ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Things happen fast at Martinsville Speedway, and for that reason car owner Junior Johnson wanted an extra pair of eyes watching Darrell Waltrip.
NASCAR didn't like the idea of somebody being a lookout at the racetrack in 1983. That's why Eddie Jones, dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, stood with a camera crew atop a hot dog stand at Martinsville. From his perch above the racing surface, Jones could see everything and warn his driver of trouble.
''If Junior had anything to do with it, it probably wasn't legal but it was probably necessary,'' Jones said. ''Junior looked for an advantage anywhere he could find it.''
Twenty years later, spotters are more than necessary on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit they are mandatory. No longer considered an unfair advantage, spotters are the eyes, ears and deal-makers for every driver.
The new head and neck restraint systems, larger head rests and interior netting has limited what a driver can see. Add that with speeds of nearly 190 mph at many of the superspeedways like covering a football field every second the need for someone who can see well ahead, beside and behind a speeding race car is imperative.
When Eric Martin died last year during an ARCA Re/Max Series practice session at Lowe's Motor Speedway, many felt the accident could have been avoided by spotters.
Martin's car spun and crashed in the fourth turn of the 1.5-mile speedway, as a car driven by Deborah Renshaw sped along the backstretch, through turns three and four and into Martin's disabled car. He died instantly.
ARCA and NASCAR now require a spotter to be in place atop the grandstands during practice, qualifying and the race. With the push of a microphone button, a spotter can alert the driver of trouble, in addition to avenues of escape.
A good spotter also can help his driver find a comfortable racing groove, tell him when the cars around him are too close to change lanes and cut deals with other spotters. For example, on restrictor-plate tracks, two spotters might agree to get their drivers to run nose to tail to draft, then switch positions later.
Drivers say a spotter's job goes a lot further than warning of wrecks and helping him move through traffic. They sometimes are a voice that can calm a driver during harried times.
Marty Gaunt spots for Kyle Petty. His driver doesn't like a lot of chatter, but he tries to say something every two or three laps so Petty knows there isn't a problem.
''You have to have your own style, and it has to fit with the driver,'' Gaunt said. ''I'm from Canada, and I have to make sure I don't talk like it sometimes. The last thing you want to do is confuse your driver.''
For that reason, the three most-common words used by a spotter are: ''clear,'' ''inside'' and ''outside.'' Clear means its all right to change lanes; inside means there is a car to the left and outside means there is a car to the right. Short, sweet, simple.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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