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(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

Spotters: The Unsung Heroes of NASCAR Safety — Part 1

Spotters hold one of the most crucial responsibilities every Sunday in NASCAR.

Though they’re outside the racecar, spotters stand atop the highest points of the racetrack, helping the driver maneuver through traffic, adjust to racing lines and maintain calm communication all while avoiding incident.

Indeed, above all, a spotter is a safety feature. While many have their own background in racing, the burden of the responsibility comes down to spitting out words quicker than the racecars themselves. Even without much recognition, the stress of the job can’t hold a candle to the thrill of the competition.

Frontstretch sat down with three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series spotters — Joey Meier, spotter for Brad Keselowski; Earl Barban, spotter for Jimmie Johnson; and Curtis Aldridge, spotter for the No. 32 Go FAS Racing Ford until 2016 — to talk about their initial interests in spotting, drivers, the intensity and much more.

Their Beginnings

With a job that requires hours of standing and precise concentration without breaks, who would ever think about getting into this crazy business?

Unsurprisingly, each spotter started as a fan before getting some racing experience of their own on their way into working in NASCAR.

Team Penske is in good hands with Joey Meier, who has worked with Keselowski since 2006 and spent nearly 10 prior years on the spotter stand.

“One of the first things I did when I got into the garage was that I wore a headset,” Meier says. “And I actually worked on the racecars and then had the opportunity in the late ‘90’s to [spot] practices. It just escalated from doing practices to doing some standalone races and then being a full-time spotter in early 2000.”

For Earl “Big Earl” Barban, his life in NASCAR began on pit road, serving several roles including jack man, pit crew coordinator and mechanic for Rusty Wallace. Soon, he arrived at spotting for good.

The best seat in the house. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

“I raced at Pevely Speedway in St. Louis,” Barban says. “Every time I would come home, the hood would be up over the windshield or it had been on fire, it had rolled over or something. I learned at a very young age that being a mechanic, that was my forte and driving wasn’t going to work out for me.

“I starting spotting in 2000 with Rusty. I think he fired a spotter and I was laughing at him one day and he said, ‘What are you laughing at?’ and I said, ‘Well, I can do that!’ So he just sent me up there.”

In his eyes, spotting was the next progression of his career, and he found his stride in no time.

“It was exciting,” he explains. “I had been in racing for the most part since 1988, building, working for Penske. Heck, I had never seen a race before, I had always been on pit road. So I only thought the race was about 100 yards long. I have always liked to talk, so that hasn’t been an issue!”

Curtis Aldridge, unlike Meier or Barban, is on the other side of the garage area, having worked with smaller team Go FAS Racing. Having watched his favorite drivers take to the track as a kid, Aldridge had a quarter-century-long racing career before spotting.

“I grew up wanting to be in the racing deal,” Aldridge says. “Turned 16 years old, got a dirt car and started racing. And I raced for 25 years. I was with Jay Robinson at that time, I was driving a NASCAR late model and he bought a Busch car, took the sponsorship and everything to go do that.

“I had to give up the driving end. So naturally, I progressed to the spotter thing because I knew what I wanted to know. So it was a natural progression for me.”

Having the driver mentality atop the spotter stand, Aldridge enjoys the adrenaline rush of being a part of the action.

“I love being in the game,” he says. “There was a time there in the ’80s when I was driving dirt and I was with a Cup pit crew who ran a part-time deal. That was a big adrenaline rush; I did that for several years.”

Aldridge is far from the only spotter who grew up in racing. Coming from South Florida, Meier grew up in a racing family from the very beginning.

“I raced street stocks and pure stocks down in south Florida,” Meier recalls. “I’ve been in a racing family all my life; my dad was fortunate to actually be associated with the last race in Daytona on the beach back in 1958. So well before I was even born, he was involved in racing.”

Earl Barban guided Jimmie Johnson to Bristol victory in 2010. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade NKP)

 

Meier’s experience as a pilot benefits him in his current job far more than his time behind the wheel of a racecar.

“From my pilot background, I knew I could talk on the radio,” Meier says. “It was a matter of being able to do it where the driver appreciated what information I have given them. Back 20 years ago, there were a lot of pilots on the roof, and right now, I think I’m the only one.”

Though the skills are vastly different, Aldridge found a similar ground with the emotions involved in the sport.

“I go through the same emotional process as when I drove the car,” he said. “When this race is over, I rode every mile with [driver] Jeb Burton. When it’s over, I’ll be used up just like I crawled out of the car. It’s that intense and I’m that much plugged into it.”

Racing Series Reached

Through decades on the spotter stand, each man has found opportunity outside the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stage.  But despite the varying competition levels, the tougher competition of the Cup Series makes the division stand on its own, says Meier.

“The interesting thing is that most of your Cup drivers are very experienced,” he says. “So they’re not looking for the smaller details that a younger, rookie driver would. I spot[ted] for Daniel Hemric over in the Truck Series and I [gave] him information in a different way that I might give it to Brad Keselowski. When Martin Truex Jr. was in the XFINITY car, I would give him information differently at the time when I was spotting for Michael Waltrip. As a spotter, it’s part of our job to be able to read what our driver needs versus what he wants.”

Three-wide is not the best situation for driver or spotter. (Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)

Meier also spotted the 24 Hours of Daytona with Dale Earnhardt in 2001, a race he says sparked a performance advantage from then on.

“These were identically prepared Corvettes,” Meier says. “The only thing different was the car number on the side. We’re spotting for the 24-hour race, so we take four-hour shifts.

“A lot of the NASCAR spotters go down to the Sebring race and the 24-hour race. They realize, because of the experience level on top, that they’re actually gaining a performance advantage. It’s probably 10 or 15 top NASCAR spotters are going down to those races.

Meier admits he did lose the car during the race – and for many in the spotting community, it’s an experience they may not want to relive.

“I lost that Corvette all the time,” he recalls. “Happens to every spotter at least once or twice each series during the year. It’s something we don’t like to admit. Having different paint schemes every week is really cool, but a spotter doesn’t like it too much.”

Many  racecar drivers’ paths often lead to a climax in racing the Indianapolis 500, which to some is the ultimate achievement in a racing career. The same applies to Meier, who says the century-long race is still circled on his calendar.

“I’ve talked to Team Penske about the opportunities,” he says. “But because I’m full-time [in Cup], the opportunities don’t afford to go spot there. It’s really the only race from the Indy side of things I’d like to spot for the prestige of it.”

Would Meier be open to spotting both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day? A spotter double? Oh, yeah.

“I think it’d be awesome!” he exclaims.”I’d love to do it, 100 percent. Sign me up. I’ve done quite a few doubles, but not on the same day.  We did Sonoma and Milwaukee, that was a good one, to fly back and forth every day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I enjoy those kinds. I don’t know if I could do it every weekend.”

Aldridge, meanwhile, is an all-around worker, as he has helped Go FAS in many other areas outside of spotting, which will come in handy when David Pepper takes over spotting duties for the No. 32 in 2017 with driver Matt DiBenedetto. For Aldridge, the Cup Series presents difficulties only overtaken by the money available.

“When we were in XFINITY, we could race top 15,” he says. “It’s been more difficult [in Cup] because the money is so much bigger. With the money that we had to compete in XFINITY, we could run upper-to-mid-pack and do that with a lot of different drivers. Here, it takes so many pieces of the puzzle.”

The Drivers & Teams  

Within each series are teams and drivers who need that dialed-in spotter overlooking the action. Unlike a driver, who can stick with one team or one crew chief for an extended period, a typical spotter has a far-reaching appetite for working with new talents.

“The Labonte brothers, the Green brothers, Dick Trickle, Randy Lajoie, Derrike Cope, Johnny Sauter,” says Aldridge, counting drivers off the top of his head. “There have been many of them through the years.”

In addition to his long resume of drivers, Aldridge has worked under the wings of championship-winning crew chiefs who have taught him lessons that still ring true today.

“I’ve worked with some big-time guys,” he says. “Herb Nab was the crew chief when I was on the Cup pit crew once upon a time. He was Junior Johnson’s crew chief for a long time and was with Cale Yarborough and that bunch, won three championships. And then I worked with Paul Andrews, who won the championship with Alan Kulwicki. I’ve worked with some big-time guys, and I know how the big-time guys work and how they think.”

Meier, working with DEI, says he spotted for almost every driver who was a part of the team during that time.

Aldridge spotted for champion Bobby Labonte in the Cup Series (Photo: Nigel Kinrade NKP)

“I started at DEI and was very fortunate to essentially spot for every driver there,” Meier reminisces. “The only driver[s] I didn’t spot for that I can recall [were] Ron Fellows and Darrell Waltrip. But Kenny Wallace, Steve Park, Michael Waltrip, Martin Truex Jr., all those guys I had the opportunity to at least spot a handful of races.

“Then I started spotting for Brad in 2006 when he was over at Keith Coleman Racing. And we formed a relationship that, still to this day, is still a good bond.”

The driver-spotter relationship can be the most important on raceday. The difference between a successful three-wide pass or crashing into the turn 3 catchfence can rest in the spotter saying “clear” or “still there.”

Having worked with multiple drivers each season as part of Go FAS, Aldridge believes having one specific driver can be more beneficial than having many.

“For the betterment of the team, it’s best to have one guy,” he says. “You get used to his needs so you know out of the box. Drivers are different, you have to see what their feel is and how they want it.”

In terms of a relationship between driver and spotter, Meier brings an interesting analogy to the subject.

“A relationship with a driver-spotter is a lot like dating,” he explains. “Do we want to date 10 or 15 girls at one time? Absolutely, it would be really cool. But eventually, you want to settle down and you want to have a wife, a kid and a house. That’s what spotting is like. You want to be able to have that relationship with the driver, that after a number of years, you guys are on the exact same page. And the longer together you can do that, the better your relationship is going to be. Whether it’s with your driver or with your wife.”

Barban, who has a six-time champion in his ear, knows that Johnson doesn’t need too much driver coaching when the racing gets hot.

“He doesn’t need much up there,” Barban says. “When you spot for somebody like that, it’s really, really easy.”

The field of play for Aldridge crawls in comparison to the championship-winning organizations for which Barban and Meier work. The best finish for the No. 32 Ford in 2016 was a 19th-place result at Talladega.

“I really love helping a small team,” he says. “All the time when I raced, I didn’t have a budget. It was whatever I made working and what I could put into a car. So I know what it’s like to budget race. I help these guys a lot with the tire stuff. I go get tires cheap and get good scuffs or stickers if somebody misses a race to keep our budget low. I help drive the big truck here and there, I try to help with sponsorship opportunities.

“So there are a lot of things I can do for a small team. Whereas a big team, they don’t need me because they got the big budgets. That wouldn’t fulfill me. It’s a family-owned deal and you feel like family when you’re here. You don’t get that most places. I’ve had job offers from other teams and from bigger teams. I just tell them that I’m not looking, it doesn’t matter what the money is. I would like to be here until they cart my cold-dead carcass out of the garage one day.”

The Drivers’ Thoughts

On the giving end of the relationship is the driver. With an individual in their ear telling them where to go when a 20-car crash breaks out, trust is a critical part of making it all work.

“It has to be a close relationship,” says DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 32 Go FAS Racing Ford in 2017. “You got to have a lot of trust because you’re putting your safety and your car in their hands. Usually, when accidents happen, it’s more up to the driver because it’s right in front of you.

“Typically, you’d have the best view, but sometimes when it’s complete smoke, then it’s the opposite. You have no idea what’s going on and he can actually see better. It all just depends on the circumstances.”

With multiple racing grooves, “relative speed” becomes important at short tracks, says Joey Meier. (Photo: Logan Whitton / NKP)

With a schedule jam-packed with varying racetracks, which type of racing requires the most spotter assistance? DiBenedetto says short tracks.

“They are really in control a lot there,” he says. “It all happens so fast and they can see it so well, so much better than us that it’s the opposite situation. We really rely on them.”

Brad Keselowski, who has a 10-year bond with spotter Joey Meier, recognizes the importance of the spotter during five-wide restarts that often occur at Pocono Raceway.

“You’re lucky to see one of two cars with the way the head surrounds are in the car and the way the mirrors are done,” Keselowski said. “That is sometimes frustrating. You’re glad to have [a spotter]; you’d rather do it all yourself, but you just can’t. They’re such a big help, and I’m really glad to have one of the best.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has TJ Majors overlooking his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. With a knowledgeable, straightforward mind on the spotter stand, Earnhardt says it only brings more confidence in return on the racetrack.

“You get to working with the same guy for a long time and you start to were you speak the same language and he knows what you want and don’t want,” he says. “As a driver, it just gives you confidence, having somebody that you trust and believe in and knows that’s going to give you good information. You can drive the car with more confidence.”

Driver Coaching

Like any other duty, experience breeds confidence. One thing that never changes for a spotter is the timeframe in which they work: fractions of a second instead of minutes. Along with a primary focus on keeping their driver clean, driver coaching also plays a part in making the perfect driver-spotter combo.

They do have the best view in the house for the task, after all.

“I’ll try to help them with their lines and different things,” Aldridge says. “If the guys are moving around the racetrack and I see someone get up on the top and he really looks like he’s making tracks, I’ll say, ‘Hey, the No. 21 is running the top and he’s moving up there.’”

Rather than Aldridge, who saw a variety of young drivers in Cup like Joey Gase, Dylan Lupton and Jeb Burton drive the No. 32 in 2016, Barban finds the XFINITY Series, where he spots for Ross Chastain and the No. 4 JD Motorsports Chevrolet, to be the best platform for giving advice.

“The best thing for the young drivers is to follow somebody that has been here or has raced here,” Barban says. “If Ross was going to go out and I had a choice of people who he can follow, I’d have him follow Jimmie Johnson. That is the best thing you can do, watch somebody else.

“I can’t coach somebody on driving. I can let them know what the other people – who are going fast – are doing. It depends on their talent and their car, how it’s handling. Whether they can even do that or not.”

Meier has that experienced driver in Keselowski, who has 56 national NASCAR wins and seven full-time Cup seasons behind him. The No. 2 driver, Meier says, doesn’t need driver coaching anymore.

“He does require a lot of information, and there is a difference [from coaching],” Meier admits. “I’m not telling him how to do things, or where to do things, it’s more about what other drivers have had success doing.

“It’s just a matter of Brad wanting to do what he feels best in the racecar. Where as a Daniel Hemric, if his entry into [turn] 1 is a really big arc – for instance, he’s taking a really big turn into the corners and he’s always complaining about being loose, I might bring that to his attention. But I’m not there to correct every single lap. Whereas with Brad, I wouldn’t do that with his experience level.”

Daniel Hemric and William Byron are two youngsters who crave some extra information from spotters. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Meier has noticed how Keselowski can use certain information during the race – for example, if somebody has an issue, he wants to know about it.

“If somebody had an incident on the track, if it was a tire issue, track issues, he wants to know to see if it’s useful to him,” Meier says. “It’s not up to me to decide whether the information is useful to him, so I just give him the information and he puts it in his bank and then he can utilize it the way he wants to.”

It is not uncommon to find a driver who likes a quiet radio during the race. Meier has seen the best of both during his career.

“I think from our radio chatter, on a scale of one to 10, I don’t know if you could talk any more,” he says. “I’m a nine or a 10 on our radio channel, and the only reason I do it is because our drivers want it. Back in the day at DEI, Michael Waltrip was the complete opposite. Tony Stewart, complete opposite. Some of those guys grew up in sprint cars, they never had a spotter, period. So their information is a lot quieter, a lot more limited as a need-to-know basis. With Brad, if I’m not talking every single lap of every corner, it would be very unusual.”

Aldridge, meanwhile, believes every driver requires a unique layer of information.

“Some of them just want to hear my voice,” he says. “I tell my guys [that] if there is nothing going on, then I don’t say anything. But I have had guys that would say, ‘Curtis! Curtis! Are you there? Talk to me!’ Some just want me to check in every lap and say something every lap.”

At times, the driver will turn desperate.

“I spotted for Jason White one time at Talladega and we had had some trouble and had to got to the garage,” Aldridge recalls. “He came back out and we weren’t in the pack and we were running by ourselves. He came on and said, ‘Curtis, you there?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘You aren’t saying anything,’ and I said, ‘Well, there isn’t anything going on, the pack is a straightaway ahead of you.’ He said, ‘I’m bored, sing me a song.’ So I just broke into some ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’”

Despite the calm demeanor, the voice level can increase when racing side-by-side for a win or avoiding an accident.

“I think it’s more of an instinct,” Aldridge says. “When there’s a crash and we’re close, the octaves will go up pretty big for me. I’ll say, ‘Crash, back it down, he’s high, he’s high, stay low.’ And you’re spitting it out as quick as you can because you’re coming to it fast. So you’ve got to get to whatever lane you can and get by this thing.”

Stay tuned for part two this Monday, Feb. 13, on Frontstretch.

About Zach Catanzareti

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One comment

  1. Tab Boyd!!!! Go get em’ this year!