So my last post I mentioned that I had parked my car until we sort out some crew issues. But that doesn’t mean I’m done. I’ve spent the last six or seven years (maybe longer) handling spotter duties for my brother when he is racing and I am not. We both run Super Late Models, and often are in the same race together. Yes, it makes for great dinner conversation later. But see, when one of us is not in our car, we spot for the other one who is.
So last Saturday was race day, and Tommy had this one on his schedule. So I decided to take to the headset again. Spotting is something I really enjoy doing. I’ve written articles about it as well. It’s one of those things I take very seriously, and something I think I’m pretty good at. Tommy was racing at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Washington, a 75lap race on the 3/8ths oval there. So let’s get to the action!
Early practice found some carburetor issues. It seems the car either had a stuck float or some other problem that was causing fuel to gurgle through the overflow and flood the engine out in the corners. So every time Tommy stepped on the loud pedal, the car would just fall on its face until it cleared out enough. Once it cleared out it would just light the rear tires up, jumping sideways on him. Clearly not something you can actually race with. So the crew went to work to fix it. I think they had that carburetor apart three of four times throughout practice.
At the same time, we’re trying to diagnose handling as well, which isn’t a great way to go about it since you’re getting false readings from the engine acting goofy. But we knew the car wasn’t fast enough, so we made some changes anyways to help him getting into the turn and through the middle. Our thinking was that those areas are not really being affected by the carburetor issues.
Come qualifying the guys were feeling like they had this carburetor thing under control. Tommy would go out late in the session since the guys were still working on that carburetor thing well into the start of the session. After a rush through tech, Tommy would head out for his qualifying run. The run did not go well. The carburetor issue was still there, but smaller this time, and the car was still handling poorly. He did manage to post a time that would put him 11th out of a field of 17. So not horrible by any means. At this point we’d take it. At this point, we probably would have taken anything.
More work to that carburetor, which seemed to be ok in the pit stall, and a few more chassis adjustments would lead us to the 75 lap main event. From here, it would be up to Tommy to do what he could with it, and me to guide him through it. Starting mid-pack is something I’ve never liked. I’ve talked with friends about this in the past. There’s this spot in the middle of the starting grid that is akin to the eye of a hurricane. Everything right around that point is absolute chaos. You either qualify so poorly that you start behind the chaos, fast enough that you are starting in front of the chaos, or in our case you’re stuck right in the midst of it. As a spotter it’s your job to get him through that chaos in a safe and timely manner. So for me, it’s just as big of a challenge and just as big of an adrenaline rush as it is for the driver. This is that point where you have to maintain your composure just as much as the driver.
When the green flag dropped we got a real lucky break and things stretched out right around us. So Tommy was able to drop in single file right away, before even getting to turn one. Things were fairly uneventful for me for a while. For Tommy, inside the car, not so much. I could see right away that he was struggling with a mess of a car. When the caution flew around lap 20 he was able to tell us just how bad it was. And boy was it bad. This is the point where as the spotter it becomes your job to help your driver get to the end. He has a war going on in that car. The car is fighting him. His thoughts are fighting him. Everything is suddenly turning on him. In his mind, he is losing the war. It now becomes my job to help him fight back, to remind him of the goal “just get to the end, just get to the checkered flag”. It’s not going to be pretty. But there is nothing you can do about it. We race short track shows, there is no pitting for adjustments like on TV. You have got what you have got, and you’re on your own.
The race went back green for a while, then another caution came out around lap 45. This was when things changed drastically for us. That last caution came when the leaders were within car lengths of lapping Tommy, but the car behind Tommy spun. A great break for us as he would get to come around, staying on the lead lap. But as the race went back to green Tommy set the car into turn one and it just went straight on him. He was sure he had a tire down.
At Evergreen Speedway we have a “hot pit” in the middle of the track. We had set up there with tires, air, a jack or two and some tools for those emergency situations, like this one. I’m not sure what happened, but when the car got to the hot pit the crew did not see a flat tire. As spotter I began directing traffic, instructing them to pull the hood and look over the suspension. Maybe there’s a broken shock or a sway bar issue. Nothing was found, so they put the hood back on and sent him to the pit area outside the track. When Tommy arrived at the pit it was clear that the right front tire was flat. The problem? The tires were in the hot pit.
Now, here’s the interesting part. When Tommy was making his turn into the hot pit, the track went yellow again as there was a big pile up going into turn one. So we hadn’t lost a lap yet. But in the ensuing cleanup, they went red. So getting Tommy back to the hot pit wasn’t an option now since the track was red and cleanup crew were all over it. We had to wait until the yellow was brought back out, rush him to the hot pit and change the tire as fast as possible before they went back green. I don’t think he lost a lap there, as he was coming out of the pit just as the pace car pulled off.
The final run to the end saw Tommy lose a lap under racing conditions, then I believe we lost one more as well. We had another yellow with two laps to go. At this point I’m fairly confident that we were two laps down. Going back to green we could see the checkered flag in sight. After one of the longest nights we’ve had, it was beginning to look as if we could persevere and close this one out. Tommy took the white flag and I was talking him through it. He had three car lengths on the rookie in the car behind him. Coming to turn three, that car behind him just never lifted, dive-bombing under Tommy and taking him out. I still have no clue what he was thinking. Tommy spun around and ended up in the inside grass strip against the wall. Of course, the car would not restart, so he couldn’t finish the race. We were literally one corner away from finishing this one, after fighting all night long.
All I can say is, there’s always the next one. But when you fight all night against everything like this and you are within sight of the end, for someone to do this is so outraging that you want to punch them in the face. I’m proud of my driver for fighting through this difficult night. After he got out of the car him and I went over to the other driver’s pit. As his spotter I don’t let him go anywhere without me in a situation like this. I’m proud of him for speaking his mind, standing his ground. I’m also proud of me for not drilling this guy right in the nose. Sometimes it’s tough to remind myself that it really isn’t my fight. When you’re standing next to your driver and the other guy is blaming him when he clearly took him out for no reason, it becomes very hard to keep your cool. I know, had I been the driver, that conversation would have went entirely different. So props to Tommy for keeping it somewhat civil. Outside of a lot of screaming, nothing more went down. But in my mind, I know how to handle this rookie when my car hits the track.