'You're the driver's eyes': The life of a NASCAR spotter

It's a clear Saturday afternoon in March, minutes before the start of the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. I'm standing at the top of the grandstands in Turn 12, the track's infamously harsh braking zone. My mouth is dry. I'm swaying at the hips. I feel sick. But I can't back out now, because for the first time in my life, I'm competing on a NASCAR team -- and it's my job to help keep our driver from wrecking.

It's a hell of a first assignment.

My job this weekend is called "spotting." NASCAR spotters track what's going on behind, beside and in front of a race car, sometimes coaching their driver through a pass while describing the location of rivals or the severity of wrecks around them.

Spotters do this in as few words as possible; if they use too many, they risk distracting the driver. That's why, when you listen to a team's radio, you'll hear truncated sentences.

"Left side." (There's a car on your left.)

"Bumper." "Quarter." "Door." (The car next to you is at your bumper, quarter panel or door.)

"Clear." (No cars overlap with yours, meaning you can move side to side.)

"Five back to the 48." (The No. 48 car is approximately five car lengths behind.)

"Looking right." (The car behind you is peeking to your right, potentially to make a pass.)

Typically, each NASCAR driver has one spotter. On a snaky, 3.41-mile road course like Circuit of the Americas, though, they need at least three to "see" the full track, meaning teams recruit part-timers to help.

Knowing that, my husband asked if I could get us spotting gigs at COTA. Neither of us had ever been spotters, but I offered our (admittedly low-demand) services to the first driver who came to mind: my friend Brad Perez, who signed to drive the No. 45 car with Xfinity Series team Alpha Prime Racing.

"Personally, I ain't scared," he said. "Just make sure my team owner is good with it."

Former Xfinity driver Tommy Joe Martins co-owns the team, and he's also a friend. I asked him next.

"Great idea," he responded. "It will save us a lot of hassle. I love it."

Alpha Prime is a lower-budget team in the Xfinity Series, going up against top-level NASCAR Cup Series powerhouses such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Richard Childress Racing and more. The walls of Alpha Prime's race shop read "Us Against Them" in bright red.

"We're a midtier team," Martins told ESPN. "We're not an A team; those are the legit Cup teams, $200,000-plus per-race budget. We're not really a B team; those are the Nos. 48, 26, 27, 31, 15, 39 and 5. They have $100,000-plus per-race budgets.

"We like to think we're like a B-minus team. We've got around a $70,000 per-race budget, including prize money. Realistically, we should be 26th to 28th, but we try to be top-20 every week, with small goals like finishing on the lead lap.

"We want to compete with that B group, and early in the season, I feel like we have."

Alpha Prime has two regular Xfinity cars, and the No. 45 runs part time. That meant Martins had to bring not only about 14 extra people to COTA to staff the car but also three spotters. When I texted Martins, he was the only spotter confirmed on the No. 45 -- pulling double duty as team owner and crew member. My husband and I filled the two extra spots.

Just like his car, Perez doesn't race full time. At 27 years old, he has made 13 starts in the Xfinity Series and Craftsman Truck Series, NASCAR's second- and third-tier national tours.

When he's not racing, Perez is a tire specialist and driving instructor. Just five years ago, he was a valet in south Florida.

"I'm not always the most optimistic person," Perez told ESPN. "Living the life I've lived, I've been a realist. Being where I am right now is a huge accomplishment, and I thank everyone who has given me the chances to get near my goals. As [my friend] Mamba Smith likes to remind me: 'I shouldn't be here.'"

But Perez is here, heading down COTA's backstretch toward me during the slow, double-file pace laps. We're minutes away from the green flag, which will signal a 38-car free-for-all. Perez starts 31st, and our goal is to finish top-20.

My headset's microphone is tight against my lips, where the team told me to put it so the wind wouldn't garble my transmissions. I press it tighter, just in case.

I'm nervous, but I'm prepared. My husband and I spent hours studying, acquiring the team radio from Cup driver Tyler Reddick's 2023 COTA victory and syncing it up with a replay of the race to learn what his spotters did and didn't call. My friend Nick Payne, Reddick's full-time spotter at 23XI Racing, told me to relax.

"It's easy," he said. "Just say 'left' and 'right.'"

Payne studied engineering in college, and he originally wanted to be a crew chief, but he shifted to spotting. The role required similar skills: preparation, data analysis, relationship-building and leadership.

"You're the driver's metaphorical eyes," Payne told ESPN. "You're constantly feeding them information: how to drive, what to do if they wreck and where people are driving. Sometimes you're a cheerleader. Sometimes you're the voice of reason.

"There are kind of three levels [to spotting]. On a road course, you're helping the driver understand scenarios and how to manage the race. On ovals, you're both managing and helping them drive. Superspeedways are the ultra-extreme. You're basically helping them steer the car."

For Payne, COTA is easy mode. The track has 20 turns, with a mix of fast straightaways, rhythmic arcs and harsh braking zones. Xfinity cars hit about 170 mph down the backstretch before slowing to 40 mph for Turn 12, giving drivers a big opportunity to pass. If you can out-brake your competitors, you can potentially get around them.

My spotting zone begins partway down the backstretch, about half a mile from where I'm standing. I lean forward to "see" Perez better -- as if that'll help -- and catch the speckled blue nose of his car. He's just a dot in the distance, and soon, I'll have to help that dot navigate the cars around him.

When Perez snakes through my section, he'll alternate between facing me and away from me. He wants me to describe cars as on his "left" or "right," but for me, the lefts and rights change. I trace the track with my eyes, imagining Perez with a car next to him.

Left side, I think. Door. Quarter. Clear.

Perez's imaginary car rolls around another turn.

Looking right.

And one more.

Right side. Still there.

While I practice, the Xfinity field takes the green flag. I have about a minute before they reach me, when I'll locate Perez, warn of anything around him, then coach him through the next five turns. I nervously sway a little faster.

Martins calmly calls the first section of the track, even as cars fan out three and four wide. My husband takes over the second section, guiding him like a pro. Then comes my turn.

This is the first time I've seen Perez around so many cars. I realize just how poor my depth perception is, how quickly the lefts and rights flip, and how hard it is to tell whether cars are overlapping with him or simply peeking around. I stay calm, calling what I can but avoiding things I'm unsure about. Perez eventually disappears, and my shoulders fall in relief.

I made it through Lap 1. Just 49 to go.

As the race goes on, I get into a rhythm. I call on-track battles ("Left side ... still there ... car spinning to your right") and changes to the track surface ("They're putting speedy-dry on the racing line"). I tell Perez when faster drivers are charging, and I congratulate him on good passes. We even joke a bit under caution.

By the end of the race, Perez is running in the teens. We're where we want to be, but two late-race cautions bunch the cars up to battle for final positions. People thrash and wreck, while Martins reminds Perez of the goal: Stay clean and bring it home top-20. That's exactly what he does.

"Where'd we end up?" Perez radios after crossing the finish line.

"P1-9," Martins responds. "Nineteen."

"Would you look at that!" Perez says.

A penalty ahead of Perez eventually moves him into 18th, his best career Xfinity finish. We spend the night eating, drinking, high-fiving and hollering in triumph.

Each of Perez's NASCAR races is a culmination of his on-the-ground work to gather sponsors for the big day, and his performance has a material impact on whether he gets to make another. Today, it feels like we won.

"I think there's no reason I can't be full time," Perez said after the race. "I go about things the right way; my partners are happy; and I'm growing more partnerships. I love what I do for work, but I know if I had the opportunity to race for a living, I could do well. Hopefully one day, that will happen.

"If it doesn't, I have no regrets."