Nuggets, cheeseburgers and Filet-O-Fish.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think Bubba Wallace’s team was ordering a McDonald’s menu. You’d also be excused if you thought Denny Hamlin’s team was talking about the latest happenings with Major League Baseball teams.
But either way, Wallace and Hamlin’s teams were just radioing strategic decisions to their respective drivers during a recent NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway. Instead of making it clear to anyone spying on their radio channel what they were planning, teams used code words to mask their calls.
“It’s nuanced,” said Hamlin crew chief Chris Gabehart. “It’s just nuanced stuff, trying to make sure you don’t give anything away. … As the rules keep getting tighter and the competition getting closer, there isn’t a single part of the sport in which you don’t participate. It’s just one area. And if you can knock out a guy or tip the scales in your favor by even a tenth of a percentage point, you have to try to do it.
NASCAR teams using code words is by no means a new phenomenon, but the ease with which fans (and the media) can listen to radio conversations during a race has brought these transmissions to light and creative vernacular teams are employing them.
Many, but not all, teams use codewords in one form or another during a race. Generally, according to team leaders and competition directors Athleticism Spoken, this secret language relates to one of five strategic decisions: tires right or left, no tires, fuel only or no punctures.
“I can tell you from my perspective, there were times when I was interested in what a competitor was doing but wasn’t able to figure it out because of the code words they were using. “, Gabehart said.
Using code words isn’t a thing at all races for some teams. Its use depends on the style of track NASCAR competing that week.
Tracks like Michigan, Daytona, Pocono and Talladega see more code words used as a crew chief has more options due to lack of tire wear. On high tire wear tracks like Atlanta, Darlington, Fontana, Homestead and Richmond, four-tire stops are common, reducing a crew chief’s options when their driver comes to a stop. And on road courses, codewords are used more to indicate whether a team will pit at the end of a stage or not in order to earn stage points. Drivers keep a list of code words stored inside the car that they can refer to.
Usually, hot dogs are a good thing to think about…but not in this case. 🌭
—NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 9, 2020
It’s not uncommon for a team to use code words at the start and middle of a race, then switch to direct communication near the end. The reasoning is that there are cases where team leaders want other teams to know what strategy they are applying – such as an end-of-race scenario where a team leader whose driver runs close to the front gives up in the pits and wants the other teams to follow suit so that his driver then has stamps against those who had pitted for new tires.
“If you’re in a place like Richmond, what’s the point?” said Bootie Barker, Wallace’s team leader, on the use of code words. “If you’re on pit road, you know you’re getting four (tyres). It doesn’t matter if you came on pit road and said ‘code blue, voodoo, Roger, ixnay’, you’re not fooling person because you know you have four.
“Most leads, it’s just not necessary.”
The responsibility for finding code words often falls to the team leader or engineer. Words are often rotated during a race so that a rival team cannot decipher what a specific word stands for; one competition manager said his team keeps a list of five or six code words relating to a specific call, with each word checked off once it is used.
Many teams choose words related to their main sponsor for this race. Wallace’s No. 23 23XI Racing team went that route in Michigan, which is why Nuggets, Cheeseburger and Filet-O-Fish were used by the team while McDonald’s was Wallace’s title sponsor. Aric Almirola’s Smithfield Foods-sponsored team opts for words like ham, bacon, pork chop and hot dog. Other teams don’t always buy into sponsor-related verbiage. “Tigers” and “Cubs” were among the code words used by Gabehart at Michigan, although his No. 11 team was not sponsored by MLB.
“It’s all in the sponsor game, baby,” Barker said.
Camouflage of strategic decisions can sometimes backfire due to miscommunication.
At a 2019 Xfinity Series race in Michigan, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer were running first and second when Bell’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff wanted his rider to pit. Except the code word Ratlciff says, which referenced Gatorade flavors, called for the opposite strategy, so Bell stayed away. Custer too, who had been tasked by his team to do everything Bell did.
Tyler Reddick pitted, and when the rest of the race went by without warning, he gained a significant advantage after Bell and Custer had to stop in green flag conditions. Reddick won the race while Custer finished 12th and Bell 13th.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” Bell said. “(Ratcliff) said, ‘Lemon-lime,’ and ‘lemon-lime’ on my sheet said pit under green, and we’re under yellow, so I asked him, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ And he said, ‘Yes, absolutely. Lime.’ So I stayed outside Well his sheet said Gatorade flavors should be pitted not pitted under green mine said pit under green and his said pit We ran out of gas and lost the race .
Reddick’s crew chief that day was (and still is) Randall Burnett, and when asked about that race and how he won it, he rolled his head back and laughed.
Unsurprisingly, Burnett avoids code words.
“My code for stings is ‘pit’,” he said. “The last thing I need is to mess it up any other way. Just to keep it simple.”
Says Reddick: “Randall and I never did codewords (and Michigan) is a good reason not to, I guess. … It’s one more thing that can just be a variable that can ruin your day. And it’s pretty easy to ruin your day the way it is, and code words make it a whole lot easier.
Burnett’s No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team isn’t the only team not making a secret of its intentions when it comes to pit strategy. Also in that camp are Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team.
“I’ve always been a big believer in keeping it simple,” Harvick said. “Just because everyone has their own stuff and if they’re relying on your strategy to strategize, they’re already behind anyway.”
Of course, even when teams choose not to use subterfuge, the competition can’t help but feel that all is not well.
“Give everybody everything they asked for because they won’t believe it anyway,” Harvick said. “So just talk about what you’re talking about, and you know half the time they’ll be wondering if they believe it or not.”
(Photo by Chris Gabehart and Denny Hamlin: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)