Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us for today’s call, in which we will preview the first ever NASCAR-INDYCAR crossover weekend. As you know, we begin Saturday with INDYCAR and Xfinity on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Both of those races will be on NBC, followed on Sunday by NASCAR’s Cup Series on the oval in its first race of the season on NBC. In addition, Saturday night from Daytona International Speedway, we will have IMSA racing on NBCSN, so an amazing collection of motorsports events coming up on the 4th of July weekend across NBC Sports.
In the spirit of this crossover we’re going to have analysts today on our conference today from both of our circuits. Joining us are NASCAR analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton, and INDYCAR analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. We’re also joined by NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, who will speak to the complexities of televising all of these events while also adhering to all of the safety guidelines driven by the coronavirus pandemic.
Let’s begin now with opening remarks from our speakers and then we’ll go to questions. First up is our executive producer Sam Flood.
SAM FLOOD: Thank you and thank you all for joining us. We are so excited to get back to the racetrack and get going again. But it’s a really unique weekend. Beyond just the INDYCAR-NASCAR smashup at the Brickyard, we look at this as a really cool special new way to produce races. We’ve got the INDYCAR team, who’s going to produce the INDYCAR race at Noon on Saturday, and they’re doing it from a truck that’s located in the infield of the Brickyard as it normally would be. When that first race ends, the cameras get switched over to a television truck that is in Charlotte at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. That truck will control the Xfinity race and the Cup race the next day. While that switchover is taking place, the INDYCAR truck is in charge of the bridge show, the show between the two races that tells the stories with Mike Tirico as the host.
So, it’s this unique time because of social distancing and all the rules and regulations, to be able to produce these two races in the same venue and the same time frame essentially, we’ve gone to this new model, and we’re excited about it. We’re fingers crossed, but our technical team is so outstanding that they are ready for all the challenges that are there. And that’s not even mentioning the Saturday night race that is at the Daytona International Speedway, and that is being fed back by a different control room in Charlotte. So we’ve got three control rooms, three races, and only one person can claim they’re working one race in the booth and one race in the car, since Townsend is going to be calling the race in Indy and then jumping on a plane and flying down to Daytona to race in the IMSA race. Hats off to Townsend for pulling that double. The rest of the group is just going to have to use their voices and not their driving skills.
We’re excited to cross over this group, and there will be conversations between the two groups as there were at the Indy 500 where Dale Jr. had his first experience as an INDYCAR analyst and a man about town as he got to know the stream where he pulled out some old bricks and where he got to see the snake pit and where he got to see an incredible Indy 500 last year. Now he’s going to be able to tell more stories about the motorsports world, and I hand it off to you, Dale. It’s all yours.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Thank you, Sam. It’s a pretty exciting race weekend that we have in front of us, and I’m excited. I’m looking forward to seeing the two top forms of motorsports in America today here in the same venue, not only for the fans but for the people in the industry. There’s so much respect, I think, going back and forth from open wheel to stock car over the decades. There’s been a lot of great circumstances and opportunities where drivers have drove — INDYCAR drivers have raced in stock cars with success and stock car racers have ran at Indy in INDYCARs with success, as well. Those opportunities and conversations about what might happen in the future still continue today, and we’ll hear about that with Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, who’s going to be testing in INDYCAR this weekend, and I think that this opportunity to have the two series share the same venue can really ignite and be a catalyst to seeing the drivers cross discipline.
So that’s exciting. Also, another thing I’m looking forward to this weekend is the Xfinity race on the road course. We’ve had some very exciting races on the road courses in the Xfinity Series and in the Cup Series over the past several years. They’ve just been really great races. I think this is an amazing opportunity for the Xfinity Series to be able to race at the road course and do something a little bit unique compared to its Cup Series counterpart.
It will have its own stage to stand on and shine this weekend, which will be a lot of fun to see those young drivers trying to tackle that new experience. It’s a pretty exciting series. It’s got kind of a renewed identity as a place for young up-and-coming drivers to really shine, so it’ll be awesome to see who comes out on top of that.
And on the Cup side, it’s been an exciting season. The racing has been fantastic. We’ve seen some of the best racing that we’ve seen in a long, long time. A lot of unique story lines, some old story lines that continue to remain strong over the last couple years in our series. But right now coming off of Pocono, Denny Hamlin winning seems to have supplanted himself as the championship favorite this season. We like to do that. We like to establish championship favorites way before it’s time to do so, and Denny looks like the guy to beat right now, but Kevin Harvick is right on his heels, and the Penske guys who all changed crew chiefs over the off-season are all victorious. I think when we talk about what might happen with that shakeup, you assumed one may succeed and one may fail, but it looks like it’s working out for everybody.
A lot of great story lines coming into this race, an epic racetrack with a ton of history in motorsports, and can’t wait to call the action.
JEFF BURTON: Just really excited to get back to calling races. As Dale talked about, the racing we’ve seen this year has been phenomenal, really good racing. So many things going on on the racetrack. And then on this weekend, when you think about this, 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, heck, five years ago, were we even talking about doing something like this where you have three series at the same racetrack on the same weekend, the premier series in North America on two different racetracks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? I mean, think about this; this is a historic weekend and a very important weekend for our country, 4th of July. Just so many things going on that are good.
We talk a lot about competition. We talk about excitement. Well, that’s what this weekend is going to be all about. To be able to watch both of those races on Saturday and then Sunday, watch the Cup race, I mean, I don’t know that we would have ever thought that we would be here in this situation.
I’m extremely excited to call the races this weekend. Sam talked about the opportunities we have in doing things differently. It’s been really fun to watch and really motivating, honestly, to watch how our team of people have figured a way in the era of COVID-19 how to bring these races to the fans and do it in the best possible way and not using this as an excuse, but using it as an opportunity to get better.
Our team has been — when I say team, I mean every single person that it takes to bring these races to the fans — they have stepped up, and it’s been motivating to watch, motivating to be a small part of it, and it all happens this week. So my excitement level is through the roof. Ready to get in there and call some races and looking forward to hearing how Townsend can do in his race. It’s going to be fun to listen to those guys call their race.
TOWNSEND BELL: Thanks, Jeff. Butterflies are churning just hearing both Dale and Jeff talking about what we’re in store for this weekend, and let’s not forget it is the 4th of July and Roger Penske now owns the greatest spectacle in terms of a racetrack and a race, and it just seems like everything is coming together in spectacular fashion.
I find it hard to believe that just a few weeks ago I was sitting at home commentating on virtual races for NBC as our adaptive plan, which went very well, and now all of a sudden we’re going to go into this weekend. I’m going to call it a — I’m going to borrow a term from my colleagues here and call it a “motorsports rager,” — and I think it’s going to be a little overwhelming for everybody but so much fun to do it, and as Sam pointed out earlier, it didn’t seem fair that I would just go in and commentate, so I am pulling off something I’ve never tried before, which is commentating and racing on the same day in two different locations.
I’m not sure if anybody has ever done that type of double, but we’re going to give it our best shot, and with INDYCAR happening Saturday at noon on big NBC and then the IMSA race on NBC Sports Network that evening down in Daytona, that’s going to be a lot of fun.
My only regret this weekend will be that I won’t have much time to hang around the paddock and the garage area for both INDYCAR and NASCAR and just soak it all in as much as I would have liked. But it’s going to be a blast. Can’t wait to get going, and big thanks to all of our colleagues at NBC for making this happen and allowing me to have my own version of a motorsports rager this weekend.
PAUL TRACY: Hey, guys. Yeah, I’ve got to really give a lot of credit for this whole thing to Roger Penske, because having driven for him before and knowing the way that he likes to bring an event and put on an event, to pull this weekend together is probably one of the biggest undertakings in motorsports history to date. But he’s no stranger to that. When we used to race back in the day at Nazareth and Michigan and California Speedway, he’d bring a wide variety of different series to that event for the fans to enjoy. We have raced with other stock car series before, whether it be in trucks or late models or super modifieds and that, but to have the top three classes in North America all together on one weekend is really all credit to Roger Penske for pulling that all together in a historic weekend, on a holiday weekend, the 4th of July. Couldn’t be a more fun time.
Sam, obviously the circumstances of how this weekend came together are not ideal with everything. That aside, though, this is something NBC has wanted to see over the last few years of having a NASCAR and INDYCAR race together. What kind of satisfaction do you take from this weekend and what do you hope to see going forward?
SAM FLOOD: We think it’s a really important crossover to have people watch racing, and we think the ability to grow all of motorsports happens to get people to sample different series, and you shouldn’t just be a NASCAR fan, you should be a racing fan. That’s what we want to accomplish is getting more people to sample, and this dialogue has been going on for a few years now. We held a motorsports forum here at NBC and all the forms of racing that we have from the motorcycles to the cars, how we were going to get these groups to work together, and I think this is a great celebration of motorsports, and it happens with Roger Penske, at the track that he now owns, as the perfect launch point for it.
But when we put this group together, the motorsports summit we had December of 2018, that summit created a YouTube page, the NBC Sports Motorsports YouTube page, and we’re about 240,000 subscribers into it already and that was from a cold start.
So the interest in motorsports is high. We just need people to watch each other’s forms of racing and grow the overall pool of racing fans. And that’s why this is so valuable, and that’s why we’re so lucky Roger stepped in here.
Dale and Jeff, want to get your impressions, obviously it’s been a very incredible month, especially of NASCAR here. What’s your takeaway for how Bubba Wallace has handled all of this and it must have taken an incredible toll on him. What are your impressions of him after what he’s been through the last several weeks?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I’ve known Bubba in the sport for a really long time and had the opportunity to talk with him and have him on our podcast a couple times. You know, he’s talked at length about his own personal challenges and his own life, and so you think about somebody that’s kind of carrying as much weight and stress, and he’s trying to also be a race car driver — I asked him about this the other day — how can he have time in the week to manage all the things that he’s got going on in his life and go out there and perform, as well. But he’s done a really good job.
I think the performance in the car is a bit of a blessing because of everything else going on around him. They are running better this year, and the Chevys are faster and their alliance with RCR is supporting that performance. I think, you know, just like everybody else in the sport, you kind of look out for each other, and I think hopefully there’s a lot of people that are looking out for Bubba and making sure that he is able to focus on his job and racing and can divide the time throughout the week properly to kind of keep the stress down and keep things productive.
You know, he’s certainly taking on a lot.
JEFF BURTON: I think all the drivers on this call can relate to what it feels like to be trying to make your way in this sport and the pressures that are involved in that. It’s immense. The sport is about passion, it’s about desire, it’s about dedication, and many times you can be doing everything right and still don’t get an opportunity. So when you do have an opportunity, you want to take advantage of it from a competition standpoint, and the pressure is immense.
Then on top of that, that Bubba Wallace is going through, as every young driver does, and for that matter it really never stops, he also has raised his hand and said I want to do more. I want to be more than just that. And that’s a lot for him to carry, and he’s carried it well. I think he’s represented himself well. He’s represented the sport well. And on top of that, I believe that he knows and understands he has the support of the garage. The garage, and Dale Jr. knows this, the garage is a very compassionate place. Even though we may fight amongst ourselves and we may go at it amongst ourselves in the garage, when the chips are down, you’re always there for each other, and I think that showed at Talladega, and that had to be strengthening for Bubba.
But I respect him a great deal for raising his hand, taking that, putting it on his shoulders, trying to incite change, make things better, and on top of that, still juggle the career. That is a lot for anyone to take on because the pressures are real, and it’s just an awful lot.
Sam, this crossover weekend was kind of born out of necessity because of the pandemic and the shutdown and the fact to get races together. Would you like to see the GMR Grand Prix moved to the Brickyard weekend so that we can maybe capitalize on this idea?
SAM FLOOD: I have a strong suspicion that this will be the start of a beautiful relationship, and I can see more of this going forward. I think everyone is excited. Clearly we need spectators at the venue to fulfill the true mission here, to have people together celebrating the two forms of racing.
But yeah, this is the future, and I’m glad Roger Penske and Steve Phelps took advantage of this unique moment in time to push this to reality sooner than it would have happened otherwise.
And for Dale Jr., speaking of crossovers, on Wednesday a former teammate of yours, Jimmie Johnson, is going to drive Chip Ganassi’s INDYCAR around the road course, and knowing Jimmie and how good he is at a variety of things, how interested are you in it and how well do you think he’s going to do?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, as an old retired race car driver I’m certainly curious as to what all these cars I see on the TV and at the racetrack drive like, even another competitor’s stock car I kind of always wondered how theirs drove versus mine. But there’s definitely some curiosity there.
You know, I don’t know. I really don’t know what to expect out of this opportunity for Jimmie. I don’t know whether he’s seeking this out just for fun and enjoyment, because I could see that happening. I could see him just looking for a good kick. Or is he seeking this out because he’s got some serious thoughts about competing, and he’s talked about that. Obviously I think in his comments in the past, he’s talked about competing at road courses.
So this could be the beginning of something really cool outside of his stock car career, and we’ll just all have to wait and see. I’m excited for Jimmie, though, because he’s in his final season of racing in the Cup Series, and unfortunately due to the pandemic and so forth, it hasn’t quite been the celebration that he deserves.
You know, this is a neat opportunity for him to do something fun at the racetrack and for folks to tune in and enjoy, and we’ll see what he says when he gets out. We’ll see what he thinks about the experience.
TOWNSEND BELL: I would just add to that that we’ve seen crossover experiences take place before, whether that was Jeff Gordon driving the — I think it was the Williams Formula 1 car many years ago — or Tony Stewart having a go. But I think what feels a little different about Jimmie’s approach is that he showed up in February at the INDYCAR open test at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, and that to me was a really different kind of approach because it’s cold, it’s February, and we all know that the NASCAR season is incredibly demanding. He’s a family guy, and to take the time to come just investigate, have the meetings and really take it seriously, that wasn’t a PR move, that’s a racer thinking many moves ahead about how do I put myself in the best position to excel at this test or plan or whatever he might have in mind. You could tell that’s a champion’s approach, and I definitely noted at that time that this was a lot more than just dipping your toe in the water for a good time, so I’m quite fascinated to see not only how he goes on his first run but what might happen in the days and weeks that follow in terms of how he looks to the future. Really excited to see him do it and applaud him for taking that super thorough approach.
PAUL TRACY: Let me follow up on that. I’ve been super impressed with Jimmie’s approach to this thing because shortly after our spring training when Jimmie came to the track, he actually contacted me. The test at McLaren looked like it was going to happen fairly quickly at Barber Motorsports Park, and that’s quite a tricky track to get around. It’s very high-low, it’s high G-forces there, and he actually contacted me and said, hey, give me some advice, what do I need to work on physical training wise. I said to him, well, I’m sure your cardio is fine because you’re a tremendous athlete and run and bike and swim, but one of the things you need to work on is your neck strength and your shoulder and arm strength. There’s no power steering with these cars.
So I was pretty impressed by that; that he was just reaching out to everybody and is open to hearing anything on how he can be better versus having the attitude of ‘I’m a seven-time champion and I don’t need anybody’s help.’ He’s definitely open to hearing everybody’s opinion, which is pretty cool.
Dale and Jeff, what do you expect from the experience calling from an empty racetrack?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, there’s two things there. I really feed off of being able to look out the window at the race itself. We call what’s on the screen and try to tell the fans about what they’re seeing, but the energy that you get from the action on the racetrack and the race happening right in front of you and also the energy you get from the fans and their reaction to what they’re seeing, you’re part of that whole thing. You’re part of the whole experience. I draw a lot of energy from that.
When I got in the booth with Jeff and Steve Letarte and Rick Allen, the feedback that I got initially from the folks that watch our races was that we were easy to listen to and we were like a bunch of guys hanging out at a bar watching a race on TV or sitting on the couch at home with their buddies, and that’s basically what we’re going to be doing. We’re going to be hanging out in a room watching the race on TV like everybody else and we’ll be the ones describing the action. I’m not concerned, I guess, about succeeding, but it’s certainly going to be a unique experience and one we’ll try to improve on each time we go out and do it. But nothing is like being there in person.
JEFF BURTON: One of the things that I really enjoy is at some of the racetracks we’re able to walk up the grandstands to go to our booth, actually go experience that Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon, that feel of being at the racetrack, being at a sporting event. And I’m going to really miss that. I mean, I’ve missed that already. It’s something that I enjoy. I enjoy the noise, the feeling. It’s just — I like being at the racetrack.
Like Dale said, I feed off that energy, but I’ve done it for so long, it just feels normal to me, but it makes me feel happy. I enjoy that. So I’m going to miss that. I already miss it.
But when that door shuts and I’m in the booth, I’m really in there with my buddies, I’ve got people in my ear talking to me that are my buddies. We’re hanging out with friends. We’re hanging out talking racing, and I think that’s what it’ll turn into.
Now, I think the biggest challenge for us is that we’re constantly looking out of the window at the racetrack, not just the monitor, because what’s going on on the racetrack we want to bring to the fans, and that interaction between us and the guys in production is very dynamic, and we’re talking a lot, we’re communicating a lot, and that’s the thing that we’ve worked really hard to make sure we can still have that, we can still see what’s going on on the racetrack when we’re not able to look at it. And that’s really the grand experiment. That’s really the biggest thing that’s going to be different.
The rest of it I don’t think is going to be that different in how we call the race. But that ability just to look out the window and push a button and to ask a question or someone can ask you a question, and off the air to start a conversation about what we’re going to talk about on the air. That to me is our biggest challenge. We’ve worked hard to overcome that with monitors and cameras and things that we can see the track, but as far as calling the race, I mean, we’re just all hanging out talking racing. It’s really just that simple. We don’t practice it. We don’t rehearse it. We just go in there and be us. I think that’s when we’re at our best. That’s when we have the most fun. If I’m at home watching a sporting event, I want to be having fun, I want to enjoy it, and that’s what we try to do.
Paul and Townsend. I’m working on a story about Scott Dixon and his dominance over his career. After watching that race earlier this month in Texas, as dominant as he was, I’d be interested to know just kind of thinking about over everything that he’s accomplished in his career how he’s talked about as a legendary driver, do you guys get any sort of a sense that he is a little underrated despite everything that he’s accomplished, the records that he’s already set and the ones that he’s inching up towards?
TOWNSEND BELL: So I’ve raced against Scott since I was in Indy Lights back in 2000-2001, and it’s been really cool to see him achieve all of the success that he’s had. I mean, you hear underrated frequently with Scott Dixon, but I think it’s one of these deals where we’re going to look back in the not-too-distant future as witnessing potentially the greatest INDYCAR driver of all time. And what’s great about Scott is it just seems like the consistency of his performance from when he was a rookie with PacWest Racing back in 2001 to that win at Texas that you pointed out that was so dominant, it just seems like nothing has changed in a good way for him. He’s the same committed, focused, highly talented — since none of that has been muted or reduced over a 20-year career — now it’s matched with just incredible experience and the consistency of being with the same race team with Chip Ganassi Racing for so long now, he’s as strong as ever. He’s as capable as ever, and he proved that at Texas.
Frankly, I don’t think he cares one bit if he is underappreciated or under-recognized, underrated. He just is all about winning and notching up championships.
One thing that was a takeaway for me from that Texas race was it seemed like it’s been a while since Ganassi as a team actually had that dominant of a car. We talk about parity and competitiveness in INDYCAR all the time, and we see it week in and week out. That was kind of a rare example where one team clearly had the measure on the field, and you put Scott Dixon in a race car like that, and he’ll win that thing in his sleep all day long, and he reminded us of that.
For Ganassi to come out that strong, it probably has every other team on high alert right now. Again, he’s a winning machine, and the stats speak for themselves, and they are incredible.
PAUL TRACY: I really have to echo what Townsend said. He is one of these guys that just flies under the radar in stealth mode and doesn’t do anything dramatic. He doesn’t make mistakes. He doesn’t drop wheels off. He really just doesn’t make any bad moves. Not only that, coupled with the fact, the amount of years and how long he’s been winning with the same team, but a lot of different engineers, a lot of different cars in that time frame, as well. There’s been many variations of the cars, and he’s been able to figure out every single package and be a consistent performer year in, year out and do it without making any fuss about it. He just comes in and does his thing, and he’s a guy that will just sneak up on you and steal a win away from you without you even knowing he’s coming. Pretty impressive stuff.
Sam, I’d be interested to know if you guys have any plans at the moment or have talked to your guys’ crew about how to address any more than you guys already have any of the social justice stuff going on around the country in this weekend’s broadcast, and if so, is there any way you differentiate that between NASCAR and INDYCAR, given how the responses from both series have been a little bit different just because the circumstances around both have been different?
SAM FLOOD: I think you have to respond to every story that’s out there with proper context, and we’ll certainly talk to Steve Phelps as part of our programming this weekend. That’s part of the plan, to have a conversation with him.
Mike Tirico is hosting the entire weekend, and who better than Mike Tirico, the man who hosts the Olympics, the new USGA deal, Football Night in America, among other things, to be representing NBC Sports as the person taking us through all that’s going on in sport and society right now. So we have the right team in place and the right guy leading the charge in Mike, so we will definitely address what’s going on and give it context.
If the Xfinity race on the road course is a success, do you think NASCAR should look at running the Cup cars on the road course?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I think that the great opportunity that the Truck Series and Xfinity Series present is a place to try new things. The Cup Series obviously would love to succeed and be productive on the oval, and I think that’s everybody’s wish. And there’s a lot of things up in the air going forward. I don’t think that we’ve had enough of a sample size with the current rules package, and then we have the new car coming down the road, as well. So there’s a couple reasons why I think committing to the oval is a reasonable decision for the Cup Series.
But I think this is a great opportunity to really see what stock cars on the road course would look like in the Xfinity Series, and I expect it to be pretty entertaining.
We know that we haven’t really failed at the road course on the Cup side in a long time. Those races have been amazing no matter what facility we point to with the Cup cars on the road course size, so that’s always an opportunity. It’s always a risk probably worth taking. But I feel like that it’s probably a good decision to commit and continue using the oval for the Cup side, considering where we are with the cars and so forth.
JEFF BURTON: Yeah, I know after over 20 years, it’s hard to say we need more time, but with the new changes coming with the new car, as Jr. said, this aero package at last year’s race was entertaining. I think we still need more time. I think an effort to get the oval to work for NASCAR, I think that’s where — as far as the Cup Series — I think that’s probably where the emphasis should go. But what a great opportunity. If the Xfinity cars run the road course and it’s just a rousing success, then you couldn’t ignore that. At the end of the day, race fans want to see good racing. They want to see excitement. They want to have big events. They want to go to things that are fun and exciting, and whichever will produce that the best possible way, that’s what all racing needs to give the fans.
But with so many things coming, so many things changing at a rapid pace, until we get this new car and we get another race this weekend with this current package, I’d like to continue to see it through.