Should NASCAR's Radio Chatter Be Public or Private?

Mary Jo BuchananSenior Writer IApril 4, 2009

LAS VEGAS - FEBRUARY 27: Bob Osborne, crew chief for the #99 Aflac Ford driven by Carl Edwards, watches during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Shelby 427 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on February 27, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Communication between crew chief and driver in NASCAR racing is critically important to success on the track.  Most often, these vital exchanges take place over radios and headsets used by every race team.

From the Camping World East and West teams to NASCAR's elite Cup series, teams invest thousands of dollars in their race communication systems. 

Almost every team member has the ability to be plugged into team chatter through their head phones and radios.

Driver, crew chief, spotter and other team members, often including the team owner,  have the ability to talk to one another through radio communications.

This communication is constant, occurring from the first practice, qualifying, Happy Hour, and during the race itself.

Race chatter over the air waves can range from the technical to the sublime.  Most often, the race teams share information about the performance of the car, from vivid descriptions of handling issues by the driver to critical information about track position from the spotter.

Also included in the radio conversations are the crew chief's probing of the problems in the car, which is critical to decisions about how to correct the car on the next pit stop. 

The crew chief may also click off lap times to the driver, as well as sharing preferred lines to run on the track via the communication system.

The sublime aspect of team radio chatter can range from a crew chief's encouragement of a driver or pit crew during a tough time, such as after a wreck or a poor pit stop, to drivers chatting up their team about what to do for dinner after a practice or qualifying session.

Sometimes drivers express their boredom via radio communications.  This most often occurs during an extended caution period or even a red flag, when a few snores from the cockpit have even been known to have been heard over the radio.

One of the most interesting aspects to NASCAR's radio communication system is that fans can actually listen in by purchasing or renting scanners at the track. 

Fans can dial in their favorite driver or team frequency and listen to their entire radio communication throughout the race weekend. 

This is also now possible for the fans listening via radio as Sirius Satellite radio offers radio chatter through some of their channels during the race weekend.

While providing a wonderful peek into a driver's and team's persona in the heat of battle, fans often get treated to another side of their heroes and heroines, especially if the car is not quite right. 

Unfortunately, there are no "bleep" function on race team scanners, so fans sometimes get an earful of curse words and other colorful expletives.  They may even get treated to some wicked disagreements between crew chief, driver, and even team owner.

Such is the case recently when a very intense exchange took place at the Martinsville race between Kurt Busch and team owner Roger Penske over their team radio.  Busch was very negative on the radio, despairing about the car and team's performance.

Penske volleyed back, telling Busch in no uncertain terms that he needed to not be so negative and pessimistic behind the wheel.  In fact, Penske ended the exchange with "I don't need all the crap on the radio. That's enough of it."

Fans listening on their race scanners were most certainly taken aback by this pointed exchange.  And Busch was even more distressed to see it in print in several trade publications and websites later that week.

All of this prompted Kurt Busch to recently advocate for all radio chatter being private.

In today, Busch said, "I've always thought that the radio should be utilized as a team tool.  We don't get to hear what a coach says to his offensive and defensive coordinators in the NFL".

Busch continued, "You don't get to hear in baseball when they call to the bullpen.  You don't get to hear what they say in the huddle during a football game, and what they say in the huddle is usually animated."

So, should this radio chatter be treated as privileged communication, only to be heard by the drivers, teams, and owners, as Kurt Busch is advocating?

While many team members may have regretted what they have said in the "heat of the moment" on their radio communications, there is no doubt that fans and others listening in is one of the most unique aspects of the sport.

Kurt Busch is correct in this aspect.  That kind of "eavesdropping" just does not happen in other sports. 

And that "up close and in your ear" aspect of the sport is one that makes NASCAR racing truly unique and interesting for the fans. 

There is no other sport where fans, through radio communication, can truly get that minute-by-minute view into the heart and soul of their driver and team.

Fans being able to scan into their race team truly adds that element of enjoyment to the racing experience.  This enables the fan to  understand and enjoy all of the strategy and decisions that have to be made to get true performance as their drivers turn left on the track.

Although Busch is advocating otherwise, it would also be difficult to make radio communication private between team members as the frequencies on which they broadcast are open to the public.  Restricting that access would seem akin to quashing freedom of speech.

Not only do fans scan their drivers and race teams, but teams scan each other as well.  While this is done primarily to see what the other teams are up to as far as adjustments and changes to their race cars, it also provides valuable information to other teams.

This is important as race teams can somewhat "police" one another.  Since teams know that communications are public, they can listen in and make sure that everyone is on the "up and up" just by monitoring the radio chatter.

This public access to the communications also provides an element of safety.  As teams scan each other, they become aware of issues that a driver or car is having on the track.

For example, through the radio communications a team may become aware that another driver in front of them is short on fuel or has a tire going down.  This can allow a team and driver to adjust accordingly and hopefully avoid a wreck.

NASCAR also monitors all radio communications so that they too can be aware of problems or issues occurring amongst drivers or teams.  Again, the radio communication is essential to keeping everyone participating in the event informed of all aspects of the racing on the track.

While Mr. Busch may indeed think that radio chatter should be private and confidential, he, and many other drivers and teams, should instead watch their words a little more carefully while using that form of communication.

The ability to "listen in" to this communication is indeed what makes NASCAR truly special and unique.  Fan and public access to it must be maintained and preserved.