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Monday, May 13, 2013
Updated: May 15, 5:46 AM ET
Rallycross spotters have their drivers' backs

By Jen Horsey
XGames.com

In the fast-paced chaos that is a rallycross race, it's hard to imagine how many things are going on for the driver. In each split second, countless decisions are made that affect the outcome of the race. But the drivers aren't going it alone: they've got eyes in the sky that are helping guide them every step of the way.

On race day, team spotters are identified by their serious expressions, their team gear and the radios they're wearing. These team members are every bit as present in the racing as the drivers themselves, helping to guide their designated driver through the race. Every spotter has a different style and, depending on the driver's preference, they could be saying just a few words from time to time or they could be in their driver's ear at every turn of the wheel.

Alex Gelsomino
As Ken Block's navigator in rally races, spotter Alex Gelsomino is accustomed to guiding the driver through trouble spots.
Alex Gelsomino is the man on Ken Block's radio. Day-to-day, Gelsomino works with Block as the general manager for Hoonigan Racing in Park City, Utah. He's known to fans of longer-form rally competition as Block's co-driver, navigating the team from the passenger's seat through the hazards of Rally America and World Rally Championship competition. In rallycross, he co-drives by remote control.

"The main thing you're doing is watching the driver's back," Gelsomino said. "Things can happen so quickly in the sport."

It can be hard for the driver to know the position of all the other cars on the course -- especially when everybody's making quick moves to jostle for position. The spotter, usually stationed in a specially designated area with a bird's-eye view, has a better vantage point. Gelsomino said he tells Block if there's been a wreck in front of him and warns him to steer clear of any debris that might be on the course. And he helps him to remember to take the Joker lap.

The Joker is an important strategic component of every rallycross race. Sometimes called the "alternate," it's a mandatory detour to the main lap. Under the rules, drivers must take it once -- and only once -- per race, and it's often one of the best places to make a pass and take the lead. In Brazil, Scott Speed used it to his advantage on the last corner of the final race to pull into first place ahead of Toomas "Topi" Heikkinen and take the gold medal.

Speed admits he actually ignored his spotter Brad Manka's advice to take the Joker earlier than he did, but definitely counts on his extra set of eyes for other things -- especially in the frantic seconds before the light goes green and everybody dives into the dusty first corner.

The start sequence in a rallycross car is complex. After rolling up to the start, a driver in a top-spec car has to watch for the red light to go on, signaling a few (random) seconds before green. He puts the car in gear, flips a switch to activate the turbo antilag to maximize boost on launch, holds down a launch control button to manage revs on the start, holds the handbrake and starts slipping the clutch a little so the car squats down -- but not so much that it inches forward into a false start. When the light goes green, the driver dumps the clutch, releases the handbrake and starts grabbing gears as the car accelerates from zero to 60 mph in less than two seconds.

In Brazil, deeply ingrained Formula One training was pushing Speed to move before the green light activated and he credits his spotter with keeping him in line. In Formula One, the race starts when the light goes out and waiting for the green light was tough. "You're trying to do five things at once and it's hard," Speed said. "He was telling me: 'Wait for green.'"

Rival Nelson Piquet Jr., also a Formula One veteran, wasn't so lucky and he took a trip to the penalty box for false starting in his heat race. "Doing what Nelson did and messing up is definitely a possibility because it's such a habit that's ingrained in us," he said.

Dave Mirra, who drives for the Subaru rallycross team, counted on rally pro David Higgins to talk him through his races last season. He says Higgins, who competes behind the wheel for Subaru in the team's Rally America championship races, is invaluable because he's also a driver. "He's not just a guy giving me tips or racecraft that he wouldn't do himself and I think that's huge," said Mirra, who missed the first round in Brazil and will compete for the first time in 2013 in Barcelona.

He agrees with many other drivers who say making a move into the Joker is a split-second decision he prefers to make himself, but he says his spotter isn't shy about reminding him whether he's taken it or not -- especially after he accidentally took the alternate lap twice in one heat during a race last year.

"If I haven't done the Joker, he reminds me. Or, if I've done it, he reminds me not to do it again," Mirra said. "I've definitely done that."