THE MODERATOR: Thanks to everyone for joining us on today’s call. We’re thrilled to be kicking off our half of the 2018 NASCAR season. The official home of the NASCAR playoffs, NBC Sports group will present the final 20 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races and final 19 NASCAR Xfinity Series races in 2018. NBC Sports launches its 2018 NASCAR season this weekend with more than 18 hours of trackside coverage from Chicagoland Speedway, culminating with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400 July 1st at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Joining us on today’s call to preview the season are NBC Sports Group’s newest on-air contributor and NASCAR’s most popular driver for an unprecedented 15 consecutive years, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; 21-time Cup Series winner Jeff Burton; Daytona 500-winning crew chief Steve Letarte; and of course NBC Sports Group executive producer Sam Flood.
In just a moment I’ll hand the call off to Sam, Dale, Jeff and Steve for opening remarks, and we’ll then open the call to questions. Before I do that, I did want to mention one final item. A transcript of today’s call will be available starring at 3:00 eastern on NBCSportsGroupPressbox.com.
Without further ado, Sam, I’ll hand the call off to you.
SAM FLOOD: Thanks for joining us today. We are very excited to get going. The team has been getting ready for this since midway through last season when Dale decided to join the NBC family and we started thinking about how we were going to grow the sport, grow our telecast and make sure that for the 20 races on the back end of the season, there was one place to be on race day, and watch with this NBC team and the NBC family.
So we’ve had some fun rehearsals. We’ve had a ton of great conversations about what we want to do, and now we get to work. So that’s exciting. We think there’s been a great start to the season, a lot of good things happening on and off the racetrack, and we’re looking forward to celebrating all the wonderful things that are happening in NASCAR. It’s a good way to start the call by handing it off to Mr. Popularity himself, 15-time winner of the popularity contest and all-time winner on our team, Dale Jr. Go ahead, Dale.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Thanks a lot. I’m excited to finally be at the racetrack with my teammates and getting ready to go to work, so I’m just watching these guys and following them around to see how they prepare and what all goes into the days leading up to the race itself.
It’s been extremely educational, and like Sam said, we’ve been talking about it for a long time. We’ve been practicing, and here it is, it’s time to get to work, and we’re going to have a great first weekend to kick off the next several trips to the racetrack, and it’s going to be an awesome run all the way to Homestead.
JEFF BURTON: I’m really excited to be back at the racetrack. We’ve been watching three drivers just be unbelievable this year. To come to the racetrack and watch them and see who can knock those guys off or join them is going to be really fun.
I love racing. I joke that I get paid to talk about what I’d be watching anyway, and it’s awesome to be back at the racetrack. It’s really going to be fun to see who are the fourth, fifth, sixth guys that can go up and tangle with the three that have been winning all the races, and see who can step up. That’s what the next 10 weeks are really going to be about, and I’m excited to get it started.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, I’m going to echo what everyone said. I’m just excited to be back at the racetrack. As a race fan, I’ve watched the first half of the year, taking part in my NASCAR America, kind of breaking down what we’ve seen on the track, but there’s really nothing like covering it live. It’s something I’ve learned over the last three years to love, standing up in the booth and watching it as it unfolds. Explaining the what and more importantly maybe the why something is happening on the racetrack. It’s really been enjoyable.
I’m excited that Dale is joining the team. It’s going to be fun to work with my old buddy again. It’s been a few years. And that’s really it. There’s been a lot of preparation. The preparation really never stops. We’ve been working hard in the booth, but the other groups have been working hard on graphics and everything else it takes to put on a broadcast, and after a lot of conference calls and meetings and practices, it’s time to go live, and that’s usually just the most exciting part of the season.
Q. First question would be for Dale; Dale, obviously you’ve mentioned that they’ve had you do some mock broadcasts in the weeks leading up to this. What have those been like for you, and how intense and challenging have they been?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, we spent a couple races in the radio booths at the Hall of Fame. We did Texas, Talladega and one other track — Charlotte. We did two in the booth at the Hall of Fame, and then we did Charlotte at the racetrack in a suite. And it was good. You know, I was really nervous about going in cold turkey without really a whole lot of experience, and so it gave me a lot of peace of mind, and it allowed me to build a little bit of a rapport with Jeff and Rick because we’re going to need that chemistry. It helped me kind of understand what their jobs are and where I fit in there and what I’m going to be asked to do and what my objectives are. It was really helpful for me.
I’m not sure what the other guys got out of it, but I was — and it also, I guess — I still got the job. So NBC is pretty happy with what they heard in our practice runs, and I got a lot of great feedback and was able to adjust on the fly. It was cool.
Q. Sam, just a quick question for you. Can you elaborate a little bit on the Peacock Pit Box? That looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun this year. And any other cool production elements that you guys are adding or excited about this year?
SAM FLOOD: Well, the Peacock Pit Box is going to put us in the middle of the action. It kind of plays off of what we do with “Inside the Glass” with hockey, “Inside the Race” on a motorcycle on the Tour de France course each day with Steve Porino. The thought was to put them inside the action.
It’ll start the shows because that’s where the entire pre-race will come from. We’ve had the big set down on the grid for the first three years of the contract. We realized that sometimes the fans departed from that area as we got closer to race time and took away some of the sense of place. So the idea was to have a real sense of place throughout the day, starting with the pre-race show.
NASCAR is going to give us a pit stall in the middle of all the action, which will enable us to have all the activities. There will be crews set up next to us. It’ll be like any other pit box on pit road, except ours will be a little fancier and have more television technology on board, and that technology in some races will be there for Steve to hang out, particularly in the Xfinity races, where he’s going to be hanging down on pit road in a pit box, kind of restarting his old career of looking at the race when you only can see half the racetrack on pit road. So we think by bringing Steve, it’ll give him more opportunity to focus that unique mind of his on what the heck all the other cars are doing on the track. So we see that as a huge advantage.
And most importantly, it gives us a place inside that mayhem that is pit road, which has become one of the most exciting places at the racetrack each week. So excited about that.
The additional big change is adding some new technology, and that’s a guy named Dale Jr. in the booth. We think people are more important than any technology we can add, and we got the top pick in the draft. We got the ultimate free agent signing. So to have Dale as a part of this team that was already best in class, it’s exciting for us, and it can only make us better to have Dale joining the team that we’re so proud of what they do each Sunday, each Cup race and each Xfinity race, and just as importantly, these guys focus for the practices and the qualifying and they make it a fun place to hang out.
I always say, you’d better invite our team into your living room or into your den each week to watch the race; who would you rather share a beer with and watch the race than Dale Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton? Pretty cool way to hang out and enjoy the race with your buddies. So that’s the plan, and that’s what we’ve got going on.
Q. Dale, you have been the most popular driver for so many years. You’ve had media chasing you as much as any driver probably in the history of NASCAR. My question to you is what have you learned that you didn’t know as you’ve learned all this about television from the media side of it now that you’re on the other side?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: There’s a lot of things. I don’t know if there’s one thing that sticks out. There’s a lot of things that my perception changed about, things that I thought that was annoying or unnecessary or — as a driver, I find them necessary, and I understand the sort of purpose for a lot of things coming from the media standpoint.
You know, when you’re a driver, you think you have all these ideas about how a sport needs to — what the sport needs to be better or be — we’re always trying to improve the health of the sport. Everybody has got the sport’s best interest at heart, and as a driver you have those opinions of what those things are, and then when you go into the broadcast booth and you’re on the other side, just looking at it through a totally different lens, some of those things change like 180 degrees.
When I was a driver, I didn’t like being mixed up in rivalries, and I tried to fly under the radar and didn’t want to be front-page news all week with a dust-up with another driver or be in any type of disagreement or conflict and didn’t like to be the story all week leading up to the next race or any of the videos coming up for the next race’s promotion about me and some other driver running into each other.
But now that I’m on the media side, I understand what the purpose behind that type of promotion is and why the media exercises to share that with fans and help them understand the story lines in the sport. That’s so critical, and I just didn’t see it that way as a driver.
And that’s just one of many, many things that my perception has changed on, and now I’m just — there’s so much to learn and absorb, and this is going to be an incredible 21 weeks of education for me, and I’ll have a lot more things on that list, I’m sure, by the time we get through Homestead.
Q. Sam, I want to ask you, if you guys — you’re on the cusp of such a great opportunity with Dale Jr. adding to the team and the start of a new season brings that. Do you guys feel like this is a huge opportunity that if you just do your jobs great, the ratings will slowly come back, that we’ll get more ratings if you just are really good at what you do?
SAM FLOOD: Our plan is to be good at what we do. Our plan is to make people want to hang out with us for every race. And we’ve got the people — if I’m home on a Saturday or Sunday, Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon, this is the group I’d want to hang out with. And after spending time with them during the rehearsal it was a great indication that this is a place people are going to want to be. We’ll let the ratings take care of themselves.
Our marketing group does a nice job getting the word out. I think people are aware that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is joining our team. I don’t know if anyone has been told that yet, but apparently there is some information out that he is going to be on NBC. So with that good news, we’re confident that people are going who do tune in are going to be entertained and they’re going to have a lot of fun because Steve and Dale don’t always see the race the same way. We know that Jeff and Steve don’t see the race the same way. So it’s going to add some fun to it, and to have two drivers in the booth the caliber of Jeff Burton and Dale is going to be a perfect combination. We’re eager to get going and are confident that when you tune in, you’re going to have fun listening to these guys bang it around.
Q. I’ve got a question for Dale. In the last year, Dale, beginning with this race in Daytona, how dramatically has your life changed?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: A lot. I’ve had a
little girl, and over a year into an amazing marriage to an incredible girl, incredible person. You know, I got out of driving cars and a little bit more involved in all the businesses that we’re kind of trying to grow, and I’ve been trying to learn everything I can to be ready for the priority in my professional life, and that’s my new job with NBC.
It’s been really smooth so far. You know, no big hold-ups or speed bumps or no real huge surprises. But my teammates in the booth have been real supportive and helpful, and the entire staff at NBC has been incredibly helpful. There’s no stupid questions it doesn’t seem, and they’re full of information.
I’ve had the opportunity to go into the studio back in Charlotte and do some of the Wednesday shows and get a little bit of practice, just sort of being around the team, and had the awesome experience of going over to South Korea. That was an incredible once in a lifetime opportunity to do something like that. That really gave me a ton of confidence that I joined the right team and they were happy to have me. Everybody has been really incredibly nice. We had fun at the Super Bowl, too.
It’s been a lot of fun, really. I don’t even feel — I feel like I retired and haven’t even started working again. It’s pretty surreal.
Q. Was it harder to learn how to drive race cars or to become a broadcaster?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I felt like that I had a lot more understanding of what I was getting myself into with race cars. Growing up around it, and my family being so involved in it on my mom’s and my dad’s side, I was pretty sure at least when I was younger that I thought I knew everything about racing. But I know that there’s — I had no history or background in broadcasting. Really kind of coming from a blank page here and drawing from my teammates, Jeff and Rick and Steve and everybody around me at NBC, just trying to draw all the information I can.
The best part about it is that Sam Flood says just be yourself, and I keep asking him if that’s really what he wants because that sounds a little bit too good to be true and a little bit too easy. But that’s what they expect out of you, and that should be very fun, to get up there and just watch races and react.
All the guys in the booth are such huge fans of what we’re seeing, it’s going to be a lot of fun just doing that, sitting around and talking about what’s happening on the racetrack. I’m excited to learn a lot and get to know my teammates even better.
Q. Sam, what will you tell Dale to try to keep him from being too nervous, and also can you go through, is your plan to have a four-person booth, and how will that work?
SAM FLOOD: We have a multi-option offense. We have different booths for different tracks, and we’re putting people in positions to make it fun for the audience and give the most insight to the race. We have five different styles of booths, and we’ll roll them out and let you know each week what we plan to do.
In terms of keeping Dale relaxed, we gave him — Letarte is nearby, and he’s going to be able to check in with Letarte, make sure he feels good, just like Steve got him calmed down before a race or pumped up before a race. We’re confident that Steve will push the buttons, and we’ll also have Mad Matt Marvin in the truck as a producer, who’s got the ability to connect with each person on the telecast and make sure they are in the right place to succeed.
So having experienced the joy that Dale has brought to our rehearsals and the joy he’s brought to the process, I’m confident that’ll translate come Sunday and obviously Saturday when we have the first taste of this group at the Xfinity race.
Q. Jeff, you’ve had a busy off-season, following Harrison on the racing circuit. I’m sure it’s been a lot of fun. Has the different vantage point of seeing the sport as a father of a driver changed your perspective of it?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think one thing it’s done with having Harrison race is it’s kept me involved 24/7, 364. It’s nonstop. I think there’s one day a year we get off. I think the bottom line is I love racing, and he gives me a reason to go to the racetracks when otherwise I wouldn’t be there.
It’s a unique situation where I drove my own cars, I broadcast, I have a son that races. It’s kind of crazy that my life pretty much revolves around racing in some form or fashion or another. The main thing I think for me is it enables me to still be on the inside of the sport. It’s very hard when you are no longer driving to really get all that information and really be into the details, but with Harrison racing, it allows me to do that.
So it’s helped me with my broadcasts, and more importantly, as a father, it’s cool to have a son that has a passion for the same thing I have.
It’s really a win-win, and it has given me a little bit different perspective. But he’s going through the same thing I went through when I was a young driver, so I’m kind of experiencing some of that stuff again.
Q. Steve, I know that Sam touched a little bit on the Peacock Pit Box earlier, and it seems to be a little bit the natural progression from that on-the-box you did in Kansas last year, but can you talk about the experience of calling a race from that position and what you think that adds to your broadcast?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, like Sam mentioned, I think we’ve seen in other sports, hockey and cycling, that bringing the perspective closer to the action has only increased the opportunity for the viewer to be entertained. I think that from above, watching it from the booth gives you a great idea to see the entire race, gives you a great viewpoint to call the entire race, but so much action happens on pit road. We’ve seen these races decided by pit decisions, by pit stops. We see drivers competing even on pit road at these slower speeds, 55 miles an hour, yet the race can be determined in that section of the racetrack. And I think moving a broadcaster to that location and a pre-race show to that location just kind of gives the viewer a sense of what’s going on.
There’s so much that happens on pit road, it’s great to show it from a camera, but it’s another thing to say it from that location. And I think just the audio around, the energy, the excitement, I know personally when I go down to pit road for a pre-race show or things like that, you can just feel the energy in the racetrack. It’s where I’ve grown up, where for 20 years I was in the infield; for 10 or 12 years I was on top of a pit box, so it’s a second home. It’s very comfortable for me.
It took me a long time from the booth to understand the cars would be coming from the left, so Sam was nice enough last year to give me a couple opportunities where they were back coming from my right, and it’s great because even though you only see the racetrack, normally only the front stretch, between timing and scoring and the other tools these crew chiefs have, I have all of those tools on top of the pit box, and it allows us to see the race from a true crew chief’s perspective, from what they have in front of them, and that helps me understand the decisions they are making.
Just like last week in Sonoma, we saw a pit decision determine the outcome of the race, and I think we can do a better job giving the fans a variety of perspectives, and I think pit road is a very important one.
Q. Sam, what have you seen as the biggest factors for the steady decline in NASCAR ratings?
SAM FLOOD: Well, I look to last year when we did our 20 races on NBC and we essentially had the same number of viewers on NBC for the 20 races last year. So I look at what we can control and what we do in our part of the season, and I look at a very successful 2017 vis-á-vis 2016, and the reality is if the race in Miami had lasted a little bit longer — our first two years in Miami the races have gone exceptionally long due to late cautions and weather, and if we had had a long-running race like we had our first two years in Miami, we might have been up for the season. So I look at that as a very positive thing as we go into the season. I also look at six of the eight highest rated summer programs in the sports world last year were all NASCAR races.
So there are some incredibly good statistics that we can point to that give me incredible confidence going into this season. I think there’s a tendency to look at the glass half empty. I look at it as almost full, and I’m thrilled that we have the opportunity to continue to grow the race game, to have Dale join us, and create more interest in our telecasts, and that’s the opportunity we have going forward. Our job is to lean in and to make it as entertaining a show as possible. But based on our data from last year and what we accomplished at NBC, I’m very excited where we are with NASCAR.
Q. Do you think one broadcaster, whether it’s Dale Jr. or any famous athlete, can really make a difference in the ratings, as well?
SAM FLOOD: Well, I look at ’16 to ’17 when we had the same broadcast team, and we had an equal number of viewers. So obviously something is right about our broadcast team that people want to hang out with them. I can only say, being cautiously optimistic, that people want to hang out with Dale, as well. But I don’t put the ratings on Dale; I put it on all of us to make it happen. I think the experience of being with these — this entire talent team is going to make for an experience hopefully that will engage more viewers.
Q. Dale, I think we all kind of have friends of ours who we try to get into the sport. We all love it so much and we can’t seem to find a way to get them in. What can you guys do to not only just bring the new viewers in, kind of make them feel welcome but at the same time not alienate the longtime NASCAR fans?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: You know, I think we just have to talk about what we see on the racetrack, talk about the action, have energy and genuine passion about what we’re seeing and what’s happening in front of us, and I think that’ll come across to the viewer and make the viewer feel like they’re watching something unique. I’ve always felt like that the broadcaster has an incredible responsibility to make — to engage with the viewer and make the show entertaining and point out what about the show is exciting.
We can’t just rely on the race to do all the work. It’s important for the production and us in the booth and everyone else to just kind of make — bring the fan into the experience and make them feel like they’re getting something unique.
You know, I’m excited for that challenge. I feel very confident about the direction of the sport and the health of the sport and the future of the sport, or I wouldn’t be in this position and want to be part of this team. I’m excited about where we’re going and where we’re headed, and I think we’re going up, and I want to be on that ride.
SAM FLOOD: I’ll tell you this: When we were rehearsing the Texas race, which was the first race that the group rehearsed, late in the race there was a restart, and Harvick and Busch were side by side on the restart in the front row, and the excitement that Dale had for that restart and what he said about how eager he was to see it, I don’t care if you were a hockey fan, a football fan, a basketball fan, a baseball fan; if you’re a fan of sport, you want to watch what Dale was describing. It was infectious. The entire talent team got up on their feet, got fired up for it. It lived up to its billing. It was side by side for the lead. It’s everything that makes this sport spectacular. It’s people taking risks, going as hard as they can into a turn, who’s going to lift first, who’s going to push through it and how are they going to take the lead. And to have a guy like Dale, infectious, telling you how cool it’s going to be, you lean in a little bit, you listen a little harder, you watch a little closer, and the excitement is generated from there, and off we go. And that’s what we hope to see as we go forward in this new world with our new team.
THE MODERATOR: You can catch Dale, Jeff and Steve tonight at 5:00 p.m. ET on NASCAR America on NBCSN, live from the all-new Peacock Pit Box at Chicagoland Speedway.