When I was growing up, I thought of Jim McKay as the voice of sports. Wide World of Sports, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, the British Open... hear Jim McKay's voice and you knew it was a major sporting event. The same was later true for broadcasters like Pat Summerall, Dick Enberg, Bob Costas... to me, they were the voices of sports.
Just like I consider Mike Joy to be the voice of racing.
Forty-eight years ago, while still in college, Mike started working part-time as a track announcer at a small Massachusetts speedway. Since then he's worked for MRN radio, anchored the first ESPN and TNN NASCAR race broadcasts, called Formula 1 races... and for the last 18 years has been the lead announcer for NASCAR on FOX. (A role he will once again fill for this Sunday's Daytona 500.) And he's the longtime co-owner of the New England distributorship for Sunoco Racing Fuels.
Since this year marks his forty-third Daytona Speedweeks, it seemed like the perfect time to find out how Mike built a lifelong career by doing what he loves.
As the lead announcer you have a variety of duties, but it seems one of the most important is to ensure the people around you look good. Like any great leader, your success comes from the success of other people.
This business changed dramatically when FOX acquired the rights in 2001.
Previously, CBS and ABC had shown the occasional races and ESPN and other cable networks had the balance. The networks relied on strong play-by-play voices like Ken Squier, Jim McKay, and Keith Jackson to carry the broadcast, with the analysts adding color commentary and context.
The FOX approach is very different: At FOX, the athletes and analysts are the stars and the telecast is built around them.
That change in approach required a shift in how I viewed my job. I quickly realized that even if there was a point I could make, the viewer would rather hear that point come from the experienced voice of Darrell (Waltrip) or Larry (McReynolds).
While I might have at least some of the same knowledge... they have the trophy cases to back it up. (Laughs.)
So yes: The role of the anchor changed as the telecast shifted from anchor-centered to analyst-centered. But it wasn't a hard transition to make. It didn't require a change in preparation or the product we put on the air. It just required a change in attitude.
Actually, it might have been harder for Darrell. Early on we would go to commercial and Darrell might say, "Why did you ask me (that)? We all know (that)."
I would say, "You're right. We all know that. But the viewer might not."
In some ways we think of it as a three-legged stool: Inform, educate, entertain. You have to balance all three or you can't sit on that stool.
Which means the broadcast has to tell a story, even though that story unfolds in real time.
"Inform, education, and entertain" was all David Hill's doing. He founded FOX Sports. He consistently said the most important question to answer is "Why?" People can see what. You need to explain why.
That approach really got Darrell and Larry off and running. They became even better analysts than they had been in the cable days. And right from the start it was a comfortable fit for all of us. I had never won a Cup race. Darrell had never called a race from the pit box. Larry had never done play-by-play.
Our skill sets blended, but they didn't overlap.
Which is a great definition of an effective team. Yet FOX still took a risk in blending those skill sets together.
Initially they looked at creating a 2-person booth, or a 3-person booth with two drivers. After all, that was the model.
But I had worked with Larry on cable... and the clincher was a tape my agent sent to David and Ed Goren of the three of us doing a Busch (now XFINITY) Series race at Phoenix. The chemistry was there, we were clearly having fun doing it, there were three distinct different points of view... it very obviously worked.
But now, with Jeff Gordon, you have two drivers in the booth.
Larry still functions as the third analyst.
FOX decided they wanted the telecast to be more about drivers and people and less about nuts and bolts and technical aspects. So Larry's role became more of a strategist and rules analyst, which is a role FOX created with great success for NFL broadcasts with ex-referee Mike Pereira.
Larry has completely embraced, and massively enhanced, that role. And now he's in the virtual studio in Charlotte with all kinds of toys to play with.
The virtual studio raises an interesting point. FOX is known for taking risks with technology, and even though there tend to be early detractors, most of them pay off and eventually get "borrowed" by other networks. Like the FOX box for football scores.
David Hill is a genius. He's one of the biggest geniuses in sports television history.
The Fox box, the time and score on the screen, or in our case all the information we put on the screen during a race... I honestly can't imagine calling a race without it.
When FOX started televising NASCAR in 2000, every network had always gone to break and come back from break with a leader board containing 5 or 10 drivers. If your driver wasn't on the screen... that was your only way of possibly keeping up with where he or she was running.
I remember a conference we all talked through the idea of a ticker, a constantly-scrolling ticker of the positions at the moment, or at least as of the last lap. We mocked up 8 different versions of where the ticker should go and how it should look.
I remember suggesting that we run it like the stock ticker on TV since people were used to seeing and following that.
And we got horrible hate mail. (Laughs.) "I can't watch this." "This is awful. "The cars are going one direction and the ticker is going the other."
I'll never forget what one fellow said: "I keep a roll of duct tape on top of the TV set and when your race comes on, I tape over the ticker because I can't stand it." (Laughs.)
Now we've enhanced the ticker with data like last lap speed, laps led... and the default, which is my favorite, each driver's dynamic interval to the leader: If the interval is shrinking or growing, you know if that driver is gaining or losing time.
I used to do a tremendous amount of running order recaps. Having all that information on the screen has dramatically changed my job.
And now, as a viewer, I have a lot of the "what" that you talked about earlier.
Absolutely. Other than the in-car camera, the scoring ticker with dynamic intervals is the biggest advance in auto racing broadcasting.
Speaking of in-car cameras, unless I'm wrong you played at least a small role in bringing that technology to the U.S.
(Laughs.) A small role, but yes.
Here's the Cliff Notes version. I was in Daytona in 1981, running NASCAR's radio network. We were dabbling in TV by doing tape-delayed broadcasts for races that weren't broadcast live. (Some track promoters were afraid live TV would hurt their crowds.)
One day we received a tape of the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 at Bathhurst in Australia. I'm watching it, cars are going around... and the commentator says, "Let's go inside the Toyota Corolla."
Keep in mind I was accustomed to in-car cameras that mostly showed static. But here's the great view out the car, when someone passes the camera pans to the right to show that car... and I thought, "Holy crap."
I called Ken Squier. He comes over to see it. He has the same reaction.
And as it turns out, the next month he's going to Australia with Arnold Schwarzenegger to do The World's Strongest Man for CBS. So while he was there he looked up Peter Larson and John Porter at Channel 7 and convinced them to send a proposal to CBS to put on-board tilting and panning cameras in NASCAR cars for the Daytona 500.
And they did, and the rest is history.
Quick footnote: On that tape, the pit reporter was Chris Economaki. What was Chris doing in Australia? Since Chris was world famous, they brought him in for that race; it's like their Daytona 500. They brought in the biggest name they could to work on the telecast.
So Chris was working that telecast... and how that technology never got back to ABC, where he worked, is beyond me. But I'm glad it didn't. (Laughs.)
You started out as a track announcer. How did you make the transition to leading a television broadcast team?
It's not that unusual. Legends like Ken Squier and Barney Hall both started out as PA announcers. Not that I'm anywhere close to being in their league.
It wasn't my aim to end up in radio or TV. I loved racing but couldn't afford to go racing, so track announcing was a fun way to be involved. And it paid a whole lot better than other jobs available for college kids. (Laughs.)
It was great fun, and more importantly, my idol Ken Squier also became my mentor. He talked to the people in Daytona and got me the opportunity to freelance as a turn announcer for MRN. The radio call is not unlike public address. Except for adding color and context, a lot of the Xs and Os are the same. Plus I learned a lot from Ken and Barney and Ned Jarrett, three wonderful people I hold in the highest regard.
Then, when the CBS opportunity arose, Ken got them to consider me as a pit reporter. I did that from 1984 to 1997, and then they moved me into the booth.
A live telecast is a completely different animal than anything else. Of course there's that three-legged stool, keeping the viewer up to date, getting the most out of your analysts... but you're also having three different conversations at once.
One, you're talking with the viewer; even though it's a one-way conversation, you're trying to answer questions you think they would pose. Of course you're also talking with the people in the booth. And you're talking with your producer. So you're simultaneously carrying on three conversations. Sometimes I'm listening to our producer while I'm talking to Darrell or Jeff.
Granted, that gets easier. The more you work with people, the more you know each other's nuances and ideas and frustrations. I think Larry Darrell and Jeff and I can now elicit a comment or end a debate with just a look. Not even a hand gesture; just a look.
It helps that we're friends first and broadcasters second. And that we have a high degree of mutual respect. And that they trust me, and they trust our producer, Barry Landis, to guide them in directions that will hopefully make for interesting television.
Did you start out trying to semi-sorta copy other people, or did you purposely try to create your own style...
I tried being Ken Squier and came up miserably short. Ken has a tremendous education and is extremely well read and ...
And he has that voice of god.
Yes he does. When Ken speaks, it's as if the sky parts.
Ken excelled at making drivers seem all but superhuman. He described it as "ordinary men doing extraordinary things behind the wheel." That's an awesome line.
He also came up with "The great American race" to describe the Daytona 500, and refused to copyright it.
So to answer your question: Yes, I did want to do what Ken was doing and try to someday elevate my game to that level. But I also admired Barney Hall, how he was more down home, to the point, comfortable... ultimately, I like to think I ended up somewhere in the middle.
Funny story: I did a lot of races with Buddy Baker. He was a great friend. We enjoyed ribbing each other. At a race at Phoenix I said, "Welcome to the penultimate race of ..." and Buddy looks at me and goes, "'Penultimate,' huh?"
I said, "I'm sorry, welcome to the next to the last race of the season."
And that was pretty much it for using big words. (Laughs.)
Your job is to accentuate what the audience sees, not repeat it. You're also constantly reacting. Because you can never know what information you might need, how much prep do you do?
I've seen people come in with pages and pages of copious notes. That works for them. It doesn't work for me.
I jot down notes about things I want to share, but ultimately we need to react to the event as it unfolds. If I have a great story about how Joe's grandmother sits in front of the TV on race days... that story really only works when Joe is leading the race. (Laughs.) Lots of the anecdotes, the stories, the stats... they're situational.
The key is to have enough material... but also use it in the right places. And to realize that you'll never use everything. And that you shouldn't use everything.
When I first started as a pit reporter I talked a mile a minute. You could hardly understand what I said because I wanted to make sure that I emptied the bucket in the brief air time I had. (Laughs.)
Brian Williams of NBC told me Walter Cronkite used to say that when you're speaking for impact, you need to speak a little more slowly. How much you can say doesn't matter -- the impact of what you do say is what matters.
How do you evaluate your performance?
At the end of each telecast, before we leave the booth, Jeff and Darrell and Larry and I say how was that, how did we do, was there anything that happened that felt awkward, did we miss anything, were we uncomfortable... the last thing you want to do is get on the plane and stew about something and have it lodge in a place where it comes out next week. (Laughs.)
If we do have any issues or concerns, we get them all out before we leave the booth. Then I'll text or call Barry and we'll debrief. If there are any issues, they're all resolved before the Tuesday conference call for the next race.
Trust goes a long, long way towards feeling good about the job you're doing... and making adjustments or improvements so you and your colleagues can do an even better show next time.
One of the inside jokes Larry and Darrell and I came up with is that we do our show for an audience of one: David Hill. If David Hill is happy, we did a good job. (Laughs.)
But there is an awful lot of truth to that.
One thing I especially focus on is working with the pit reporters and integrating them into the telecast. That's actually one of the more difficult parts of the job. They're trying to tell a complete story in ten or fifteen seconds, and at times that story needs a reaction from the booth.
But sometimes when we go to a pit reporter, one or more of us in the booth will take that opportunity to ask the stat people something, to look something up, to talk to production about where we're going next... so we might not be as involved in the story as we would like.
If we're not, that doesn't mean it's a bad story -- that might just mean there are other imperatives tugging at our limited time. But that has nothing to do with the value of the pit reporter's information.
The same is true for the pit reporters: Because they're preparing for their next hit, they don't listen to every word you say.
You have a solid business background: You ran MRN, you co-own a racing fuel company... does that experience help you in the booth?
You're right in one way: I've had way too much experience looking at contracts. (Laughs.)
When I stared working for MRN, Jack Arute and I used to do what we called
"deficit announcing." We would work the PA system at his dad's track during the week, then work for MRN on the weekends. MRN would pay us a fee and give us a plane ticket and a hotel room. We were on our own for rental cars, meals, etc. Which meant we usually went home with less money than we had when we left. (Laughs.)
But we did it because we hoped to build a future for ourselves in the sport. And as luck would have it, we did.
When I left MRN, it was for an opportunity with one of our clients. Pontiac's ad agency needed someone to run their motor sports and special events programs. Then the racing fuel opportunity came about when the owner wanted to sell and I had just lost my cable TV job. I wanted to take advantage of what I had done for the last 10 years and the contacts I had made... and my partner John Holland and I realized we had complementary skill sets. He knew nothing about marketing and advertising, and I knew nothing about operations and trucks and distributing.
Twenty years later, we're still friends and partners.
Which is a long way of saying yes, it does help. Over the years the vast majority of the people I've met in racing people started out at some small track worried about making it back to the track next week.
They're entrepreneurs. They're small business owners. They work for someone else to make enough money to go racing. They aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. In fact they love to get their hands dirty.
Because they love what they do.
You've also made a career doing something you love. Do you have general advice for people who hope to do the same?
Learn a little about a lot of things, because you never know where the opportunities will be.
For example, I was at Phoenix for FOX and the Speed Channel asked if I would be interested in being an on-the-block analyst for their auto auction show.
It turns out Craig Jackson had a Mercedes SL Gull Wing on display. He says, "Tell me about this car." So I gave him the chapter and verse on the competition and street history.. and he said, "How do you know all that?"
My dad had the smaller version, the 190 SL, and I had studied up on it. Craig says, "He'll do," and that led to not only a great friendship but being up on the block at Barrett-Jackson for as many as six days in a row.
The fun thing about it is when people come up and say, "Who's in your ear giving you all the facts about those cars?"
I just laugh. My knowledge base is only two inches deep... but it's a mile wide.
So: Learn a little about a lot of things. Because you never know.
And it may turn out that, like me, the coolest thing about what you get to do is that a number of people who were once your heroes... will one day became your friends.