Broadcast News

By Tom Suddard
Apr 30, 2015 | Posted in Features | From the May 2013 issue | Never miss an article

They say communication is everything in a relationship. The relationship between radios and cars is an old and lasting one, but what about the relationship between a driver and the pit crew? For people with such a critical partnership, drivers and crewmembers don’t communicate very much while they’re actually working. Crews have tried various types of communication over the years, eventually settling on the tried and true pit board, but are a few lines of text on a tiny sign once every lap really sufficient? They don’t have to be. Wireless communication, used for everything from talk shows to air traffic control, has become inexpensive and ubiquitous. Professional-quality motorsports radios are now affordable enough that even club racers are using them to gain a competitive edge.

Do You Read Me?

Walk around the paddock at any professional-level race, and every car will be sporting a tiny radio antenna. Teams rely on these systems for everything from planning fuel stops to coaching the driver in real time. In fact, teams usually have at least one person who merely scans rival teams’ radio signals in order to take advantage of knowing the competitors’ scheduled pit stops or breakdowns. Professional racing communication is closer to World War II espionage than the trucker chatter heard on the interstate. And, like everything in racing, radio communication has escalated from its initial form. Once teams realized that everything being said over the radio was being intercepted, they developed secret codes to throw off the competition. For example, when the crew chief says, “Stay out for five laps,” he may really mean, “Pit next lap.” These codes have grown more and more complex—to the point that an uninitiated bystander listening in wouldn’t be able to predict a move accurately. Rival teams, however, aren’t uninitiated bystanders and have begun to break the codes. So racing communications have escalated again, this time adding a wired system. As soon as a car comes into pit, look closely and you’ll see a single wire being plugged into its side. This is an intercom connection, and it allows the driver and crew to talk without transmitting anything over the radio. This way, critical race strategy may be discussed without fear of eavesdropping. As soon as the driver pulls away, the radio system kicks in, and it’s time again for code and confusion. Luckily, very little of this goes on at the lower levels of racing, so our radio system won’t need to be this complicated. It’s so simple that casual racers can afford radios for their car.

10-4, Good Buddy


Why radios? That’s usually the first question Toto Lassally, the owner of Speedcom Communications, gets from potential customers. His company has become a leader in racing communications, so we headed down to Speedcom’s headquarters when it came time to install radios in our Ford Fiesta B-Spec project car. Toto’s answer is simple: A set of radios will save you money. During a test day, valuable time is lost whenever a driver has to come in. Normally, a driver would do three laps, try to remember every detail, then go in for 10 minutes to tell the crew what happened. With radios, a driver can stay for 20 laps, constantly discussing the car’s behavior with the crew. When the driver does return to the pits, the crew knows exactly what needs to be done and can have all the necessary tools prepared. This process helps the team get more laps for their money. During a race, the benefits of radios are even more apparent. They allow fuel stops, driver changes and crashes to be relayed instantly between driver and crew. A driver also can have a team member provide a different viewpoint. It becomes nearly essential to have a spotter who warns the driver of crashes ahead, tells the driver that the green flag has dropped before the competition can see it, or acts as a real-time driving instructor.

Roger That

Go to any crapcan race, and the number of teams using off-the-shelf, GMRS-band walkie-talkies is astounding. They look like racing radios, and they’re inexpensive. So what’s not to love? Well, mainly their performance. Consumer GMRS radios are woefully underpowered, and they have low-gain antennas. This means they have a very short range, but it gets worse: Consumer radios have very poor noise filtering and few provisions for external microphones and earpieces. So even if the driver’s walkie-talkie had enough range to reach the crew, engine and wind noise would disrupt any communication. Motorsports radios may look like inexpensive walkie-talkies, but they’re very different. They transmit at roughly 10 times the power of a walkie-talkie. They also have provisions for connecting better antennas, more connection options for headsets, better batteries, more frequency options, better construction and better noise filtering, among other factors. These differences turn a child’s toy into a professional tool—one for which you’ll also be able to find trackside support at any major race.

The Alpha, Bravo, Charlies

Before the driver is able to use the car’s new radio, it has to be installed. Step one: installing the car antenna. This means threading a standard NMO mount into a ¾-inch hole in the roof. Some cars, like our Fiesta project, already have a properly sized hole in the roof from the factory antenna, but most cars will need a hole drilled. Our advice? Drill the hole quickly, as it’s easy to have second thoughts and chicken out. We’d recommend using a special NMO hole saw if the car still has a headliner, as this special bit is only $30 or so. It’s unique because it only drills down around 1/8 inch, preventing any headliner damage. If the car is already gutted, just use a regular hole saw and be careful. After the NMO mount is installed, attaching the antenna is as easy as threading it on. After that’s done, it’s time to secure the radio itself. Zip ties would work fine for this, but we used a Race City Radio roll cage mount in our Fiesta. This clever plastic box attaches to the car’s cage with hose clamps and secures the radio by sandwiching it between pieces of high-density foam. This prevents damage and makes the radio easy to remove for battery changes. Next: Wire in a PTT button. It’s usually best to place this on the steering wheel so the driver can easily hold it down while on track. We sourced ours from Race City Radios and simply zip-tied it to our Fiesta’s stock wheel. Most PTT buttons, including ours, are sold as part of car radio harness kits. This simplifies the wiring into a plug-and-play affair, leaving plugging the antenna into the radio as the final step.

Do You Copy?

With the car ready, it’s time to prepare the driver’s helmet. This means installing a mic and headphone jack, and doing it right takes around 30 minutes. On a budget but want a quality product? Race City Radios offers an affordable kit that features a $44 mic. Toto says good things about it. Looking for something a bit better? Speedcom’s proprietary RT mic features unique noise-canceling technology that works well enough for Grand-Am teams. Retail price for this option is $165. No matter which mic you select, step one is removing the helmet lining to expose the bare shell. Then, attach the headphone jack to the helmet. There are two kinds of helmet plugs commonly used in road racing: the IMSA plug and the NASCAR plug. One style isn’t necessarily better than the other, so we recommend using whichever is popular in your group. (At our office, most of us have the IMSA-style plug, though adaptors between the two styles are available.) With the plugs installed, all that’s left is the mic and the wiring. This part is a little different for every helmet, but the general idea is to glue it in front of the driver’s mouth. While visiting Speedcom, Toto showed us how a deft hand, a sharp razor and a hot glue gun turn this into a quick and easy arts-and-crafts project. Once reassembled, all that’s visible is a tiny mic sticking out from behind a helmet pad. Final step: wiring. This just snaps together. Toto said that while setting up a helmet is not too hard, most customers elect to spend a few bucks to have the electronics professionally installed. Now the driver and the car are ready, but what about the crew? Assembling the other end of the radio system is as easy as plugging the headset into the radio. To broadcast, press the button and start talking. It’s that easy.

Copy That

Does $700 sound like a lot of money? That’s because it is for most of us. It may not mean much to a Grand-Am team, but it’s a serious amount for the ChumpCar team running a Ford Pinto. Is it possible to get most of the benefits of a professional radio system without the expense? To find out, we pieced together our own home-brewed system. Radium radios are arguably one of the best deals out there, and they’re all about simplicity, durability and performance. However, all this comes at a price. It’s possible to save money, but you’ll need to be willing to forgo a lot of user-friendliness, appreciate the trial-and-error process, and like to tinker. To start, let’s talk about band options. A band is a collection of frequencies in the RF spectrum. Different bands are assigned to different uses and are usually marked by their upper and lower limits. For example, the UHF Business Band is 450 to 470 megahertz. This is where most professional motorsports radios operate, including Radium radios. To get similar performance, our home-brewed setup needed to operate in a similar band. Though it won’t be quite as optimal, it will also allow us to use any common antenna designed for racing, such as the ones Race City Radios sells. The best choice, in our opinion, is the 70-centimeter amateur radio band. Occupying 420 to 450 megahertz, this band sits immediately below the business band on the RF spectrum. These are cheap and easy to acquire, and there’s a large community of amateur radio enthusiasts who are happy to help. Our band was now decided, so it was time to check out and load up the shopping cart. First, we needed the radios themselves. We chose to use two Baofeng UV-5Rs, which cost $45 each. Their output was 5 watts on the 70-centimeter band—the same or better than most racing radios. Next, we needed a battery eliminator, which would let us use the car’s battery, not the radio’s. This set us back another $9. With our radios in hand, it was time to buy mics and earpieces. The Baofeng radios use a Kenwood plug for the mic and speaker, so anything we bought would have to be Kenwood-compatible. We found a generic helmet kit designed for Kenwood radios for $38 as well as a used Kenwood headset for $22. Now that we had the radios and headsets, it was time for the last item: an antenna. The included Baofeng antenna would work fine on the crew’s radio, but the car’s radio would need an external antenna. The most popular way to do this? With a through-the-roof NMO mount and an NMO antenna. We ordered one of each, totaling $51. Make sure the antenna is rated for the 70-centimeter band, as the wrong antenna can damage the radio. If possible, get the antenna with the highest gain available. More gain means more range. With all parts in hand—for a grand total of $210—installation was around the same as for the professional system, with the only major difference being programming the Baofeng radios. They come set to a default frequency, but you’ll want to change both radios to a new frequency that’s appropriate for your area. To find out which frequencies are already taken, search the Internet for “amateur radio frequencies” for your county, and choose one that isn’t in use. Programming is fairly easy, but you’ll still need to read the manual. Once the radios are programmed, the mics plugged in, and the antenna connected, try them out. We tested both the Radium radios and our budget setup on our project Ford Fiesta, and both radios had a 2.3-mile range in our congested city. We also tested a budget pair of walkie-talkies, but their range was less than half a mile.

Over and Out

So what’s the verdict? Are the professional radios worth the extra cost? Well, yes and no. It’s possible to replicate a racing radio system at a fraction of the cost. But while the ranges are comparable, the headsets are not. Our budget system lacked any kind of noise isolation, and as a result, it was nearly useless in a noisy environment. The real radio system thrived in loud places, making conversation easy even when standing next to a running race car. The budget system may work in a quiet car, but for a real race car, the professional headsets are the way to go. Either way, though, now that we have radios, it’s going to be tough running any car without them. Toto wasn’t lying when he said radios were a necessity for any serious team, and now we’re no exception.

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Giant Purple Snorklewacker
Giant Purple Snorklewacker MegaDork
4/30/15 10:12 a.m.

There are pretty close to zero club racers left that don't have radios. Most of the chump and lemons guys even have them now.

Before I/we bought a "real" set of radios for our cars we ran an endurance race at the Glen with a Cardo Scala Rider Q2 bluetooth headset and a cell phone. The novelty of answering your phone while racing never really wears off. Putting on someone else's sweaty helmet so you can use the one headset totally does

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Associate Editor
4/30/15 10:48 a.m.

Yeah, a lot has happened in the two years since I wrote this article.

Let me add something that didn't translate into the online article, but did appear in the print magazine: Every band mentioned requires an FCC license, though 99% of racers don't have one. They aren't too hard to get, and the fines are ludicrously high if you don't have one.

Appleseed MegaDork
4/30/15 10:50 a.m.

What? No more giant chalkboard signs saying, "PIT NOW!"

tuna55 UltimaDork
4/30/15 11:15 a.m.

The cell phone thing is pretty brilliant. We struggled with this on our team a lot. We lost many many laps because of bad communications.

Where is the car?

Uhhh. guys, it's back at the pits.


DirtyBird222 UltraDork
5/14/15 2:40 p.m.

I'm really at a loss for what to do on our chumpcar setup. We have a cheap GMRS setup but everyone says we'll have issues. I've purchased all this equipment you've listed and again people say we'll have issues. It really seems like the only way is to muster up the cash for a legit system and have that be that.

Tommy how did the Baofengs work?

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/14/15 3:00 p.m.
Appleseed wrote: What? No more giant chalkboard signs saying, "PIT NOW!"

They still use pit boards in F1. Sometimes, you just gotta have a fallback.

We had fun on one of our T25 teams. The radio didn't work well in one car, and one of the drivers had a problem. Depending on who was in the car...sometimes we could hear the driver but he couldn't hear us. Sometimes he could hear us but we couldn't hear him. Sometimes nobody could hear anything. To the pit board!

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Associate Editor
5/14/15 4:16 p.m.

They work well, as long as you make sure to program them correctly. They really aren't any different from a cheap "real" radio setup.

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