It’s not so much about ESPN. Though it’s scary to see another major news outlet step back from racing, that alone won’t have much impact on NASCAR’s current fans.
What would have an impact, though, is losing Bob. His future at the moment is unclear, and it’s possible he could remain on the NASCAR beat should another employer come along to scoop him up.
Let’s hope that happens, because if this season was the final one with Bob at the racetrack, we’re all going to be worse for it.
I’ve been dreading the prospect of a Bob-less media center for years, but I always thought it would be because he keeled over after working himself to death — not because an employer willingly let him go.
Bob’s work ethic goes beyond the hours spent at the track, which are well-documented. A relentless journalism machine, Bob’s mind rarely takes a break from the job.
Here’s one small example: Back when we were co-workers at NASCAR Scene, Bob would spend his one day off per week by going to the county courthouse to search the names of every driver and team to make sure a story hadn’t fallen through the cracks. Even now, if you look over at his computer screen during downtime at the track, he’s often doing a search of court records.
Bob seems to know everyone in the garage, from the top Cup drivers to backmarker Xfinity owners. He’s always checking in and asking for information (“Anything new with you guys?”), which means even the most minor stories rarely catch him by surprise. As such, people seek him out in the NASCAR garage and start conversations with, “What do you know, Bob?”
Even in the media center — aside from often asking the tough questions that need to be asked — Bob is seen as a source of information. If someone can’t remember a NASCAR rule or procedure, they ask Bob. There have even been times when crew chiefs ask him for clarification (“Does this mean we have to start at the back, Bob?”). And he always knows.
Those are just a couple reasons why NASCAR stands to lose so much without Bob on the beat. It’s not a knock against other reporters, but no one obsesses over the nitty gritty details of the sport quite like he does. And when you think about it, those smaller details (pit stall selection, for example) add up to feed the passion of NASCAR’s most hardcore fans.
Bob’s dedication to his work has seemed borderline unhealthy at times to friends, who have tried at times to stage interventions. Take a break, Bob! Relax! But attempting to get him to do less is like trying to snatch a juicy steak from the jaws of a pit bull. His extreme sense of duty to inform readers — you’ve seen this through his Twitter interactions — cannot be matched.
One of the most recent arguments, a negotiation that began months ago, is what Bob would be willing to do for his 50th birthday next year. It’s on March 1, and NASCAR will be in Las Vegas — a perfect place to celebrate with a dinner. The only problem is it’s the same night as a Truck Series race, and Bob has indicated he’d rather not leave the track.
Because of his dedication, Bob has become the backbone of the NASCAR media over the years. He’d never say that himself, and he’s probably going to be pissed at this column putting him in the spotlight. There’s no ego or self-promotion when it comes to Bob. But whether he acknowledges it or not, Bob has been the best on the NASCAR beat.
Fortunately for Bob, his skills can apply to any form of journalism. There’s no substitute for hustle, and I’m certain he won’t have trouble finding another job (even ESPN would be wise to retain him in a different capacity). I know he’s going to be just fine.
Selfishly, though, I hope Bob stays in NASCAR. We will all be less informed and less knowledgeable if 2018 turns out to be his final lap.
Each week, I ask someone in the racing industry about their career path and journey to where they are now. This interview is recorded as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read instead of listen. Up next: Bob Pockrass, motorsports writer for ESPN.com.
Bob, how did this start for you? Did you grow up as a motorsports fan?
I grew up in Indianapolis, or moved there when I was 10, so I was a little bit of a stick and ball fan until I was 10. But when you live in Indianapolis, you become a race fan. The Indy 500 is part of the culture of the city more than any other place I’ve ever been. I think I moved there in 1979, and I’m pretty sure I went to the Indy 500 in 1980 or ’81. My dad was like, “Well, we gotta get tickets.” I don’t think he was happy with the amount of people and parking and traffic, and I didn’t go again until I was in high school.
My older brother lived about a mile from the racetrack. And so every Indy 500, I’d go and sleep over at my brother’s house and we’d walk to the (track) and the pay the general admission which was like $20 bucks or $25 bucks and stand in Turn 1 and get sunburned and watch the Indy 500.
Do you remember any of those races?
No. I think what I just remember most is how fast the cars are. To this day, NASCAR goes to Indy, which — look, I can watch them race any type of car at Indy and I’d probably love it. But 220 (mph) in the corner is still a lot different than 160.
So once you’re in Indiana, you end up eventually going to Indiana University. When you’re at IU, were you going to college with the intent of, “I want to be a sportswriter?”
I went to Indiana thinking I wanted to own my own business, and I was a business major when I got there. I started taking classes and in one of your first accounting classes, they said, “You gotta pay the peons something,” pretty much is the way the professor put it. I realized that they were more training you to work in corporate America rather than maybe owning your own business.
What kind of business did you imagine yourself owning?
I really had no idea. But I just thought I’d really like to run a business.
I’d worked for the school newspaper, and my older brother was working for the Indianapolis News, afternoon paper. There used to be papers that were published in the afternoon. So I always had a little bit of a journalism bug and my second semester of my freshman year, I started working at the school newspaper just doing news stories.
What really caught me was I did a story on a crop walk, which was one of those walks for hunger, and I did a story that it was going to happen and then I went to the walk. Two people came to the registration table with a copy of the article to register to walk and donate money. The power of the press, right? And I thought that was the coolest thing.
Obviously, IU Bloomington was a huge sports place, Bobby Knight and everything, and I just thought, “I’d like to cover sports.” So that’s when I started covering sports, like my sophomore year in college and I changed my major and that was that.
So when you’re at the school paper there and Bobby Knight was the basketball coach at IU, did you have any run-ins with him or anything like that? Was he as difficult as everybody said?
Well, I did end a press conference once. Probably my junior year or senior year, I was working for UPI (wire service). I would go there and send like five or six graphs and send quotes. They were doing a national story on how bad free throw shooting was.
Indiana was really struggling at the free throw line, and after one of the games, and I think Knight had just gotten the stat sheet handed to him because he looked at something and he just had this look on his face. It was my turn to ask a question, and this is the year they had four or five freshmen, and I said, “Coach, usually the downtime in practice is when you shoot free throws” — because the few practices we got to go to, they would run through plays and the rest of the time, they’d shoot free throws. So I said, “Did you just have less time to practice free throws because you have so many freshmen that you’ve had to do so much teaching in practice?”
The answer was something like, “Maybe we haven’t practiced an f’in free throw since f’in October 15. F this!” and walked out. And then all the other writers then pat you on the back because it was like, “Hey, it happens to everybody,” kind of thing. By that time I covered a lot of games for the school paper and stuff, so it wasn’t a surprise that Bob Knight got angry. But Indiana basketball at the time, there’s just so much going on, it’s such a great experience.
I’m impressed you were already doing wire service stuff in college, that had to be a good start for you.
On that note, (NBC NASCAR writer) Dustin Long and I were both there (at Indiana) at the same time, and we had a friend of ours who was working for UPI and we also ran quotes during Indy 500 weekends. So that’s how you start getting experience; that was my experience was running quotes and getting quotes for UPI on qualifying weekends and big practice days and race day.
So you would literally go get a quote and come back up and send it?
You’d just give it to the guy. (The writers) were there.
So the writer is sitting there and you’re just feeding him like, “Here’s what they said?”
Yeah, pretty much.
What was your first step out of college then?
My first job after college was at the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
So you got hired there right out of school?
My senior year, and I did not have a newspaper internship. I was close, but I didn’t get it. I did an internship at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis in their PR department doing writing and stuff for them and everything.
I spent one summer in summer school, and then after my senior year, the entire month of May, I worked for the Marion, Indiana paper and Gannett News Service. It was kind of my first mini job out of college. But it was just for the month of May. They contracted me to do all their Indy 500 stuff, their Indy 500 special section. A friend who had been at the school paper who was the sports editor of that paper said, “Can you work for us in the month of May?” And my stuff went over the Gannett wires and everything. So it was pretty cool.
And then I was without a job. I probably sent out about 250 to 300 resumes and packets to every newspaper.
Wait — 250 to 300!?
That’s what I would estimate. And every rejection letter, I put on my bedroom door or on my wall. Every rejection letter I got. And back then people were nice, they actually sent rejection letters.
So you’re using it as motivation?
Yeah, trying to say, “Hey, keep plugging away.” And out of the blue, I got a phone call from the Daytona Beach News-Journal. They had an opening for a sports writer in their DeLand office. And one of the former writers from Indiana had worked there a few years earlier, and he told me it was a good place, so I went down and interviewed and got the job and put stuff in my car and drove to Daytona Beach.
My NASCAR knowledge was about pretty much limited to Days of Thunder, and I started working for the Daytona Beach newspaper covering pretty much two high schools for their regional edition and regional sections.
So you’re in DeLand, which is about 20 miles away?
Yeah, about 20, 25 miles west of Daytona.
And you’re covering high schools and small colleges?
Yeah. When it first started, it was pretty much two high schools and then any other general assignment. And as people got laid off, frankly, I ended up taking on more responsibilities — a lot of Stetson University there, some other college coverage. Eventually I got to do Florida State football on the weekends — home games and select road games. So it kind of grew. And obviously, I did a lot of local racing and then when (NASCAR) stuff was at Daytona, I would do stuff there.
What were some of the crazier high school sports you covered back when you were at the Daytona paper?
Well at Daytona, I covered everything, all sports. It’s a big weightlifting area, so high school weightlifting was a big deal there.
So you’re going down and you’re like, “I’m going to the girl’s high school weightlifting meet?”
I spent 12 years there, and during that time, they actually started girl’s high school weightlifting. I covered some high school rodeo. I covered big Little League games. I covered a lot of American Legion baseball. There was one time, covered an American Legion baseball game in the morning and World Cup soccer in Orlando at night. I don’t know if anyone else can say that. So that was one of the coolest things, obviously — World Cup in Orlando in ’94.
But as part of the general assignment stuff you’re doing, aside from your main high school duties, you were getting some NASCAR exposure?
Oh yeah. I was doing a lot of short tracks. Volusia County Speedway had an asphalt track at the time. Covered a Busch Series race and the track started coming apart during the race because it was July. They were doing it at the same time as the July 4th race at Daytona at that time, and the cars were so heavy at the time and the heat tore up the track. It was crazy. I want to say Steve Grissom won that race.
But yeah, I did that and then did a ton of stuff at Daytona really helping out the writers there. Eventually, as the sport grew and the coverage for the paper grew, they needed somebody who knew the sport to kind of handle assignment and everything. But the main writer there, Godwin Kelly, we needed him to concentrate on writing and not worry about who was doing what. So for a lot of that time, I would become the point person during the week and be giving out assignments to other writers. When crazy news happened, I was the connection to the news desk and everything to kind of help organize things.
So at some point during that, are you thinking to yourself, “You know what, I really want to be a NASCAR writer full time?” Or did you have a certain sport in mind? Surely you didn’t go there planning to stay there 12 years, I’m assuming.
No, I don’t think anybody expects to stay there 12 years. The thing at Daytona is that, there are a lot of people that didn’t leave their jobs. I was in the DeLand office for 12 years, and some people love it, but when you’re a young kid, you’re looking around. I was always thinking I’d cover some sort of college or pro sports and maybe some racing.
I applied for a ton of jobs, did a ton of interviews, didn’t get jobs. There was one day I want to say in ’95 or ’96 where I got three phone calls from sports editors on my answering machine at home about jobs, and none of them came through.
How many places do you think rejected you over the course of 12 years?
A lot, like seriously?
Yeah. You would get to a point where every year, year and half, you would just send blindly to papers and everything.
And you had interviews as a result?
I probably had seven or eight interviews, and at least one place I think I had two interviews.
So were you getting discouraged at that point? Like, “Oh my gosh, I’m never gonna get out of Daytona?”
Yeah, I think you get discouraged, but you know, when I was at Indiana, we would always joke, “You’re never gonna cover a beat like this for another 10 years.” You just kind of assume that it’s gonna take time to grow and you’re gonna have to cover a lot of different things, which you’re thankful for because it gives you a good perspective.
But I think what kept me going is, I loved journalism. I loved telling stories, I loved writing about the people. And so the goal wasn’t to write about a specific sport per se, the goal was to have a bigger impact on more people — and hopefully either stay in Daytona and have a beat that was more prominent, or go somewhere else and be on one of their more prominent beats. Because the coolest thing was to sit in a restaurant and hear somebody else talk about a story you wrote. To me, that’s what excites me. I think that’s the coolest thing.
How did you eventually find your next step then?
So NASCAR Scene magazine, which was a weekly magazine, had an opening for their Busch Series writer. Godwin Kelly, the main writer in Daytona, had done some stringing for them, and I knew all the people from what was then Winston Cup Scene magazine because they sat across from me in the media center in Daytona and they all knew me. They didn’t know me well, but they knew who I was and they knew how I approached my job. At first I was like, “I don’t know if I want to go to a magazine. Write just once a week?” Like for me, that was (not enough). But Godwin said, “You really should apply,” and I applied and they were interested and they hired me.
So after 12 years in Daytona, I moved to Charlotte to go work the Busch Series beat for them. If I was covering the (Busch) race and if there was a Cup race that weekend, I’d often stay for the Cup race and helped with Cup coverage.
So once you got that opportunity at NASCAR Scene, did you feel like you elevated your journalism game or did anything differently once you had this opportunity? Or have you been this way all along where you covered high schools and stuff the same way?
I think I covered it mostly the same way. The intensity in some areas might be a little bit different, but I always tried to learn as much as I could. I used to, on a Saturday morning, if I wasn’t covering college football in Florida, I would drive like an hour-and-a-half loop and go buy all the newspapers. I drove up close to Jacksonville because our teams played near Jacksonville, then drove out towards Ocala and then to Orlando and pick up newspapers so that I could read the stories about the teams they were covering. There was no Internet back then, or free Internet, to learn about that stuff, so I always had that kind of intense outlook.
I think Winston Cup Scene/NASCAR Scene magazine was a pretty intense magazine, too. They really blanketed the sport, but I think I’ve always gone about the job the same way. Working in Daytona, when you’re the one beat writer at Stetson University and stuff happens, you write about it, and so you learned that there’s nobody else to ask questions, right? So you had to ask the tough questions, you had to ask the easy questions. You did everything, and I think it allowed me to maybe work more independently, if that makes sense.
So you’re at Scene, and you start being quite prominent on the beat. Then we lost our magazine job and they kept the website, SceneDaily.com. How long were you at Scene and at SceneDaily.com in total?
I guess eight or nine years, because I got there in September 2003 or October 2003, and then the last year of the magazine was 2009. Is that right?
Yeah, it shut down in January 2010.
And then I think the website lasted two or three more years and then got folded into the Sporting News, and that’s how I got part of the Sporting News.
And then were you just along for the ride at that point, or were you looking at possibly doing something else? Were you happy to be where you were and still be working at what became Sporting News?
I think I was happy. That time in journalism, and still, you just don’t know what’s going to happen day to day, so you’re always kind of keeping your eye out on things and trying to figure out what your next step would be if something happened. Thankfully for me, nothing happened as far as getting laid off. But yeah, you looked at other things — occasionally you apply for something maybe just to see what the interest might be. But I enjoy covering this, so it wasn’t something I was like, “Oh gosh, I gotta get out because there’s gonna be no room for me.” I’m gonna play the musical chairs and as long as I have a place to sit, I’m gonna do it.
So there came a time where Nate Ryan left USA Today and there was an opening. I was there at the time, and I really wanted you to come work with me at USA Today, and ESPN had an opportunity around the same time and you ended up going to ESPN. I guess it worked out for you.
Yeah, it did. Again, maybe right place, right time, but the editor then of ESPN.com, the motorsports editor (K. Lee Davis), he came to about seven or eight races a year. And so he had watched me work and read my work, so I didn’t have to convince him really to hire me, I don’t think. He knew everybody in here, and he knew all the people that wanted that job. So I think it shows that you gotta go about your job the way you think you should go about it and just remember that people are always watching.
If you’re a journalist, you should be going about your job knowing that people are reading, and you have a responsibility to your readers. But if you do have that thought in your mind about “How do I move up?” I think it’s more just people watch and people read and they know how you go about things.
It’s not such a mystery to me as far as why would ESPN hire you because everybody already knows what a hard worker you are. I guess it’s more of a mystery to me as to why you are such a hard worker. You said earlier you were like this even when you’re covering high schools. So Bob, what drives you to be as dedicated as you are and be as hard working as you are?
Well, a couple things. First off, people’s discretionary time and their discretionary income is pretty limited, and so if you can have an impact on what people decide to do with their free time and what they decide to do with the money they’ve allocated to not spend on food and clothes and kids, that’s huge. If somebody reads something I write and decides that they’re going to go to a race, well, you know, that’s a pretty big responsibility. Or if they read it and they decide they’re going to go watch the NBA, that can be the role, too. It’s not the goal necessarily, but the goal is to let people know about what’s going on in their sport they’re a fan of or that they’re interested in and then make a decision on whether they want to watch or buy this person’s T-shirt or go to a race. That, to me, is the driving force.
And the other thing is, I like to try to break down myths and I like to be able to explain things that you can’t see on TV and help people understand it. So that takes work, right? That’s why I like the legal stuff, because you’re less likely to lie in the legal stuff; the contracts are there for you to understand. So that’s why I like it; I like it because I want people to be able to know as much as they can about what they’re seeing on Sundays and during the week.
If somebody’s out there and they want to be the next Bob Pockrass, what’s the path? What would you tell them?
That’s a great question because I’ve always said go find work for a place that has racing or that has a big track. Even if you’re not covering racing, if there’s a short track there you can cover and then maybe they’ll let you go cover the race that’s an hour away or two hours away. I think you need to learn that you need to kind of have that well-rounded experience and just like I did and just like you did, right? You worked in Rocky Mount and then you went to San Bernardino, right? And how did NASCAR Scene know you? You did some freelance work, but we’d seen you work, and that’s the way we got jobs.
Now, I would also suggest any place where you can get strong editing and have people who really can help teach you along the way is a big deal, but you know, right now it’s hard. You had Jay Pennell on earlier, and that was a guy who moved to the area, he worked for one website and then another website, and people saw it, and he ended up at FOX Sports. And so that would be a path where 10 years ago, I’d be like, “No way can somebody get to FOX Sports through there. They’re gonna hire somebody from a newspaper who’s been covering the beat.”
But the industry has evolved, so I think there’s many ways to do it. I’d still maybe lean toward being as well-rounded as you can. The experiences I’ve had covering high schools and the relationships and the controversies and all that stuff is incredibly valuable.