During the course of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, communication on the track has as much to do with the "whos" that are involved as the "hows."
Mike Calinoff, a part time stand-up comic who has been spotting for 17 years, has worked with a wide range of personalities during that span, from Ricky Craven to Jimmy Spencer to Matt Kenseth (with whom he won a championship) to David Stremme to the drive he currently talks to, "rookie" Dario Franchitti. He figures he has been in Victory Lane more times than any other current spotter. Is he good or lucky?
"I don't know," laughed Calinoff, who obviously is very good. "Working with Kenseth was like going to Spotter College. He's just such a smart driver."
So smart that the challenge of helping him on the track was gone, and so Calinoff moved on to work with Stremme. Two years later Stremme was replaced by Franchitti. For Calinoff, the challenge is back, but it's one he enjoys immensely.
"We're working with the bare basics every week," he said. "Dario's a world class driver, but he's just learning how to achieve his goals in NASCAR."
To help him get there, Calinoff plays several roles during a race. His first priority, of course, is to alert Franchitti of accidents on the track. He's also there to help pump him up or calm him down, depending on the situation. But there's much more to the job than that. The spotter is almost like a caddie sometimes.
"The only difference is I tell him which line he should use instead of which club," Calinoff said. At first, Calinoff was a little reticent of telling Franchitti, who won the 2007 Indianapolis 500, what to do on the track.
"I thought Dario might tell me that he knows perfectly well how to drive a racecar, thank you," Calinoff said. "But he has been the opposite. He's constantly asking me how his line looks, if he's going in to the corners too deep or not deep enough. He's been a joy to work with. He finished 22nd at Martinsville, and after the race he said 'That was the most fun I've ever had finishing 22nd in my career.' "
But the spotter and driver don't get to have all the fun. The crew chief is also actively involved in the radio communication process.
Gil Martin is the head wrench for Clint Bowyer. Martin has worked with veteran drivers and up-and-comers such as Bowyer. He said the amount of chit chat between crew chief and driver depends mostly on the experience level of the driver.
"Younger drivers tend to want more communication," Martin said. "Like if the groove gets higher on the track as the race goes on, veterans already know that. Younger drivers need more reminders.
"If there's a lull in the race, I'll talk to Clint a lot more. He likes to know his lap times and the lap times of the car he's trying to catch or the ones trying to catch him. I'll also talk to him as a gas run winds down. I might remind him of a pit stop in 10 laps, then eight, six, four, and then every lap from there. I turn him over to the spotter when he's in traffic. I'll only talk to him when he's on the front straightaway."
The crew chief also talks to the over-the-wall crew, each of whom can communicate if something is going wrong during a pit stop. The crew chief usually limits his communication with them until after a stop.
"Sometimes I'll say 'Hey guys, you did a great job' or 'Hey guys we need to do better,' " Martin said.
"Sometimes you need to let the driver hear that so he knows you aren't taking a slow pit stop lightly."
Meanwhile, teammates can also communicate during a race, but it's almost always with spotters or crew chiefs as go-betweens.
Sometimes an owner even gets into the act. Martin recalled the first Cup race of a current driver he worked with. This driver qualified fifth for his first race, and the car owner was spotting for him. So excited was the owner to see his car near the front that he tried to get his driver through traffic a little too impatiently. He cleared the driver when the driver wasn't clear, and a wreck ensued.
When the driver said "I thought you said I was clear?," the humbled owner didn't have much to say.
"One of the few times we were able to keep the owner quiet," laughed Martin.