cuts yours off, especially repeatedly, yeah, we get frustrated. We want to win just as badly as anyone,” Wheeler says.

Despite every spotter and drivers’ best efforts, accidents occur. When one does, Wheeler’s philosophy is simple: “The immediate thing is to let the driver know there’s an incident,” he says. “As you’re doing that, your eyes are on the accident and you’re trying to determine where those cars are going to go — high or low. Unless it’s a full rear wing assembly or something, I never follow where the debris goes. I’m more worried about the bigger bits — the tub, the engine, things like that. I have to know where they are and where they’re going to end up, and tell my driver clearly to go high or low.”

“To them,” he continues, “it has to be simple, even if what’s happening is far from it. And at the same time, I need to let him know where the cars alongside us are – is there one on his inside, or are we threewide? That plays a part in what options the driver has.”

When a wreck occurs – especially one where there’s a lot of smoke – a driver may have no choice but to drive entirely off what the spotter is saying. It’s not quite “Days of Thunder,” but you can be faced with zero visibility and a 200-mph race car heading directly into blind debris.

Above all, the job takes immense, unwavering concentration.

“Spotting is like the childhood game where you have all these cards that are turned face down and you have to remember which one is which,” he says. “When you turn them over, you have to make matches. And you can never get it wrong.”