Spotter’s Job Is No Picnic At the Track

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon gets ready to get on the track during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Friday, July 11, 2014, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon gets ready to get on the track during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Friday, July 11, 2014, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Loudon, n.h. — Eddie D’Hondt has heard the dismissals, and the spotter for Jeff Gordon’s famed No. 24 bristles each time. Spotters have one job, people say. “Clear” or “not clear.” That’s the gig.

At one point, they were right. But D’Hondt says that now it couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It’s slightly perturbing to the guys that have tenure that we just go up there and say ‘clear or not clear, green, green.’ It’s nothing even close to that,” D’Hondt said. “That’s what it was 15 years ago. Now it’s as much information as you can give that’s going to help the driver run the correct line as the race changes. Because as the race goes on, it changes.”

The stakes of spotting go hand-in-hand with the perils of racing. Drivers flirt with danger every time on the track. They drive up to 200 miles an hour and navigate tight crowds and tighter turns, with neck and head restraints that make most of the space around them a massive blind spot. That blind spot is where any of the other 42 cars could be, just a slight miscue from a collision that can bury them into the barrier. Or worse.

Instead, they rely on the voice in their ear, coming from the spotter with the bird’s-eye view from above the press box, telling them where other cars are, where they can move and what the track conditions are like. There’s no choice for the drivers but to trust them, and put their race and safety in their hands — and hope that the calls they make are the right ones.

“You’re listening and watching for debris and oil and people wrecking or stuff happening out in front of him. And hopefully you can give him a bit of a competitive advantage,” said Earl Barban, Jimmie Johnson’s spotter.“Then when he is passing someone, you can let him know that he’s clear so he can concentrate in front of him at 200 miles an hour.”

There’s no prerequisite for the job, tagged the “eyes in the sky” in auto racing culture. Brandon Benesch, Danica Patrick’s spotter, was her crew chief in the Nationwide Series. Mike Herman Jr. (Martin Truex Jr.) raced in the Pro Cup Series and Southern Modified Tour. Chris Lambert, who guides Denny Hamlin, never raced at all.

What is required is a knowledge of the track, a calming tone and a steady nerve, because over the course of hundreds of laps — which can include all-or-nothing restarts or four-wide turns — there will be several times when the margin of error becomes razor thin.

“It looks calm and peaceful when they’re three-wide or four-wide, but all it takes is a split second when someone gets checked up or somebody gets turned, and it gets pretty chaotic really quick,” said Kyle Busch’s spotter, Tony Hirschman, whose father won seven Modified races at NHMS. “At that point, you’re sort of at the mercy of the racing gods in how the cars bounce and go.”

As racing has gotten more complex, the spotter has had to become more versatile. In the past, they kept an eye on the track, while the crew chief and driver handled the strategy and race management. Now, with engineering’s increased presence in the sport and the crew chief called on to spend more time handling and interpreting data, the spotter often has to pick up some of the communication slack, which can range from coaching to just giving a flustered driver a verbal pat on the back.

“It’s changing by the week, actually,” said D’Hondt, who also spotted for Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte and Kyle Busch before joining Gordon’s team in 2012. “The role of talking to the driver, whether it’s encouraging him or telling him lap times, when a spotter can see him changing his line and the crew chief can’t, (keeping) his mental frame good, has taken a change in the last year or so.”

The spotter also can discuss track position deals with other spotters, but the focus has always been his own car — specifically keeping the driver in it as safe as possible, which means knowing the track as well as he can.

“I’ve got to do my homework,” said D’Hondt, who listened to the entire Kentucky race from last year to prepare for the Sprint Cup’s return to the venue two weeks ago. “There is a lot of research, there is a lot of homework, there is a lot of experience in 1,000 different scenarios.”

With their voice in their driver’s ear constantly, spotters have to be careful about what they’re saying, as well as how they’re saying it. Honesty is key in order to establish trust, but excitement with how the driver is doing is important, as well.

“I think you have to be a fan of your driver and be friends with him,” said Barban, who worked for Rusty Wallace before landing with Johnson. “You have to have his best interests at heart. It’s him out there and you have to be the cheerleader.”

That mix of poise and enthusiasm can guide a driver through a race’s most hectic moments — such as late restarts or massive accidents on superspeedways — and lift his spirits when frustrations mount.

“It’s easy to get frustrated when you’re running up front and the way the strategy plays out, you may get mired in a pack for a couple of runs,” Hirschman said. “But you just try to keep everybody on task and keep the big picture in mind. … There are a lot of peaks and valleys through the course of a race. You just do the best you can to keep everybody upbeat the whole time.”

Going too far — becoming too emotionally involved in the driver’s performance — is a pitfall in and of itself, however.

“I might let (Gordon) know, ‘Hey, you’re driving away from everyone behind you.’ And that gives him the sense of mind to say, ‘Okay, I’m in good shape, I can take good care of my car,’ ” D’Hondt said. “Or the opposite of that is, ‘Hey, the 4 car’s coming and he’s better than we are right now.’ You tell him what you see, and you don’t vary off of that.”

If the job is done well, it can go a long way to putting the driver in Victory Lane. Still, the spotter’s task can remain in the shadows while the driver and crew chief get the majority of the credit.

Not that they mind. Being a spotter requires loving the sport, and those who do relish the perks, even if the spotlight isn’t always one of them.

“I’m 50 years old and I’ve been doing this since 1988. I’ve jacked the car before and gassed the car, worked on it and sat on pit road, this is the most exciting position that I think there is,” Barban said, “because I am a race enthusiast, and I get to watch every race from the best vantage point at the track.”

Drew Bonifant can be reached at 603-369-3340 or or on Twitter @dbonifant.