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(UPDATE) CALINOFF: How My Spotting Career Came to an Abrupt End

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Just one year (and nearly 70 lbs.) ago, my spotting career was defined with a 24-hour, 37,000-foot, ten-mile drive experience that has proven to be one of the best days ever. 

Unplanned. Unexpected. Unbelievable.

It was a race – but much more than a typical race. It was my last. I hung-up the headset and capped-off twenty-five years of doing something I loved.

I wrote about it a few days later, because I needed to let emotions subside. Yeah, it was that big for me.

If you didn’t read it the first time, I hope you do now – because it showed me that a simple text from a buddy could cultivate an amazing memory that overflows with humility.

For those who have already seen it, there’s a very cool update at the end.

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“One and done.”

It’s a widely-used phrase that is somewhat idiomatic, so based on its application, it can mean different things to different people.

For college basketball, it applies to student athletes who play for a year and then head to the pros. Other sports use it to refer to a team that makes it to the playoffs but doesn’t advance.

The term is notable in NASCAR as well, and describes drivers who score a win or have a particularly strong day, then fade into oblivion. The phrase might even define a car owner in lower-tier series if he shows up at Daytona with a bag of money and a shiny fleet of top-notch equipment that subsequently goes to auction after Homestead.

They are one and done.

Once Upon a Time …

My spotting career has far exceeded any of my expectations. It began by merely being in the right place at the right time.

NASCAR Whelan Modified Tour star Reggie Ruggiero — for whom I was doing some public relations work — needed a last-minute spotter for a Friday night show in Winchester, N.H. His son did it regularly, but he felt ill right before the 50-lap feature.

I said to Reggie, “Who else can we get?”

“Nobody,” he said. “Go get a headset.”

We won.

Then we won on Saturday night in Agawam, Mass., and then again the following afternoon in Thompson, Conn. Three days later we raced in Riverhead, N.Y. and finished second. I was really disappointed.

I had unleashed my competitive spirit and winning felt great. The more you win, the more you want to win and the greater it feels.

I decided, after a full season of spotting,  to take a leap. There had come a point when spotting was more than just a fun hobby. It grabbed me enough to try and make a career out of it. It was a long shot for sure.

The thing was, there were thousands of Modifieds and Late Models throughout the country, but only 120 spots on the roof for NASCAR’s top three National Touring Series. 

Dale Jr. Didn’t Understand

I don’t believe I got to NASCAR by accident (that’s a spotter joke), but I know that I certainly didn’t get here by myself. None of us do.

I was encouraged to move south by the late Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s Vice President of Corporate Communications. I had gotten to know him through friends, and he took an interest in my career. He was a good man and a friend. His voice of reason is still in my ear.

As my career progressed, the level of competition increased and the races became harder to win.

First, I worked with long-time friends — Brett Bodine and then Ricky Craven. In the 1999 Coca-Cola 600, Ricky had engine issues in qualifying and missed the race.

I don’t remember exactly how this all unfolded, but I wound up wearing a Budweiser uniform and spotting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his Cup debut. It was a low-key, under-the-radar event that was completely ignored by the media. So there was no pressure.

At the first caution, I asked him if everything sounded okay, and if I needed me to be doing anything differently. He said, “See what you can do about that accent because I don’t think I can learn ‘Yankee’ in the next 500 miles.”

We finished 16th with all of the original sheet metal attached.

Crew Chief, Tony Eury, Sr. came up to me after the race and shook my hand.

“You did a good job,” he said. “I have no idea what you were saying, but we didn’t wreck – so good job.”

They already had a guy in place for 2000, so spotting there wasn’t an option. But it was just as well. It was going to be a gig with immeasurably-high expectations. And they talked funny.

Then the Phone Rang

I got the call. It was Crew Chief Robbie Reiser from Roush Fenway. He asked if I’d like to try out for Kenseth. (That’s Matt Kenseth for those of you who may be new or have never heard of Martinsville Speedway.)

Our first race together was March 12, 2000. It was in Atlanta, the fourth race of the season. We started fourth, and the engine exploded on Lap 199. We came out of there with an impressive 40th-place finish. It wasn’t my fault but, I had it in my head that I was one and done.

For the next five or six races, Matt insisted the engine failure was my fault. That’s when I knew that working with him was going to be fun.

Try Not to Get Emotional and Tear-Up

I’ve written a good bunch of stories over the years, and probably half of them have some tie to Kenseth. You can do that when you own the site.

So, I write about Kenseth because his successes have impacted mine. And, on a different level, he’s an important person in my life. He’s a good friend and a confidant.

When my dad passed away in 2004, he fired-up his plane and took me to Long Island to be with my family the same day. That’s just one example.

The people in my world that I could tell anything, and not be judged, can be counted on five fingers. I’m proud to say that Matt (I can’t wait until he reads this) is right in the middle.

(It took me 10 minutes to finish writing that line because I cracked myself up.)

But you get the point: I’m his biggest fan across the board.

Fast Forward

At the end of 2012, Kenseth felt he needed a change left Roush Fenway for Joe Gibbs Racing. I stayed at RFR for the 2013 season to work with the Cup team for Stenhouse Jr. (That’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for those of you who may be new or have never heard of … well, you get the idea.)

We had eight XFINITY wins and two Championships. Every one of those wins was an ass-kicker. Half of them had the right side destroyed because nobody ran the top like him. We won at Iowa, wrecking in our own oil at the start/finish line. That was the first time I was ever in victory lane without a car. Good stuff!

I didn’t return to RFR after 2013, but I still have many great friends there. They’ve been instrumental in helping grow my businesses through sponsor relationships.

After that, I spotted some K&N and late model races. But it got to the point that if someone would ask me to spot, I’d check the weather. If the chance of rain exceeded three percent, I had a “prior commitment.” I had gotten tired of not winning for a couple of years.

With Kenseth, I knew that every time we showed up at a track, we had a legitimate shot to win. It was the same with Ricky in the XFINITY Series.

Okay, here we go…

A week ago Monday at about 7:30 p.m., Kenseth texted me and asked if I “want to go tomorrow.”

I didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely!” I replied. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Where are we going?”

“Slinger,” he said. “It’s a quarter mile, so please bring your binoculars.”

The eyesight jokes are never-ending.

I had forgotten that the Slinger Speedway Nationals in Wisconsin were that week. It’s one of the most prestigious races in the Midwest, and he had won it a record six times.

Saying yes was a no-brainer for me. I love that track. Plus, I didn’t have much planned. My car was washed, and I was caught up on laundry.

We got on the plane, and I told him about a decision I made on the way to the airport.

“This is the last race that I’m ever going to spot,” I said. “I mean, like forever. No short-track stuff, no top-tier fill-ins. I’m done.”

His eyes were glued to his phone. He never looked up and said, “Oh, OK.”

I could have said, “Hey, the right wing fell off, the windshield is missing, and Jack just put on his WWII flying goggles,” and gotten the same response. I think he was caught up in that Pokémon Go thing.

Once we were airborne, I said it again.

“I’m done spotting after tonight. This is it for me. I want my last race to be with you.”

I thought my friend might be at least a little moved. Maybe he’d say “That would be great. I’d like that.”

Nope.

“Your last race was with me,” Kenseth said. “You stopped spotting in 2002. I just kept you around and added more mirrors.”

When it comes to jabs and sarcastic insults, there’s nobody better — or quicker.

And, just so you know, he’s one of the most annoying people I have ever met. And I’m not easily annoyed.

In the car ride from the airport to the track I had to take a business call — it was kind of important. Every time I spoke he’d lower his voice three octaves, repeat what I was saying and laugh. It’s a five-mile trip, and I’m riding with an echo. Welcome to 8th grade.

Fast story: We’re at Dover. He’s in the middle of three and four. I’m going to give him the lap count as soon as he exits. He keys the mic and says, “What lap are we on?” I said, “I was just about to tell you. It’s like you read my mind.” He comes back with, “I did. It was like reading a children’s book.” Like I said, better and quicker. There are no less than 100 stories I could tell you. 

In total, I have been part of three Championships — two with Ricky — two Daytona 500s, an All-Star Race and 31 wins in two series with Matt. I figured there was nothing else for me to accomplish, and the likelihood of another chance to spot for him was probably at zero.

So, today would be the day. My final show. The last hurrah. A three-hour farewell tour.

Who Wrote the Script?

Jones (That’s Eric, except with a “k”) raced us pretty hard for the last 15 laps. He’s a great driver with an amazing future, but I think his depth perception and peripheral vision might have been temporarily impaired about eight times. Once, he started his turn four exit on the backstretch. That’s what it looked like to me. You can watch Video No. 2 and make an official ruling.

Well, the wind-up of the whole deal is that we won. And we did it in pretty exciting fashion — on the last lap following a subtle “pardon me.”

Nevertheless, it was a great way to go out, and I felt like it put an exclamation point on my spotting career. I couldn’t have written it any better. The craziest part was the timing. Kenseth sent me a casual text, and 24 hours later I was wearing a headset.

Same Old, Same Old

It was so much fun. I mean really, so much fun. Just like old times. I felt like we established a rhythm right away. The phrase “U got it!” was tossed around throughout the race. The origin of that is a story in itself. If you see me, ask me, I’ll tell you.

He criticized my eyesight and did the echo thing again. I jabbed him about his restarts and called him “Joey” a few times. It was an honest mistake.

In victory lane, he said the same thing he’s said every time we won. “Are you getting a tattoo?” If you aren’t familiar with the tradition, I got a commemorative tattoo when we won the Championship, got one for each Daytona 500 and a few more. You can Google “Calinoff tattoo” and you’ll see some stories and images.

What Does it All Mean?

If I had to rank the milestones, here’s the list:

  1. Championship 2003: That’s the biggest prize. It’s what you strive to achieve. It pays a nice bonus.
  2. Daytona 500s in 2009 and 2012: It’s the freakin’ Daytona 500. And jet-dryers burst into flames.
  3. Slinger Nationals 2016.
  4. Everything else.

You see, last week wasn’t just about a race. And it wasn’t just about a win.

It was about making a circle — starting at Point A and ending at Point A. Grassroots beginning, grassroots ending. I had my first big win with Matt and my last big win with Matt.

It was about the circumstances and how a random text put the wax on my spotting career. I don’t believe in coincidences. This is the way it was supposed to be.

I traveled the country 38 weekends for twenty years. I could write this story 50 different ways and still be unable to express the emotion and satisfaction that I experienced on one Tuesday night in Slinger, WI. Moments like that are a premium. Not everyone has the opportunity to bring to a close something they love and do it on their terms.

I am so blessed to have had such a fulfilling career and to do it with great people. The memories I have feel just as good today as they did when they happened.

And then I thought: I could have just as easily been one and done.

 

ABOUT THE VIDEOS:

No. 1Of course.

No. 2These are the final ten laps with Erik Eric Jones at Slinger. There are a couple of cautions in there, and the last restart is a Green-White-Checker. Matt is in the No. 8, and Eric is in the No. 20.  

No. 3As far as videos go, it’s P1 on my list. It has been viewed over 27,000 times, and 26,000 of them are mine. You’ll recognize the content, but not the commentary. Order the Miso Soup – it’s fabulous!  

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed writing it. NASCAR has the best fans in all of professional sports – and I appreciate all of you.

 

Video No.1 

Yes, it’s real.


Video No.2

Video No. 3   (The audio is low. You’ll need to raise the volume)

   

UPDATE

And Then There was This

Roughly ten days after I first published this story, my friendly FedEx guy knocked on my door. He had a three-foot box next to him on the porch. 

The sender was from Wisconsin — which excited me because I was running low on cheese. I prayed for Sharp Cheddar. But it wasn’t to be.

The contents were packed with more bubble-wrap than Denny Hamlin should be wearing when he plays basketball. 

It was the trophy. Probably one of the most coveted in all of midwest Late Model racing. It’s a cool piece. 

Then it hit me. 

We were on the plane, about halfway home. Kenseth starts looking around and we had this exchange:

MATT: “Where did you put the trophy?”

ME: “I didn’t touch the trophy.”

MATT: “I specifically asked you not to forget the trophy.”

ME: “You’re specifically delusional because I never heard you mention the word ‘trophy’.”

MATT: “Yep. Can’t see, can’t hear. Great spotter.”

Then he shook his head and mumbled something under his breath.

ME: “Did you really say it?”

MATT: “Absolutely not.”

ME: “Nice. You made me feel terrible.”

His face lit up.

MATT: “Really!?”

ME: “Absolutely not.”

 

I called him when I got it. 

He said it was purposely left it behind so that the track could have his name added.

I told him that his touching gesture will make it even more valuable — on eBay.

 

 

 

I wrote this story is in memory of my dad, who encouraged me to do what I love, and love what I do. It’s worked out pretty well.

Lenny Calinoff
Len Calinoff

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TONIGHT

 

 

 

Email Mike at mike@mikecalinoff.com

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Mike Calinoff

Over the past twenty-three years, Mike has become a notable figure in the NASCAR community. As a Spotter, he spent a total of 14 seasons with Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Monster Energy Cup and XFINITY Series. All told, at Roush Fenway Racing, he garnered over 40 wins including three Championships and two Daytona 500’s. At the end of 2013, Mike left Roush Fenway to focus on his companies and stays active in the NASCAR community at many levels. Mike was a regular guest on SIRIUS NASCAR Radio, featured "act" Speed TV's Trackside Live and makes on occasional cameo on soap operas. (Really?) He has an affinity for starting new things, such as Popular Speed and 140 BUZZ – a PR, Marketing and Social Media company. Many 140 BUZZ clients are NASCAR teams, drivers and sponsors and represent many of the most visible brands in NASCAR and other business categories. Mike is also a Driver Development consultant, where he works with families and drivers around the country to set a career path. As a stand-up comic Mike is, without a doubt, the funniest guy he knows. Calinoff lives in Lake Norman, NC