DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Brian Pattie knows grandma is always listening.
Pattie has made a name for himself as the crew chief for Clint Bowyer, which means his tips, jokes or code words are broadcast not only to his driver, but to any NASCAR fan with a scanner.
Pattie’s 95-year-old grandmother is tuned in, one of the scores of fans who enjoy the behind-the-scenes listen not found in most other sports.
“We talk all the time and she’ll say, ‘I heard you tell Clint do this or that,'” Pattie said. “It makes me laugh. It makes you realize that what you say is broadcast to millions of people.”
In NASCAR, eavesdropping on the action is as much a part of the race as the command to start the engines — and biting tongues is rarely an option.
“I don’t know if you lose the fact that you forget about it or you just don’t care,” Bowyer said.
Imagine that kind of live sneak peek in other sports.
Take the NFL, for example, where Denver’s Peyton Manning barked “Omaha!” into a national catchphrase. By one count, Manning used his word of the day 44 times before the ball was snapped during one playoff game.
What exactly did it mean?
Manning never told anyone the significance of his favorite word. No one could figure it out — as much a mystery to fans as what a baseball manager says to his pitcher during a trip to the mound. Or a basketball coach in the huddle drawing up the final play.
But fans sure heard Pattie and Bowyer last season in the Chase-setting race at Richmond when one suspicious command helped spark scandal. In-car audio framed the situation as Bowyer’s crew goading him into spinning his car to bring out the yellow in an effort to prevent Ryan Newman from winning the race.
“Thirty-nine is going to win the race,” Bowyer was told over his radio.
“Is your arm starting to hurt?” Pattie asked. After a pause, Pattie said, “I bet it’s hot in there. Itch it.”
Bowyer’s car then spun.
Pattie was placed on probation, one of many penalties levied against Michael Waltrip Racing for trying to manipulate the outcome of the race.
Lesson learned? Perhaps, but with the Daytona 500 looming on Sunday, drivers, crew chiefs and spotters know everything is within earshot. NASCAR even banned teams from using digital radios not accessible to the public in the Richmond aftermath.
“It’s not going to change the way we’re doing stuff,” Pattie said. “I’m passionate about what I do. When I get into the race, I don’t even know what’s going on. We’re so focused on the event, that what you hear is what you get.”
Pattie was in the thick of the action in 2009 with former series driver Juan Pablo Montoya at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Montoya was 36 laps away from becoming the first driver to win both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard NASCAR race when he was cited for exceeding the 55-mph limit on pit road. He had to re-pit and finished 11th.
“I swear on my children and my wife that I was not speeding!” Montoya shouted over his radio. “There is no way! Thank you, NASCAR, for screwing my day.”
Pattie begged Montoya to calm down and focus on salvaging a solid points day.
“Don’t tell me to relax, dude!” Montoya yelled. “We had this in the bag.”
Jimmie Johnson, a six-time champion, said he does try to choose his words carefully, though late-race punishment can derail those cool thoughts.
“Just from venting, having an issue with another driver, it isn’t worth the mess that follows if you say something bad about someone,” he said. “All of (the media) comes asking questions, then you have to deal with that instead of working on your race car. You attempt to regulate yourself, but there are moments when you can’t help yourself.”
Johnson appeared to have the car to beat in last season’s June race at Dover International Speedway, but he jumped leader Montoya off a late restart and had to serve a pass-through penalty.
“I was off the gas, NASCAR, please look,” Johnson pleaded over the radio. “I checked up to give him his spot back but he blew it so bad. Please take a look at that. I totally checked up. Honestly.”
Johnson stayed on the track while he protested before he finally hit pit road.
“No black flag, my man. They’re not budging,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “C’mon.”
NASCAR fans can listen to an uncensored buffet of communication ranging from foul-mouthed rants to finish line screams of victory on FanVision controllers that provide access to live broadcast feeds, onboard cameras, official timing, data, statistics, instant replays and a digital radio scanner. At Daytona, the device rents for $59.99 for the weekend. They have to be returned no later than 90 minutes after the race ends.
Randy Oberlander of LaBelle, Fla., was dressed in a Matt Kenseth hat and T-shirt as he rented FanVision on Wednesday. He listens only to Kenseth scanner chatter on race day.
“We’re camping in the infield and we can’t see the start-finish line,” he said.
He’ll miss little of the action deep in the heart of the track — just how NASCAR likes it.