Driver - Riding Mechanic Communication

03/25/2009

Ever wonder how drivers and riding mechanics (called "mechanicians" back in the day) communicated above the roar of unmuffled engines of hundreds of cubic inches? In many ways, the riding mechanic played a role similar to spotters with headsets standing high above ovals on the roofs on control towers today. There is an interesting article that was included in Indianapolis Star coverage of practice for the first automobile race meet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (August 1909), and you can find it on firstsuperspeedway.com. The article, titled "Signals in Auto Racing," features an interview with Chalmers-Detroit driver Joe Matson, who says:
 
"One of the most important things is signals. The rush of the wind, the bark of the exhaust, the roaring of the other cars and other things make talking impossible in a race. One has to have signals and on them often depends victory or defeat. The signals between driver and mechanician are most important. I always devote a lot of time to perfecting my code and making sure that my mechanician is perfectly familiar with it. The mechanician spends most of his time looking behind. This the driver can't do because the removal of his eyes from the course for even an instant might mean either a lost race or instant destruction. And if anything happened behind, of course, the driver has to know it. That makes signals necessary. Mine are simple; if the mechanician holds one finger before my eyes it means 'car coming.' If he holds up two fingers, it means 'car close behind.' Three fingers signify 'car very close.' And four mean 'car wants to pass.' When he holds his thumb and first finger in the form of an 'O,' I know we are out of oil. That about covers them, but it is mighty important that both of us shall be perfectly familiar with the code. In many a race those few signs are the only communication between driver and mechanician. The code worked well at Crown Point and there's no use changing a good thing."
 
Worked well at Crown Point? You could say they did. Matson won the Indiana Trophy, the companion race to the Ira Cobe Trophy held around Crown Point, Indiana in June 1909.