Radio Waves: Debate Over Spotters In SK Light Modifieds Forever A Topic At Stafford Speedway

STAFFORD – As a host of SK Modified division drivers rolled off the half-mile Stafford Motor Speedway oval during a practice session Friday, SK Light Modified division driver Tony Membrino Jr. looked over and shook his head.

Stafford Speedway SK Light Modified driver Joey Ferrigno argues for both sides on the issue of spotters in the division (Photo: Nicholas Teto)

Stafford Speedway SK Light Modified driver Joey Ferrigno argues for both sides on the issue of spotters in the division (Photo: Nicholas Teto)

“We’re not even a half a second [a lap] slower than them but we don’t have spotters?” Membrino said. “It’s not right.”

It’s been a topic of debate since the SK Light Modified division was introduced at Stafford Motor Speedway in 2006.

Should the division have spotters, the eyes in the skies watchers at the top of the grandstands communicating with individual drivers about what is going on around them on the track?

At Stafford the division has never had spotters. Stafford allows spotters for its SK Modified and Late Model divisions and does not have spotters for its SK Light Modified, Limited Late Model and DARE Stock divisions. Stafford has one-way communication with drivers in the cars in the divisions without spotters. Track officials are in the ears of drivers on the track offering directives during the event.

“There’s pros and cons to having spotters,” Stafford Motor Speedway director of racing operations and competition Tom Fox said. “It may enhance certain situations on the racetrack, but my opinion is they do a pretty good job without them and certainly teaching the rookies or the new kids how to race without somebody driving the car for you is a positive thing for anybody’s racing career.”

Though, of late there’s been a loud outcry from drivers in the SK Modified division that the time has come for spotters to be allowed for the division.

“Every division should have spotters,” said SK Light Modified division driver Glenn Griswold, who also competes in the division at the Waterford Speedbowl and Thompson International Speedway, two tracks where spotters are allowed in the division. “It’s a safety factor. I know the track complains that the spotters drive the racecars, but that’s something that the driver has to sit with his spotter and discuss that and make sure it doesn’t happen. Here, safety-wise, we have full containment seats, full-face helmets and stuff, it’s hard to see each other. It’s nice to have a spotter to be able to tell you what’s happening behind you, what’s happening in front of you.”

Stafford SK Light Modified driver Joey Ferrigno is one competitor who sees both side of the argument.

“A bad spotter is far worse than no spotter,” Ferrigno said.

Ferrigno thinks not having spotters can actually be an advantage for some drivers.

“As much as spotters would help safety-wise they take away from drivers,” Ferrigno said. “I have a feeling when someone’s working me on the high or low side and a spotter takes that element away from it. Also being clear into a turn, some drivers can feel it, others can’t. … When I have a wheel in on someone they will know I’m there, or their spotter could tell them I’m coming and they’ll take my lane away before I get there. It’s a real tough call. It takes away from the split second decision making a driver has to do.”

But taking the other side of the argument, Ferrigno believes that for the sake of safety and cost containment, spotters are needed. Ferrigno points to a recent crash he had where he hit Nicholas Salva broadside in the door as a wreck that could have been avoided with a spotter talking him through the crash instead of someone just telling him the caution was out.

“The last two wrecks I’ve been in, which were significant for this car, one I was three wide in the middle with two wide in front of me and I had no clue what was in front of that. When the two wide split there was a car driver’s door toward me and I hit him right in his driver’s door because I had no idea he was there. A spotter could have told me that. Last week I checked up for a wreck and someone ran over the back of me and pinched me into the wall. He said he didn’t see me. I wasn’t stopped, but I was pretty close to it. A spotter could have told him about that.

“There’s plenty of times when I’ve gone into turn one not knowing if a car is really still inside of me or if I’ve cleared him or not. We’re going as fast as some of the SK [Modifieds] out there. We’re running high [19 second laps]. Going that fast, it’s good to have a second set of eyes.”

Said Membrino: “We’ve got to have [spotters]. You can’t go two laps in a Modified Tour car without a spotter, why should we go 20 laps door-to-door, nerf bar to nerf bar as hard as we do without a spotter? It’s a safety issue more than anything. You see a guy sitting there, sitting there, sitting there after the yellow comes and gets plowed by Ferrigno. It’s a shear miracle of luck that nobody got hurt there.”

Fox said he doesn’t think any of the wrecks recently would have been avoided with spotters.

“As soon as something happens on the racetrack I say ‘Caution, caution’ on the radio,” Fox said. “They hear that as fast as they’re ever going to hear a spotter. And if they choose to continue racing and drive into the accident I’m not so sure how that’s going to be changed positive or negative with a spotter.”

Said Stafford SK Light Modified division driver Payton Henry: “I guess Stafford from the beginning never wanted [spotters] here and tried to say the spotters would driving the cars if they were in the ears of the drivers trying to learn. I guess that’s the way they look at it. But you can see the last couple weeks there’s been a few big wrecks here the last few weeks that you know if there was spotters you probably wouldn’t see that kind of stuff. I started out at Thompson so I started with spotters. I had to get used to running without a spotter, and now I’m used to it, but I know there’s a lot of cases it would definitely help out.”

Fox said no matter the calls for change from competitors, he doesn’t see it happening any time soon.

“The racing has been good, sans the wrecks,” Fox said. “But if you look at the Late Models and the SK [Modifieds] we pile a ton of those guys up and they have all kinds of communication. I think you’ve really got to take the wrecks out of the whole deal and say ‘What kind of product are we getting and what are we looking to achieve?’ Not everybody has the ability to spend $1,000 on radios. It would be a hardship on some of the guys in the back. …. There is no easy answer. … It is what it is when you buy into that division. You don’t have them and that’s the way it is right now. We talk about it, we actively talk about it several times during the year, [Stafford Motor Speedway chief operating officer and general manager Mark Arute] and I do. And many of the competitors call and voice their opinion as well. But as it stands right now we don’t have them and I don’t think that’s going to change for next year.”

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  1. Doug DiPisa says

    If the SK lite division is an upstart for the SK division, then why not let them use spotters. Let them get use to someone talking in their ear rather than moving up in a division that cost more to race, and learn at other people’s expense. This is worse than the government.

  2. If they don’t want to give them spotters… Give them a few more mirrors… A single spot mirror and a rear view isn’t nearly enough when you are confined by a wrap-around full containment seat, hans, full face helmet etc… Mods are not easy to see out of…

  3. Radio-controlled racing has ruined short track racing in many different divisions all throughout the country. They should be looking at getting rid of the radios in the sks and lm rather than adding them to the lights. Things happen way too fast. More often than not, I’ve heard a spotter telling a driver something and the situation he was relaying had completely changed by the time he got the words out. But hey, if we say it’s for “safety” then no one can argue with that, right? Sorry, I haven’t seen any safety benefit from having spotters, if anything it’s the opposite affect. The racing has definitely suffered due to spotters though. Let the drivers drive the cars. The only purpose for radios should be to discuss pit strategy in long distance races.

  4. One of the reasons the SK and Late Models have spotters at Stafford is because of infield pitting.. Why is there infield pitting? National points for the SK”S, is the main reason. True it’s also good for the fans.
    Agreed the way the drivers are strapped into the cars causes issues as well. Cant see is always a good excuse. But in all fairness to say that they really need a spotter to promote better and safer racing is not all that true. In both the radioed divisions at Stafford it’s safe to say, and no one will really admit to it, but there are just a handful of spotters that have a clue as to what is going on out on the track. Its pretty evident with the amount of wrecking going on that spotters are not a cure-all. Not even close. I can tell you from personal and first hand information that Stafford Management is not going to be easily moved from their current position. You gonna need a pretty big pry par to move them on this issue. But its good conversation if nothing else. Oh, Ya… Ask them if the DARE Stocks can get transponders but duck before you finish the question!!!

  5. Tony Membrino, Jr. says

    For reasons regarding safety and potential cost savings for the race teams as well as car counts for the divisions and race tracks, every division of NASCAR should be able to have a two-way radio system for the driver and a MINIMUM of one crew member.

    I would be able to understand the logic behind this rule if the SK Modifieds and Late Models at Stafford weren’t allowed spotters, or if perhaps the SK Light Modifieds at Thompson or Waterford weren’t allowed radios. But that isn’t the case, and for almost 7 years now, I still can’t grasp the concept behind SK Lights without spotters at Stafford.

    When I was getting quoted for this article, I was asked for my opinion on one of the concerns with radios being that Stafford doesn’t want spotters driving from the spotter stand. My response was, “Have you ever seen a spotter with a steering wheel in his hands up there?” At the end of the day, the driver is the one with the pedals and the wheel. The spotter advises and recommends – they don’t make the decision on the track.

    I commend Tom Fox for putting effort in actually communicating with the teams with this matter because until recently, the teams haven’t had much of a voice. And to some extent, he is right in some of his comments. However, I have to disagree with it being necessarily a good thing with rookie SK Light drivers learing to drive without radios. Some of these drivers hop into SK Lights straight out of karts or quarter midgets and they move up from there to a division that with 99% probability requires a spotter. Why not break them in to having a voice on the radio right away so they can learn the tricks of the trade with other drivers who are also learning so when they do move up to the top divisions at Stafford they’re prepared.

    Another comment I have regarding Mr. Fox’s remarks regarding the officials in the tower communicating with us when there’s an accident or a situation on the track. The timing is not always consistent as I have seen wrecks happen in front of me and driven by them before hearing anything on the radio. And that’s not by any means a fault of the officials, they do the best they can, it’s just a flaw of the system we’re forced to use. Another flaw with this system is that some situations don’t necessarily need to be communicated with every single driver on the track because when that voice comes over the airwaves, for a fraction of a second, your focus deters from what you were originally focusing on to the voice on the radio. So when Tom Fox has to tell certain drivers to keep it going after they’ve spun out all by themselves for the 3rd time that day, we all have to hear it, and it gets frustrating after awhile. When you have a spotter watching YOU and scanning ahead of YOU for wrecks or what not, you can rely on that one voice to help keep you safe and out of trouble. Again, just a flaw of the system.

    Another disagreement I have with the comments about the SK and Late Models drivers piling up there stuff is that there are larger lack of respect and a larger presence of egos in SK Modified and Late Model races in comparison to SK Light races – both in the cars and in the spotter stand. Granted some of the carnage, I can say from experience, can be blamed on spotters. But that’s where the officials have to step in and either issue or warning or tell the team to find another spotter that won’t abuse the radio privelages.

    The other disagreement I have is the argument regarding it being too much of an expense to run a radio to the driver and one crew member. No disrespect, but I think that’s bologna. I’d much rather spend $600-$800 on radios instead of $1,000+ after ripping off a right front – so would anyone else. If I were allowed to purchase a two-way radio system for myself and a single spotter, put it in the car, ran it this Friday night, and missed a wreck in front of me all because my spotter got me through it – the radios just paid for themselves and not to mention kept me safe.

    And this might be a stretch, but I think it needs to be put out there. We as drivers basically sign a waiver when we apply for our NASCAR licenses that says we know what we’re getting ourselves into and we can’t hold a track or NASCAR liable if something happens to us – but our families don’t sign that waiver. God forbid, if someone were to get severely injured or even killed on the race track and it becomes known that a spotter very well could have prevented the incident and the availability of such a safety measure was denied, that could spell trouble. I’ll let the rest of you paint your own pictures, but regardless of the outcome of such a situation, it’s bad news for any racetrack.

    We can’t miss all the wrecks and we can’t keep them all from happening, spotters or not. But when there’s an evident issue that the overall product (as Tom Fox would put it) that we put out and its key components such as safety, fairness, cost, and competition can be improved with something as simple as a single spotter, it’s the duty of the race teams and the track personell to communicate and work together to find a solution. I piss and moan from time to time, but I love racing at Stafford, I get along well with the track personell as well as majority of the drivers at the track. I want the best for the track, the officials, the teams – everyone. There’s always room for improvement and we should always look to make the track better, the racing better, and the Stafford experience better. What seems to be missing is incentive and initiative, and I firmly believe the Stafford personell and the SK Light teams need to take the initiative and seriously evaluate and work on this issue at hand for the simple incentives of a safer racing environment, potentially improved competition, a great potential at cost savings, and a better product.

  6. Since when has stafford been concerned about costs for the competitors? That $1000 set of radios could easily be made up for by running sk lites on pump gas the way they were designed tobe. If there was a radio vendor that made it worth the track’s while #winkwink radios would be mandatory.

  7. The money we spend to have a competitive SK light is ridiculous to say that a thousand dollars more would hurt anybody’s race budget is total BS.All these concerns about these radios in these cars the other tracks don’t seem to have any problems running them seems like its just officials at Stafford that don’t want them.I have talked toofficials many times on these radios they all seem to say they don’t want them. When they raced they didn’t have a full containment racing seat Hans devices and do the times that these kids do now.

  8. Tony said it all this is from A top runner. its A safety thing .you hear caution from the tower but don’t really know where it is around you .Ive sat in these cars without all the equipment on and they are quite blind.Tom has done A great job overall compared to Frank the division is much better overall but they are almot as fast as sk’s they should have spotters.

  9. 44 is the new #1!

    Hard to argue with Tony’s write up.

  10. Josh paradis says

    Having a spotter is good and bad. Good in the sense of safety, but bad because if someone gets upset and wants revenge on the track the spotter will help find them and start a new wreck other than the ones that happen already.

  11. Supers and Sprint cars seem to do fine without them and they are going a hell of a lot faster than a Light or full Mod even. There is too much “grandstand” driving going on
    from some teams not all. MVS doesn’t allow radio’s for the Modifieds and they don’t
    suffer any the worse for it. Meanwhile the NE style SK’s run each other over on a regular basis. I think radio communication should only be allowed during cautions but I doubt the ability to that would be very easy. Mirrors too. Lose the big one in the car and only allow the little cats eye on cage upright. I believe Jeff Rocco (by choice) doesn’t run a mirror.

  12. i think this conversation should be left to drivers, and car owners. people that are actualy funding the cars…

  13. Ya and not one team in the SKL or LLM or DS is using cell phones……

  14. Tony Membrino, Jr. says

    GP: I think you might be confused, if you want radio-controlled (RC) racing, I suggest you check out Rapid Raceway in Plainville. And if you truly believe there are no safety benefits to radios in race cars, I suggest you take some time and watch some race tapes, or strap in a car on a weekly basis and drive up on wrecks at 100+ mph and let me know if you still think and extra set of eyes is a bad thing.

    Josh: Just being honest, but I don’t think you should’ve hit “Post Comment” on your remark. I’m surprised Shawn hasn’t fired off a response or even let that one on here. It’s beyond irrelevant to the topic at hand, and it seems to have more to do with problematic displays of poor sportsmanship at bullrings to the south of Stafford.

    Crazy in NY: What do you think the probability is that Tony Stewart wouldn’t be out of the #14 with a broken leg if he had a spotter telling him a car was stopped in the middle of the turn up ahead? As fast as they are, Supers and Sprints have considerably less consistent side by side racing than modifieds do. Hence, one lack of necessity for radios. And MVS isn’t a NASCAR track so they can do what they want, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to say the lack of radios and mirrors is the golden egg reason why they have pretty good racing out there.

  15. Joe Chimbolo says

    My thought is to be against the radios because the spotter could direct the driver to block. But I have seen some in car YouTube videos of a modified race and it does seem that the driver has very little view down track. I know if it was my son out there I would want to make each on track as safe as it can be. Especially since SK Lite is typically rookies, who would benefit the most from support via a radio while on track

  16. A good example of good and bad is ferrigno hitting the door of the 98 and potentially hurting him badly and Zack asklar seeking out the 89 undoubtably with spotters help and in the process causing a big wreck and potentially hurting someone badly. Spotters are a good thing depending on who is directing them. Just my two cents

  17. Rumor has it that maybe Stafford management likes wrecks at the expense of the SK Light teams so the fans can get there taste of carnage…When you amoritize the costs of radio equipment over the course of the season it comes out to $50-75/race…This is peanut$ when you consider a one time $2500/wreck or yet worse a life threatening injury…

  18. Bob Freeman says

    I rarely post here and admittedly have no investment in the radio issue one way or the other . I also have a world of respect for Tommy Fox and his accomplishments both on and off the race track. But a big compliment here goes out to Tony Membrino, Jr., for writing a very sophisticated and logical response in favor of radios for the division. In my professional life, I’ve learned that I cannot ignore a well versed, logical, argument in any subject regardless of my personal opinion. Tony has gained a new fan here.

  19. Just for a point of reference, 20.000 seconds on a half-mile track (Stafford) is an AVERAGE speed of 90 mph. Late models are slower than that and have spotters. Pro Stocks at Stafford were slower than that and had spotters. Many of the SK Lights click off speeds that are close to or faster than 90 mph every Friday night. Several of these drivers are not yet old enough to get a driver’s license and have little experience at driving side-by-side in traffic in a full-size automobile. Stuff happens!
    If the call “CAUTION! CAUTION!” does go out over the track frequency it still does not tell the drivers if the wreck is in front of or behind them. Unfortunately, however, often there is just silence. If this frequency is really for the track to communicate with the drivers then perhaps there should be someone whose dedicated job during those races is solely to keep drivers informed. Tommy Fox has enough to do between calling for cautions, getting drivers to get going, making calls against drivers, and getting safety and cleanup equipment out on the track without also having to remember to tell the drivers that a caution is out.
    Perhaps radios could be made optional in the SK Light division? Then drivers could chose whether to spend their money on radios or fixing their cars.

  20. I find this topic extremely disheartening that safety is not the first or main concern by all, but none more so than from the powers that be at Stafford. Instead, it appears concerns are a matter of principle and opinion. This is not to say that points made opposing spotters are not valid on some level. They are, but to what degree and what level of importance is the question. I’ve yet to hear or read a fundamentally logical argument in any forum or discussion that trumps driver safety. I agree with Mr. Fox that the drivers do well on their own, but I do not believe that’s the issue. Wrecks are accidents and they are called as such for a reason. At times, these are simply unavoidable. The frequency and severity to which they occur however, has great potential to improve via the use of spotters. Regarding rookies Mr. Fox, I believe that statement applies to the 20/80 versus 80/20 rule. As stated, most drivers in the SK Light division are experienced drivers from some other racing in their past. Rules should be made based on 80/20. Clearly this is not the case. Individual team’s should have the choice to use spotters or not; of course, providing consensus is reached among all drivers due to the added expense. The ask is not to make them mandatory; rather, that they be viewed just as any other optional safety device. “Choice” is the optimal word here. If one chooses not to use a spotter for whatever reason, why do Stafford officials and not the drivers themselves have the final say? After all, isn’t it the drivers at risk here? However, I understand Mr. Membrino caught some slack recently after voicing his opinion and concern for his fellow drivers after a bad wreck a few weeks ago . Personally, I applauded (and still do) Mr. Membrino for his activism on driver safety.

    To Mr. Chimbolo’s comment, my son IS out there, so thank you for understanding what this means to parents and families. In fact, my son races in the SK Light division and it’s upsetting on many levels to think the spotter topic continues to be an element of principle, racing politics and perhaps egos versus one of safety above all else. Spotting in this division is allowed at other tracks in CT as well as the majority around our country and surely must be approved by NASCAR. If I’m not mistaken, this rule is a personal preference that stems directly from the top tiers of Stafford personnel. Clearly, the individual(s) responsible are simply digging their heels in the sand on this one.

    No Mr. Membrino, your comment regarding liability is not a stretch and I’ve thought about this from time to time as well. This would not bode well for Stafford (or their purses) if a debilitating or fatal wreck occurs where potential exists that it could have been avoided with the assistance of a spotter. That said, this is especially true based on yearly and numerous documented pleas from many drivers, yet continuously ignored due to what feels like a power play at hand. To spell this out, those responsible for ignoring these pleas are at risk of being held legally accountable if God forbid something devastating should occur that could have been avoided. As Mr. Membrino stated, drivers sign waivers – families do not. A civil suit against the track for negligence would not be good for business, regardless of the outcome.

    Overall, Stafford does a good job with their program, but they got it wrong on this issue. The bottom line here is that more good than harm will come from allowing spotters when one weighs the pros and cons. While there is no certainty that harm will be always avoided should spotters be allowed, must we wait to find out? As a business, I would think the powers that be are smarter than that. As a parent, I’m appalled that they’re not. As a paying customer, I will revisit my choice as will my family to spend our discretionary income at Stafford if the added safety of these drivers continues to be ignored. I don’t think Stafford can afford to have anymore empty seats on Friday nights then they already have.

  21. Well said… Parent and Tony… If I had a vote you’ve both earned it. I’d like to hear any arguement to the contrary that can top that.

  22. wrecked racer says

    most sk lite drivers are there for more experience to rise up in the if sks and late models use 2 ways then lites should for lots of reasons.speeds all in close wheel racing is more prone to becoming air borne why would you not want to train the lites drivers to use 2 ways so they become nascar future stars with all the tools. now here is the million dollar question.why does any division need 2 ways?no driver can see well around due to the great safety inovations.2 ways are cheaper than a bad wreck or total the car.ask bob charland this summer he chopped the number 7.his car only had a few parts left ouch.other cars badly destroyed to.evenually someone will be hurt or worce.if a spotter is going to guide you to wreck someone they can.but they can also reason with a driver to calm sure it may take a sure with no spotter they could figure out on their own how to wreck someone. putting on a great race as safe as possible and try not to be any more expence than need be.

  23. I have to say well said Tony and Parent, my family has been racing since the Danbury,Plainville days and as a spotter for mods and late model drivers I have to say spotters are needed in the sk lights.I know the track says spotters driving the cars or helping someone with retaliation but they too can hear us and if the track hears a spotter telling someone to take someone out or block,why not penalize that car?? The driver and owner are responsible for everyone on that team so Stafford could set a rule for spotters doing this and still maintain the”safety” issue.I was asked by the late model team to spot and after just four events the driver and owner told friends of mine how having someone who knew what they were suppose to do on the radio has saved their car from wrecks quiet a few times,NOT KNOCKING MY OWN HORN but the drivers have to pick someone they know will do what their suppose to do and that’s watch what is happening not bs ing on the radio.Just my comments on this subject from a spotters point of view.

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