In the past IndyCar required the the Indy 500 teams to have two spotters on Carb Day and Race Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This year, it’s mandatory every time a driver is on track with traffic. So there have always been 66 spotters at the Indy 500. This year the spotters were at the track seven days in a row, plus Carb Day and then for the upcoming race. They are stationed on top of the grandstands in Turns One and Three – the very top, with no shade. They stand the entire time. There are chairs on which to sit during cautions or when a driver is in the pits or garage. That also would be the only opportunity to swig some water or make a pit stop. Otherwise it’s on your feet any time there’s Green Flag running. IndyCar only requires spotters on ovals, and there’s no other IndyCar race track which requires two spotters. Many teams use spotters on road courses, and sometimes at Sonoma two positions are utilized for spotters.
Up in the Spotters Stand, IndyCar has a ‘WagonMaster’ overseeing the lot. It’s a privileged area, and I was not allowed up on the Stand itself. I spent Carb Day Practice right below the Spotters Stand in Turn One, in the ‘Penthouse’ area with race fans. I was amazed that spotters could see as much as they could. The cars come by very fast and the front view of the car is not always the easiest to spot in traffic. And when the color is more neutral and less splashy, the difficulty is compounded. I envied the ease for those spotting for Danica Patrick/No.13 Go Daddy Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, Helio Castroneves/No.3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet, Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet or Zach Veach/No.26 Relay Group 1001 Andretti Autosport Honda – with their vivid, bright, in-your face primary colors, and pitied the other two Penske spotters. The two silver Verizon Chevrolets blend right in with the track.
For the past seven years, Damon Hill from Melbourne Australia has come over to work as a Spotter for Andretti Autosport. Last year he was one of two Spotters for race-winning Takuma Sato, working in Turn Three. This year Hill is again paired with Carlos Munoz/No.29 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda. He spotted for Munoz in 2015 and 2016.
In spotting for Sato, Hill said it’s key to give him the bare minimum information in clear and concise terms. Hill has to edit out what is important to relay. High atop the Turn Three Grandstand, Hill can see from the Turn Two Apex to the Apex of Turn Four. He can keep talking if necessary, such as in 2016 when Munoz’s fuel light went on three laps to the finish. For Hill, there are 18 seconds between seeing his driver.
Hill wears a headset with two separate radio feeds – one to Sato and Pit Box, and the other monitors Race Control. Hill, an Aussie, hails from a country known for its colorful colloquialisms and abbreviated patois. Munoz and Sato hail from countries where English is not the first language. Hill and his driver develop their own lingo. There are 20 or so common words which get used over and over. Hill goes over the words with the other spotter, Sato’s long-time primary spotter, Roger Yasukawa. Then in debriefings, Hill goes over the lingo with his driver and Yasukawa. Last year Team Manager, Ziggy, aka Paul Harcus, was on the Pit Box calling the race for Sato. Team Owner Michael Andretti is on the radio also, but he is very quiet.
Last year Hill said even as Sato took the lead, he wasn’t as excited as he thought he might be … until the last corner. Then and only then did he feel comfortable. Hill said he was calm and just talked to Sato as he would on every other lap. Then, when Sato came through Turn Three and headed to Turn Four, Hill got excited. When he won, Hill threw his radio/headsets to a fellow spotter, got pushy and ran down the stairs and all the way to Victory Circle to be there in time for the ceremonies. And now he has the ring to prove it. Hill wears the ring a lot, as it brings back memories. And he had to get up at the crack of dawn Monday with the driver and crew for the obligatory Kissing the Bricks photo shoot.
Both Hill and Yasukawa have racing experience. Hill raced karts 14 years. Yasukawa is a former IndyCar driver. Sato believes it very much helps that a spotter has driving experience, because he knows what it takes to be in the cockpit. “It certainly helped me a lot.” And Sato thought the pairing of Hill and Yasukawa was fantastic. Regarding having the spotters, “The rules say we have to have two spotters, and if there is a lack of communications we have to go back to the pits. Yes, we can drive the cars without spotters, but the spotter is a very important part for the safety. Without spotters, I believe it would be very difficult to do the race.” Sato said he “talks to his spotters more during practice, about the lines. It’s really more like driver coaching. The spotter has to completely understand what it takes to be driving. I want to know anything that’s happening, and I can cut out any information which is not necessary to me. So yes, I want them talking to me. It’s helpful”
Munoz says the spotters talking to him helps, but he doesn’t depend on it.
Michael Crawford is the Turn One Spotter for Pole Sitter Ed Carpenter/No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. Crawford has been spotting since 2003 when he started spotting at Rookie Tests for Sam Schmidt in the Indy Lights Series, and getting familiar with the concept of spotting on ovals. His first IndyCar spotting job was with Nelson Phillippe.
Crawford expounded on what it takes to be a Spotter. “Not everyone on the Spotters Stand is a former driver. But what is needed, clearly, is an awareness of the sport, awareness of the subtleties of the sport. You almost have to have the ability to see if the car is pushing or loose, which is something that could take years to develop. The ability to see how a car is handling. You want to have the acumen to understand different lines and if they’re working for different drivers. And the awareness of changing conditions. And most of all, a calming temperament when it comes to an accident. You want to quickly relay that information without overwhelming the driver. So there’s elements of strategy, elements of observation, elements of safety. What it takes is someone who’s been around the sport and understand it and keep the driver safe, and hopefully help him move forward. Spotting is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of chaos. Focus is vitally important, and it is so captivating.
People have been offered opportunities to spot, and have turned it down as they don’t want that responsibility. I’ve never seen it as a responsibility. I see it as an opportunity to help. It can be pretty important. We can affect the driver, but I’m not holding the steering wheel, I’m not touching the pedals with my feet. At the end of the day Ed Carpenter needs to react to his environment. I’m there to paint a picture of what is happening around him. If I can spot an accident ahead of him, then yes, I’ve improved his likelihood of a good outcome. But I don’t see myself maybe as responsible for his life; but I can help him be safer. There is concern of reacting poorly. But then again, a really good spotter will spot an event happening before it happens. You want to be looking ahead of the car to see if there’s an accident, and behind the car to see what’s coming next, as well as the car all at the same time. It’s hard to look at three places at once.
Ed’s car is challenging to spot. It’s all-black with white logos, with his black suit and black and white helmet, and looks like six or seven other cars out there. It disappears to Crawford. Looking at it head-on coming out of Turn Four with no distinguishing colors. The most wonderful thing that happened to me last Sunday will help me this Sunday – Ed is starting up front. It’s not easy spotting for a car that’s starting 26th or back. There’s a mass of cars coming at you, the dust is swirling, the hot dog wrappers are flying, and you’re trying to find the one car that is yours. There’s cars inside, outside, in front of you, and you’re just trying to find the car. It boils down to that Ed is out of my vision for about 12 seconds and I count 12 every single lap. And then I find him again. For as little physical activity there is, it’s exhausting. It’s pretty intense.” During practice there can be down time. Crawford finished three books during the first week of practice.
Crawford listens to the car with his right ear, and to Race Control with his left ear. “That way I’m not scanning one over the other. I listen to Race Control because they give directions, telling us something we’re supposed to be doing, and I listen to direct contact with the car. The only people on the car are the car itself (driver), Pit Stand, Turn Three Spotter (primary Lee Bentham, former open wheel racer in Atlantics and Indy Lights) and myself. I would love to hear the Crew Channel to sort of get an idea, but our particular setup I’m very comfortable being focused with my two ears on two separate topics. I don’t think I’m as good as some of the TV talent which have a producer and others talking into their ears while speaking to someone else. They’re processing information while sharing other information, so clearly it’s a skill. Standing up on the Spotter Stand isn’t a whole lot different, meaning I can be listening to Race Control while watching what’s going on down on the track and interjecting some information all at the same time. But it’s not usually overwhelming. Usually things are happening once at a time. Every once in awhile things are in chaos. I consider myself a partner with the Spotter in Turn Three. Bentham is a former open wheel racer in Atlantics and Indy Lights. Crawford said Bentham has incredible race craft. I consider my job to be handing off the driver to that other spotter. And there’s actually an audible handoff, where we know where we can see and it overlaps a little bit. So I can see the car entering Turn four and I can see it exiting Turn Two. The Turn Three Spotter can see the entrance to Turn Two and he can see through the exit of Turn Four. So we have these overlaps. So when Ed comes out of the pits, he’ll be in the Warm-up Lane, and I’ll call out to Turn Three, ‘we’ll be in the short chute, and he’ll be the next car to you. While I’m sharing that, I’m also sharing who’s on the track at speed, so that when Ed gets to the back Turn Three can see Ed, can see the cars on the race track, and help Ed blend into traffic. Ed hears it and knows I’m also saying it to him. And it gives Turn Three a picture of what’s about to happen and Turn Three does the same thing for Ed and I when Ed is going through Turn Four. When Ed is on the front stretch, I have very little depth perception as they’re coming right at me. Turn Three gives me that expectation, of a driver having a good run. We don’t hand it over every lap, because if Ed is running by himself there’s no need. But we tell them if someone is going to pit. The spotters talk to each other up there.”
Ed Carpenter said about spotters: “They can talk as much or as little as they need, so long as it’s information that is pertinent to what I need in the car. We have those conversations over the course of the month, leading into the race. Depending on what’s going on in the race restart, that can mean talking a lot or other parts of the race not talking much at all.”
Pole Sitter Ed will be doing something extra on his Indy 500 Parade Lap Sunday. “Now I try to use the first parade lap to do a crowd check for Doug Boles, IMS. Once the green flag drops, all the other stuff and the people and the colors disappear. You’re focusing on what’s in front of you.”