The best seat in the house at the Indianapolis 500 is in the cockpit of one of the 33 race cars, says Las Vegan Matt Jaskol.
But watching from the top of the Turn 3 grandstands and talking Marco Andretti around the venerable Brickyard as his spotter might be the next best thing.
That’s how Jaskol will spend Sunday when the gentlemen and Pippa Mann, the only female driver in the field, start their engines for the 103rd time.
The former karting ace, who made it as far as the Indy Lights series in 2007 without a major sponsor, hasn’t given up on driving in the 500 himself. He chased the dream to Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week, hoping to make contacts that might get him closer to the yard of bricks at the start-finish line.
He wound up helping friend and former protege Alex Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 champion, as a spotter during practice leading up to pole day qualifying. When a similar spot opened on Marco Andretti’s car this week, Jaskol was offered the race day assignment. Rossi and Andretti drive for a team headed by Marco’s dad, Michael.
“Marco’s a friend — we went to dinner in Las Vegas like a month ago,” said Jaskol, 33, a former cast member on the ABC reality series “Castaways.” “He text messaged me and said, ‘I’m going to let management make the final decision, but I’ve asked for you to be in Turn 3, and let’s go win the 500.’”
Eyes in the sky
Because Indianapolis Motor Speedway is so immense and impossible to see all the way around, each car in the 500 is required to have multiple spotters. They are stationed above Turns 1 and 3, where most passes are executed at the end of long straightaways.
Although you can practically see Fort Wayne from the top of Turn 3, Jaskol’s gaze will be focused solely on the racing groove below.
“Inside, inside, still there … clear.”
If Andretti is running among the leaders — he’ll start from the inside of the fourth row after posting a four-lap average qualifying speed of 228.756 mph — the voice you probably will hear alerting him to traffic over the in-car radio will be Matt Jaskol’s.
“You can’t be ‘Inside, inside, still there … CLEAR!” Jaskol said about the importance of speaking in a calm, measured tone over the radio. Indy 500 drivers don’t like hearing loud noises on the track. They enjoy hearing them even less through their helmet earpiece.
“It’s difficult because it gets so intense,” said Jaskol, who once got crashed out of a national karting race in Las Vegas by former Formula One superstar Michael Schumacher. “I’ll pick up Marco as he exits Turn 2, and I’ll speak to him all the way to the exit of Turn 4 as he’s getting onto the front stretch. The reason why Turn 3 is so difficult is that’s where they go four-wide and in the grass (off the racing surface).”
Spotters also inform drivers about what’s happening around the track: crashes, cautions, a car that might be gaining ground, when bad weather is coming. Thunderstorms are in the forecast Sunday, which could make track position and strategy even more important than usual.
It’s a lot of responsibility when you think about it. But with the cars flying by in 225-mph packs, there usually isn’t time to think about it.
“It’s stressful because you are solely responsible for potentially crashing him if you don’t say the right thing, if you don’t give the right information,” Jaskol said of the driver-spotter relationship. “It’s an extremely high-stress, high-responsibility job. That’s why if you’re a spotter and win the Indy 500, you get a ring.”
Jaskol said Andretti can be demanding of spotters, but at least his car will be easy to spot coming out of the turns. It’s painted fluorescent orange-red, the same iconic color scheme that grandpa Mario sported at the Brickyard in 1969.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of when Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500,” Jaskol said about the thrill of being part of the monthlong celebration.
“Look, I want to be racing in the Indy 500. Everybody does. But to be able to look at Mario on Sunday morning and say, ‘Hey, man, I’m going to look after your grandson’ — that’s big deal to me.”