Spotters play critical role for IndyCar drivers at ‘terrifying’ Texas Motor Speedway speeds


FORT WORTH, Texas – As IndyCar drivers whiz around Texas Motor Speedway at a hair-raising speeds approaching 230 mph, they also are hearing voices – the knowing reassurances of spotters guiding through heavy traffic.

It’s a comforting feeling at a 1.5-mile speedway that has developed a reputation as one of the series’ most terrifying tracks in 26 years on the circuit.

For many IndyCar drivers, their introduction to Texas also is their first time on an oval as it was for Marcus Ericsson, who made took his oval debut in a Texas test four years ago.

INDYCAR AT TEXASSchedule, start times, how to watch on NBC, Peacock

ERICSSON WAITS ON OFFER: Indy 500 winner wants to return to Chip Ganassi Racing

“I was terrified,” the 2022 Indy 500 winner said Friday. “I hardly could turn the wheel because I was scared the thing was going to spin and crash. It took me the whole day to get comfortable.

“It’s quite a steep learning curve for sure. In a way, it was good to be thrown into the sharks straightaway in a way to just get used to it.”

Three drivers – Benjamin Pedersen, Sting Ray Robb and Agustin Canapino – will be making their Texas debuts Sunday in the PPG 375.

For Canapino, it’ll mark his baptism by fire on an oval, a month after an impressive 12th in his IndyCar debut on the streets of St. Petersburg.

The Argentinian smiled and politely apologized when he couldn’t recall his spotter’s name Friday, but the lack of familiarity doesn’t convey a lack of importance.

“Trying to finish the race is my first and my only goal,” said Canapino, who taught himself English in three months before the season started. “The other thing I have to learn is try to understand the spotter. Go 220 mph and hear another guy on the roof! The simulator is a good tool but only way to learn an oval is doing the race.”

Callum Ilott, Canapino’s Juncos Hollinger Racing teammate, knows that feeling from last season. After a successful career as a winner in the F2 series and other European ladder circuits, Ilott’s road racing experience hardly mattered at Texas.

But the Brit soldiered to finishing a lap down in 16th (a day after the drama of debris slamming into his aeroscreen from Jack Harvey’s practice crash) and gradually got acclimated with relying on spotters during his rookie season to help navigate tight packs of cars.

“It was tough to get used to at first,” Ilott said. “It’s a bit alien. It has to become another sense to you. I’d probably say it wasn’t until Iowa and Gateway where I really started to not need the mirrors and to be able to rely on what my spotter was saying. Whereas (at Texas), I was so distracted by all the cars around me that it was so hard to be able to subconsciously focus on what he was saying.

“So yeah, they are of massive importance, but it does take a bit of a while to integrate. It’s like when you get into any kind of car or vehicle, and you’re like, ‘This is bigger than normal, I need to fit through these gaps,’ that’s how it works with a spotter. You just need to do it naturally. You know how your car works, and you need to get used to it.”

Ericsson, a veteran of 97 starts in Formula One and a similar European background, said it took about a year to get comfortable with trusting the voice in his ear. He now is in his third year with spotter Mark Gregory

“When you have someone that long, you know each other quite well,” Ericsson said. “He knows what I want to hear. I know how he talks. He’s super calm always. If he gets excited on the radio, I know there’s some big drama going on. He’s very calm and giving me the information I need.”

Though IndyCar spotters play a similar role to their NASCAR counterparts, the chatter at Texas won’t be as frantic as a superspeedway such as Daytona or Talladega.

The Cup Series now has a third drafting track in Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Joey Logano defeated former teammate Brad Keselowksi in a battle that seemed to be narrated by air traffic controllers because their spotters incessantly were jabbering crucial information about their positioning of their peers.

“It’s not as hectic as the NASCAR guys,” defending IndyCar Texas winner Josef Newgarden said. “You look at the pack racing in stock car, it seems like that is so essential. You just can’t function in that type of race without a really good dialogue constantly going with the spotter. In IndyCar, it’s not that intense because it’s not a pack. Even when we pack race, there’s more room. It seems so clumped together in a stock-car race, I don’t know how you get by without it.

Spotters watch the action heading into Turn 1 of Indy 500 practice last year (Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment).

“Here, it’s not as necessary. It doesn’t mean they’re not important. Because there is a lot of situations where you can’t see things, and they can help you out. But I’m a driver that likes more information. I want to know what’s happening up the road I can’t see. I want to know what’s happening behind me I can’t see. I want constant updates. If it’s not helping me, I just kind of ignore it until it’s at a time that I really want or need it. But I’d rather have the flow be constant and more than less.”

While some drivers rely almost exclusively on their spotters to clear them for passing on the high banks, some winning veterans still use their mirrors exclusively.

“I’ve always used the spotter as a secondary layer,” Newgarden said. “I want to clear everything myself first. The spotter is essential if I miss something. Sometimes it gets pretty hectic. Especially a restart if there are multiple lanes and you can’t account for everybody, you might miss something. So I’ve always utilized them as a backup.

“But my preference is I want to always be clearing myself first, and then it’s just that extra layer of clearing from the spotter. And then I feel even more comfortable in my decision. I’m essentially already making my decision, but he’s confirming it for me.”

Arrow McLaren drivers Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi both are working with new spotters this season

O’Ward has Bob Jeffrey, who recently has worked with Newgarden but also is a NASCAR veteran who spotted for champions Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett.

“He’s worked with a lot of good guys,” said O’Ward, who was introduced to Jeffrey by his former spotter.

The Mexican star has worked with a new spotter in each of the past four seasons and confesses “I don’t really care” about what he is told on the radio.

“Sometimes, I don’t really listen,” O’Ward said. “Because really, if you just rely on what they’re telling you, sometimes it’s not a good idea. So I feel like you get used to using that as a reference is where you can get tangled up because maybe you didn’t time it correctly. I’ve always used my peripherals. And obviously you use them as a second pair of eyes to know where you are when you’re in the middle of the corner looking way ahead. That’s where you lean on them.

“It’s definitely important to not lose your awareness just because you’ve got someone telling you where someone is. It’s a different type of racing. But it’s definitely helpful.”

Rossi’s new eyes in the sky belong to Jason Reiner, another NASCAR veteran who has worked with Greg Biffle and Chase Elliott. Rossi and Reiner recently had hamburgers in the Charlotte area to get to know each other, but the 2016 Indy 500 winner said he doesn’t have

“It’s a little weird because I don’t actually know what a good or a bad spotter is,” said Rossi, who had worked with spotter Dewayne Ellanger the past seven seasons at Andretti Autosport. “I assumed that I’ve had a great spotter the past seven years, but he’s the only one I’ve ever had. I don’t know. So I think it’ll be fine. Jason has a lot of experience in Cup. He’s done IndyCar a lot before.

“Honestly, I don’t care. Whatever he wants to say is fine. It’s not something I put a whole lot of credence into. It’s not a big deal. Any information is good. But I look and make the decision (on passes). I wouldn’t give that much trust to anyone. Too much control issues.”

Though the spotter can help, Ericsson, who finished seventh in his Texas debut, said a big part of adapting to a spotter is simply the mindset.

“I wanted to learn ovals, and I wanted to become good on ovals,” he said. “That was one of the big motivations coming (to IndyCar). I feel like a lot of people coming from Europe wish there wasn’t any ovals. I came here with a different mindset of being excited to try the ovals.

“That was my mindset and really helped me get comfortable and eventually win the 500 in my fourth try. Now I really enjoy it. I think (Texas) is quite a unique place on the calendar because it’s such high banking. High speeds. It’s just a lot more extreme than Indy for me. This place is very tough mentally, especially because it’s just really intense.”

Alex Palou wins Detroit Grand Prix from pole


DETROIT – Alex Palou won the IndyCar Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix from the pole, fending off several challenges and three late restarts during a chaotic debut for a new downtown track.

After qualifying first, Palou won by 1.1843 seconds in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda over Will Power, followed by Felix Rosenqvist, Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi.

Kyle Kirkwood (who rebounded from falling to 26th in a massive shunt on the first lap) finished sixth, followed by Scott McLaughlin, Marcus Armstrong, Marcus Ericsson and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden to round out the top 10.

As expected, there was lots of action on the nine-turn, 1.645-mile layout that made its debut Sunday with seven caution flags chewing up 32 of 100 laps – and eliminating some contenders.

With 20 laps remaining, Romain Grosjean slammed the wall in Turn 4 while running seventh in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda, which had started third. He later attributed the problem to a suspension failure.

Pato O’Ward’s shot at a decent finish fell apart during a green-flag pit stop on Lap 35. The No. 5 Dallara-Chevy’s left rear wheel was loose as O’Ward left the stall, so he stopped to allow the crew to push him back.

He returned in 26th at the end of the lead lap but then slammed the wall in Turn 9 eight laps later after overshooting the corner.

“Honestly our race went upside down on that pit stop,” O’Ward said. “All downhill from there. It is what it is.”

The yellow flew again during the next restart on Lap 49 as Sting Ray Robb went into the tire barrier in Turn 3 while Christian Lundgaard and Santino Ferrucci (who was trying to fight back onto the lead lap) also were caught scrambling in traffic.

During the caution, Graham Rahal hit the Turn 1 wall and then was rear-ended by rookie Benjamin Pedersen.

“I got a lot of understeer,” Rahal said, struggling to process what had happened to lose control of his No. 15 Dallara-Honda. “It’s on me. I need to see the tape and understand. I’m just disappointed in myself with all the errors this weekend, just not driving well. It’s hard to figure out why, but ultimately it’s on me. I’ve got to perform a heck of a lot better than that, especially on a day like this.

“It’s just not typical of me. I know you’ve got to stay on the dance floor. I don’t know what to say. We weren’t good in the race. We were in pretty bad shape. It’s disappointing. I’ve got to be better. It’s been a really tough couple of months. We need a reset. I need a reset. We need to come back much, much stronger.”

The first incident occurred in the first corner as Callum Ilott rear-ended Kyle Kirkwood on the entry into the Turn 3 hairpin (starts and restarts for the race occurred on the longest straightaway off Turn 2).

Kirkwood, who was starting after clipping the wall in qualifying, was able to continue after pitting to change the rear wing of his No. 27 Dallara-Honda.

But Ilott’s day was over after failing to complete a lap.

“I didn’t have anywhere to really go, but it was my bad for kind of being a little bit on the late side,” the Juncos Hollinger Racing driver told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “I was gaining bit of time, and they just checked up a little bit more than I anticipated the last bit. I wasn’t coming with that much more speed, but I just couldn’t slow it down on the last part, so sorry to the team and sorry to Kyle cause that didn’t help him, either. On to the next one.”

After four consecutive weeks of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and on the streets of Detroit, IndyCar will take a one-week break before returning June 18 at Road America.