Each week, I ask someone in the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up next: Joey Meier, who serves as both spotter and pilot for Brad Keselowski.
Are you the only pilot/spotter full-time guy in NASCAR history?
No, no. That’s actually where a lot of pilots used to be. Dale Earnhardt’s pilot, Terry Labonte’s pilot, Harry Gant’s pilot, they all spotted back in the day. Before a spotter was required, the pilot was already at the racetrack and with the limited manpower and the availability of the pilots (it made sense).
One of the things we do well, as you know from most piloting, is we talk on the radio well. So Mike Collier, Danny Culler, Eddie Masencup, those three come to mind. They would actually spot. Eddie Masencup stayed with Terry Labonte the longest. I’m kind of the second generation pilot/spotter, but I’m the only one right now that does both fly and spot.
You’ve been with Brad for quite a while now — I guess his whole career?
So Brad and I met when I was at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated back in 2006. To back up just a couple of years, Martin Truex Jr. ran the Busch Series in ’04 and ’05 with Chance 2. I was with him, and at the end of ’05, he went Cup racing, I went with him in the Cup car.
We didn’t have a Busch team at DEI. A younger, new kid came through the garage in 2006 who was driving for a lower funded team out of Tennessee, Keith Coleman Racing — Brad Keselowski. He asked me, “Hey, I need a spotter.” I had never really heard of the Keselowskis; only saw his mom on the roof a little bit, but had never met any of them. And I started spotting for him at Keith Coleman Racing in 2006.
Then he went to JR Motorsports in ’07 a little bit, and they only had a single car team over there. Whenever he would run a second team with Dale Jr. driving, then I would spot for Brad, and then essentially TJ (Majors) was spotting Dale Jr. So I stayed with Brad and did at least one race from 2006 all the way to when he came to Penske in 2010.
I was at DEI spotting for Truex. Then Truex left DEI in 2009, Jamie McMurray was coming over to fill that spot, but he was bringing his own spotter. So I was going to be out of a spotting gig, but I was still going to be able to fly at Champion Air (owned by DEI). Everybody was trying to figure out how I was going to fly for one race team and spot for another, and as you can imagine the logistics of that weren’t going to work out well.
The fall race of Michigan in 2009, Brad approached me and says, “Hey, I think I’m making a deal here, I’d like you to come fly my airplane that I don’t have yet and spot for me for this new race team. Can’t tell you who it’s with, but it’s a big name team.” I said, “Let’s talk about it as it gets further.” And the rest is history. He came to Penske in January of 2010 and I left DEI at the same time and came with Brad and I’ve been with him ever since.
I didn’t even realize that you were with Brad before he was the Brad we know today. So going back before that, what came first — the piloting or the spotting? I’m assuming that it’s the piloting based on what you were saying about flying with Champion Air. How did this all get started for you?
So we’re going to back up to even before I was born. My father (Fred Meier) and my uncle were involved in NASCAR in 1958. They both raced on the beach. The last year that they raced on the beach, dad and uncle drove a Sportsman car and a Modified car on the last race in 1958 on the beach.
Unfortunately, my father’s car broke during qualifying. He qualified, but wasn’t able to start because we didn’t have backup engines in 1958. But my uncle qualified I believe in the top 15. Got a really nice picture that’s actually in the Hall of Fame — Mr. (Glenn) Wood was in the pole, and in the shot you can see the number 237 is tenth row, maybe eighth row back there. So he actually qualified.
There’s been racing all my life. When I was born, I was actually born on a Wednesday — and my mom was on the track the previous Saturday before I was born, at the race with my dad.
So now we fast forward and now I’m old enough to work on cars. That’s what I’m going to do for a living, I’m going to work on cars.
You wanted to be a mechanic?
Yep. Worked on cars, grew up at Hialeah Speedway, I was going to be around race cars, was going work on cars for a living. Took auto mechanics in school for two and a half years. I graduate. My mom and dad were divorced when I was very young, so I never knew them together. Lived in the same town, had very good parents, saw both of them all the time.
I graduated on a Wednesday, and my mom was at my dad’s house for one of the first times that I can ever remember as a get-together. And that Saturday I was at Hialeah Speedway as I normally would be, working on McCann Motorsports’ Street Stock or Thundercar, and my mom was involved in an aviation accident. She was severely injured, recovered later on, but I had never been in aviation up to that point. That sucked me into aviation.
I was going to be a race car mechanic or an automotive mechanic. That was it. So in ’84 with her accident, it drew me into aviation. I moved down to Marathon, which is where she was recovering, and I worked at the airport as a line guy and they gave us a really good incentive to get my pilot’s license. Even after I got my pilot’s license, I then quit flying and went back to aviation maintenance for two and a half years. Got my airframe and powerplant license and I was still trying to pursue that career.
Somewhere down the road of aviation maintenance, flying was really a secondary thought because I was a gearhead, gotta turn wrenches. Moved back down to Marathon as an A&P mechanic working in the back. Started flying a little bit again, trying to fulfill some of my licenses.
Well, Dale Earnhardt flew into Marathon, Florida. He’d gotten one of those King Airs, and he flew into Marathon, Florida in 1988. The day that I met him and my future boss, Mike Collier, who spotted for Dale in the Busch car back then, it instantly changed my career path. Now I went from being a possible airline guy, most likely gearhead aviation maintenance guy, to now I want to combine racing and flying because I didn’t know there was an ability there. So then I got all my ratings.
So how did the meeting with them go, or why?
Well I was a huge Earnhardt fan, a huge NASCAR fan. So I had my toolbox back in aviation maintenance and one of the line guys, Alex, came over and said, “You won’t believe who’s out here.” So the tail number was 1 Delta Echo. Before the logo/crest became famous, he had the Dale Earnhardt signature on the tail. He’s like, “You’re not gonna believe who’s here. Dale Earnhardt’s here.” I’m like “No way.”
I rolled my toolbox out to the plane, he signed the back of my toolbox, which I still have. And I met Mike Collier, my boss. Wore him out, all day long. Just a superfan. He was in the FBO, just bullshitting with this huge fan.
He made the mistake of giving me his cell phone number. And I have it — same number to this day, from 1988, he had a cell phone, to this day, it’s the same number. So it’s kind of cool.
But I called him all the time and I finished all my ratings and said, “This is what I want to do, I’m gonna work for you one day.” Called him every month and would say, ”Hey man, cool race.” He didn’t care about racing, he was flying. But I was a huge race fan. So I left when I got all my ratings and went down there, then went to Connecticut for a couple of years to do charter cargo maintenance and went to the airlines from ’92 to ’97.
It was the Trans States airlines, the TWA regional carrier, and we did that for five years. But in the middle of that, in the late ’96s I really wanted to pursue getting out to the North Carolina area. I was living in St. Louis. And I moved, came out with my resume, dressed up in a goofy suit.
My best story about that is I walked into a race shop — back then there wasn’t a fan zone — and I walked into the back of the shop and I sat in one of they guy’s offices. Here I am, goofy blue suit, packet of resumes, and a gentleman walks in, he says, “How did you get in here?” I said, “I just walked through that door.” He says, “Make sure it’s locked on your way out, have a nice day.”
That gentleman was Paul Andrews (the famous crew chief). Now we fast forward really quick, years later, he worked at DEI. Flew on my airplane, and I had to remind him of that stupid story of some guy in a blue suit. He’s like, “I remember that. Some guy was just sitting in my office.” I go, “Yeah, that was me.”
So in ’96 I went over to Mooresville, I attempted to get a job. Mike Collier actually set me up with an interview with Jasper because they were in Indiana. I called and said, “I really don’t want to work there, I want to work for you.” He said, “Well, I think we’re going to expand. I think we’re going to expand. Hold on.”
Then if you remember, if we go back in history, Jeff Green was just starting to drive the 14 car, the (Racing) for Kids car. We actually missed a race, then Steve Park was getting into the Busch car after Jeff Green got out of it. And then we started expanding on the Cup side. When we did that, we got our second King Air. And the minute they got that second King Air, Mike called and said, “Are you still interested?” Two weeks later I was there, and I started at DEI right away.
I went to school at the end of June for the King Air, went three days, the fourth day I came home to unload my truck, the fifth day I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with the Busch team and the truck team racing Milwaukee, and that was how fast it happened. So then right away, the minute I was at the racetrack, had wrenches in my hand, had no idea of spotting at the time. We had the perfect spotter, Steve Crisp, who spotted for Dale Jr.; Kevin Cram spotted for Ron Hornaday. And I was listening to those guys and said, “That’s really cool, I think I can do this.”
I was still working in the garage. That’s what I did. Tony (Eury) Sr. used to tell me, because I’d run back and forth at the time from the truck team to the Busch team — I was the only one flying then so I knew both teams really well — he was like, “You’ve got to pick a team, son. Who are you gonna work with?” So that’s just one of those funny stories, I showed up in my white tennis shoes and here I am at the racetrack working on one of these cars.
And that kind of worked its way through the 90s. Dale Jr. went Cup racing, still worked in the garage, worked alongside Jeff Clark, did a lot of underneath, helped them changed valve springs right there.
And then they had that fatal ARCA wreck at Charlotte (in 2002). And NASCAR changed the rules — because up to that point, we didn’t have to have a spotter for practice. We’d spot from the top of the truck.
Well, we only had a couple of King Airs at the time, and manpower was very low. I was at the racetrack, so I was able to go spot. I worked on the car, would go spot practice, go back down, work on the car — we didn’t spot qualifying then.
And then for the race, the other spotter, who was Stevie Reeves, would fly in. Ty Norris would do the 8 car — which I did during practice because I was working on that car at the time in the garage. And then Stevie would fly in a do the 1 car.
But during practice on Fridays and Saturdays, I would spot for Dale Jr. Ty would spot for the 1 car, and then Stevie would fly in on Sunday. So I was doing practice only, really staying in the garage.
If we go back to 2001, there was a very famous scene at Dover, where a kid runs out and hands Dale Jr. a big flag. That was me.
You were the one who gave Dale Jr. the American flag after the 9/11 race?
Yes, that’s me.
I did not know that.
I actually cut it down. We were going to Victory Lane, I grabbed the snips, cut the flag off, I was walking to Victory Lane with it and he said, “Come bring me that big flag!” So I jumped over the wall with it and walked out and I’m the one that put it in the car. So that’s again, very small world.
So then, when Michael came to DEI in 2001, initially Danny Culler was spotting for him, and I made the move to go spot full-time on the 15 car. We won the Daytona 500; we were the first car in the new Victory Lane at Daytona. We won one of the 150 races. In fact, it was the first 150 race because I couldn’t get to victory lane at the time, we had no crossover. So my very, very first win was at Daytona as a spotter.
And then Michael’s career changed and I was with Truex in ’04-’05 on the Busch team, and went full-time with Truex in ’06, ’07, ’08. Got Truex’s first win at Dover, which was fantastic.
I thought we were in really good shape at DEI. At the time, we were expanding, things were going very well. And then something really small happened — some driver left. And then everything kind of took a turn downhill, and I met Brad and here I am years later. So it’s a bit of an interesting path from where I started to where I am.
So that raised a couple questions through this story that you just told. First of all, so you were a big Earnhardt fan and a big NASCAR fan. Once you got to be working for the airline, with his company, did you have much interaction with him and what was it like to be around him?
We’ll back up even before. At the airlines, you have a pilot bag. Everybody’s seen the pilots walking through the big black briefcase looking thing. I had his white decaled signature on the side of my pilot bag. So yeah, I was a huge fan.
So now we fast forward to being hired, flying Dale Earnhardt and working for Dale Earnhardt was essentially like working for my dad. It was that big of an honor.
I lost my father on my 30th birthday in 1996 and got hired at Dale’s in ’97. He was instantly the guy that I not only looked up to, but wanted to impress. I wanted to make sure that my standards met him — before, that would have been my father. And Dale, not that he even knew it, but he was the guy that whenever you work for somebody, regardless of who that boss was, you wanted to make sure Dale was happy.
And the flying side, normally he rode on the plane, so I flew him quite a bit on the team plane to the racetrack and then Teresa and Taylor, who was young enough to be in school at the time, would ride out either Saturday or Sunday and he would ride home with them.
But a little bit of trivia, I was actually fortunate enough to be one of the spotters at the 24 hour race (in 2001). I spotted for Dale at the 24 hour race with Ty Norris, and we had Andy Pilgrim and Dale Jr. and Mr. (Franck) Freon and those guys drove the Corvette.
We flew home after that 24 hour race, and Dale handed me a little cash money, and said, “Man, I really appreciate it. Take your wife to dinner for being gone so long.” So working for him, there’s nothing but accolades that I can say. He’s everything that everybody has ever said good that I could ever remember, and it was a huge crushing blow to me personally — as it was to the industry — when he left us in February of ’01.
But up to that point, my life was set. I was going to be there forever. And I would have been there forever. If there was ever a chance for me to get a tattoo, it would have been the DEI crest. I don’t have any tattoos, but that was as close to where I figured I was going to be there forever. A lot of people’s worlds changed in ’01, but working for him was fantastic.
Given your roots in racing and everything, I guess, do you ever reminisce with Dale Jr. or people like that?
It’s interesting, because I was fortunate to — Dale did a video with the Matthew Good Band and we went to Memphis, we went to Texas, we went to Vegas. We were gone for the whole week doing that video. Well I was the pilot, and they stuck me in a couple of scenes of the video. It’s really a lot of fun.
So if we went back on YouTube and found that…?
Yup, Matthew Good and Dale Jr. You’ll see a couple pictures of me and the plane. So it’s pretty funny.
But no, we do (reminisce). A lot of us, when we go “back in the day,” (people say they) didn’t realize back in the day how good we had it. Well that’s a unique thing about that time, specifically when Dale was around, and even soon after he left ’02, ’03, ’04. We all knew how good we had it. We had so much fun at the time.
It’s a different mentality in the garage now. Not that it’s bad, but you’re worried about the future more now. Then, there was no concern about the future, you were there to enjoy every day and you got to enjoy every day. Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, Steve Park, Ron Hornaday, Kenny Wallace was there for a little while, Darrell Waltrip was there for a handful of races. They just made things so much fun that you enjoyed every day.
So when we go back in the day, it’s not like, “Man, I wish I had known how good we had it.” We all knew how good we had it. I still am very fortunate to our planes were parked very close to each other in the airport in North Carolina. So I see Dale. We don’t go to lunch every day, but I do see him. In fact, about a year ago, I actually flew his airplane out here with his main pilot, and there’s also been that relationship.
I’ve got a couple texts that I’ve saved on my phone that have come from Dale over time that just make me realize that he has always appreciated the people around him and fortunately I’ve been one of those people around him. He really has an appreciation level a lot like his dad. He’s not going to go on the mountaintops and scream your name, but behind closed doors, which is really cool, he does make it very known that you’re appreciated in the time that you’re around and helping.
I helped on that team when he was coming up on the Busch car in the 31 car. I was one of those crew members that was the extra guy. Wesley Sherrill, who’s now on the 18 over at Gibbs, there was a scab crew that was thrown together. Well I was one of those guys. It was really cool to be a part of that.
That’s really fascinating. I think one thing people might want to know also was you mentioned your mom was in an aviation accident in ’84, and that is what sucked you into it. If we can go back to that for a minute, why did that create sort of an interest in aviation? Was she in a plane that crashed, or what happened?
So the gentleman who she was dating at the time was actually a seaplane instructor from the factory, it was a Lake Amphibian. And a Lake Amphibian is a very unique looking airplane — if you saw one, it doesn’t sit on floats, it actually lands on the hull of the airplane. The engines are on top and it’s turned around backwards. It’s a unique airplane and one of the most fun airplanes I’ve ever flown.
They were flying, he was goofing around and they wrecked. Unfortunately when they wrecked, he was thrown out of the airplane and had no damage. Her seatbelt was very loose on her, as we tend to do in the airlines when anybody rides, they don’t put their seatbelt on tight. Well when they wrecked, she was bounced around and she ended up breaking her neck in two different spots.
From that point on, it intrigued me because I didn’t know about aviation or how to prevent her accident, or how it happened or what caused it and that drew me an interest in to making sure I was more educated on that subject and then I started taking flying lessons. It was that simple.
It was something that I never thought about. As a kid you grow up and you’re thinking of an airline pilot and doctor — they’re like right together (in terms of brainpower). Well now I understand it’s different. I’m not saying you don’t have to be smart, but at the time, I didn’t think I was smart enough to be an airline pilot or any pilot for that matter. So it drew me in realizing that I am capable of being a pilot and being good enough at it over a long term to excel in the industry to promote the aviation industry — which I’m a huge proponent of the industry.
I speak once a week just about the (aviation) industry, trying to promote the industry because it has such a bad rap. After Michigan, we were able to run a couple of friends down to Myrtle Beach for a couple of days, they thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Ran a bowling tournament last week in Syracuse, brought the truck driver of the 48 home, we bowled together. He had never been in a small airplane, thought it was the greatest thing in the world.
So every time I have a chance to introduce somebody to my industry, I want to be prepared mentally and educationally that I can promote the industry. That’s how it got me started. I’m like, “If this happened to my mom, I’ve got to be able to prevent this.” And the only way to prevent it was to be in the industry and educate myself and that’s how I started flying.
Do you think, given the modern day NASCAR, is there a path for somebody else to be a spotter/pilot?
It’s interesting because the industry itself relies on aviation. It has to to survive. As you know — you run the (commercial) airlines, extremely unreliable. You have to build in lots of cushion before and after trying to get home or trying to get to the racetrack. Race teams simply can’t do that.
So private aviation may be a luxurious way to travel, but it’s not a luxury — it’s a necessity. We have to use it, we have to have private aviation. So there’s always gonna be a spot for pilots in the NASCAR industry.
Conversely, there’s 40 race cars on the track on any given Sunday. Every one of those cars has to have a spotter. So there’s always going to be a need for a spotter.
But guys today, the relationship between a driver and a spotter is tighter than ever. When I got started and drivers came to a new race team, they just used whatever spotter that was, because the spotter worked for the race team. Now if Brad were to leave, like we saw Carl Edwards leave — we see drivers move, like Matt Kenseth, and when they move, they bring their spotter with them.
So it’s very important for somebody trying to get into the industry — the only way to get a job in the industry is to be in the garage. They’re not gonna call you at home and go, “Hey, we’re looking for a spotter.” It’s somebody that has to be at the racetrack.
The best way to do that is to be that voluntary crew guy and you get hired onto a full-time job. And that’s not starting at the Cup Series, that’s starting on the K&N side, starting on the ARCA side, starting at the Truck side, which is what I did originally working at the garage. I didn’t walk into the Cup garage and they said, “That guy looks like his head will fit a headset.” It didn’t work that way. You worked your way up, and that’s what’s really important.
Fortunately, I have a really cool job. I’m very aware of it. Flying and spotting are two really cool things. But it didn’t start there. As you’ve heard back in the 80s I flew cargo and charter and flight instructed — which I still do —those things that still keep me in the sport.
But you have to be in the garage. And once you’re there, then the opportunities exist, whether it’s a tire test and you’re gonna go try and spot because we don’t have a spotter for that, or even somebody being in the garage looking for some volunteer help. You have to be in the garage first in order to get a job in the garage. It doesn’t work any other way.
Race teams are always looking for help — not Hendrick, not Penske — but you can go down right now to StarCom, they’re looking for help. TriStar’s looking for help. Guaranteed if you show up wanting to push a car around the garage, they’re going to allow you to do it. Maybe pay you expenses and a little bit of per diem and you can get into the garage.
But definitely over on the Truck side, definitely over on the Xfinity side. People are looking for help. You’re not gonna go to work for Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson as your first job, and I think that’s what people tend to forget. Those opportunities exist, you just have to be open to moving around the country as I did and getting in the garage and pushing the race car around.