Mike Neff · Monday October 22, 2012
This week for Tech Talk, we thought we’d take a detour from life under the hood to give you a taste of what life is like up on the roof. Mike Herman, Jr. has been spotting for several years for drivers at local tracks all of the way up to the Sprint Cup Series. Before that, he was a driver and mechanic, winning multiple track championships at Concord Speedway and competing in the Hooters Pro Cup Series back when it was one of the strongest short track divisions in the country. So as NASCAR heads to Martinsville, Virginia this weekend with its Chase for the Championship Frontstretch sat down with Herman to talk a little about the tools of his trade. Find out more insight about the responsibilities of a spotter, what the toughest pit road in the sport is and how much the best spotters in the business spend on their equipment as Herman, Jr. sits down for an extended conversation with our own Mike Neff. Oh, and we talk a little Martinsville inside info, too…
Mike Neff: Before we get started, let’s get some background as a lot of our readers aren’t going to know who you are. I know you’ve been around racing for a long time… give us a little bio about you and your life in racing.
Mike Herman, Jr.: Well, this coming year will be my 30th year in racing. Started in 1983 in two forms. That is when I started racing go-karts myself, but my dad also worked for Earnhardt’s personal team, his Late Model Sportsman team. So I was able to go over to the shop and hang out every night, ‘cause it is only a mile from my house. So I spent quite a few years over there hanging out and getting to go to the race track. I was fortunate enough to get to go to Victory Lane with Earnhardt when dad was with him, on numerous occasions. That molded who I was as a racer. From there, I spent 10 years kart racing and then started running Late Models at Hickory in 1995 and had a Late Model team for several years. I was fortunate enough to win two track championships at Concord in 1997 and 1998.
From there, I spent 10 years driving in the Hooters Pro Cup series. It was a good time but it was a challenging time for me. We were always strained financially, trying to do a Pro Cup deal on a Late Model budget. With the Late Model we always had everything we needed to compete, win races and championships but not so much on a Pro Cup deal. We didn’t have the success we wanted, even though it was a rollercoaster and we did have some success. 2007 was my last year driving and I started spotting for Marc Davis at Joe Gibbs Racing in the K&N East Series. I had one of the guys from my Late Model and Pro Cup teams who worked for JGR, and they were needing a spotter — he put in an immediate reference for me, so I was able to clear a lot of hurdles thanks to that.
So my spotting deal took off there, which turned more into a driver coaching thing because I can take my experience driving and pair it with my spotting ability and put the two together so that it works out as a good position for a team. That’s what brings me to my current career.
Neff: Getting your foot in the door with Marc was certainly a good break to springboard your spotting career.
Herman, Jr.: It was definitely a good break. A lot of times, you have to start with lesser teams and work your way up. With me being able to go in with Joe Gibbs on my resume right off the bat really did springboard me and send me off into the future. At the same time, though, the groundwork you lay in the Short Track racing ranks always pays dividends in the future. If it wasn’t for the guys that have come through my race team here, learned a trade and parlayed it into a job in the sport, which I am very proud of… that’s one of my biggest legacies. It isn’t just me, this has been an organization of many people. It started with my dad and me but many, many people have come through here and a lot of those guys are now working with Truck, Nationwide and Cup teams today. I feel like that is my legacy, that we provided a team and a facility and the ability to learn a trade, better themselves and make a career out of it. One way or the other, I feel like it would have worked out just because of the contacts and the network that I am part of thanks to the Short Track racing world.
Neff: Technically, this question is focused on Martinsville but most of it will probably pertain to all of the different tracks in the country. When you head up into the spotter’s stand, how many radios do you take with you?
Herman, Jr.: I actually carry a minimum of four radios with me and sometimes five. That fifth will usually act as just a backup. During the race, you’ll use at least four. The Cup guys will sometimes use a fifth as a direct line to the crew chief that no one else can hear. I primarily focus on short track racing and I use four radios at one time. It is a juggling act to be able to hear all of that through two ears but over time, you get used to it.
Neff: Do you take up spare batteries as well or do you just swap out radios as they die?
Herman, Jr.: Well first of all, it is important for a spotter to own his own equipment. I guess that is the root of it. My bag of radios and equipment is my bag of tools. Just like a mechanic has his toolbox that he takes from job to job, I have my radio bag full of equipment. I know it all works and how it works and I have spares and everything I need. Along with the four radios I carry, I take about 10 batteries for the weekend. On a typical weekend, I spot multiple classes during the weekend, whether it is a Super Late Model race and a Late Model or on an ARCA weekend I may spot Venturini and another class. Instead of carrying chargers with me, I just carry spare batteries. I think that is one of the biggest things that I’ve seen in the modern day spotter. This job evolved very rapidly in the last few years. It has resulted in a trickle down effect from the Cup level down as to how that job is evolving. It is important for a spotter to have their own equipment so that way, they know what they have and that it is the best they have.
It was just like at Martinsville Sunday for the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300. On a rare chance when I’m not spotting a race, I can sit back and watch how the event flows. I think one of the biggest challenges a race director has at the short track level is not the intelligence of the spotters, because there are a lot of smart racing minds atop the stand, but I think they’re handicapped from an equipment standpoint. I’ve programmed my equipment to a point so that it is, to the best of my knowledge, the best it can be for me to do my job, where most of those guys just grab a radio out of the box and go spot. I can hear things really clearly when the race director is telling me something where most of those guys, like the ones at Martinsville Sunday, are listening through a scanner that has a quarter of the volume of what I can hear. I’m firing different things off in different ears so that I can analyze everything that is being said. Most of those guys are handicapped from an equipment standpoint and it affects the race.
Neff: There are various levels of equipment that people can choose to own when it comes to two-way radios. How much do top of the line radios run you when you’re trying to amass the best to make your job as easy as possible?
Herman, Jr.: Number one, the best radio supplier out there, and I’ve used them since 1993, is definitely Racing Electronics. They have stuff that is at the very high end and they have economical things for the Saturday night racer. At any given time, my bag has five to six thousand dollars worth of equipment in it. I understand that that is out of reach of the typical Saturday night guy. It is hard to sit here and say, when I have four radios on me that are $1,000 each and my headset has four ports in it so that I can listen to all four of those radios. I know that is taking it to the extreme but that is how I do the job. The number one job of the spotter is to keep the driver safe. Number two is aiding in the flow of the race. You are the liaison between race control and the driver and team. Number three, where I feel like a guy like me comes in, we’re also a performance tool. My coaching ability comes into play and that is where high dollar equipment makes it better because I’m trying to maximize my assistance to the team — this is what I do for a living. That isn’t to say that a Saturday night spotter needs $5,000 worth of equipment. He can have $1,500 worth of equipment and 99% of what I do to help the driver and the flow of the show. I am on the extreme side. I wouldn’t sit here and say you need all of that to do the job. I also didn’t go out and acquire it all at one time. I’ve built it up over time for five years. That is also where I try to help out the newer guys that see the equipment I’m using to explain to them what it all does. It helps them realize, if they want to do this, that they need to start piecing together some of the better equipment in order to do it right.
Neff: At Martinsville, do you need binoculars to do the job or is it small enough that you can do the job without them?
Herman, Jr.: You don’t need visual aids at Martinsville, but I do keep them handy as part of my bag. I carry binoculars everywhere I go. If I’m spotting a mile and a half, like I did Friday night at Kansas, I keep them on my neck where I can get to them quickly. If I’m at Martinsville for the Late Model race, I won’t have them on my neck but they’re close to where I can get to them quickly. If it is a Cup or Truck race at Martinsville I have them on my neck just like I’m at Daytona or Talladega. It is mainly there for body damage. When cars get together and the caution comes out, or a rub is making the crew chief wonder whether you to have to come in for a green-flag stop, it is the spotter’s job to look at the fenders and tell them where the rub is. Is it 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock? Being able to tell the crew exactly where it is allows them to maximize their efforts at repairing the damage — and in order to see that, you have to look through binoculars. You don’t need them clearing through traffic at Martinsville, you do that with your eyes — but finding out that the rub is at 3 o’clock on the right-front tire is going to take binoculars.
Neff: When the time comes for the race, it seems like there are different techniques to spotting for a driver. How far ahead of your car and driver do you look when you’re spotting and does it depend on the size of the track?
Herman, Jr.: It is all relative. Martinsville is unique because of the way it is laid out — it isn’t even a normal half-mile. The long straightaways and tight corners are different from even North Wilkesboro or Myrtle Beach or something like that. So it is unique, but you’re constantly scanning. I’m always watching my driver but I’m also watching ahead. You try to look to the next corner, at least. Depending on the size of the race track, you put yourself in the driver’s seat and anticipate how long he has to react. Like at Kansas Saturday night. If we’re cruising down the back straight and something happens in turn four, I don’t have to call it immediately because I have time to get my driver slowed down. If we’re cruising down the back and they wreck going into turn three, you have to be immediate with it because that driver has to slow down right then. It varies from track to track and where you are on the track. You’re constantly scanning back and forth. If you put a video camera on a spotter’s eyes, you’re probably not going to be able to watch the footage. The head is constantly moving because as soon as I look ahead, I look back to my driver. You’re clearing him in and out of the traffic. It also depends on whether you’re in traffic or not. If he’s passing someone or being passed, then you have to focus more on him than what is ahead. Once he clears the traffic, you can look more ahead in case something happens out front. It is a juggling act depending on where you’re looking but you’re always looking back and forth.
Neff: When a driver comes to pit road, you have to guide them in, but from the time they get on the pit lane until they pull out, when do you turn over control to the crew chief and when do you take it back?
Herman, Jr.: When a pit cycle comes up, as soon as the caution comes out, and I have the driver slowed down, I always say the lap number and that is the cue to the crew chief that he can start talking. Then it is up to the crew chief and driver to think quickly because the pits can open in a hurry. Once the pace car picks up the field, they can open the next time by. Martinsville is the worst because the driver and crew chief have almost zero time to decide what they want to do. The pace car picks you up off of turn two and the entrance to pit road is in turn three. As soon as the pace car picks up the field, they open the pit lane. I’ve been on teams before where the driver and crew chief totally missed it because they were talking. Most times you’re coming off of turn four when you have to decide but it isn’t that way at Martinsville. It happens in such a hurry and it has definitely bitten people before. From there, race control will come across the radio and tell you the pits will be open next time by. You alert the crew chief that the pits are going to open and then from there I will let the guys on pit road know where we are. I mainly do that for the gas man because he can’t see the whole track. I let them know when we’re on the back or in turn three, coming to them so he doesn’t have to stand there with the gas can the whole time. Once we hit pit road, you call out the RPM for the gear you have in the car for pit road speed and you start that at the timing line. I’ll walk the driver all of the way to 10 away from the pit box and then I’ll say “10 away” and then the crew chief will take over.
The spotter then stays completely silent until the car pulls out of the pits. The crew chief will clear them out one lane, two lanes or all of the way to the grass. Once the crew chief releases the button, I will take back over and make sure the driver maintains pit road speed until it ends and then we’ll go back to work on our normal deal.
Neff: That is interesting. You always hear the crew chief count them in and out but I didn’t know if there was a pre-planned technique to it or if it just naturally flowed.
Herman, Jr.: Everything is pre-planned. We don’t leave anything to chance. I have different things that I go through before the race. I don’t normally come on the radio until the National Anthem is done playing. Once I know we have radio communication working fine, I’ll have looked at the pit road map and analyzed who is pitting on either side of us. That way, we know if we’re going to have an open in or open out. Then I let the crew chief know where 10 away is. It isn’t always a pit box. It can be a landmark. It can be a spot in the grass or a Sunoco fuel sign. It can be anything, but we want the crew chief to know exactly where 10 away is so that he knows where he’ll be picking up the driver to carry him into the box. Absolutely nothing is left to chance. We go through it all.
Neff: Spotters are a unique breed and are part of their own little fraternity. Spotters come and spotters go but there are many of you that are up there all of the time. When new guys roll up into the spotter’s stand, is there any kind of new spotter hazing or good-natured ribbing that you do to new guys when they first show up in the stand?
Herman, Jr.: I guess the best answer to that would be no comment. I’m totally unique from my standpoint. I started spotting in the East Series and quickly worked my way up to Nationwide and Truck and even some one-off stuff, here and there, in the Cup world. Then last year I got the chance to be up there quite regularly when I was spotting for Tony Raines. So pretty much everybody on the roof knew who I was and, of course, I had some contacts from when I was driving that carried over, so everyone knew who I was. So I didn’t have to go through too much of the initiation type stuff. It is definitely a fraternity, though. There are guys up there who have been spotting for 20 years in the Cup series and they are up there because teams want them up there. They know the system. It is a safe bet for a team because the guys know the rules and the officials and procedures and, just simple things like how to get in and out of the race track.
It is a hard job to pursue, trying to make it all of the way to Cup. I’d say it is just as hard to make it as a Cup spotter as it is to make it as a driver. It is tough. It is definitely a fraternity. It is a good fraternity, there are a lot of really great guys up there. Now, as far as the hazing and initiation-type stuff, I’m going to stick with the ‘“no comment” stance.
Herman not only has a very diverse view of the sport but also has hands on driving experience, as it seems many of the guys in the spotter’s stand have acquired these days. He is also a historian of the sport, redecorating his race shop into a racing museum filled with his personal racing memorabilia. He is a race fan with tastes for all types of competition. His passion for the sport not only makes him an excellent spotter but a great ambassador for the sport.
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