This is the latest in a weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about the journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on JeffGluck.com. Up next: Mike Joy, the longtime NASCAR broadcaster for FOX Sports.
Could you tell me how you got started and how this whole thing came to be?
I was in college and it was right after the dawn of college FM radio. We had a very progressive station, and it was all progressive rock, drug-infused music at night. But the station had a mandate to do live sports of all the university’s teams. So I had done football and basketball play-by-play. The sports I didn’t play in college, I broadcast them and learned my trade from other students who had experience doing it.
And it was fun. I got to doing news for the station and that was no fun. We had a UPI teletype machine at the station — donated, of course — but you were forbidden to rip and read: Rip a piece of copy off the teletype and read what those professionals had written. All stories had to be rewritten.
Why is that?
Because reading off the printed page, you weren’t learning anything. I didn’t want to bother with that — not because I was lazy, it just didn’t challenge me. Maybe I just didn’t enjoy writing all that much.
But I found that I could look at one of those news stories and rewrite it in my head and rebroadcast it as I went. People started telling me that’s a very useful skill, along with broadcasting live sports.
My goal, I wanted to be the next Dan Gurney or the next Mark Donohue. I wanted to race. But I didn’t have any money to find out if I had any talent, and there weren’t the junior racing series and cars like Bandoleros and Legends. There were Quarter Midgets, but they were few and far between. There just wasn’t that opportunity. Even Darrell (Waltrip), Darrell got in his first race car at age 17.
So in college, we were running road rallies and autocrosses — which is pylon racing in a parking lot — but we didn’t have an opportunity to really race. So we would run these autocrosses, and one place we ran was a quarter-mile track in Massachusetts — Riverside Park Speedway. They would run stock cars on Tuesday and Saturday nights, and we would have the track Sunday for our autocrosses.
Well, the track announcer, the PA announcer, was also an author and a Shakespearean actor, John Wallace Spencer. I learned a lot from him, especially about timing. John wrote all his books about things that could not be disproven: UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, things likes that. And he was having to book tours, so they needed another announcer.
Well I was autocrossing one day and they said, “When you’re not running your car, would you go up to the PA booth and just fill in the people that might wander by?” Because the speedway was attached to an amusement park and they’re seeing what’s going on.
Like on the same night you’re running?
Yeah, on the same day. So in between runs with our car, I’d go do that. Well here comes Ed Carroll, a fiery Irishman who owned the racetrack: “Why are several hundred people sitting in a stadium watching one car go around cones instead of being out in the park spending money?” Well, they were being entertained. We were having fun. And I got offered a job Saturday nights as the assistant announcer for his stock car track.
Now, I was in college full time. Part time, I was busting tires in a Firestone store, which because it was a union shop, I was making $3.05 an hour while my friends were pumping gas or flipping burgers for $1.75, which was minimum wage. So I thought I was doing great. So when they told me they would offer me $25 a night to announce the stock car races? Boom! That was awesome.
But I turned them down. I said, “They’re no way. I’m a fan of Formula One and Trans Am and Can-Am, and all you’ve got is a bunch of jalopies going around the track in circles. They’re just turning left!” And the PR guy said, “Why don’t you come to the track one night, why don’t you come Saturday night and see?” So Saturday night, I’m watching the A consi, and it’s the last chance to get into the main event, and these two cars come off Turn 4 side-by-side, banging wheels, bouncing off the wall, one guy wins by inches and the 6,000 people there go crazy. And I went, “Hell, I’ve gotta be a part of this.”
So I’m the announcer at this quarter-mile racetrack, and for the really big events, they would bring in the New England legend — then, as now — Ken Squier, to work the PA. And that’s where I really learned a lot from Kenley about how to make heroes out of these everyday people.
I was really naive. I thought Saturday night racers, that was their job — that they were professional racers, that’s what they did. I didn’t realize that one ran a repair garage, one drove an oil truck, one was a long-distance trucker during the week and they just carved out time on Saturdays to race. So I had a lot to learn. But that was the start of it, and it was the notice from Ken that helped open a lot of doors.
So you’re observing Ken and working alongside with him. At what point did he come to you and say, “You’re good at this, you need more of an opportunity?”
It didn’t take long. Within two years, I was doing public address five nights a week throughout New England, New York State, Long Island.
Is this after you were done with college, or was there overlap?
There was a lot of overlap and some cold winters and eating a lot of mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches in the winters. But that’s OK, I really thought this could work into something.
In 1975, five years after this started, I went to work in Stafford with Jack Arute at his dad’s track, and we had a ball. We’d have Ken come down for some big shows and I think we honed as many announcers out of Stafford as we did top level drivers to go to Cup. That’s where it really took off.
Jack came down to Daytona at the end of ’76, and I followed him at the end of ’78. We worked for MRN full-time in the office during the week, selling ads, signing up stations, and then broadcasting on the weekends. And it was a tremendous education.
When Jack left, I ended up running MRN for three years. CBS was by now broadcasting, and I left MRN full-time, kept doing the races on the weekends, but left the full-time job because of an opportunity. And then as soon as I left, CBS called. They couldn’t interrupt what I was doing at MRN, but once I was no longer there full-time, they said, “We want you to come work for us in the pits.” And again that was Ken Squier.
In the meantime, I learned so much from Ken and Barney Hall and Ned Jarrett, and that kind of helped me craft what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be in this business.
I would imagine, though, that the transition from radio to TV — it seems to me like it can’t be easy at all. Was it natural for you?
In the pits, it’s very easy because you’re reporting. The difference is, instead of telling people what you’re seeing and having to flesh out the word picture, it’s show and tell. It’s when you move to the booth that TV becomes very different from radio.
Radio, you have to create the entire word picture of the event of the separation between cars, what the cars look like, not just the attitude, but the colors, the paint schemes, the sponsor logo, everything.
In TV, the best TV announcers let the picture do most of the talking and try to tell the viewer what they can’t see — how things are developing, whether intervals are growing or shrinking, and things that they can’t readily see. The more technology we put on the screen, especially with the new scoring pylon, there’s less of that information that we have to give and we can delve much more into the why instead of the what you are seeing.
If somebody wanted to get into it now, should they go straight TV or should they still start in radio and build their way up that way?
I think radio challenges your creativity much more than television from sitting in the booth. Television challenges your restraint much more than radio. On radio, I knew that when I was talking, there were nine other voices that couldn’t wait to get in and all they had to do was flip the switch.
The rule in radio that Ken started is two-fold: You lose your breath, you lose your turn. And if somebody interrupts you, you stop mid-sentence — because they respect what you’re saying, but there’s something of immediacy. If you interrupt, it better be the second coming or something. It better be important enough to interrupt the train of thought of what’s being said.
I always tell people new to TV: “One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes, and I have a lot of them: ‘I never learned anything when I was talking.'” And so instead of talking wall to wall through the event, we need to be respectful and restrained. Let the cars go through the frame and listen to them. Let a battle develop. And even sometimes, let a crash unfold. Let the people see it. And then tell them what and why.
You don’t have to say, “There goes so-and-so up on his side, here’s so-and-so in the wall, here’s so-and-so on the roof.” But we do, because we’re reacting to what we see. So it’s very hard to exhibit that restraint and to let the picture and only the picture tell the story. Now, when you have three Type-A personalities in the booth, all of us having been vaccinated with phonograph needles, it’s very, very hard to have that restraint.
You were announcing on CBS, and then you ended up on FOX once the contracts switched over. But was it that simple? Was there any question you would go there?
Oh, there was. I joined CBS in ’83, and CBS at that time only did three races a year: Daytona, Michigan and Talladega. So I would do the rest of the season for MRN and that persisted for several years. And then I was just doing CBS and picked up TNN when they got into racing and did all the TNN races for five or six years.
But in 1998, I began a three-year run of doing Formula One for FOX with Derek Bell. And while Bob Varsha did the same job on Speed, it then wasn’t really part of FOX, it was kind of different. So that’s where my relationship with FOX started.
Many of the FOX management were former CBS people, because FOX Sports was started when they got the NFL contract from CBS, so they absorbed a lot of those people. So as 2000 rolled around, CBS pretty much assumed that I would move with the NASCAR property to FOX.
It wasn’t that easy. NASCAR had a play-by-play person who was, for lack of a better word, a company man that they really wanted there. There were only two jobs, NBC and FOX. NBC signed Allen Bestwick right away. That left the FOX job, and there were a number of us in there vying for it, and I got it.
But it was kind of touch and go there for a while. And I think what put it over the top was, they had hired Darrell, they were talking to Larry McReynolds, and I made sure through Ed Goren, that David Hill and the FOX execs had a tape of a late-season Saturday race that Larry, Darrell and I had done together at Phoenix. And they looked at that and they go, “That’s it, that’s the chemistry we want. There we go.”
Is it possible today to still follow the career path that you had? For instance, you were a pit reporter on TV. Well now FOX hired Regan Smith because he has expertise and these drivers are so good at talking. Can someone still follow the path that you did to become the next Mike Joy?
I think so. I think the entry level is much easier than it has ever been. Any one of your listeners and readers can buy a piece of equipment, go to their local short track, establish a blog and be credentialed as media and get something up there on the web. Anybody can do that. There are zero barriers to entry, other than the willingness to do it and the cost of the equipment. And then, the more you do, the more you get noticed.
If you’re doing this at a local track and the local track people are smart, they’ll hire you to do it, they’ll hire you to work the public address. There are positions. That’s how I started. Those jobs are still out there, still available.
There are two and a half radio networks covering NASCAR on a regular basis: MRN, PRN and then the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Network, which does their one race. So there are opportunities, and there are people coming through radio that could transition to TV, and again a lot of that depends on the focus of the network.
(FOX Sports president) Eric Shanks, who’s our boss, he really likes the idea of having boots on the ground that have been on the field — and that’s not just in NASCAR, that’s in all sports. He wants ex-players and ex-coaches and crew chiefs, pit crewmen, to do the reporting on the ground partly because they instantly know what they’re looking at and why. But also because they can add their own layer of experience into what they’re describing. I support that.
So no, I wouldn’t get a job as a FOX pit reporter now. And there are talented people that wanted that job that Regan Smith has, but he’s well spoken, he puts his thoughts together in a good, concise way, he’s gonna do a great job for us. I don’t think we’ll ever have all ex-athletes in the pits, but we’ll have a balance of them and I think that’s good. Just like I’m not sure we’ll ever have all ex-drivers in the booth. I see two that might be able to, after a couple of years as booth analysts, transition to a play-by-play role. I won’t tell you who; I’ll go talk to their agents first. You know who they are.
What else is left for you to accomplish in your career? What else do you want to do that’s on your bucket list?
The next one, the next race. I’ve called Major League Baseball for FOX. That was fun. Would love to do some more, but I respect that FOX has people whose expertise is 100 percent baseball, and so it’s not for me to meddle in that.
Sports television has evolved so much. When I started, ABC and NBC used the same three or four play-by-play announcers each for everything they put on the air. Jim McKay did everything, from the Olympics to Indy to Daytona — everything, because he was that familiar voice that was important to the network to project to the viewers. And if he was there, it was a big event.
CBS’s approach was different, they knew auto racing was a very different sport. They did not put it in the hands of Chris Schenkel — they did for a while, they tried that, and Brent Musburger, they tried that. But they knew the sport required the expertise of particular people who were immersed in it, and that’s how I got that opportunity. Same with Chris Economaki, with Dave Despain, with David Hobbs, Ned Jarrett — we were all immersed in racing, and because CBS believed that that was what was needed.
It was a combination of timing, opportunity, recommendation, maybe a little talent, a lot of ambition. But to get to this level would be much more difficult than it was. There’s only two networks doing NASCAR, so there’s only two top play-by-play positions. There’s a lot of undercard, and we now have a separate play-by-play for each national series of NASCAR, and another group doing the touring series now for NBCSN. So there’s opportunities there. Vince Welch’s son (Dillon) did the pits for the ARCA race the other day, which is great, because he really wants to be in this business, had the background, they gave him an opportunity. Wonderful.
So at the entry level, at the mid-level, there are a lot of opportunities. I know there’s a bunch of people hoping I retire real soon, and my intent is to greatly disappoint them. Greatly.