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NASCAR spotters perform vital roles for teams

By admin | January 14, 2009

By Richard Allen


All it takes is one look inside a NASCAR Sprint Cup racer or one in car camera shot to see just how little visibility drivers actually have. To both sides and to the rear, the vehicle’s lone occupant is essentially blind. Head and shoulder restraints, roll bars, a window net and a huge rear wing are all in place to help the driver in one way or another, but those things also serve to hinder his ability to see what is going on around him.

Although the driver is the lone occupant of the machine, he is not really alone. Perched somewhere high atop the speedway is the driver’s second set of eyes, the eyes that allow him to know what is happening in those places he cannot see. Those eyes belong to the team’s spotter.

Without question, the spotter is among the most important pieces of a successful race team. No driver would want to be out on the track without a good spotter.

Among the best lookouts in the business is Mike Calinoff. How would anyone know how good a spotter is? To answer that question all one needs to do is look at who that individual has worked with.

Great drivers want to be surrounded by the best. In Calinoff’s case, he has worked with some of the best drivers in racing today, including two Sprint Cup champions and an Indianapolis 500 winner.

In 2009, Calinoff will serve his second stint spotting for Matt Kenseth. He worked with Kenseth from 2000 to 2005, including 2003 when the Wisconsin driver won what was then called the Winston Cup championship.

After the 2005 season Calinoff went to work for driver David Stremme and the Chip Ganassi Racing team. In so doing, the spotter also took on the role of business manager for his driver.

Calinoff and his wife, Jenn, run a NASCAR marketing company and he has a driver development company as well.

When Stremme left Ganassi, Calinoff took on the role of spotting for one of the most successful racing stars in the world, Dario Franchitti. The Scotsman came to NASCAR with an impressive resume. He had won the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and the 2007 IndyCar championship.

“To this day, Dario and I have remained great friends,” Calinoff says, which serves as a testimony that the relationship between driver and spotter is an important one.

Calinoff kept two time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart up to date on his surroundings during the 2008 Chase for the Championship.

As far as the work of a spotter goes, there is a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of the person who serves as a team’s eye in the sky.

“You have to watch what’s going on ahead and behind your driver,” Calinoff says.

“You have to be able to forecast what may happen,” he adds. In other words the spotter not only has to know the personality of his own driver but the personalities of 42 other drivers.

Sometimes, just knowing personalities is not enough. Split second decisions and instinct are often called for when a driver finds himself in a tight spot. “You have to be able to figure out where the cars will go in the event of a wreck,” Calinoff declares when discussing how he talks the driver through a worst case scenario. “I don’t think about it, I just do it.”

Calinoff has had two moments that stand above the rest as a Sprint Cup spotter. “Winning the 2003 championship with Matt Kenseth was an unbelievable accomplishment,” he says. “And, winning Talladega with Tony during this past Chase was something I will never, ever forget.”

On a Sprint Cup race team the driver is often the focal point. Sometimes, the crew chief will gain fame for the job he does. However, there are numerous pieces that make up the puzzle of a successful race team. Mike Calinoff is one of those pieces for his team.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.

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