How to be a sprint race radio spotter:
Radio spotters are expected in professional racing like NASCAR, but they are a surprisingly helpful resource during even a club level sprint-race.
How? What can spotters do during a Sprint Race? The advantage of a spotter is having a second set of eyes. In the car we are already using our eyes, ears, and all of our brain processing power to create and maintain a constant 360 degree picture around our car. However, there are still times where we cannot see what may be helpful for us… Catching a green flag drop the moment it begins is a surprisingly hard thing. That extra moment it takes to see and react to an issue or opportunity may not be quick enough.
How does this relate to “No Money Motorsports” and racing on a budget?
There are two major reasons I support radio systems: 1) Having a radio and a spotter offers a pretty serious competitive advantage for a reasonably small buy-in. 2) Having a working radio setup in the car can be a lot of fun. A few drivers share the same frequency and the live banter/smacktalk is one of my favorite parts of the racing experience.
STEP 1: Get a working radio setup- As we have discussed in previous articles How to build a Budget friendly race radio setup – There are many systems out there that cost thousands of dollars, most work well.. But you can get the same functionality for a fraction of the cost… I tried for a while to piece together my own system with various parts on eBay and Amazon. I had a system that almost worked great but the driver microphone was the fatal flaw. Despite half a dozen attempts, I could never get a mic that would broadcast clearly from a LOUD racecar. I eventually found the “Nerdie Racing” kit: For $150 you get basically everything but the radio (wiring, adapters, mic, PTT, are included)… and It was all significantly better quality all around vs the pieced together “BTECH” parts. Now that my Mic issues have been resolved, the system has been operating flawlessly.
*Be sure to familiarize yourselves with the frequencies and be absolutely sure you are not broadcasting on emergency service channels.
All in (including spotter) I pieced together a setup that works fantastic, for around $250.
For an easily Printable Trackside-Guide, Print the image at the end of this post.
Helpful Radio tips for spotters:
A spotter can be anyone, really. You need not have a racing resume or long list of experience. A basic understanding of motorsports (flagging, understanding flow of track, etc) will help, but can be learned.
As a spotter, you have access to a lot of helpful information for the driver. You should have your phone up for whatever live timing app/webpage is used by the racing organization. For my races, that means “Race Hero”. “Race Monitor” is also popular. The live timing will have position in class and lap times of your driver as well as the other drivers in the class.
Where to go: As a spotter, the most important thing to see is the starter stand so you can see when the green flag drops. Beyond that, the more track you can see the better. It’s nice to have a vantage point that can see the lights on the pace vehicle as it rounds the final corner (The lights will go off if they plan to enter the pit for a green flag drop). It’s also nice to have a view if the pace vehicle darts out onto the track to catch the field. Some tracks have a tower that offers great views of much of the track.
When on the radio with your driver, this is some of the most helpful info to relay to the driver:
Current Position: Give updates on current position (“you’re first in class, Kevin is 2/10ths behind”: “you’re second behind Ben, Kevin is 2/10ths behind”). Note: In Mixed-Class racing (Where more than one class is on track qualifying/racing at once), the “overall” standings are generally unimportant, be sure to compare your driver to the other cars in class.
Lap Time: Give fast lap, and current lap time soon as it posts “Your best is a 1:17.8” “That lap was a 1:18.4”
Whether or not the driver has a data system visible to them, updates in their ear is a great way to keep pace, where they are, and where they need to be. If they put down a flyer and no other cars are close they may choose to pit early (and hope nobody beats their lap later in the session).
Session Time: “We’re 9 minutes into the session”
In a standard qualifying session, it only takes one good lap to set your spot on the grid. Some people will put in a good lap and pit-in early, others stay out the whole time. Knowing how much time has passed helps the driver make the decision to put down a conservative time or pull out all the stops and run like hell until the checker flag.
Checker flag: Call checker when it appears. “Checker is out, Checker is out”
In the car, it’s good to know when you are on your last hot lap. If you’ve already begun a lap and you know you are off pace, it’s nice to pit-in a bit early and get to the front of the impound line.
Yellows: Share any yellow information you can see. Qualifying generally won’t get a Full-Course yellow, but give the location and any info you can see of any local yellow. “turn-5 yellow, car in grass, they are re-entering”
Including WHY the yellow is out is important: A car in the grass will quickly rejoin the track… but if a car smashed the wall, that will likely mean the qualifying session will end early with a black+checker flag.
When the racer rolls from their paddock spot to grid, they should be all ready to hit the track, but the occasional last minute “issues” aren’t unheard of. If you plan on spotting, it is a good idea to still have your radio on so they driver can communicate in the event of an issue. Grid-workers are very helpful, but they are limited in what they can and have time to do… plus they are usually very busy and don’t always see someone waving for help.
The most common help drivers will need when waiting in grid is: Putting up window nets, starting cameras, adjusting mirrors, checking hood pins, and the occasional push start. For me: I always forget to open up my passenger side sail-window vent (it lets in a surprising amount of fresh air when open). Having a spotter available on the radio makes it much easier for the driver to ask for help.
During qualifying, there are a few nuggets of helpful info to keep a driver informed of their status and time. However, the race is when the spotter’s information can give the driver some real advantages over the other cars.
Start: Hold hot mic as pack first appears on front straight, call “GREEN GREEN GREEN” as SOON as starter begins downward motion with green flag. Holding the MIC hot assures there will not be a delay between you seeing the flag drop and the driver hearing your command.
Make sure you are aware of how many “Waves” there will be. Often, mixed class racing will have more than one green flag drop with each wave (class or group of similarly-classed cars) getting their own. Also be aware that starts are not guaranteed, and be ready to relay that in the event of a possible waved off start.
The most surprising thing for me when I began racing was how hard it is to see the starter stand for race starts. With most your attention trying to stay in a tight pack, you are often craning your neck to try and see the flag stand through a car or two… sometimes it is impossible to see and you are stuck waiting to react to collective RPM rising, a distinct disadvantage. With a spotter to rely on, you can use all your focus on not punting another car before the green.
Pace Notes: Give updates on position, in-class cars dropping out, lap times, etc.
In a large race, I often lose focus of what actual position I’m in. For some people a “Hey, you’re in second!” is good… for others, that could be distracting.
Local Yellows: If you see a station displaying local yellow for a quick 4-off or spin-and-continue and your driver is on the opposite side of the track, you can ignore it. If your driver is close, call it in. If you see a local yellow that looks like it won’t be cleaned up quickly (wreck, stalled car, car far off the pavement, etc) call it in to warn the driver. Be sure to be clear and begin with “LOCAL” yellow, so your driver doesn’t think they need to stop passing immediately.
Double Yellow (full course yellow – FCY): The moment you see a flag station display the double yellow “Full course yellow”, call it in, as this “Global command” is across the entire track. As yellow continues, keep your driver posted on the position of emergency vehicles and distressed car(s) “you are coming up on slow moving tow trucks next turn” “car is being pulled off now, probably green next lap” etc.
“Passing under yellow” is the leading cause of in-race infraction disqualifications. If you’re battling with a driver on an otherwise clear track, you may not notice the standing double-yellows come out. A spotter in your ear is another reminder so you don’t miss it
*Non spotter related note: If you are racing and notice a large number of cars oddly off-pace. Your FIRST reaction should be to double check the nearest flag station. I’ve seen both rookie and experienced drivers alike slicing through packs of slowed cars. This will earn you a DQ and can also become very dangerous.
Pace Truck Location: During a FCY, Keep driver posted on the pace truck and “pack” location “half a lap ahead of you,” “You’re two turns behind” etc.
During a full course yellow, it is VERY important to catch the pace truck and pack as soon as you can. When the track goes green you want to make sure you have not fallen off the pack, as that real estate is much harder to claw back under green flag conditions. While you are certainly slowing down in the area of the incident, the rest of your lap should not be at parade speeds. The issue with racing to re-catch the pack under double-yellow: You may come upon the pack around a corner or over a crest… If a spotter can share the location of the slow moving train, it will help you catch them at an appropriate pace.
Restarts: Likely THE largest advantage one can have with a radio: Keep the driver posted on pace truck and starter… hold hot mic any lap you think it could go green “truck lights are off” “pace truck is pulling in… GREEN GREEN GREEN!”
Restarts happen from single-file lines, creating a much longer line than an initial two-lane start. This creates long strung-out lines of cars. At many tracks, it’s not uncommon for the green flag to drop while a large part of the pack is still out of sight of the starter. As long as the stations around you have pulled in their yellow flags, you are good to start racing.
A keen eye watching for the local stations to pull their flag can inform a driver of the now green conditions… but a friend yelling “GREEN GREEN GREEN” in their ear makes it pretty obvious
*As a driver, remember you MUST watch for the yellow to disappear at your local station. Even when you are still one turn away from the starter stand, you can pass a car IF that yellow is put away. It SHOULD be pulled as the green drops on the front straight… however that is not always the case.
Race Time: “We’re 14 minutes into the race”
Often when racing, you lose any real concept of time, an outside observer with access to the race clock on live timing could be very helpful for pacing oneself.
Halfway: Call for halfway point (if you see it) the (two crossed flags at starter)
This is the one flag I often miss. In our very close races, I sometimes miss the crossed, furled flags idly held by the flagger in the starter stand.
One lap remaining: Call for one lap when you see furled standing white at starter
Just in case the driver missed it: It’s time to go nuclear for that pass, or maybe it’s time to just be cool and not let a trailing car catch… either way, very important information to have.
Checker & Finishing Position: Call when you see the checker start flying: “Checker, you’ll get checker this time around”. After the finish, give the finishing positions as you can “great job, p3!” “you suck, p25” etc
I end most of my races so tied up in the immediate battle that I don’t actually know my specific finishing position. It’s nice info to have for the cooldown lap so you aren’t wondering the whole way to impound.
SHUT UP: Or at least know when to: A very important part of the spotter job is knowing whether or not you are being helpful. As much as this comes from a knowledge of motorsports, it comes from knowing your driver. Some people don’t want anything beyond the green flag calls. Others, used to casual banter from Sim-racing leagues, enjoy holding full conversations. Be sure to discuss this with your driver before they strap in, find out what they want… And don’t take offense if you get a “Shut up, and let me drive!” over the radio.
My knowledge of spotting is based on my own experience and preferences, so I reached out to two great friends who are experts in the art of spotting (even if they may argue otherwise) to give some extra insights and tips.
TJ Yard has been racing Spec E30 for a couple years, but has an entire life’s experience of being a motorsports fanatic. When he’s not racing, he’s watching Oval Track racing or working crew for both sprint and Race and Enduro teams.
- Tone of voice and the ability for the spotter to remain calm, cool, and collected is very important. The driver is already working hard and on edge, so an excitable spotter translates to a more excitable driver.
- Reminders to the driver to “stay loose” such as the basic things like stretching out hands, staying hydrated for long races.
- Double and triple checking information prior to giving it to the driver. Nothing’s worse than the spotter saying something to only say ”oh sorry that was wrong here’s the right info”. That can add overload in an already overwhelming situation.
- Simplifying the information as well. No long drawn out sentences. If you can’t relay what you need to say while the driver is on a short straight, then trim it down. If possible, avoid talking to the driver during corners as well. Some drivers struggle to talk when cornering or in a battle etc. Always end with “copy” when info is received correctly.
Matt Elsemore Recently formed “Trackside Motorsports” but has been working as professional trackside support in the NorthEast for years. He is the behind-the-scenes expert that helps keep several cars running and competitive weekend after weekend. Matt is as comfortable keeping cars running as he is on the radio.
- A driver can relay car issues and setup changes immediately to the spotter, that way the spotter can take notes to tweak the car after the session… before the driver forgets.
- If the driver has contact with another car on track, they can radio the spotter to give a visual check as the car drives by. This may save a pit-stop to have the car looked over (A pit stop that effectively removes you from any chance of contention in a sprint race). If you still need to come pit-in for a visual check, having the spotter waiting on the pit wall will save you time and may just get you back out in time to claw back some positions.
- A spotter can also work to check and record tire temps and/or pressures after sessions.
- Spotters should be trying to gather as much outside info as possible. Keep an ear out for what other spotters are saying. If the race is being shared/televised/shown, I will find any tv or tablet with the race on. I’ll even keep an eye out for the body language of other teams. Seeing the race live is a huge advantage to see if there is a greasy track, wet curbs, or any number of things.
- The use of “deltas” is nice so you can relay predictive deltas. If your driver is a tenth faster for 3 laps, you can do math to tell your driver if/how much they have to push to either catch, or or keep a chasing car at bay.
Bonus 2: Printable Spotter Guide:
Print this out and keep it in the bag with your radio gear to be helpful to anyone who may act as your spotter at the track.
Having a radio spotter isn’t just a competitive advantage, it should also be fun. Sharing the experience with someone is yet another detail that makes racing more entertaining. It is a way to bring a non-racer into some of the fun of racing whether they are there for HPDE, are “Race Crew”, or are just someone tagging along for a track weekend.
For info on how to build your own cheap radio setup, click here: How to build a Budget friendly race radio setup – 3 Essential pieces to get going for WAY less than you think
Need to refresh your knowledge of the flags? We’ve got that too: The 14 Racing Flags you NEED to know for HPDE: Post 36