Comfort from above: Spotters watch over drivers

By Don Coble
Morris News Service

AVONDALE, Ariz. - When Junior Johnson gave Eddie Jones a special assignment during the 1982 road course race at Riverside, Calif., Jones knew his job probably violated NASCAR rules.

He was right.

Johnson had the idea of hiding Jones on top of a tower in the middle of the road course to keep an eye on team driver Darrell Waltrip. And if Jones saw trouble on the track, he could call Waltrip on the radio and warn him.

Twenty-two years later, Jones' undercover work now is a mandatory assignment in NASCAR. Once outlawed, spotters have become part of the racing landscape, their tiny silhouettes on top of the press box - in open view of NASCAR - to keep an eye on every driver in the Craftsman Truck, Busch and Nextel Cup series.

"Junior Johnson, in his time, was an innovator of many things - some by the rules, some not," said Jones, now the general manager for BAM Racing and driver Ken Schrader. "He figured out pretty quick when he had a driver running for the championship, if he could get him to avoid a crash or some debris, that was an advantage."

Eventually NASCAR agreed, and the sanctioning body now requires each team to have a spotter in place during practice, qualifying and the race.

They stand high above the grandstands with a radio in one hand and binoculars in another. They tell drivers of crashes. They warn him when other drivers are approaching. They tell him if the lower groove or the upper groove is providing the best speeds. And they tell a driver when it's safe to pass or pull into traffic. In short, drivers don't make a move without a voice from above saying, "Clear."

"Spotting is all about trust," said driver Brendan Gaughan. "A spotter sees everything you can't. You have to trust his decisions because when you're in the car, you just can't see. You don't do anything unless the spotter tells you it's all right."

When Jones became the first unofficial spotter in the sport in 1982, he was dressed in street clothes and tried to look like one of the television and radio crews. When Jones helped Waltrip steer clear of trouble on the road course, Johnson used a spotter the rest of the year to help his driver win the championship.

"I remember a couple bad wrecks at Rockingham (N.C.) and Darlington (S.C.) that Darrell missed because we warned him," Jones said. "Darrell was in contention to win every time we unloaded. We always thought he was going to win. He was so focused, it was our job to keep him out of trouble. It was a big advantage to be able to talk to him directly.

"Spotters have to be by nature aggressive people. If they're not, they're intimidated by their driver. He has to be able to speak with authority so when he says something, the driver knows he can depend on it."

NASCAR last year demanded spotters to be in their race day positions above the grandstands. An official makes sure a spotter is in place before that team's car is allowed on the track.

"Where a spotter is really valuable is when there's a wreck and you have a wall of smoke," Ricky Rudd said. "You know there's cars sitting on the racetrack, there's a wall of smoke and you have zero visibility. You're still going too fast to stop; you're still going 150-160 mph. That's really nerve-racking. It's good when the spotter on the other side is telling you it's clear through, or clear on the bottom or clear up high. Those are good words to hear."

Because spotters have to react so quickly, they have to create their own language. Greg Sacks, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., once hired a fellow New Yorker to be a spotter because he easily understood her vernacular. Randy LaJoie, a two-time Busch Series champion, still employs his wife, Lisa.

"They get used to your voice," said Marty Gaunt, a spotter for Brandon Whitt on the Craftsman Truck Series. "It makes them feel like there's somebody in there riding with them. It's a comfort zone. It's a trust thing."

Gaunt used to spot for Jeremy Mayfield and Kyle Petty on the Nextel Cup Series. They still laugh at the way Gaunt used to pronounce some words.

"I'm from Canada," Gaunt said. "I have a funny way of saying out' and house.' Jeremy used to give me a had time about it."

Rudd doesn't like to hear a lot of chatter on the radio from his spotter; Gaughan constantly challenges Billy Holbrook to talk.

"When I'm driving through the turns, I'm like a golfer who doesn't want to hear anybody talk in the middle of his backswing," Rudd said. "I'm trying to pay attention and I don't want to hear anything unless something's wrong."

"I talk all the time. I'm a big mouth," Gaughan said. "I don't mind people talking when I'm racing. If I don't hear anything for a couple laps, I'll just say 'O Billy' and he knows to start talking. Give me something. I like to have things going through my head."

And the comfort of someone watching from above.

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