It’s probably safe to say that most of you don’t know a female spotter, even if you have ties to racing. And so, on April Fool’s Day we thought it would only be fitting to feature a guy, and not just any guy, but Mike Calinoff, a NASCAR spotter who has visited Victory Lane more than any other. As a spotter for NASCAR drivers Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Nelson Piquet, Mike ensures that his drivers are safe when making a pass and navigating a crash. And in 2009, with Matt he won the 2009 Daytona 500, the biggest race in the sport. He even was the spotter for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first Cup series race in 1999.
Mike got his start as a spotter while growing up on Long Island. His father, Len, was a racing writer, entrepreneur and member of the Northeast short-track racing media. And Mike, like his father, spent his time focusing on the media side and serving as head announcer at both Riverhead Raceway and Islip Speedway. But in 1987, an opportunity came that allowed him to serve as a spotter for Reggie Ruggiero, one of the country’s best asphalt modified racers. Reggie’s son was sick, and he needed a spotter and asked Mike to do it. Just 10 days later, and with seven wins under his belt, he moved into the job full time.
Mike spent the next handful of years spotting for modified racers, but in 1991, he decided to move to Charlotte, N.C., to pursue a career in NASCAR as a spotter and to work in marketing, and in 1992, he found his first job working on Joe Bessey’s Nationwide Series team. He also worked doing marketing and spotting for Jimmy Spencer’s Nationwide team. Five years later he was hired as a full-time sponsor in the Sprint Cup series for the first time.
In 2000, Mike began working with Matt Kenseth, an opportunity that would change his life forever. In 2003, the two won the Cup Series Championship together. Then in 2006, Mike went to Chip Ganassi Racing to work for Sprint Cup rookie David Stremme, who like Matt, was another up-and-coming driver. After Stremme left the team, Mike stayed with them and worked with Indianapolis 500 winner and NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie Dario Franchitti. Shortly after the team sponsorship ended, Mike worked as a spotter for Cup Series driver Tony Stewart.
In 2009, Mike joined Matt again, and won their first two races of the season working together, including the Daytona 500.
In addition to his work as a spotter, Mike serves as CEO of many companies, including Activ8 Communications, a public relations and branding agency, and Activ8 Development, a full-service agency and consulting group for young drivers. And the media bug that first drew Mike to racing has never quite left. He writes regular blog entries for Ford Racing, FOX Sports and SPEED. He also has a popular radio show, “Sirius Speedway,” with Dave Moody each Wednesday on SiriusXM.
Can you describe the fundamentals of your job?
NASCAR defines the spotter’s role as a “safety device,” but over the years it has evolved into much more than that. The drivers are basically in a cocoon when they’re in their cars, and they’ve got very limited visibility. Although they can see well through the windshield, they cannot see past the car ahead of them. So, if there is trouble on the track, they rely on the spotter to give them that information. There is no visibility on either side, so if the driver is making a pass, we need to tell them when it is “clear” to move up. So, we are giving a lot of different information—pretty much at the same time—throughout the race. We only get a quick break when there is a caution period.
How did you discover your current job?
I’m not very mechanical, so I wanted to do something where I could participate in NASCAR and not get my hands dirty!
What has been your path so far to get you where you are today?
I started with very low-level teams in the early 90′s. I literally drove to all the races and worked for free, just to get my foot in the door. I guess I got better and better at the job and was able to secure some paying positions. From there, I was introduced to Matt Kenseth in 2000 and began working with him. We won Rookie of the Year and then went on to win a championship in 2003. In 2009, we won the Daytona 500, which is the most coveted race in the sport.
Was there any one situation that helped you along your way?
Nothing in particular. Networking was the key to moving forward in my career. I continue to network every day.
What is your typical day like? Does it ever change?
Monday usually changes to Tuesday; and then Tuesday changes to Wednesday, and so on. I really have no typical days. I leave North Carolina on Thursday night and come home on Sunday night. The weekend usually consists of three practices and then the race for each series that I am working.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Working with Matt is very rewarding because we have a chance to win—no matter what track we’re at—so that’s a great feeling. I also work with a new driver, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who is in his second year of NASCAR competing in the Nationwide Series. The rewarding part of that job is seeing his progress. In that particular role I also serve as his driver coach.
What is the most challenging part?
The toughest part of the job is giving concise information in a short period of time. We have to almost forecast what’s going to happen before it does, and that creates a lot of pressure. We have a split-second to push the button and relay the information.
What is the biggest personal sacrifice you have to make because of your job?
Travel is the biggest sacrifice. We are away from home 36 weekends a year. You really have to love the job for that to make sense.
What is one lesson you’ve learned in your job that sticks with you?
At the end of 2005, I left Matt Kenseth’s team to work for a different driver. The only motivation for the change was a significant increase in pay. However, by the middle of the first year I was miserable, because we weren’t as competitive on the track as I was used to. I had to stay in the job for three years, and I hated it. I made plenty of money, but I resented going to the track. In 2009, I reunited with Matt and we won the first two races of the year. That cured my misery in a hurry. I anticipate staying where I am at until Matt decides to retire.
Why do you think spotting is a male-dominated profession?
I’m really not sure. It isn’t as though women couldn’t do the job. Kevin Lepage drives in the Nationwide Series, and his wife, Donna, has been his spotter throughout his career. She obviously does a good job, because she is still in that role. I think it would be great if more women were interested in the job.
Who are your role models?
My dad is my role model for sure. He passed away in 2004, but I feel he is with me during every race. He was involved in NASCAR as well and helped me get my start.
Is there a quote or mantra that you live by?
“The last one to the airport gets a middle seat!”
What advice do you have for those who want to be in your industry?
NASCAR is a very tight-knit group. Getting involved is not that easy. Your best bet is do work at a local track or with a grassroots driver to gain experience. Volunteer if you can afford to do so, so that you can begin to prove your worth.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Whatever job you do, you’d better love it. If you love what you do, you’ll wake up with a great attitude and perform at the highest level. I think it is also very important to help others achieve their dream job if you can. I try to help a few people a year get into racing. And it gives me great satisfaction when they do.