By Eric Benson
FORT WORTH, Texas -- "Where you at, big diamond in the sky?" the six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson asked over his radio. Big Earl Barban -- 49 years old, white-maned and oversized in every direction -- stood on his perch, high above the track, and waved his jacket toward Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet. "There you are," the driver said. "That's a good seat."
It was race day at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, and Johnson and 42 other NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers were idling in their cars, awaiting the start of the Duck Commander 500. A couple hundred feet above them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the roof over the luxury boxes, were Barban and 42 other men, wearing black windbreakers and bulky headphones. As a group, they tended toward middle-aged paunch, graying mustaches and leathery skin, the kind of guys who'd blend in at a convention of charter-boat captains -- or aging Hells Angels. They were, in fact, spotters, NASCAR's eyes in the sky -- the men who, with a few well-placed words of guidance and encouragement, help their drivers stay out of wrecks, jockey for position and go for the win.
The view from the roof showcases the north Texas plains, stretching out to the horizon in every direction, but the spotters focused on the mile-and-a-half oval below. Barban knew that his driver, winless through the first six races of the season, was anxious for a victory. Johnson had been NASCAR's dominant driver for the last decade, winning 66 races (eighth all-time) and capturing six of the previous eight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. For much of that time, Barban had been Johnson's semi-secret weapon, talking him around wrecks and blind curves, and often -- with a ringing new leader, the 48! -- right into victory lane. The Fort Worth race had been rained out the day before, and massive air blowers struggled to dry the still-damp asphalt. As the engines let out their unholy roar, and the cars lurched forward under a yellow caution flag, Johnson and Barban began their race-long conversation.
Johnson started in 16th place, and for the initial laps, he was stuck in the middle of a large pack of cars. Johnson bided his time, while Barban described the movements of the cars around him. "In-side, in-side!" Barban called out, warning Johnson that cars were moving to his left. "Still no hole." Johnson maintained his position. Then everything went wrong. Only three laps after the green flag waved, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving directly in front of Johnson, made an ill-advised move to the inside and dug his wheels and front bumper into the infield grass. His car, traveling at nearly 200 miles per hour, broke apart, zipped across the track, smashed into a concrete wall and burst into flames. (Earnhardt was not injured.)
The debris from Earnhardt's wreck ripped through Johnson's car like shrapnel, and Johnson, normally mild-mannered, was almost apoplectic. "He just drove into the f---ing grass, ripped the nose right off the car!" Johnson seethed. Barban's cheeks were bright red, framing an irritated grimace; Johnson was getting on his nerves. But Barban's voice still oozed Zen-like calm. It was the serene bass-baritone of an airline pilot, a profoundly confident voice telling passengers that, sure, they'd experienced a little turbulence, and, yeah, the left engine is definitely smoking a little bit, but everything is going to be just fine, and heck, we're still on target to touch down early. Barban had a voice you could trust.
As Johnson's car got fixed, and the driver began to mount a comeback, Barban eased back into his element. "Cleeeeeeear," he intoned over the radio, when Johnson swooped his Chevy past another car. "Comin' hard -- out-siiiide, out-siiiiide, out-siiiide!" he called out, when a faster challenger approached Johnson from behind. "All right, boss man, find your rhythm," he said, trying to get Johnson into his groove. It was working. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, came over the radio to announce that the No. 48 was now running as fast as the race's fourth-place car. It looked in that moment like Johnson might just overcome his broken car and God-awful start. With a few lucky breaks, he could make a run at Victory Lane.
* * *
To understand the role of the spotter, it's helpful first to understand what it's like inside a modern stock car. Over the decades (and especially since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at the Daytona 500 in 2001), safety modifications have reduced dramatically the driver's ability to see what's around him. A driver in a street car has full peripheral vision, with a complement of mirrors, and can turn his or her head to either side to check blind spots. A NASCAR driver wears a wraparound helmet, and his head and neck movements are restricted greatly by a required HANS (Head and Neck Support) device. Even with the aid of two mirrors, the driver's field of vision is almost comically inadequate. He can see what's directly ahead of him and behind him, but more or less everything else is invisible.
The spotter serves as the driver's necessary extra set of eyes, scanning the racetrack forward and back; checking for slow cars, fast cars and wrecked cars; and using his four radio channels to talk strategy with his crew, listen to NASCAR's safety announcements, listen to his own voice (to make sure his radio is working) and most importantly talk with his driver. He is also his team's top diplomat, making deals for track position with the other drivers' spotters (although this practice has diminished since a brazen race-manipulation scandal last year).
At the most basic level, a spotter is simply a very astute watcher of the race, although that's harder than it sounds. Cars weave between one another on slingshot trajectories, and a spotter needs to simultaneously track his charge and keep tabs on the racing lines, passes and, especially, wrecks of all the other cars. The very best spotters, like Barban, also exercise a degree of control over their driver's emotional ups and downs, a skill that combines empathy, charisma and experience. "I've had several of them up there, but when it all got down to it, Earl was the only guy that I ever liked talking to," said Rusty Wallace, a Hall of Fame driver and current ESPN NASCAR analyst. "A lot of them would just piss me off." Barban spotted for Wallace for the final six years of the driver's career. He calls Barban "the godfather of spotters."
"A lot of them would try driving the car, Hey, I think you run faster if you run lower, the rest of the guys are running higher, you might want to try that," Wallace continued. "In fact, there was one guy I had where I finally said, 'Look, man, your job today is just to shut up and clear me high and low. You're pissing me off.' Earl would never do that. He knew my personality. He knew how to talk to me. And when you're really cranked up in a 500-mile race, and all hell is breaking loose, and it's 165 degrees inside the car, you're losing 11 pounds a day in body weight and you're pissed off, Earl knows how to keep you calm. The driver and the spotter are going to talk for three and a half hours. It's like you're damned married while the race is going on. You can't piss each other off. You gotta respect each other."
* * *
The first recorded instance of spotting in NASCAR had taken place at the legendary 4.1-mile Daytona beach-and-road course in 1952, when an innovative team owner named Cotton Bennett decided he would bolt a bulky radio to the floor of his car, allowing his driver, Al Stevens, to communicate with spotters on the north and south turns. "It was like a battery pack with a phone on top," said Buz McKim, the NASCAR Hall of Fame's historian. "[Stevens] would be going down the beach, and he'd be talking on this telephone basically. I'm surprised it worked, with the wind noise and the engine noise. But he was actually able to avoid two accidents."
The Bennett-Stevens experiment, though, proved a footnote to history. For the next three decades, spotters were virtually unheard of, deemed unorthodox and something less than sporting. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the practice became widespread. Even then, spotters themselves were treated as an afterthought. John Close, a former NASCAR spotter and sportswriter whose recent book, On the Spot, tracks the evolution of the position, recalled that when he began spotting in the mid-1990s, teams would draft nearly anyone into the role. "It was more a case of having a warm body up there. In many cases, especially if you were a lower-budget team, you would just grab a PR person or a truck driver. There were a lot of wives and girlfriends that spotted, just because the position needed to be filled."
Barban first got onto the roof in the waning days of spotting's pre-professional era, but he was very much a product of that all-hands-on-deck ethos. "You know I ran around a little bit in the past," he started. "My dad told me that before I was 21 years old, I'd had as many jobs and as many cars as I was old. I laid brick for a little while -- six months. Then I'd go rent cars. Then I wired the electric meters on your house, and ran a Steak 'N Shake, and worked at three or four different nightclubs and bounced. I was in the Marine Corps Reserves -- that's how I learned to drive a truck -- and I made a little stint in college, six months, I think I passed advanced volleyball. I bought a little candy shop in Mooresville [N.C.] one time. I always wanted to have this tan when I was young, so I made the candy shop into a tanning salon."
Barban and I were sitting on equipment boxes next to the No. 48 trailer, when Knaus, the team's famously exacting crew chief, popped out of a side door. He gave Barban a tight smile and a mocking shake of his head. "He shakes his head all the time at me, because I have a good time," Barban said.
Barban entered motorsports in 1988 and was working for Wallace's Team Penske NASCAR Cup team three years later. "He's one of those can-do guys," Wallace told me, and in those years, Barban was the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, working (often simultaneously) as a truck driver, a gasman, a jackman, a pit crew coach, a motor tuner, an underneath man and the team's de facto cook. A 1994 USA Today story captures Barban as an inveterate prankster, tossing chunks of bread on top of the team's transporter to attract seagulls to the crew chief's station. ("Do I worry about my job? Nah," Barban said at the time. "I've outlasted every crew chief they've had.")
When Barban asked Wallace in 2000 if he could spot for him, it seemed like a logical next step for a racing lifer aging out of lightning-paced pit work. "I was getting too fat and old to jack any longer, so I had to find that next thing that I was going to do," Barban said. "And the next thing was to spot for him. I'd listened for 10 years to all of Rusty's spotters, and I just thought that I could tell when all those other guys were making mistakes. We were friends, and I thought, Well, heck, I can get up there and do that."
* * *
Barban had begun his weekend at the Texas Motor Speedway by spotting for 18-year-old Chase Elliott. With his signature combination of precise observations and verbal ass-slaps, Barban had guided the kid to his first win in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide series. The next morning, as Barban walked through the NASCAR garage, he could have been mistaken for a small-town mayor. Barban shook hands, talked shop and accepted congratulations from a steady stream of mechanics, team officials, UPS parcel carriers, track-side caterers and fellow spotters, and also from one of Johnson's longtime rivals, driver Matt Kenseth. Barban has no children and has never been married, and while his interests range from scuba diving to real-estate development to his white Harley-Davidson ("my snowflake"), racing has been his life. He's seen some of the faces around the NASCAR garage every weekend for 20 years or more. "I talk to everyone out there," Barban told me. "I'll talk to the damn lady selling hot dogs -- maybe I get a discount there."
Up on the roof, Barban took his place among the usual crew. There were the top-tier spotters like T.J. Majors, a mild-mannered former driver who spots for his close friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. (They travel to races together in Earnhardt's private jet.) There were journeymen spotters like Donald "Fat Boy" Epling, a proud loudmouth who once worked with the great Dale Earnhardt Sr. and now spots for Dave Blaney, a 51-year-old driver who has never won a Sprint Cup race. And there were relative newcomers like Randy Bradshaw, a former Charlotte firefighter who used to spot Jimmie Johnson's practices and had recently gotten a job with the also-ran driver Josh Wise. Such disparities, though, didn't make for an obvious pecking order; anyone who'd been around long enough knew they were all playing musical chairs.
"About eight guys switch jobs up here every year. It's a small community. It just rotates. I always tell people it's like a subdivision that nobody ever moves out of, they just change houses," the spotter Ron Lewis said. Lewis got his start spotting in the lesser ARCA racing circuit and slowly moved his way up to a spot in Sprint Cup, where he works for the middle-of-the-pack driver Casey Mears. "There are 43 of us in the world," Lewis said, "and there are a lot of people who want to get up here."
At the end of the day, though, the spotters knew that their jobs were only as secure as their driver's whims. They were often the last guy hired on a racing team, and they'd be first guy shown the door if things didn't work out. "You can never be the hero," said Bradshaw, "but you can always be the zero."
* * *
Hendrick Motorsports is not where you'd expect to find a big, mischievous, former nightclub bouncer like Barban. Hendrick is to NASCAR as the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball -- or, perhaps more fittingly, as Goldman Sachs is to Wall Street. Hendrick stockpiles stars, constructs the fanciest facilities, sublimates individuality to corporate fidelity, and, above all, dominates. Nowhere is this more true than on the No. 48 team, with its perfect driver known (and disliked by some fans) for avoiding controversy, its persnickety and ruthless crew chief (who has been suspended for rules violations on four separate occasions) and its He-Man pit crews (Hendrick pioneered the practice of hiring ex-college and pro athletes).
But the team's buttoned-up culture is in fact all the more reason that a good-time guy like Big Earl Barban has proved such a good fit. After Rusty Wallace retired in 2005, Barban found himself out of a job at the same time that Johnson and Knaus were looking for a new spotter. "Sometimes, you get somebody up there that isn't comfortable in their own skin," Knaus told me. "We knew Earl from his years in the garage and from racing against him. We knew he had a calming nature."
The Johnson-Knaus partnership, one of the most successful in modern American sports, is also famous for its testiness. The team's owner, Rick Hendrick, once had to sit down his star driver and crew chief for a milk-and-cookies summit to air their grievances toward one another. "We have had a lot of painful conversations," Knaus told NBC Sports in 2013. "Nothing is out of bounds. We have had fights about attitude, work ethic, dedication, tough things like that. I think we came to realize that it's OK to ask hard questions, if you believe the answer you're going to get."
Every weekend, for the three and a half hours and 500 miles of a race, when cars are swooping past one another -- and every so often Dale Earnhardt Jr. decides to drive into the f---ing grass -- there are three voices talking to one another on the No. 48 car radio: Johnson, Knaus and Barban.
"When Chad and I are going at it and frustrated, Earl can come in and crack a joke," Johnson told me. "His wit and personality help calm things down, if one of us or both of us are getting out of line."
* * *
Back at the Duck Commander 500, Johnson was making his run at the front of the pack. After the Earnhardt accident and the pit stops to repair his hood and windshield, he had passed 12 cars and was looking like the class of the racetrack. But then, suddenly, everything went wrong -- again. Johnson radioed to say that something had fallen off his car. Barban scanned the track for debris and saw nothing.
Knaus told him to keep things moving.
"I'm just trying not to crash," Johnson snapped.
"I'm not yelling at you," Knaus said.
It turned out that Johnson had a flat tire. He pulled into pit road, losing the position he'd fought hard to gain.
When Johnson started back up, Barban was his usual soothing self: "All right, my man, keep it up. We got 203 laps left. We might catch a break here."
The sun was now beaming. Barban put on a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, turned to me and sighed. "We're not having a very good day, Eric." He was right. Soon the spotter for Joey Logano was in Barban's ear, asking if Johnson, who was about to be lapped, could move aside for his man. Barban, after consulting with Knaus, turned Logano's team down but eventually -- unable to hold off the much-faster car -- Johnson had no choice but to move aside.
"Man, I hate this racing-at-the-back thing," he said.
Logano won, and Johnson finished 25th, but Barban wasn't pouting. He knew his driver would notch a victory sooner or later. (Johnson would end his 13-race winless streak on May 25, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.) And besides, he had a 1,100-mile journey in front of him; the old jack-of-all-trades would be helping to drive the team's trailer from Fort Worth to Darlington, S.C. It was all part of racing.
"I get to fly on the plane, drive the trucks, drive the buses, kind of take care of my own stuff during the week. And then my biggest passion and my biggest excitement is racing, and I get to do that too," Barban said. "It's the perfect job for Earl."
* * *
Eric Benson is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Grantland and the Oxford American. He lives in Austin, Texas.