NASCAR's Unsung Heroes, Spotter's Series: Rocky Ryan, Burton's Spotter

Ashley McCubbinAnalyst IMay 14, 2010

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 07:  Jeff Burton, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 7, 2010 in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
John Harrelson/Getty Images

This week’s article features Rocky Ryan who is in his 14th season and is current spotter for Jeff Burton.


Ashley McCubbin: What do you think makes a good spotter? Any certain requirements/recommendations?


Rocky Ryan: A good spotter must be able to remain calm. If a spotter gets excited, then the chances are, their driver gets excited as well. A spotter should be able to "read" their driver, understand their driving styles, what they like and dislike. Some ex-drivers can be very good drivers, yet some can not. It mostly depends on how you handle intense situations. You've just got to remain calm. Good eyesight helps just a bit as well.


AM: Best and Worst Tracks for spotting at?


RR: Each spotter has their favorites and the ones that they prefer to miss. Personally, Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville and Infineon are my favorites. And Phoenix, Indianapolis, Talladega and Watkins Glen are my least favorites.


Sightlines, facilities and overall accommodations are a plus at the favorite tracks.


As far as the least, Phoenix is the worst oval track to spot from, because they don't put the spotters on the front stretch, we are located in turn one. We can see the entrance to pit road, we can't see the bottom of turns three and four, and the cars are coming straight at you, so it is very difficult to clear them on the front stretch.


Indy is tough, because it's the only track we go to, that places the spotters inside the track and not outside of the track. So we are constantly turning to follow the race.


Talladega is Talladega, you work so hard, harder than anywhere else, and can ruin a good day by someone else's mistake. Watkins Glen is very tough because as a road course, we can not see all of the track. It's takes 3 spotters per team to cover Watkins Glen, and if you put that many people on a radio, it is very difficult to relay information.


AM: What do you think of the critisms that spotters get immediately when it comes to incidents?


RR: Of course I don’t like it, I don’t think any of us like it. But that being said, we know this before we go on the roof. It’s part of the job, and you must accept it. Being a spotter is a very difficult job. Not everyone can do it, and we’re pretty happy about that!


But seriously, race fans see things a certain way sometimes, and we realize that. A driver is strapped into a missle, working in very hot conditions. They need a place to vent…and we know that. The trust that develops between a driver and a spotter is a very special one. A spotter can relate to what a driver is going through, so we usually are the ones that will hear about it first. It’s just part of it.


AM: How do you get along with the other spotters?


RR: No (laughs) There are 43 spotters on the roof every week. We have to get along, we have to trust and respect each other. We are professionals, and we need to treat everyone equally. We all understand what each one of us is going through, so much more than the guys in the garage. So I think that our jobs have brought all of us together. We get along really, really well, for the most part. But don’t get me wrong, I have two teammates, but I want to beat them just a badly as I want to beat the other 40 spottters, during the race. But when it’s over, you have to leave it on the spotters stand. Remember, we have to do it all over again the next week.


AM: What's the hardest part about your job?


RR: There isn’t one part that is more difficult than others. Understanding exactly what your role is can be difficult. You want to win every race, yet your primary functions is to be a safety factor. Do you do whatever it takes to win, or do you use your best judgment, and remember that your driver, and his family depend on YOU to bring him home safely?


It’s difficult to stand on the roof for sometimes as long as 5 hours without a break, it’s difficult to see almost two miles across the track at a superspeedway. It’s difficult to carry enough equipment with you, to ensure that you have enough replacements, should something happen.


It’s difficult to watch your car become involved in an accident, then to have to radio him to make sure he’s ok, then begin to describe the damage to the crew so that they can be ready to work on it when in gets back to the garage. But, the hardest part of the job should ALLWAYS be, that your drivers safety depends on YOU. Very bad things can, and have happened on the race track. The spotter is responsible for doing everything he/she can to protect their driver. Understanding that you can’t make a mistake, or people can be killed. That’s the hardest part of the job.


AM: During the race, in general, what is your job?


RR: Someone once said that a spotters job is similar to that of an offensive coordinator in professional football. I think that’s a bit much, but in some ways it’s right on. Only the driver, crew chief and spotter will talk on the radio. The crew chief will only talk when he can see the car.


The spotter must be able to talk at all times. A spotter will relay information to both driver and crew chief. We call the green flags, clear the driver in traffic, inform everyone when the caution flag comes out. We count the driver onto pit road for pit stops, and help get the car back out. A spotter will talk to the driver about what lines are being used on the track, what the other drivers are doing. We don’t make adjustment decisions, that’s for the crew chief, but we can assist by telling him what we see the car do on track.


Sometimes you have to be a cheerleader, and encourage your driver. Sometimes you have to calm your driver down. All in all, you do whatever you can to assist, both the driver and the team to perform better, and to protect your equipment.


AM: When it comes to pit stops, what does your job entail?


RR: Like I said, most spotters will remind the driver of what his pit road speed is before coming on pit road. Then most spotters will count their driver into his pit stall. A driver can’t see down pit road, due to so many cars being there, along with all of the crew members now being on pit road, so you usually count them down, from 10 pit stalls away. That way, he doesn’t have to look for his box, just listen to the spotter count him down, and turn when the spotter tells him to. Some drivers even like to know where the two cars in front of them, coming on pit road are pitting.


For example, the 24 and 48 are in front of us when the caution comes out. I will tell our driver where those two are pitting on pit road. That way, if say the 24’s pit stall is two stalls before us, and the 48’s pit stall is 10 stalls after us, then I will tell the driver that. This way, when the 24 turns left to go into his stall, then you aren’t surprised. Remember, it’s very difficult to see through these cars, so when someone turns left on pit road, is he trying to avoid something, or is he just going into his stall? Well, if he KNOWS that the 24 will be turning left before him, then he doesn’t worry. If the 48 turns before him, then he knows something has happened in front of us, and he better turn too.


And if we have time, it’s always good for a spotter to look up and down pit road, during the stop, to get an idea of what the other teams are doing during their stops, i.e. two or four tires, just fuel, big adjustments, etc.


AM: If you have worked with different drivers, what are some certain things that one driver perfers over another?


RR: All drivers prefer different things. A good spotter should always be able to adapt to what that particular diver needs. It’s not about the spotters, it’s about the drivers. Spotters must change to fit their drivers, not the other way around. Some like a lot of talk, some prefer very little talk. Some want you to relay messages to other drivers, some take care of that themselves. There are so many differences with drivers, just know that you must adapt to what they need, and do it.


AM: What do you do if you ever have to go to the bathroom in the middle of a race?


RR: You better go before the race starts, because you are up there for 4 hours plus… don’t go to the bathroom during a race. People can be killed because you’ve gone to the bathroom.


AM: What do you do before the race, food/drink wise, to prepare?


RR: Well, you can’t drink too much, and personally I don’t eat at all before a race. It’s just personal preference, but I’m nervous enough as it is, so I skip the meals until the race is over.


The next article of the series will be posted in two weeks featuring Chris Lambert, spotter for Brian Vickers.

NASCAR’s Unsung Heroes: Spotter Series

Joey Meier, spotter for Brad Keselowski

Brett Griffin, spotter for Elliott Sadler

A View From Talladega

Lorin Ranier, spotter for David Ragan

Mike Calinoff, spotter for Matt Kenseth


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