Spectator Vs. Spotter: Bristol Edition

Rebecca SpenceCorrespondent IAugust 19, 2009

BRISTOL, TN - MARCH 22:  A general view of the track during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 22, 2009 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Thunder Valley, it’s the great “Coliseum” of stock car short track excitement. It’s time for tempers, tantrums, and the testing of brakes, patience, and perseverance.

Every fan loves the excitement and adrenaline of short track racing under the lights. Spectators come from all walks of life, from states near and far to watch the beating, banging, bumping, and running that are sure to await them.

Ex-husbands and wives have been known to take season tickets to Bristol Motor Speedway instead of alimony.

But, Bristol is more than a chaotic favorite of the race fan. It is a track loved by fans and teams alike. The drivers either love it or they love to hate it. And for a spotter, Bristol is one track you need to bring your A-game.

To tell us more about NASCAR’s version of “Thunderdome,” I spoke with our guest spotter Rocky Ryan, of the No. 31 team of Jeff Burton for Richard Childress Racing.

On a spotter’s view on Bristol, Ryan said, “Bristol is everyone's favorite track. Fifteen seconds of chaos! Everyone in racing is brought up on short tracks. Bristol is the Madison Square Garden of short tracks, 160,000 people circled around a half-mile, very high-banked track. It's a coliseum!"

"It requires the drivers, the spotters and the crews to be totally ‘on their game.’ In racing, we always say that our favorite track is the last track that we won on. Bristol would be everyone's next favorite track. It doesn't matter how long you have been in this sport, Bristol will still take your breath away each time you walk in.”

Ryan continued by describing the unique challenges that face him and the team at this track.

“Bristol is loud, Bristol is small, and Bristol is FAST. A spotter must be on his game more at this track than anywhere else. Forty-three cars, running 15 second laps, on a half-mile track. There's NO time to rest, no time to look around, and certainly no time to think.

A spotter MUST anticipate and react. The only voice you usually hear on the radio at Bristol is that of the spotter. Things happen so fast, that if a crew chief or anyone else is talking on the radio, then the spotter can't help his driver steer around an accident at Bristol.”

When it comes to Bristol things are jam-packed and it doesn’t give drivers enough time to react when things are happening in front of them. That makes it important that the team has clear lines of communication to avoid being in an accident. “If someone is talking while the car is in turn two, and an accident happens in turn four, you have less than four seconds to tell your driver about the danger in front of him.”

But if an accident occurs Ryan explains what he must do for his driver. “You must always remember that Bristol is a ‘self cleaning’ track. The accident will always move down the track, due to the banking. So as a spotter, you must always remember to get your driver to go high to avoid it. You rarely even blink at Bristol, there's just no time. Five-hundred laps at Bristol seem like a long time, but you are so locked into what is happening, you usually don't even notice who the winner is at Bristol, if it's not your car.”

What are Ryan’s favorite things about coming to Bristol? 

“The intensity of Bristol is only comparable to Talladega. It's a different mindset than any other track. To do what you love, in an arena of this size and in front of that many people, is just one of the many things that makes Bristol so special. The flyover before the race, seeing all the flashbulbs go off during the pace laps is just breathtaking. Then the intensity takes over. It's now time to put all of that away, and get down to business.

You try to forget that you are high above those 160,000 people, and you concentrate on helping your driver survive the chaos of the 500 laps your team is facing. If you are on your game, then there isn't a better feeling!”

But Ryan really wanted to talk about the carnage that can happen at Thunder Valley. “When you can anticipate an accident happening in front of you, and can steer your driver clear, the feeling of accomplishment is second to none. You feel like to have performed your job, and played a vital role in the finish of your team. But Bristol can also be very cruel.

“Even if you ARE on your game, Bristol is a track that can turn that feeling of accomplishment into bitter disappointment in seconds. It's so easy to get caught up in someone else's misfortune. An accident can happen a full straightaway ahead of you, but with the speeds being so fast, you might not get slowed down in time. Even if you do get slowed down, there's always the possibility that the guy behind you won't get slowed down as quickly as you, and shove you right into the accident.

A spotter can't just look ahead, but he MUST be aware of what's going on behind you as well. You can have a perfect night going on, but something completely not of your doing, can change everything.”

This Saturday night the track will be illuminated in lights and that’s something that Ryan enjoys. “It's the greatest track in the world on a good night, but it's the most frustrating track in the world on a bad night. But you ask ANY spotter what is their favorite track, and it will be Bristol. ‘To be the best, you must beat the best.’ And Bristol is the best!”

Ryan will be high above the track Saturday night, helping Burton keep his nose clean and back up the eighth place finish he recorded in March, and perhaps take him through the storm and wind up with a second win at Bristol to join his March of 2008 dramatic victory.


Featured Spotter Bio:

Name: Rocky Ryan

Hometown: Oak Ridge, NC

Team Spotter Since: 12 years total, six years at RCR, five years with Jeff Burton

Favorite Sport (other than racing): Ice Hockey

Favorite Food: Steak and Potatoes

Favorite Music/Song: Metal. Songs: The Day That Never Comes, Metallica. Your Song, Elton John. Hold On, Yes. The Last Song, Poison

Favorite Movie: Somewhere in Time, Pump up the Volume

Favorite off Track Activity: Spending time with my wife, riding motorcycles


Keep an eye open next week when SVS hits Atlanta with special guest spotter Chris Lambert from the No. 83 team of Brian Vickers, and RED BULL RACING!