Having radio communication between a racing driver and a spotter can help teams win races — and it can help keep everyone safer on the track. I attribute many of my racing victories not to the talent behind the wheel but actually to my spotters on the radio. They tell me when a green flag flies at start/finish before I can even see the starter stand. They also warn me about upcoming yellow flags or blocked racecourses beyond blind corners I can’t see.
Having a radio system in the car has saved me thousands of dollars in crash damage repairs and hospital bills. All of this advantage and safety can be had for less than $1,000 for a complete starter kit. Based on that math, a radio system is a simple “must-have” for a serious racer.
Radio kits are complex systems that deal with lots of wires, truncated pre-programmed channels, different style connector plugs, and antennas that won’t be interfered with by vehicle electronics. If you think you can go to Radio Shack and build a system for less than a thousand bucks, you are a bit delusional. First of all, try to find a Radio Shack in 2020, and second of all, you’re probably not that good at electronics.
This is a situation where it is best to hit the “easy button” and let the pros set the system up. Sampson Racing Communications (SRC) has been in the radio game for road racing, off-road racing, and boat racing for many years. The owner, Shawn Sampson, is an avid NASA road racer who competes annually in the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill, where communication isn’t only a key to success, it is part of the mandatory rules to enter the event. According to Shawn Sampson, “We race what we sell,” and he is always at the track proving that over and over again.
For our Project CrossTime Miata, we decided to use SRC’s Digital Starter 5 Watt Package, which retails under $1,000 for everything you need for the car, the driver, and the crew. The package includes the following items:
For the Driver/Car:
-5-watt digital radio, UHF handheld radio (programmed with road racing frequencies)
-Lithium-ion battery with a desktop rapid charger (to power and charge the radio)
-IMSA style car harness (connects the radio to the driver helmet)
-SRC TI-digital jumper wire (connects the radio to the car harness)
-Rollbar mount radio box (holds the radio safely in the car)
-External antenna, coaxial cable, and radio connection (to install external antenna)
-Velcro push-to-talk button and wire (for the steering wheel)
-Digital S9 noise-canceling microphone with flex boom (for driver’s helmet)
-Earbuds (for driver’s ears)
For the Crew:
-5-watt digital radio, UHF handheld radio, (programmed with road racing frequencies) with ducky antenna and belt clip
-Lithium-ion battery with a desktop rapid charger (to power and charge the radio)
-Behind the head crew headset (all-in-one earphones, microphone, and push-to-talk button for a crew member to communicate)
-Detachable SRC TI-digital coil cord (to connect radio to crew headset)
The great thing about the Sampson Racing Communication (SRC) kit is its ease of use and installation. Essentially, the equipment is set up so you can’t connect the system incorrectly. The plugs only go in one-way, and only into the correct location. The first thing to do is lay it all out and see where everything goes.
The wires for the car harness and the external antenna are only so long, so you need to plan ahead as you decide where you want to mount things. Then get lots and lots of zip-ties and/or velcro. You are going to use plenty of these keeping things tidy in the interior by zip-tying or velcroing wires to the roll cage.
Start with the radio’s position in the car. Put the radio box in a place where you can access it easily. This radio will be pulled in and out of the car frequently to be charged after use. Pro Tip: Turn off the radio after each track session to save the battery and charge the radio nightly during weekend races to keep things topped off.
Once the radio box is installed, route your external antenna coaxial cable and find a spot to mount the antenna. Pro Tip: The higher the radio antenna is installed on the car, the greater the range.
After you have the radio box installed, and the coaxial antenna installed, now it is time to install the car harness. The car harness connects the radio to the driver’s helmet as well as the push-to-talk (PTT) button on the steering wheel. These car harnesses come in two styles, IMSA or NASCAR, which only changes the connectivity Hstyle of the plug coming from the driver’s helmet. Universally road racers use the IMSA style plug.
Be cautious about how you route your PTT button to your steering wheel to ensure (as the wheel turns left and right) it doesn’t suck the wire into the column. This could do two very bad things: 1. Screw up your steering ability, 2. Cut the push-to-talk button wires. I speak from experience on this one, as I have replaced numerous PTT wires.
The car harness should route so it doesn’t interfere with the driver’s arms during driving. It also needs to reach the connection point for the PTT button for the steering wheel as well as the driver’s helmet (usually on the left side of the rollcage near the driver’s seat headrest). The position of the car harness female plug should coincide with the side of the male wire on the driver’s helmet. For sedans, that is usually on the left side of the helmet (for American cars).
After the car is wired up, it is time to set up your driver’s helmet with the boom microphone, a headphone jack for your earbuds, and the IMSA wire to connect the helmet to the car. If you are not comfortable with this step in the installation process (arguably the only tricky part of the radio system install), then ship your helmet to SRC. They will install the helmet kit and send the helmet back to you.
For my last helmet, I had Shawn Sampson personally install the system. If you want to save a few bucks, or you “ain’t got time for that,” then drill holes into your expensive helmet, use a couple of pop-rivets to hold the mic, jack, and wires in place, and you will be ready to start talking like a maniac in the car.
The workflow goes like this: you, the driver, put your earbuds (essentially iPod earphones) into your ears. Then you put on your helmet. You plug your earbuds into the small jack on your helmet, connecting your ears to the helmet system. Then you get into the car and plug the IMSA wire male end from your helmet into the female end on the car harness, which connects your helmet microphone and earbuds to the radio inside the car.
Next, you turn on the radio inside the car (with a charged battery). To see if the radio works, press down on the push-to-talk button on the steering wheel, which activates the radio to transmit. At this point, it is your job as the driver to immediately start bitching about the performance of the car. Hopefully, the crew member has a fully charged battery and is wearing their radio with their headset on. If so, then they can hear you bitching about the car and appropriately roll their eyes. Congratulations, your radio system works!
Talking with Shawn Sampson, here are the "Top Ten Troubleshooting Tips" that will solve almost any problem with racing radios:
1. Is the car’s radio turned on?
2. Is the crew member’s radio turned on?
3. Is either of the radio’s batteries dead? (Or, are the batteries not plugged into the radio correctly?)
4. Are the two radios on the same channel? (These radios come with ten different channels.)
5. Is the volume knob on the crew member’s headset turned up? (It has a separate volume knob.)
6. Is the external antenna coaxial cable, or the car harness, connected to the radio in the car? (Sometimes when batteries are charged, people forget to re-connect these wires when putting the radio back into the car.)
7. If there is an open microphone? Turn the radios off and back on again; it was probably a grounding issue if the radio was “on” when a headset was plugged into the crew radio.
8. Is the driver’s helmet plugged into the car harness (with the plug pushed all the way in)?
9. Are the driver’s earbuds plugged into the jack on the helmet (are the earbuds in his or her ears)?
10. Is the crew member’s headset plugged into his or her radio? (You can disconnect the headset and just use the button on the side of the radio to speak directly into the speaker to see if it is a headset issue or a radio issue.)
I’ve personally used SRC’s radio systems for more than 13 years of racing now. I have expanded my collection of radios and headsets from the basic kit I started in 2007. I’ve learned it is nice to have extra batteries in the pockets of the spotters. During a long race with lots of chatter on the radio, these batteries can die.
I’ve also learned to take care of the radios. This is sensitive equipment, and just throwing them into the trailer after a long hard race weekend isn’t good for longevity or organization.
With Project CrossTime dialed-in with Sampson Racing Communication’s Digital Starter 5 Watt Package, our TURNology hot-shoe driver, Shawn Brereton, should be picking up some more trophies as he slides around his Mazda Miata with excellent radio communication from a spotter.
And even if Shawn doesn’t pick up any more wins, at least he can bitch about the performance of the car over the radio like a proper race car driver.