Thursday, May 23, 2019
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
MODERATOR: Thank you to all the press that are calling in for our NBC Sports Indy 500 press call. We are just a few days away from May 26, when NBC Sports will broadcast its inaugural Indy 500. Coverage begins at 9:00 a.m. on NBCSN and then continues at 11:00 a.m. on NBC. Joining us for our call today are Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Mike Tirico, Danica Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC Sports.
We’ll take opening remarks first with Sam Flood.
SAM FLOOD: Thank you all for joining us. We are really excited to be here in Indianapolis. This is one of the greatest sporting events in the entire world and the center of the racing world come to this event on this Sunday. The big statement to our team is that this isn’t just a race, it’s an event, and the number of people who will show up in person and the spectacle that is this racetrack with the zooney-looney crazy group of crowd from the Snake Pit to the stands to the fancy pants to the suites — it’s got everything, and we can’t wait to share all of that with everyone at home and give them the best seat in the house for the six-plus hours that we plan to broadcast from here on a bright sunny day at Indianapolis. With that, I hand it over to our host, Mr. Tirico.
MIKE TIRICO: Good afternoon. I’ll go quick so you can hear from the people who matter. It is a personal thrill for me growing up watching this event over the years on ABC, people like Jim McKay hosting it, to have the honor to host this broadcast. I got to know a lot of the people who were part of the IndyCar and covering the Indy 500 at ESPN during my 25 years there, and a thank-you to all the folks who made 54 years of elevating this event to a next level on the television broadcast.
We are so lucky to be surrounded by as good a team as has covered this event, present company excluded, to elevate this to the next level.
For me, the chance to watch Leigh and Townsend and Paul work at the Grand Prix a couple of weeks ago and all their broadcast, their team, along with all the reporters, was outstanding; and for our pre-race show and my role, I get to be around Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and if you drop anyone anywhere in America and say, ‘Hey, can you name two drivers in auto racing in America who have been popular and who you know?’ They’re going to mention Dale Jr. and Danica, and I get the chance to watch the 500 with them and experience that with them.
Couldn’t be luckier. Thrilled to be a part of our team, and Leigh Diffey is the man whose voice will be on the 500, and I’ll pass it off to him now.
LEIGH DIFFEY: Thanks and good afternoon, everyone. Just a couple of days away, it still feels quite surreal that we have this amazing opportunity to bring you the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. For all of us who work on each and every regular-season round of the NTT IndyCar Series, this is just so special for us, so significant for us to finally have a shot at calling the great spectacle in racing. We’re thrilled. We almost have to teach or tell ourselves, yes, it’s a round of the regular championship but pass those thoughts for a moment because this is 200 laps in front of more than 300,000 people of just something that is, a word that’s used too often, but this truly is awesome.
For Townsend and for myself in the booth and our colleagues on pit lane, to be able to do this and bring this to you and have this opportunity, we’re immensely honored. We’re thrilled.
TOWNSEND BELL: Just thinking about how I’ve been involved in this sport for almost 20 years now, and I was absolutely thrilled when the announcement came out last year that NBC would be broadcasting the Indy 500, and at the time a lot of great statements were made, grand statements were made about what NBC would bring to the table in terms of resources and promotion and investment, and this week and frankly the last couple of weeks have really been a moment of pride for me to see the company really follow through on what they said over a year ago, which I think is rare, unfortunately, in this business. And so it’s really fun to see everything that the network is doing to promote this and to be a part of that team is an honor.
For me personally, I think back to the first time I came here as an 11-year-old and sitting in the grandstands and then getting to race here 10 times and now broadcasting, I’ve got to pinch myself. So incredibly proud for everyone, excited to share the greatest race in the world with the country.
PAUL TRACY: Hi, everybody. Just to kind of echo what Townsend said, I’m super excited to be involved with this. This is the beginning of a new era for IndyCar, like Townsend said. The commitment level, the production level, the commitment from the top brass at NBC, it’s second to none on this, and we hope to deliver the absolute best performance or best broadcast that this race has ever seen. We’re fully committed — like any race driver is going to be out there on Sunday to try to win this race, we want to win this race, this telecast for the fans, as well.
DANICA PATRICK: Hi, everyone. Such an honor to have last year come back to retire here at the Indy 500, but then to sort of come back for what almost feels like an encore of the Indy 500 to do the broadcast, so thanks to Sam Flood and thanks to NBC for asking me to do it.
The rumblings of this were almost a year ago, even last summer I remember hearing about it, so it’s an incredible team that’s been put together with talent in all areas. I mean, the incredible job from the truck to the on-camera talent that knows what they’re doing, and Leigh does such a fantastic job of transitioning through things, and Mike is going to just carry me the entire day, I’m sure, on Sunday. And then to all of the experience that Townsend and Paul have, and then to have Dale’s perspective from the NASCAR side of things, having never been here for the race, is — look, I’m not an expert at every different category, but NBC has covered an expert in every category, and so I’m honored to be a part of it.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Hey, everybody. As Danica said, I’m here for the first time. NBC has been sending me all over the place for the last several months to experience a lot of new things, and this is another amazing trip, and I can’t wait to get to work with my buddy Rutledge and see what the Indianapolis 500 is all about. It’s going to be a lot of emotion, a lot of energy. It’s going to be something like I’ve never witnessed before, and I can’t wait to have fun on Sunday during the show. Pre-race is going to be a lot of fun, at least for us as we move around, and I’m going to be able to see this race for the first time from such an incredible perspective as part of this broadcast team.
Just coming out here — I would be here anyway whether NBC sent me or not, but this will be from a perspective like no other.
Q. Slightly off topic, you come to Detroit after Indianapolis, and I guess for either Mike or Leigh, could you comment on how Indianapolis will set up what you do in Detroit and how important will it be for you to carry whatever momentum you’ve generated into Detroit and beyond?
LEIGH DIFFEY: Thanks for the question. It’s immensely important to carry that momentum because it’s a big weekend for us, for the NBC Sports Group, because not only is it a double-header within the IndyCar Series, but the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship is there, as well. It was always going to be a big weekend for us anyway, but we welcome the opportunity to carry that momentum through into Detroit.
Back in the day, as many know, the traditional follow-on event from Indy was at the Milwaukee Mile, but Roger Penske and has staff in Detroit have done such a good job at making that Detroit double-header a real landmark on the annual IndyCar calendar, a landscape, and again, that’s another first for us because we had never broadcast that race weekend, either.
So as much as this weekend is a first, so is next, and we just look very much forward to carrying the good vibes through.
MIKE TIRICO: And as the Detroit resident, it’s my responsibility to tell everyone how great downtown is now and pass along good restaurant recommendations, which thankfully there are plenty of, so I’ll be doing that Sunday afternoon. I’ll be handing out cards on the way out.
Q. This is a question for Mike, just about your preparation going into broadcasting your first Indy 500. You’re obviously the seasoned broadcast expert, but people like Dale and Danica are the retired drivers and can paint a little bit of a different picture. How do you envision all of you working together, and what kind of presentation do you expect to give fans watching?
MIKE TIRICO: Sure. From my role and my perspective, I just take it across the various sports. When I sit with Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison on Football Night in America, I don’t pretend to be a football expert. Same with Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss, our horse racing team, and so on. So the best thing you try to do is to elicit responses that perhaps the audience at home would care about, be fully cognizant that while we have the hard-core IndyCar fans watching, we also have fans who are watching their first or perhaps their only race of the year, so how can we get — in the pre-race show with Danica and Dale Jr. and the other correspondents on that show, how can we help connect the stories that matter at the 500 and the event that is the 500 to everyone at home; if you’re not here, make you wish that you were. If you’re going to sit at home and watch the next three, four hours, let you know about the interesting people and the stories that matter, and if you choose to care and connect to them, then when we pass it off to Leigh, Townsend and Paul to call the race, those guys will chronicle somebody who you may not have known about at 10:00 a.m., but by 3:00 p.m. you’re standing up in front of your TV rooting for them to take the checkered flag.
So I just take the general observations of what I’ve done over the years and try to apply to it this sport. Leigh, Townsend and Paul do all races this year, got to see them in action in person during the Grand Prix, watched a lot of the IndyCar events, and I’ve gone back and watched the last couple of 500s, as well, the race and the pre-race show.
All those things mean I will stay out of the way as much as possible and let the experts talk — if you hear me say the word “gearbox,” then I’ve made a mistake, but we’ll let the experts take care of the expert stuff, and I’ll handle the TV part.
Q. Danica, as the, I guess, rookie of the NBC crew, what has been the best piece of advice you have received this month, and is this something you would like to do more of in the future?
DANICA PATRICK: The best thing I heard is that Mike Tirico was going to do it with me, and I was like, done. Done, I’ll just sit there. I mean, advice? I think that Mike and I are just going to start to kind of go over those things, what he’s seen and what he thinks and his experience and how that can help me and try and come up with some ways to connect with the audience. As he said, sometimes they’ll be tuning in for that race only or might not even watch racing otherwise. Maybe it’s even their first time.
I think that it’s important to connect the dots on a human level beyond just racing itself and the technical side of things and what we know so well.
So we’re going to try and do that, and then also what I bring to the table is obviously that insight. I always love watching sports when they have an athlete that has recently retired that’s part of their broadcast because I believe them. So thank God people might believe me.
Q. Townsend, Paul and Danica — having driven in the race, what’s the most difficult part about driving around this track? And given your experiences on the track, what are you trying to convey to viewers?
PAUL TRACY: I mean, probably one of the most difficult things is this race is unlike any typical race because there’s such a long kind of a lead-up, just getting ready to go racing. You’re here for three weeks, and then you finally get to race day and the traffic is insane. You’ve got to be in the track, if you’re not staying in the track in a motor home, at 6:00 in the morning for a 12:00 race.
The pre-race activities, when you’re a driver, you’re like a thoroughbred, you’re like a horse that’s in the gate ready to go, and there’s just a lot of time to wait and there’s a lot of things you have to do and a lot of process you have to go through, which is all an amazing process when you’re living it in the moment, but as a driver you just want to get out there because you’re nervous, as well, and your tension is up. There’s a lot of nervous energy on the grid.
So that was always the biggest thing for me. Once the race started, you kind of get in your own zone and the race unfolds, but for me it was just the process of getting to actually go racing.
TOWNSEND BELL: Just picking up on what Paul said, what makes the Indy 500 really unique in the context of the rest of the IndyCar schedule is that the drivers will have a 90-minute practice tomorrow on Friday, and we’ll cover that on NBCSN, and then you won’t see anyone sitting in a race car until Sunday at noon, and when you do, you will line up three wide, 11 rows deep for the start of the race. No other race on the calendar with the officials or — nobody would ever allow that. You wouldn’t have practice much closer to the race.
So it’s this crazy situation in a way, especially when you consider that what makes Indy additionally unique is — I used this analogy the other night at dinner. This is a sporting competition that has a prize and you’re running to go get that prize. You want to be the first one to grab the trophy. The difference here at Indy is the race, you’re riding across a highwire that’s a thousand feet above the ground. So you have this crazy scenario of not having a lot of time in the car prior to the race, three wide for the start, and it’s super risky, and that’s where the intensity and the focus and the pressure comes from, and we’ll be doing our best to convey that on Sunday.
DANICA PATRICK: I can tell you that it’s difficult to come back after seven years; that was hard. And that just sort of highlights how challenging the task is. These cars are super fast, snappy, the handling is critical, and you’ve got what you’ve got. From my stock car experience, your car can start one way and be another way by the end, but for the most part, your car is how kind of how it is. So I would say at Indy you can’t hide. So that’s a challenge here is that if the car is bad, you’re hanging on for dear life and the corners just seem to come up so quick, and you just want a yellow so you can work on it on a pit stop and take some front wing out or add it or whatever it may be, change the tire pressure. I mean, you do have gadgets in the car that can help you with that.
But there’s nowhere to hide here, and I would say that the other part that’s mental is that it’s never over. I would say that if you’re on the lead lap, you should never count yourself out, and I got that advice my very first Indy 500 was that it’s never over. It might have been from Al Jr. or someone like that because I asked everyone for their expertise and their experience to help me out.
It was great advice because in my first Indy 500, I stalled at the beginning, and there was a spin three quarters of the — that was sort of the first quarter. Then in the beginning of the last quarter I spun and my front wing got torn off and chaos happened, and I was at the back again. And I almost won the race.
From a mental standpoint you can easily get very frustrated here, but you have to keep a level head because you’re never out of it here because there are so many pit stops and so much can happen.
Q. Dale, can you talk a little bit more about what it’s going to be like to attend the Indy 500 for the first time and what some of your expectations are for the weekend?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, from the people that I got advice from, everybody says the most important thing that I don’t need to miss out on is standing down on the grid right before the drivers get in the cars. Fortunately for me I’m going to be driving the pace car, so I’ll have that opportunity to sort of really get a close-up front view of the nervous energy that Paul talks about, and that — I will as a driver, past driver, sort of revert to those emotions and those feelings and be able to relate to what those guys are going through. They’ve dreamed about this day, and a lot of these guys have never won this race, and they’re imagining themselves going through that process and having that potential. So that will be a very emotional experience for me looking in the mirror as I’m driving the pace car. I’m looking forward to that, looking in the mirrors and seeing those cars and just thinking, these guys are getting ready to go do this; it’s here and now, the preparation is drawn out. The drivers, all they want to do is just get the race started. They’ve been feeling that way for weeks. So to look in the mirror and see the whole field right there behind me, the pressure that that’s going to give me, I’ll feel that intensity. That will be pretty neat for me.
Hanging out with Rut is going to be a lot of fun. The guy is a professional. We’re great friends, and so having him sort of take me on a tour of the facility, if you will, in the morning, I’m looking forward to learning a lot. It’ll be very similar to how I anticipate how the Kentucky Derby went. That was basically — I had never been to that race. I got the best tour that you could possibly ask for while we were working that show, and I kind of anticipate this being the same way. I’m going to learn a lot.
Q. Sam, what are the major production highlights that you’ll have in store for fans that are watching the race, and for a race that’s so steeped in tradition, how are you going to put NBC’s little twist on the event?
SAM FLOOD: Well, I think the key is creating an event, and we’re on the air at 9:00 in the morning and we’re going to take you through the timeline of everything that happens between then and the green flag to build up to that moment, the anticipation. So we’ll be on all areas of the racetrack. You might find Danica and Mike on the racetrack early in the day in a car, different things to connect you with this track and the people we have on this team who are able to connect with the audience and the people here.
Dale Jr., there’s a very good chance he and Rutledge will experience the Snake Pit. If we get them back for later in the show, we imagine there will be a lot of fun things they can do. But we have some really special taped elements highlighting some of the stories of the drivers and people connected to this event. Chris has got that in a press release that can detail a lot of the stories we have filmed.
But our features team has been working and building to this moment for the last few months, and our start was even earlier than that when we went over to Croatia and to Italy with Mario Andretti to tape his documentary which aired a few weeks ago, which was a spectacular look at his life and the back story that I don’t think everyone had a full understanding of where he came from and what he was able to accomplish from these very humble roots.
And that story is symbolic of what we try and do at NBC, make you care about people, take you inside a story at a different level, and that’s the training we have here for years, and we’re hoping we can tell those same kind of stories on Sunday and get more people to come back beyond the 500. We hope if the fans can fall in love with some of these drivers in this sport and this event that they’ll join us the following weekend in Detroit for the double-header there. And that’s part of the job is welcoming the entire sports fan world to this and not just the race car fan.
Q. Danica, this is a horribly mainstream question, but your media resume is already pretty voluminous. If you had a magic wand projecting into the future and could be doing anything in media you wanted to do, what would it be?
DANICA PATRICK: Geez. Reporting from the beaches with seashells with my mai-tai. You mean be part of a broadcast, like announce or something like that? Is that what you’re talking about?
Q. Well, I mean, above and beyond everything you’ve done racing and as a race analyst, you’ve done hosting, you’ve done videos, I think you hold the record for appearing in the most Super Bowl commercials, and you’re only 35 years old. What do you want to do — this is a long way from South Beloit.
DANICA PATRICK: Yeah. Yeah, it is. You know, it’s just a general answer, but I mean, whatever I do moving forward, I just hope it inspires people to figure out what it is that they love to do and do it. Just inspire people to look within themselves, to grow and to take chances, and step outside their comfort zone. I would say that — I don’t know what that is. I can’t just give you an answer for what my dream job would be as far as like being on TV for something. But I can tell you that it’s taken some balls to say yes to some of those things that I’ve done, and I am only better for it.
So I would say that whether it’s coming back for my final race at the Indy 500 or hosting the ESPYs or whatever it’s been, these are things that were incredibly scary to me, but you don’t grow from a place of comfort, so hopefully by doing different things and sort of spreading my wings that people will be inspired to do that, as well.