Airwaves around tracks have grown increasingly cluttered

Racing radio communications have come a long way since walkie-talkies were first used to the sophisticated electronics and airwaves that are now licensed by the FCC.

Updated: September 5, 2008, 5:18 PM ET
By Bill Borden | Special to ESPN.com

Did you know that there can be more than 100 FCC licensed radio broadcasts during every NASCAR Sprint Cup race? And you just thought there was the Motor Racing Network or maybe Performance Racing Network didn't you!

[+] EnlargeTravis Kvapil
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesA look at the cocoon Travis Kvapil and his fellow drivers sit in and it's obvious they need some help on the radio to get through traffic.
Radio communications have become an integral part of today's racing scene. From race-oriented communications by NASCAR to its officials, the teams and the safety crews, etc. during the race and teams communicating amongst themselves to track safety and traffic security and all the support groups that operate to help put on a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. All of these communications must be licensed by the FCC or there would be total chaos on the airwaves.

The late Raymond Parks is generally credited with being the first racer to use radios to communicate during a race way back in the dark ages. His late wife, Dottie, used to say she was the first spotter in NASCAR although her duties were not like those of today's spotters.

She once told me that they had bought some of those big old rectangular box-type "walkie talkie" radios from World War II Army surplus and were using them in Parks' business in Atlanta when they decided to try using them in his race car. Those primitive radios are a long way from the sophisticated communications systems being used in NASCAR today.

The NASCAR-related radio systems improved slowly over the years until they got good enough and strong enough that the FCC had to step in and begin licensing them because they were interfering with the local fire, police and general communications where the races were being held and some of the communications were less than "G" rated. Teams were buying and using radios without confirming that their particular channels were open to them in all areas of the country so there were times that it was chaotic.

I remember spotting from on top of the old Winston Tower at Daytona one time years ago when I suddenly was receiving directions on where to deliver my truckload of drywall. The driver and pit could not hear what I was hearing way up in the air so they thought I was nuts. Let me rephrase that. They thought I was hearing things.

Another time and somewhere else I kept getting the pizza delivery dispatcher telling me I had another load to pick up. By the time that race was over I was starving for a pizza. Again, nobody could hear it but me.

Spotting was the most difficult and most rewarding job I had during my years in racing. Drivers depend upon their spotters to be their second set of eyes and to keep them out of danger. The driver mostly just sees out the front windshield while the spotter has to lead him around the track plus be aware of what is going around his driver and in other parts of the track at the same time.

It is not an easy job but spotters, to their credit, do an admirable job. Mistakes are rare. One happened at Bristol recently when Casey Mears' spotter cleared him when he was not clear of Michael Waltrip. He probably had a poor angle of sight and just simply misjudged the distance.

Back when I was spotting, the cars were much more open and the drivers had a lot more peripheral vision so it was not as critical for the spotter to watch their back and sides as much as it is today.

The drivers have very restricted vision with the new seats and window configurations. It is very definitely a safety issue to have a spotter helping the driver negotiate traffic. But the teams are not the only ones who have spotters up high watching the action. NASCAR has spotters in every corner and high above the stands also looking for trouble on the track.

The broadcast media also has them so they can keep their fans informed on what is going on the minute it happens. With all of those eyes focused on the track -- and with fingers poised on the transmit button -- the racing is much more safe than it was years ago. I don't see how you could run a Sprint Cup race today without all those radios communicating all of the information that is needed to operate it safely.

It wasn't always that way. Years ago spotters were sometimes an afterthought and had to fend for themselves when it came to finding a place high up to get a good view of the track. But as NASCAR recognized the important role they played, the governing body made it mandatory that each team have a spotter and began designating where the spotters would be located together for better communications. They now require that a team have a spotter up high whenever the team's car is on the track for practice as well as the race.

Radio communications from years ago led to some humorous stories. Unfortunately most of them are not appropriate for this article. Some can be related with a bit of editing, however.

Kyle Petty once questioned my relationship with my mother after I keyed the mike and told him that the King wanted him to move up in the racing groove just as somebody bumped into him coming off the corner. He ripped me for most of the next lap much to the amusement of the crew down below who were listening in on the conversation.

I got him back though. His mother, Linda, was standing beside me on top of the STP suite so I turned to her and told her that Kyle was being mean to me. She asked, "Is he being bad?" I said, "Yes, he is." She took my radio and told Kyle to behave. He quickly responded by demanding to know who the f--- is this?! Her response? "This is your mother, Kyle!" "Hi, mom!" He behaved the rest of that day.

Another time we were at Talladega where, back then, the spotter played an important role because the pits could not communicate with the driver in the back stretch with the old radios. The spotter would act as a relay between the pits and the car. ABC was broadcasting that race and made the tactical error of wiring Kyle and me with open mikes so the fans at home could hear our radio communications during the race.

[+] EnlargeSpotter
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesNASCAR spotters have gone from an afterthought to a necessity over the years.
During the warm-up laps and while doing our radio checks I asked Eddie Wood down in the pits if the open mikes meant that Kyle could not call me any bad names that day. The next radio broadcast came from Kyle. "Hey Borden! F--- you!" Suddenly there was this strange and very desperate-sounding voice screaming at us that we were 10 seconds to air and please cut it out! We behaved the rest of the day but I often wonder how much gray hair that poor TV producer gained that day.

I'm kind of thinking maybe we had a little bit to do with the FCC stepping in and requiring all radios to be licensed and identifiable so the airwaves would be pure for the fans listening in on their scanners. Being anonymous does have its advantages you know.

Buddy Baker was one of those drivers who had a nervous bladder before the race started but once it started he was OK. However, that did not stop us from having a little bit of fun with him before the green flag dropped. I would always radio down to the pits to ask if there was time for me to make a pit stop before the race started because I wasn't sure I could hold it for the entire race. That would always provoke an eruption of threats and epithets from Baker to get me after the race was over. He never did because I would always bring the subject up again while he was on the cool down lap and his first stop would have be the men's room while I would be making my escape from the track.

Baker was the butt of radio pranks from David Pearson on more than one occasion as well. The old radios had one channel to transmit and another channel to receive. Sometimes those channels would cross over from team to team. Pearson discovered that his radio would transmit to Baker's radio during a particular race so he had everyone minimize the talk on the radio that day. As luck would have it the race came down to a duel between Baker and Pearson with Baker holding a narrow lead. Finally, with two laps to go, Pearson screamed into Baker's radio, "Pit now, Baker! Pit now!" The hapless Baker dutifully followed the radio instructions and, much to the surprise of his crew, pulled into the pits.

Pearson denies that story today as he flashes that Cheshire Cat grin of his but Baker swears to it being true. Pearson had several more similar incidents with Baker before he discovered the radio snafu and switched to a different channel.

Back then communications was primarily between the crew chief, the driver and the spotter -- if the team had one. The over-the-wall crew generally did not wear radios so they were operating blind during a pit stop. That gradually changed as the teams first equipped their pit crews with scanners to hear/receive instructions and then later with radios so they could also communicate if there was a problem during a stop.

All of the added radios have increased the safety and improved the show over the years but they have also taken some of the fun out of it with the FCC looking over your shoulder and listening to what you say. Maybe that is why Mears' comment at Bristol was "Gosh dang it" versus something more colorful. That sure isn't what Kyle would have said to me!

Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.