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Pedley: Underground Radio Still A Tough Call

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 29 2011

Crew chief Gil Martin and team owner Richard Childress man the radios at Chicagoland Speedway. Those radios were the source of a big recent controversy and could easily prompt a new controversy in coming weeks. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Tires, suspension parts, cylinder heads, carburetors, performance-enhancing drugs and wings. Over the years, all these things and many more have taken their turns as objects of racing controversy. A couple weekends ago at Chicagoland Speedway, two-way radios took their turn.

The guess here is that the controversy over two-way radios has not been squelched for good.

The controversy around the devices surfaced when Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard spun his car to bring out a caution at Richmond on the final weekend before the start of the Chase.

Jeff Gordon was leading when Menard spun. The caution which resulted form the spin sent the cars to the pits and Harvick came out first with 16 laps to go. Harvick went on to win and collect 10 bonus points for the Chase.

Gordon later called the spin “fishy”.

In the aftermath, a lot of attention was focused on radio communication between Menard and his pit crew and spotter prior to the spin.

Menard and his crew chief, Slugger Labbe, and his spotter (Stevie Reeves) kept talking about about the battle between Gordon and Harvick up front. At one point, when Harvick was in the lead but Gordon was closing on on the lead, Reeves said, “Do not need a caution.”

When Gordon executed the pass, Labbe told Menard to “Check your voltage gauge.”

When Menard asked why he should do that, Reeves told him that Gordon and Harvick were racing hard for the lead.

After Gordon took the lead, Mike Dillon, the competition director for Richard Childress Racing got on the radio and asked Labbe to change to a different radio channel. A couple laps later, Menard softly spun with no other cars around him. The cause, he said, was a blown tire.

Some with suspicious minds said that a secret channel was being used. Channel 2. Some think there Paul Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler) may have been code words in the radio traffic between Menard and his team.

NASCAR president Mike Helton said at Chicagoland that the series would look into the fishiness of events at Richmond by reviewing recordings of the radio traffic.

NASCAR did that and said they could find no evidence of wrong doing.

Helton did lay out the rules concerning the use of two-way radios in NASCAR. The teams are required, he said, to use analog systems when the driver talks talks to his crew during the race because use of digital systems would be more difficult to monitor – by NASCAR and by fans.

So, if  “Channel 2” had turned out to be digital, RCR could have been in trouble.

Digital radios are present in the series. Teams use them during practices and also between team members other than drivers during the races.

Jimmie Johnson gave a very long, detailed and interesting explanation on the use of digital radios on Friday. He said:

“I think that our group brought the digital radio in years back. What it was used for and what we use it for during practice is so that we can talk openly on our channel and not give away our shock setting and our spring settings and the adjustments were making to everyone else. NASCAR understands there needs to be a level of privacy there and allows it to happen, but those digital radios cannot be in the racecar.

“From there I think there are conversations that take place on pit road during a race or the crew chiefs can talk openly about strategy and what they want to do but NASCAR wants the fans to have access to as much as possible and that is why the analog radios are the only ones allowed in the car. We use it so we can talk openly about a variety of things. Strategy can be a part of that, things taking place during the race. I am on the digital radio when the car is parked. There is a rule there that the car has to be stopped and the engine off in order for us to use the digital radio. I will use it and speak on it during practice to talk about what we need to.

“During the race, I am not sure what level really takes place there. What happens for us is, truthfully, everybody in the pits is on the digital radio and then they scan the analog and then Chad (Knaus, Crew Chief), myself and the spotter talk on the analog. When I come in they literally unplug on radio and plug me into the digital so that I can join that conversation and as I leave to go out on the race track, Chad is typically thinking about his next change and will be instructing the guys get this ready, that ready maybe some conversation between he and the engineers about next steps and things like that. So that traffic is not in my ear while I am driving around.”

Johnson was also asked if teams could use code over the analog systems.

“You can and we did,” he said. “First four or five, six years maybe, we would talk in code and frankly, in practice we just wouldn’t talk. Come in and window net would come down, crew chiefs are inside the window of the car and you would talk in great detail about springs, shocks and those things but when they allowed us to use a digital radios, it just made it easier to work in the garage area, to have everyone up to speed because we have guys.”

The Chase is now entering its third week. The points race is beginning to sort itself out. There are suddenly teams and drivers who are finding themselves in desperate situations.

Eight of the 12 drivers in the Chase have teammates who are not in the Chase.

Menard have been declared by NASCAR to be innocent in the incident of a couple of weeks ago. But you can be sure the next “fishy” spin is on its way and if that occurs in this year’s Chase, it will again put radios back in vogue as a source of controversy.

Stay tuned.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.coms

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 29 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • ChrisK says:

    Are they just using digital, or digital with encryption? Digital scanners are readily available, they just cost a lot more. I can’t imagine the teams don’t have the capability to monitor digital transmissions from other teams if they want to. If they are using encryption, that is a different story, as that is pretty much impossible to monitor, not to mention illegal.