NASCAR race cars are becoming more complex as their performance and safety technology evolves. One result is that more people need to be in the driver's communication loop. While the number of pit crew members allowed over the wall to service the car remains at seven (eight during the second half of longer races), the full team standing behind a single NASCAR driver can include more than 30 people.
It's especially important that the team manager, crew chief and spotter be able to talk with the driver during the race. The driver relies on these three individuals for guidance as the race progresses. In recent years, the team spotter has become even more valuable to the driver, helping him (or her) to get the race car around the track as quickly and safely as possible.
Pit crew members, the competition manager responsible for the car, and various engineers and specialists may also need to be on the radio, helping the team make quick decisions about the vehicle's handling and operation.
NASCAR allows fans to listen in on real-time driver-to-crew talk via several methods. Race fans can listen in while they're at the track, and really, from just about anywhere else, too. We'll take a look at the various methods a little later in this article.
Over the next few pages, we'll drop ourselves into the seat of a NASCAR race car to check out the in-car audio hardware, then review the equipment other members of the race team use to listen and talk. We'll tell you who's in the communications loop on race day and we'll discuss what you might hear when you listen in. Then we'll cross the finish line with a sample menu of services that offer fans real-time in-car audio.
But before we get into how NASCAR communications work today, let's take a look at how driver-to-crew communications were handled prior to when wireless audio took over -- and also acknowledge a few of the NASCAR pioneers who first used radios.
NASCAR Communication Milestones
During the early decades of NASCAR stock car racing, the driver and pit crew relied on visual signals to communicate. Each crew had a large "pit board," onto which they would chalk instructions and information -- such as the car's position in the race, the number of laps to go, estimated fuel remaining and so forth. The pit board would also inform the driver when to come in for tires and fuel. The crew chief or another team member would hold the board up for the driver to read, as the race car flashed by the pit area.
The driver could only communicate with hand signals as he raced around the track. For example, he might reach around the windshield pillar and tap the hood if he wanted to come in for a pit stop, or he would thump on the door panel if the suspension needed attention. The driver couldn't fully explain a concern with the car to the pit crew until the car had rolled to a stop in the pits.
The advent of two-way radio communications allowed the driver to describe and discuss specific issues with the car before making a pit stop. Now, a vibration in a wheel or a miss in the engine could be reported, so that the pit crew could be ready to respond when the car came in to pit.
NASCAR pioneer Raymond Parks was probably the first car owner to provide two-way radios for his driver and crew chief, around 1950 [source: Borden]. NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim says Parks' World War II surplus walkie-talkies were considered an illegal advantage, and were banned after other teams protested.
Driver Jack Smith is credited with being the first driver to win a NASCAR superspeedway event while maintaining two-way radio communication with his pit crew. Smith and crew chief Bud Moore kept each other informed, via a radio setup originally designed for delivery trucks, during the July 4, 1960 Firecracker 250 [source: Phillip].
As electronics became more reliable, NASCAR teams began to routinely use two-way radios for communication. By the mid-1970s, headsets and radios were a common sight in the pits. During the 1990s, radio technology was increasingly integrated into the car and the driver's helmet.
Today, a transition to the age of digital communications is underway within NASCAR. On the next page, we'll look at the audio communications hardware that a contemporary NASCAR driver and team typically use for communications.
In-car Communications Equipment
The preferred source for two-way radio systems used by NASCAR teams is Racing Radios, a unit of Diversified Electronics. Based near Atlanta, Ga., Racing Radios has been providing NASCAR officials and teams with communications equipment for more than 30 years. In 2005, the firm partnered with NASCAR title sponsor Sprint Nextel to take racing communications to a new level.
There may be more than 100 FCC licensed radio broadcasts going on during a major NASCAR event. Racing Radios programs the individual team's frequencies for the drivers and crews, as well as NASCAR officials, safety and security staff and others who need radio communications capability.
According to Racing Radios spokesperson Tony Cornacchia, most NASCAR drivers and teams buy their own communications equipment. Many teams custom order their crew communications systems, tuning them to their specific needs. Some teams have upgraded to digital systems, while others continue to utilize analog equipment. Some still use intercom systems in their pits.
Today, most race cars are equipped with a Motorola two-way portable radio for the driver's use. The radio is carried in a leather pouch or custom box placed to the driver's left in a location where volume and channel selection controls will be easy to reach.
The driver's helmet, which carries a microphone and semi-custom earpieces fitted for comfort, plugs into the harness. A push-to-talk switch is attached to the steering wheel and a short whip antenna is mounted on the roof. A Racing Radios wiring harness connects the radio system components while a dedicated battery powers the audio system.
Many teams outfit their entire pit and support crews with custom-engineered, hand-built headphones and two-way radios ordered through Racing Radios. Multi-car teams may choose to connect even more people through their radio communications network. Active Noise Reduction (ANR) technology helps to cancel out distracting background noise. Exceptional communication is one of the reasons a 21st century NASCAR pit crew can change four tires and refuel a race car in around 13 seconds -- and do it 10 or more times in a single race.
Racing Radios says their systems function well even at the highest track speeds and almost never suffer from interference or dead zones.
In the next section, we'll plug ourselves into the communications loop and see who's talking on the race car radio, and why.
NASCAR Team Communications
Team members carrying a two-way radio tuned to the team frequency during a NASCAR race may include the owner, team manager, driver, crew chief, team spotter, crew members, competition director, engineers, mechanics and specialists. Even more people are involved in a multi-car team. The driver most often consults with his team's race spotter and crew chief during a race. Of course, the owner or team manager can intervene whenever he or she feels it's necessary.
The team spotter provides essential information to help the driver get the car around the racetrack and, with any luck, into Victory Lane. Even as NASCAR race cars have become safer in recent years, the driver's ability to see to the sides and rear of the car has been diminished by full-face helmets and head-and-neck-restraint devices. The spotter often serves as a second set of eyes for the driver during the race. He watches the "blind spots" to the sides and rear of the car and confirms via radio when the track is clear for a pass or maneuver. It is not surprising that many spotters are former drivers.
The team spotter also keeps the driver informed of the overall track conditions and developments, especially when crashes and cautions occur. He may even relay messages back-and-forth for drivers on multi-car teams.
A dedicated spotter was first required during major races in 1990. Since 2002, a spotter has been required whenever a car is running on the track, even during practice and qualifying runs. The team spotters have a birds-eye view of the track, watching from atop the press box or grandstand. NASCAR also has its own spotters watching the track at all times.
The crew chief remains in direct contact with the driver throughout the race. This extremely busy person is responsible for the shop team that builds and tunes the car as well as the performance of the pit crew. The crew chief moderates communication between the driver and pit crew and coordinates pit stops with the driver. Additionally, the crew chief may monitor lap times, track fuel usage and watch tire wear, all critical factors typically discussed with the driver during the race.
The amount of radio "chatter" generated by a team varies with individual personalities. Some drivers limit talk to absolutely necessary comments and questions. Others share their observations and concerns in detail with their spotter.
You may be surprised to learn that it is possible for NASCAR drivers to talk to each other -- if their radios are programmed to the same channels, that is. Multi-car team drivers often talk during a race. When asked if teams listen to other team's "chatter" during races, NASCAR insiders say, "Everybody listens to everybody." Teams can get their radios programmed to monitor any team on the scan list for a given race.
What sort of insider talk might you hear when you listen in? Tune in to the next section to find out.
NASCAR Driver-to-crew Audio
Thanks to NASCAR and modern radio technology, you can listen to real-time talk between the driver and the pit crew and other team members. NASCAR racing is one of the few competitive sports that let you do this. It's like listening in during the huddles at an NFL game -- if only you could!
For some time, trackside fans have been permitted to listen to in-car audio, via a personal or rented scanner. A recently introduced device, called the Sprint FanView, conveniently bundles in-car audio scanning with real-time video and other features. NASCAR driver-to-crew audio can also be heard online and via satellite TV and radio. There are even services that provide live in-car audio through cell phones. We'll review some options for listening in on the next page; however, before getting into that, let's discuss what you might hear.
Finishing well in a NASCAR race requires an ongoing assessment of fuel consumption, tire wear and several other factors. Listening in to in-car audio, you'll hear the driver and team discuss strategy: Should the driver run hard right now or hold in place for a surprise move to the front of the pack later in the race? What are the other drivers doing? Near the end of the race, you may hear especially big decisions being made: Should the driver hold the lead and risk running out of fuel before the checkered flag or pull in for a quick pit stop, assuring a finish -- but maybe not as the winner?
If you enjoy an "insider" perspective, listening to NASCAR driver-to-crew talk can be truly thrilling, as attested to by thousands of fans who show up with their scanners and headphones on race day. A sample list of some services that provide real-time in-car audio, at the track or just about any place you happen to be on race day, awaits you in the next section.
NASCAR In-car Audio
Allowing fans to listen to as-it-happens in-car audio is one of the great things about NASCAR. Numerous providers offer services and equipment that make it easy and convenient to listen in. Some available devices and services offer additional features such as real-time statistics, in-car camera video and other race-related content. Keep in mind participation may require purchase of a subscription, the actual communication device and/or additional services.
One way to listen in at the track is to use Sprint NASCAR FanView from Sprint Nextel. You can rent or purchase this Sprint-supported handset that combines scanner audio capability with full color race video.
Fans may also rent or bring their own radio frequency scanners to NASCAR events. The provider will program rented scanners to receive favorite team frequencies. You can also obtain lists of team frequency assignments from vendors at the track -- for a small charge, of course.
Sprint customers who have a data pack for their mobile phone can access NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile to monitor live in-car audio from chosen drivers -- even as they watch live race coverage on their phone. A "My Driver" feature helps fans customize the application to focus on preferred drivers.
For fans that prefer to listen on the radio, the Motor Racing Network (MRN) -- also known as "The Voice of NASCAR" -- is a great source for NASCAR stock car racing and other related radio programming. Race day broadcasts are carried on more than 700 radio stations nationwide, in addition to the American Forces Network (AFN) that broadcasts Worldwide. MRN offers listeners play-by-play coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series, and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The Performance Racing Network (PRN) provides similar broadcasts for certain NASCAR races.
If you're a satellite radio subscriber, then you have another option: Sirius XM Radio's NASCAR Channel (channel number 128) carries programs covering many NASCAR topics. Multiple "Driver2Crew" channels are monitored during race broadcasts.
If you're not satisfied with simply hearing the on-track action and you want to see what's going on, satellite television might provide just what you're looking for. NASCAR HotPass on DIRECTV offers in-depth video and audio live from several cars during each NASCAR Sprint Cup Race. Live coverage can also be monitored on a Sprint FanView device at no extra cost, when certain conditions are met.
Fans that want to listen to NASCAR racing action over the Internet have the option of subscribing to NASCAR TrackPass Scanner. This service enables subscribers to listen to real-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series audio through a computer. The user can select and listen to his or her favorite driver, scan all 43 driver channels for action or switch to the NASCAR Official channel to hear even more track-talk.
If you found this article interesting, then you'll probably want to take a look at the next page, too. There, you'll find several articles focused on NASCAR and NASCAR-related topics. It's definitely worth a look.
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