By Cole Cusumano
Richmond Raceway is hallowed grounds rich in triumph and memory for Kyle Busch and Tony Hirschman. They’re the winningest active driver-spotter pairing with three at the .75-mile venue, including their first bid together in 2012. But it goes beyond on-track success for Hirschman, as there’s a familial bond engraved within the 14-degree banking that’s molded him into the championship winning spotter he is today.
Hirschman’s experienced the epitome of an emotional roller coaster at the Virginia-based track, dating back to 1990 where his father, Tony, suffered one of the worst wrecks of his career coming off Turn 4 and fractured his sternum racing modifieds. The following year, their namesake was made known at NASCAR’s National level when he qualified top-five in his Busch Grand National debut among legends like Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison.
Prior to the Pontiac 200, Hirschman’s father crashed his Oldsmobile in practice and had to withdraw from the event. Vindication wasn’t attained until 10 years later, when he scored his first Whelen Modified Tour victory at Richmond.
“Every track you go to, every time you leave your house you’re hoping to win, but Richmond with the past memories, it’s a place I look forward to running good at.” Hirschman told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “As a family it’s been such a special place for us and somewhere we really enjoy going to. Every time we go back, that’s the stuff I think about.”
Hirschman began spotting for his father in 1994 and honed his skills at short tracks. To this day he implements lessons learned during open discussions and late night drives home to Pennsylvania from races in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
By all accounts, Busch and Hirschman have an organic relationship that hearkens back to the spotter’s racing upbringing. For a driver once notorious for going through different crew members, this could very well be the reason for their 10-year tenure of success.
“You go to the race track every weekend, it doesn’t matter what you go with, with [Kyle] you know you’re going to be competitive and you have a shot to win, and that takes me back to when I was going to races with my dad,” Hirschman revealed. “The racing game doesn’t always favor you, so you don’t always win every race, but it’s the mindset going into it.”
The pair feed off their sense of understanding, which is why Hirschman feels they’ve had such a strong collaborative dynamic. They communicate regularly on ways they can improve with input and constructive criticism from both ends of their professions to maximize their performance on the track.
Hirschman will watch video and listen to audio from other spotters regularly to better his craft. When not on the job, he’ll often observe teams in different series to refine his descriptive vocabulary.
“In this sport you never really get complacent,” Hirschman said. “I’m always looking for ways to improve what I do. If you don’t learn something from a particular race, whether you win or finish 25th, then shame on you.”
Prior to Hirschman’s stint as Busch’s spotter, the driver of the No. 18 scored three wins at Richmond. But it’s impossible to discredit the three additional victories tacked on, 11 top-10s and 8.3 average finish since the Pennsylvania native jumped aboard.
It’s also worth noting not only did Hirschman secure his first NASCAR Cup Series win with Busch in his premier debut at Richmond, but he also guided Kurt Busch to victory in the NASCAR Xfinity Series the day prior.
Case in point, there’s a reason the two have been part of the most dominant team at Richmond for almost a decade. Part of Hirschman’s ability to masterfully guide Busch around the three-quarter-mile track, again, comes with the nostalgic unearthing of his past.
“It’s just nice when you can go to a place like [Richmond] and you can feed information by watching and paying attention, and you can make a little bit of a difference,” Hirschman said. “For me, I grew up on the short tracks, so that’s where I’m more comfortable. That’s where I learned how to spot, that’s where I worked on my trade on how I can help with having to work with my dad.”
It was the early days spotting for his father that Hirschman was able to store knowledge and perfectly articulate both tire and throttle management, in addition to braking points. He also learned how to illustrate where to maneuver on the short tracks, like Richmond, to makeup time.
Visibility-wise, he feels short tracks are easier than other venues to spot as you’re “on top of the action,” but with 40 cars racing in such close quarters, it can be difficult for most. For Hirschman, this is where he thrives and has the most fun navigating.
“You’re always in traffic whether you’re leading the race or in the middle of the pack,” Hirschman said. “You have to be tuned in the whole time, mentally focused and always watching your surroundings. It doesn’t matter if you’re leading the race, you’re as susceptible to a wreck as the guy running in the middle of the pack.
“You’re never in a safe zone that you can relax and take a deep breath, so that’s another aspect I really enjoy for the short track stuff.”
Similarly to Martinsville Speedway or Bristol Motor Speedway, laps at Richmond can go by quickly with long green-flag runs. Hirschman believes it’s all about race management in terms of being mindful of the pace you’re running to save speed for later.
But there are some ways Richmond differs from those traditional short tracks.
“Richmond offers so many options on ways to complete and set passes up,” Hirschman said. “You have a little bit more space to move around and the gaps get a little bit bigger to where you can drag off the guy in front of you a little bit. I think you have more opportunities to save tires or search around for grip, or do different things to where it won’t be the fastest lap time, but it’ll be [faster] later in the run.”
There’s a history and knowledge of Richmond seemingly embedded in Hirschman’s genetic makeup. If what’s been said isn’t enough validation, he completed a four-race season sweep at the track in 2018 between Busch and Christopher Bell in Cup and Xfinity — an accomplishment rarely ever completed.
With that, here’s Hirschman’s perfect lap around Richmond.
The Perfect Lap: “Turn 1 a lot of guys enter a little bit shallower, but if you’re by yourself cutting a good lap you can take a nice, wide arc into Turn 1 and when you get to the bottom you can see if it will be a good lap,” Hirschman said. “I don’t want to say it’s a trickier end, but the exit of Turn 2 can get pretty tight, so if you can get to the bottom of one-and-two and you can roll really good speed through the center, you can get the car pointed more.”
It’s all about getting through those first-two turns cleanly and efficiently that sets you up for an ideal lap, as the other end of the track presents more opportunities. If the driver can hug the bottom and drive straight off of Turn 2, that typically sets you up for success.
“You can tell visually how well they rolled the bottom and when they got down to the line, how the car tracked the line, and how they left Turn 2,” Hirschman said. “You can move around in [turns] 3 and 4, but when they hit it right you can tell as they come to the start/finish line if it was a good lap. The key is you need to do that lap after lap, 40, 50, 60 laps into a run to get to the bottom, roll a lot of speed, not be trail-braking and try to keep the nose turning.”
How the driver is able to get around the three-quarter-mile track is also indicative of the car’s balance. It’s crucial to be conscious of the speed you have early in a run, but not to use up the tires and brakes in that time.
“You can tell when it’s going to be a good lap off rolling speed and — especially when you get out there in the race around other cars — when you see other guys struggling and your stuff is still turning really good and able to drive off straight,” Hirschman said. “You know it’s only going to be a matter of time before you’re able to drive up underneath them.”
Already ranking among legends of the sport, Busch will have a chance to tie Bobby Allison for second on the all-time wins list at Richmond with seven. With three wins in Cup and a multitude of other dispersed throughout other series, Hirschman will play a pivotal role in what could be a monumental victory.
Busch rolls off 10th in the Toyota Owners 400 from Richmond International Raceway on April 18 at 3 p.m. ET on FS1.