STAMFORD, Conn. – July 1, 2015 – NBC Sports Group’s Chairman, Mark Lazarus, Executive Producer, Sam Flood, President of Programming, Jon Miller, 21-time NASCAR Sprint Cup winning driver Jeff Burton, Daytona 500 champion crew chief Steve Letarte, and race announcer Rick Allen previewed the launch of NASCAR on NBC on a conference call today. NBC’s 10-year chapter as the home of NASCAR’s championship run begins this 4th of July weekend from Daytona International Speedway, with the 57th running of the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday, July 5, at 7 p.m. ET on NBC, and the Subway Firecracker 250 NASCAR XFINITY Series race on Saturday, July 4, at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Following is a transcript of the call.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone, for joining us today as we prepare to launch NBC Sports Group’s ten-year partnership as the home of NASCAR’s championship run over this 4th of July weekend from Daytona International Speedway.
An NBC Sports press release was issued earlier that details more than 23 hours of coverage that will unfold over the holiday weekend, highlighted by a live presentation of the Subway Firecracker 250 NASCAR XFINITY Series race on Saturday night. Coverage of that event begins at 6:30 p.m. eastern on NBCSN.
Then on Sunday night, NBC presents its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race since 2006 with the 57th running of the Coke Zero 400 under the lights at Daytona. Pre-race coverage on Sunday begins at 7:00 p.m. eastern on NBC.
With us today on this call is the chairman of NBC Sports group, Mr. Mark Lazarus; the executive producer of NBC Sports and NBCSN, Sam Flood; and the president of programming for NBC Sports, Jon Miller. We also have 21 time Sprint Cup winning driver and NBC Sports NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton; Daytona 500 winning crew chief and just yesterday he was crowned champion coach of the TODAY Show Pit Stop Challenge, NBC Sports NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte. We’re also joined by NBC’s NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series race announcer Rick Allen.
MARK LAZARUS: Thank you. We are thrilled to be bringing NASCAR back to NBC after this nine year absence, and for the first time ever bringing it to NBC Sports Network. Having both of these platforms allows us to offer wall-to-wall coverage of each and every weekend over the next 20 weeks for both the XFINITY Series and the Cup Series, practices, qualifying and the races themselves.
We’ve been waiting for this weekend for two years since we first struck our deal. We want to thank Brian France and his team for the support and we look forward to this very exciting launch of this new property for us.
The deal means a lot to all of us, to our advertisers, our distribution partners, and hopefully to NASCAR fans. We’re committed to doing the best job possible. All of our predecessors have done a terrific job and we look forward to living up to our end of the bargain. NASCAR will be an important property for the NBC Sports Group. We’re going to do the best we can. We take this responsibility very seriously.
We have an exceptional team both in front of and behind the camera, many of whom you’ll hear from today and over the next few weeks, all led by Sam Flood, our executive producer. Sam?
SAM FLOOD: We couldn’t be more excited. 15 years ago we did our first big race in the old NASCAR NBC contract, and that was in Daytona, and we can’t wait to get back there to do it again. For the last 15 years we’ve watched FOX set the gold standard and do a wonderful job building the sport, growing the sport and telling the stories of these amazing drivers.
We’ve got a new team that we’ll be putting on the air this weekend. One of the first phone calls I made after Mark told us we had NASCAR was to Jeff Burton, and for the six years that we covered the sport previously, the first guy we went to in the garage when a story was happening and when there was opinion we wanted to hear, it was Jeff Burton’s. So, we’re looking forward to the rookie broadcaster getting on the air for us this weekend. And Steve Letarte, was always a crew chief that made you understand what was going on for a stick and ball society, and understand what’s happening inside an engine and with the race car. He tells it in a way that makes it very simple, and I look forward to hearing his work this weekend. With Rick, playing ringmaster up there in the booth, will be a lot of fun.
This weekend is the first time these three have worked together in a live racing situation. We’ve rehearsed, we’ve practiced, but it’s a very different situation when we do it for real. So we’re excited for the opportunity. It’ll be a learning experience for these guys. They’re ready, but obviously there will be mistakes. They’re going to learn, they’re going to get better every week, and we look forward to growing with the sport and our telecast growing on a weekly basis.
Jeff Behnke, who’s day-to-day in charge of this operation, lives in Charlotte near the race teams and has been touching the sport on a daily basis for the last two years, and we’re excited that his vision and planning is all going to come to fruition this weekend in Daytona. Hopefully the weather gods are cooperative and we have perfect weather for great racing under the lights in Daytona, because there’s nothing quite like the spectacle that happens in Daytona twice a year.
JEFF BURTON: I’m looking forward to Daytona. I mean, restrictor plate racing is exceptionally exciting. There’s so much on the fine. I think that makes the restrictor plate race even that much more exciting, so for me, our first telecast, being able to share all the things that we’ve learned over the last 20, 25, 30 years of our careers with the fans, and do it at Daytona, I don’t know that it could be a more perfect weekend. Because, there’s so much on the line, and there’s so many people that can win this race. I’m just looking forward to going down there and having fun and enjoying the race.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, I’m looking forward to the opportunity that NBC has provided for me to transition from the pit box to the broadcast booth and be able to watch these races from the other side of the racetrack. It’s a sport that I’ve grown up in. I’ve been a part of a race team since I was probably 16-years-old. It’s all I’ve ever known, and this gives me the opportunity to tell everyone at home the things I’ve learned over these last 20 years and show hopefully the excitement I have for the sport.
I agree with Jeff that Daytona is an unbelievable platform. We race our Super Bowl here in the spring, but the summer race under the lights is absolutely a spectacle, two and a half mile racetrack with 43 drivers running around 200 miles an hour is something that you have to see to truly believe. I’m excited to climb up into the booth for the first time and work with Jeff and Rick, and get this new career of mine underway.
Sam, I see that you appear to be tinkering with the starting times of some races, Indy at 3:30, Watkins Glen at 2:00, and Michigan at 2:30. Can you talk about why you’re doing that? I think in the last year or so, NASCAR got back to 1 p.m. for Sunday races being a pretty traditional starting time.
SAM FLOOD: Well, I’m going to do the smart thing that a producer does and hand off to the president of programming, Mr. Jon Miller, who worries about when the races start. I worry about how we tell the story of the race.
JON MILLER: Thank you, Sam. You know, obviously when we schedule the races out there, we look to maximize the ratings, maximize the exposure, and give it the best possible lead in that we can. We’ve got pre-races planned for all of these shows, both on NBC Sports Network and then obviously on NBC, as well, and the goal here is to try to maximize that audience to try to deliver for advertisers as well as make it accessible to as many viewers as possible.
We have the luxury of working with NASCAR on trying to determine the best times for these races to maximize that. Obviously, we’ll be receptive and responsive if there are weather situations and things like that that come into play, but our goal here is to maximize the audience the best way we can.
Sam, will there be a lot that will be different? We’ve seen the information coming out about what you’ll do with social media and what the programming might be, but will the fans see anything different, any different feel to it all?
SAM FLOOD: I think our number one job is to tell the story of the race, and that’s a style that NBC has had for a long, long time, to be storytellers, and our goal is to make you care about each driver in the race and tell you the story of each driver, and how it impacts the team and their chance to compete for the Cup at the end of the year.
We’re not about bells and whistles. We’re about telling the story. I think that’s our number one objective, to tell a proper story and take advantage of this talent team to tell you what’s happening and why. Why is the most important question I’ve asked Jeff and Steve to have in front of them, why. Why one car can’t turn as well as another car turns; why one car is great on pit road and another car is not. That’s the magic word, and if we answer the “why” question, we’re going to make you care.
Steve, it was fun to watch you on Periscope yesterday and you interviewing Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he was saying, it’s so different, you like all the teams now or something, because you’ll be covering all the teams. How was it to be interviewing Dale Jr. as a journalist as opposed to being his crew chief?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I mean, without a doubt Dale is a very good friend of mine. We spent a tremendous amount of time together in the garage area and on the same race team trying to compete for wins, so it was a comforting start for me to start in my interview process to cover it with a guy like Dale. He’s a huge superstar in the sport but also a good friend of mine, and he is the utmost professional. In the media side, whenever he’s been asked about the sport or even when I spent time with him and interviewed him some yesterday, the way he covers the sport, the way he cares about the sport really comes through with his answers, so it was a unique opportunity for me to sit across from him with a different position, but it felt comfortable and it felt fun, and I look forward to talking to more drivers in the future.
Sam, whether it’s on-air content or on the production side, is there anything that fans can expect to see differently than they would from other networks that have covered NASCAR racing over the years?
SAM FLOOD: I think the most important thing is, again, staying true to the sport and growing the sport. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. People have done a wonderful job covering this sport for a long time. FOX obviously has been in this for 15 years. They won the Emmy for best live series last year. They understand how to cover NASCAR. We’re going to build and learn and grow. We have a great group on pit road that’s going to take you inside the race, tell you why things are happening down there. I think the booth with the fresh from the pit box, fresh from the car perspective is going to be a nice listen for the audience, but again, they’re learning, we’re learning on the job. It’s unlike anything else.
There’s no other way to show it than being on the air and doing it for real. These guys are going to be under live fire telling the stories of these races, and we’re excited about that opportunity. Our pre-race show is going to touch a ton of topics. We’ve got some neat stories already planned for this first show. We’ve moved our pre-race set to the head of the grid, so on Sundays, on Cup days, you are going to be right there at the head of the action, and that’s where Krista [Voda] and Dale [Jarrett] and Kyle [Petty] are going to be for the majority of the races, right there in the middle of the occasion on open set where the fans can be part of the show. So we think being at the racetrack is such a wonderful experience, and if you go to the racetrack, you’re going to watch NASCAR on television, so we want to showcase how cool it is to be at the racetrack. That’s one of the key agenda points we have in our pre-race show, to bring the fans back to the energy and excitement of the racetrack.
Steve, one of your favorite quotes when you were a crew chief is that “hope is not a strategy,” so I’m curious what have you been doing the last four or five months so that you don’t just have to hope that you do a good job.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, that is one of my favorite quotes, and it really applies to this new position. Ever since I’ve joined NBC, late at the end of last year in December and moving into 2015, there has been a strategy the whole time. Sam has laid out a plan and Jeff Behnke and everyone at NBC that has a tremendous amount of experience in creating sports television and of getting practice for Jeff and myself and Rick and doing it in a way that it wasn’t all at once. We really took it in layers to try to understand the parts of the broadcast I didn’t understand. I’m very confident I understand racing and the race from my years of experience on the pit box and in the garage, but how to bring that home to the viewer, and much like Sam said, to understand the NBC philosophy of being a storyteller and talking about these stars in the sport.
We have some really great stars that not only drive the cars, but sit on top of the pit box and change the tires. We have so many great people involved in the sport that they have kind of taught me their philosophy. It definitely hasn’t been guesswork. There’s been a strategy to lead up to Daytona, but much like Sam has said on this broadcast, there’s nothing like a live race. I remember my first race as a crew chief I had a lot to learn, even with all the years of practice, and I would expect the same in this new venture. A lot of practices under our belt, and now we’re excited to get here this weekend and get some live racing and see how we do when it’s for real.
I’ve seen your Twitter feed, looks like you’ve done some golfing. Has that been enough to kind of fulfill the competitive juices for you?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think that the golfing helps, and racing with my son helps with the competitive juices, and there’s nothing like Sunday. I won’t downplay it. There are very few things in life that are like being a head coach or a crew chief on Sunday and trying to compete for wins.
But the challenge that NBC has placed upon me to do my role within this team is not an insignificant challenge, and that has really allowed me something to not just fulfill my time but your brain and everything you use to try to win races, I’ve been able to apply that to this new job. I haven’t taken this job just for less work. I’ve taken this job to be great at it. I want to be good at television, but that’s not going to happen overnight. I have a lot to learn, and I’ve leaned on a great team at NBC, and I’m just ready to kind of get it going.
SAM FLOOD: What’s also nice is that Steve is able to get a little extra cash by playing golf because I understand Rick likes to donate to the Steve Letarte college fund.
STEVE LETARTE: It’s helped.
Rick, I could open up with how’s your golf game, I guess.
RICK ALLEN: Actually I did say that because I do want to mention that when Steve and I play golf, and Jeff and I, we’ve all got together and we’ve spent time away from the racetrack to get to know each other. When you have a period of time, four hours or whatever it is, where you can learn more about a person and get to know them away from the racetrack that’s great. We all know that Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton are incredibly knowledgeable about the sport of NASCAR.
My job is to make sure their knowledge comes out easiest, and I’ve got to figure out how to get that out of them the easiest way I can. So knowing them personally, knowing them as well as I can, I think, has helped me formulate the way that we can discuss things in the booth and we can bring the race to the people in a conversational manner.
We joke about it, and we have a lot of fun, and obviously we spend a lot of time together, not in the race setting, and I think it’s helped us an enormous amount. So, I’m very excited about being able to get up into the booth with two very good friends of mine and call a race and just have a lot of fun. And if it’s cost me a couple bucks on the golf course, then so be it.
Sam, I wanted to ask you from a production standpoint, I guess, are there any issues or concerns this weekend specifically that might be due to the ongoing Daytona Rising project? Have you had to work around anything because of the construction and everything that’s going on down there?
SAM FLOOD: Yeah, there are obviously a lot of different elements to the broadcast because of the construction, but the track has been wonderful about accommodating us. They’ve created a special booth for us that we’ll be calling the race from for Rick, Jeff and Steve. They’ve got their cappuccino maker in there, they’ve got the hot tub, so they’re all set up there in this temporary booth space, and they’ll be able to see the track very well. They’re just a little off the finish line, so it’s not quite like they’ll be when Daytona Rising is completed, but I think the racetrack has been incredibly accommodating working with us to make sure we have the camera positions we want and to make sure all the assets are in place for us to televise the race to the best of our ability.
Sam, you guys haven’t been televising NASCAR races for a few years now. How has the sport changed since you guys were here last? What have you noticed?
SAM FLOOD: Well, the 99 is no longer driven by Jeff Burton. That’s how long ago it was since I was producing the sport.
I think the technology continues to improve. The stories have changed. There’s a younger generation of drivers coming in that we’re going to have the opportunity over this contract to get America to get to know them, some great young drivers and the established stars are still there, and they’re great stars, and they’re great personalities, and what I always loved about NASCAR was the people. You’ve got the drivers and the crew chiefs and these teams that work so well together, and the fascinating ownership groups that oversee the various race groups.
We’ll be able to tell those stories for a long time and build the new stories, and that’s what makes this sport so special. Every race is an all-star game because the stars are out there every week.
In other sports, if your elite athlete isn’t there or it’s not a matchup of two marquee teams, it’s not as big an event. Well, all the stars come out to play every race in this sport, and they go head to head in every race, so you really get to see the best on a weekly basis. And to have the last 20 races of the season and to have the 10 races of the Chase is a pretty cool deal and pretty exciting, and we’re very blessed that Mark was able to get this deal done with NASCAR so we’re able to tell these stories when the pressure is on the line, the race to the Chase, leading up to Richmond, and then those 10 races to the Chase, there’s nothing quite like the drama, and the new system and format that NASCAR put in place last year is wonderful. I think it’ll be fun for us to see how it evolves this year, now that the teams have had a year to learn how to compete in the Chase.
Sam, for years in order to follow the positions of the cars on the racetrack, they ran a banner across the top, and in recent months or years, I don’t know how long it’s been going on, they put columns of three positions. Which system are you going to use?
SAM FLOOD: We’re going to use the band across the top.
Thank you, and thank goodness because the other was very annoying, especially if you have not a very large TV. We NASCAR reporters can’t afford real big TVs so you lose half the picture when you run those three deep columns. Thank you.
SAM FLOOD: No problem.
Steve, this morning Dale Jr. basically jokingly on one of your media appearances said, “the future of the sport is in your hands,” but in many ways that is true. As you have thought about this opportunity and your predecessors, Benny Parsons, the Darrell Waltrips who were able to take what they knew and loved about the sport and present it to the current generation in a way that was interesting, what do you think about this current generation, the millennial generation? What is it about NASCAR Sprint Cup racing that they will find interesting, and what do you want to do to try to unlock that interest of fans that are potential fans, not fans just yet?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think first, you’re absolutely right. I don’t think Jeff or myself or Rick for that matter takes it very lightly at all, the responsibility that we have to cover this sport for our fan base, for the partners, for the sponsors, for everyone who’s involved. You mentioned some great names there with DW and Benny and guys that have really set the bar on covering this sport with passion and excitement and have done a great job of telling the stories.
And I think as the fan base has changed or really as the world in general has changed and there’s a different wave of people, what entertains them and what excites them, NASCAR is still on the list. NASCAR is a very exciting sport, and there’s a tremendous amount of stars and great stories in the sport, and I think that is our key in putting on the show. The show is not the guys in the booth or the reporters. Our job is to bring the sport home, which are the drivers and the crew chiefs. That’s our goal, and I’m hoping at my age, I’m young, I’m 36, even with 20 years in the sport. I got a very early start; I became a crew chief in my mid-20s, so I’m on the younger side of people that have that much experience. I’m hoping that helps me connect maybe with the younger crowd, and I think that I see races different than other people, different than even Jeff in the booth, and that’s one of the coolest things I’ve found just with these practices and spending time is Jeff Burton is a driver’s driver and he watches the races from a driver’s standpoint and he points things out to me that even with 20 years’ experience I didn’t see the race that way, and he’s told me the same about myself, when I point things out as a crew chief, he finds that entertaining because it’s new to him, and I think Rick is a great kind of conductor to make sure that we both have our chance to put our points in there, and we’re going to disagree and we’re going to agree and we’re going to try to just explain what’s going on at the racetrack and the whys of it.
We have great directors, and they know how to get the cameras in the right places, and it’s going to be entertaining to watch, and we’re just going to try to fill those great pictures with the whys and our expertise from years in the sport.
SAM FLOOD: Just to chime in real quickly on the thought of audience and the diversity of the audience and the younger audience, we’ve hired in the pre-race show, I talked about the stars and the cars. There are also the racetracks themselves and the cities these tracks are in are stars in their own right, and Rutledge Wood has joined our team, and part of his task is to make the tracks stars and make people understand why it’s cool to go to Bristol, why you’ve got to make a trip at some point to Talladega when you’re a true NASCAR fan, why you have to experience a race in Watkins Glen. That’s all part of what his job is going to be, and then take you to some of the cool cultural elements that are around these racetracks and places you need to go. What’s that one spot you have to stop by in you’re in Martinsville. We all know about the hot dog, but there’s more to it than that, and if anyone can discover those things, it’s Rutledge, and that’s of the reasons he’s on board, to give a different view and a different take on these racetracks and these locations.
Sam, the second screen experience that everybody has kind of come to know and love, watching your big screen on the wall while watching your little screen in your lap and monitoring different things, what different things can we expect? What kind of integration are you planning? Will there be social media interaction with hosts or reporters? Will there be a way to wrap all that together for the super die-hards to gain more information than just what’s on the primary screen?
SAM FLOOD: The super die-hards and I’d say even the casual fan, should go to Live Extra and look at our digital offers. It’s going to be very deep, a lot of different views of the race, a lot of different ways to consume the race in new ways, both statistical information and visual, so you’re going to be able to see a number of different cameras, camera angles, and audio that you wouldn’t otherwise hear, so I think it’s a neat new opportunity, and our digital group is rolling it out this weekend. They’ve shown me a lot of the elements. I’m very excited about them. It’s a very smart plan, and hopefully it is as good an experience as we expect it to be.
Jeff and Steve, I’m just interested in I know you haven’t done a real race but you’ve done some practices and stuff. What’s been different about the television aspect that you might not have known coming in? What’s been easier or more difficult? What’s been different than your expectations?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think for me the complexity of it, the number of people that it takes, the number of different jobs that are out there that are required to be done. When you watch TV and you see a stat pop up on the screen, you really take that for granted. You don’t realize the number of people that had to go and do research and all the things that went into getting that stat that we take for granted.
The understanding, and this by the way was really good for me, the understanding that you’re part of a team, that I always knew there were a group of people that did television, that made it happen, but I didn’t understand it was so many people and what everybody did, and coming from a sports background, being part of a team for 35 years of my life, to experience that was good for me because it showed me that I am still part of a team.
That was the most surprising thing. You know, I’ve watched races when I was driving, just because there was an XFINITY race that I wasn’t in, I didn’t go play golf on Saturday afternoon, I watched the race. I’m a huge race fan. I love racing, so I’ve watched a lot of racing, but just understanding more how it all worked and how it gets put together, that’s been fascinating, and we’re still learning it. We went to Michigan a few weeks ago, and I think Steve and I were both like, ‘what do you do?’ and ‘what do you do?,’ and we don’t know. That’s been fascinating to me.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, I’m going to echo Jeff’s comments. For years everyone always asks what motivates a driver and a crew chief and everyone has different motivations, but what motivated me on top of the pit box was to know that I had 500 teammates back at Hendrick Motorsports that had put their blood, sweat and tears into that race car that I was taking to the racetrack and it was my responsibility to get the most out of it on a Sunday afternoon. That’s something I didn’t know it was going to exist or how would you replace it, and really what I’ve learned is it didn’t disappear.
Now with the NBC family, when we go to the racetrack and we see this large group of people, and even before the racetrack when we sit in meetings in Stamford at NBC Sports and sit with the graphics people and sit with all the people that make this show go on, it has given me the same sort of responsibility, the feeling of responsibility to these men and women who have done their jobs, who have done a tremendous job of getting us to this weekend. I mean, this has been, as they said at the top of the call, a two year buildup, and here we are, and we’re still going to learn, and we’re not going to get everything right here in Daytona, but I get to stand up there and cover these races, and I know that there are a tremendous list of talented people that have done their jobs, and I think that will push Jeff and I to continue to study, continue to practice, continue to review tape, continue to try to become as good in our new field as we were in our old field, and that challenge is very exciting.
Jeff, I guess when you were a driver, the media, we often sought you out for your comments, your perspective on a great many subjects, but back when you were driving, could you have imagined being in the booth and really calling a race and really doing it as a full time job?
JEFF BURTON: Well, you know, whatever I’ve ever done, I’ve just focused 100 percent on that. And so when I was in the XFINITY Series, and I know most people don’t believe this, but it’s true, I wasn’t focused on being a Cup driver, I was focused on being an XFINITY driver, so when I was driving a Cup car, I was focused on that.
When Sam reached out to me, you know, then I had to start thinking about it. And when I started thinking about it, it was very compelling to me. It was very interesting to me because it gave me the opportunity to stay involved in a sport that I truly love. I mean, I love motorsports, I love NASCAR; being a part of that family means something to me. And when I did drive, I didn’t want to just be a driver, I wanted to leave the sport in a place that was better than when I got to it. And I wasn’t the only one that did that, but I wanted to do that, too, because a lot of people did that for me.
So when this opportunity presented itself, it allowed me to do all those things. I wasn’t looking to quit working, I was just looking to not drive, I was looking to do something else, and this has given me an opportunity to go do something that still involves the thing that I really enjoy doing.
10 years ago could I have imagined it, no, not at all. Two years ago, I started imagining that maybe I could do it and Sam convinced me that I could, so here we are. I’m really excited about it, the opportunity to explain more than just the obvious, the opportunity to as Sam said earlier, to answer the question why. That’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to it. It’s taken on it feels like it’s been just yesterday when Sam and I first had our conversation. But it’s here now, and I’m excited about getting going.
How do you think these new rules, particularly at a track like Kentucky, how do you think they might affect the racing?
JEFF BURTON: That’s a great question. Steve and I are going to go, we’re going early to watch the open practices. We want to get as much information as we can. Steve and I have both been involved in a lot of tests throughout the years of taking downforce away, adding downforce. We have been part of a lot of those things.
I think it’s clear that taking downforce away is something that all the drivers want to do. I also think it’s clear that all the drivers want to add some mechanical grip in some form or fashion with the reduction in downforce. If those things can happen coincidentally, I think there’s a chance that the racing will improve. When I say improve, that’s a very broad topic. If people want to see more passing, if people want to see closer racing, there is potential for less downforce and more mechanical grip to make that happen. I don’t think there’s the potential for that with just less downforce, so there’s got to be an addition of tire grip, and I know Goodyear has worked really hard on the tire going to Kentucky. So I don’t want to call it a test because it’s a real race, but this is the first time that I’m aware of that we’re really taking downforce away and tried to add mechanical grip at the same time.
So if those things happen, we could see an improvement. If nothing else, it’s going to be really interesting to see who can do a good job of this, and let me tell you something: Every race matters, and I’ll go back to a long time ago, they put restrictor plates on the cars at New Hampshire. Our team embraced that. We said, hey, let’s go make it work. We went and tested, we went and worked, we qualified second and led every lap of that race, and everybody said that was because of the restrictor plate. It was because of the opportunity that the restrictor plate presented.
What I’m interested in seeing next week is what team takes this opportunity, what group takes this opportunity, doesn’t complain about it, doesn’t whine about it, isn’t happy about it, nothing, just sees it as an opportunity and does the best job with it, because no matter what the rules are, somebody is going to get that trophy, and so to me, that’s the more fascinating part of the race, who takes advantage of this opportunity, because this is a change.
To my knowledge NASCAR has never done this with the exception of that restrictor plate race, where they make a major change and say, hey, it’s potentially just for this one race. It’s just really, really to me it’s exceptionally interesting who can take advantage of it.
Rick, when you were calling races at Eagle Raceway, did you ever think you’d reach kind of the pinnacle of announcing in Motorsports, and what was it about that experience at Eagle is that kind of led you to want to go down this road?
RICK ALLEN: Well, when I was announcing dirt racing, dirt track racing, at Eagle Raceway just outside of Lincoln, I was doing it as a weekend job. My first priority was being the public address announcer for the University of Nebraska for basketball and all the other sports. It wasn’t a main focus of mine, and I guess I didn’t have aspirations of actually even being on television until I mean, amazingly, Sam Flood called my house and said, hey, you know, we’ve heard that you might be interested in being a part of broadcasting and doing television. Sam was smart enough at the time to let FOX hire me and teach me the ways of television so that 12 years later I could be doing what I’m doing working with this team and working once again with Sam Flood here with NBC Sports.
It’s a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to, I’ve always wanted to excel and be at the pinnacle of whatever I’m doing, and that’s what I consider doing now with NBC Sports is working with one of the most talented groups of people I’ve ever been around, calling the highest level of motorsports. So I’m very excited about it. I never dreamed that it could become a reality, but now that it’s only four days away, it’s definitely a reality and it’s a lot of fun.
Outside of the different circuits and the drivers, what’s been the biggest adjustment for you in getting ready for the Sprint Cup and XFINITY series and just NBC?
RICK ALLEN: I don’t know if it’s an adjustment or if it’s just the fact of getting to know people better. I think one of the biggest things that has happened over my career is I’ve become very close with all of the people that I’ve worked with, and I think that helps me in my job because I know discussions that I can have with the people that I work with. And when we’re on the air and we’re discussing something in particular, I can refer back to the fact that Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte both have sons that are right now involved in racing. Steve Letarte’s son was upside down in a go kart not very long ago, and we were able to kind of share that experience and how it went, and that’s something that I will have in the back of my mind. That was an experience that I’m sure scared him a little bit as a father.
So he’s going to be able to bring that out if we see an accident, where something takes place, or the excellence that it took for Jeff’s son Harrison to win in the late models and the races. Those are things that we can pull that out because we get to know each other better.
So I think the biggest change for me is just getting to know the people better than just being coworkers. I consider them friends, close friends, all of the people that I work with, so that we can carry on a conversation during a broadcast as opposed to just give the information that’s taking place on the track. It’s going to feel like you’re sitting down on the couch with us and watching the race, that you’re sitting next to us and we’re discussing the race with you, and that’s because the chemistry that we have isn’t just coworkers, it’s friends.
Jeff and Steve, I’ve known Jeff since South Boston Speedway way back in the 1980s, the two of you have grown up in a racing career and learned and learned and learned. How challenging is what you faced then compared to the challenges of what you face now?
JEFF BURTON: Well, we want to be really good at this. You know, we don’t and I say we, I’m talking about everybody at NBC, we want to do a really good job, and we know we’re going to make mistakes along the way. But we know it’s going to be hard.
We can there’s two ways you can approach this. You can approach it as a part time job or you can approach it as a full time job and want to be really, really good at it, and that’s the way we’re all approaching it, so there are going to be challenges, there are going to be a lot of them, because we care. I owe it to everyone that I work with to do the very best job I can, and everyone that works with me owes that to me. That’s the accountability in this thing.
To be quite honest with you, and I’m going to speak one thing I know about myself, it’s really smart to know what you don’t know, and there’s a lot I don’t know. Some of the challenges that are going to be in front of me, I don’t even know what they are yet. To this date the hardest thing has been just learning when to talk, like when do I talk, when does Steve just getting that flow working, which I think that went pretty quick. But I think the biggest challenge is ahead of us. I think the longer we’re around this sport, the more we’re going to have to work. It’s not the opposite.
I think two years from now, we’re going to have to work harder to know the stories, to know the things in the garage that we know now because we’ve been so involved in it. So I think when I accepted this position, I knew that this was a job that was going to take a lot of effort, but I didn’t understand and still today don’t understand all the challenges because I’m new at it.
But I do know that we will have to work in 2017, 2018. We’re going to have to work in those years harder than what we’re working now to make sure we are really involved and that we really understand, because we owe it to the fans to know what we’re talking about. And to me, that’s the challenge that I know, but I know there’s a lot of challenges that I don’t know and that I don’t understand.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, I’ll simply say that I truly believe that the position doesn’t determine how challenging it is, it’s the person that holds the position. With all the years I’ve had at my former position and my former job, I felt just as much pressure when I was the tire guy for Evernham as I did when I was the car chief for Robbie Loomis, as I did when I was the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., because that’s how I’ve been raised. My father raised me if you’re going to do something, do it to the absolute best of your ability, and that pressure to perform, the challenge that you put ahead of yourself, it didn’t change through all those positions, so I don’t expect it to change in this new position. I expect it to be just as difficult, just as challenging, because that’s my goal is to make it difficult and make it challenging because I didn’t take this job to just cruise through it. I took this job to be great at it, and that’s what Sam expects, that’s what the NASCAR fans expect, and I’m very new at it, and much like Jeff said, there’s a tremendous amount I don’t know, and that I think is what makes Daytona is exciting here in a few days is it’s real, it’s here, it’s not practice anymore, and I think it’s time. I feel prepared, and I’m sure when the race is over on Sunday, I’ll have a whole new list of things that I need to prepare for differently than when I go to Kentucky. If I don’t, then I’ll be disappointed that I wasn’t as hard on myself as I should be
As a race car driver and as a crew chief, some of the greatest moments are standing in victory lane and collecting that trophy and the checkered flag and everything. Will every race you do as an announcer almost be like a victory lane to start off with?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, first I would say as a crew chief, I know it would mean obvious that it’s victory lane, but there’s a tremendous amount or list of victories that I’ve had that are not only on the racetrack. There are people that I’ve hired young in age that have turned into great engineers and crew chiefs on other race teams. There are a lot of people that I’ve been able to affect. It’s not just winning on Sunday. There’s a lot more to the position that I held, and I think that when I go back and listen to some of the practices we’ve done, there have been some small victories in there of segments or an exciting part of the race or pit strategy that I’ve explained that I felt like we really did a good job at, and then I have a list of those same moments that were not very well covered.
So I think that you have to look at every opportunity as a small victory and kind of try to stack them together and make it into a good production.
JEFF BURTON: Yeah, I think in racing, it’s really easy to know who won. Just look in victory lane. I think for us, I think we’re going to feel good about it or we’re going to feel bad about it, and like Steve said, there’s going to be points of every race that we do really good, there’s going to be points of races that we don’t do good, and hopefully the longer we do it we’ll have less points in the races that we don’t do so well.
But I think that goes to what we were talking about earlier, is that we have to be willing. In a race, it’s real easy. We won, we finished second, we finished third. For us to know what we did, we’ve got to go back and take time to go back and review the race. We’ve got to be willing to listen to the constructive criticism. We’ve got to be willing to criticize ourselves and critique ourselves.
It’s going to be harder in this situation to know if we won or not, right? But the key is the willingness to do that, and that’s just a matter of taking the time to do it and not having an ego big enough where you’re willing to listen.
First off, I want to direct my question to Jeff, Steve and Rick to talk about Kyle Busch’s return. It’s the first race since Daytona, and obviously that’s going to be a sticking point not a sticking point but something that will be of much discussion, so I wanted to get your perspective on that as far as a driver approach, a crew chief approach, and what do you think is going through his head and how you think he’ll be preparing for this race as opposed to the other people.
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think that he will be putting a tremendous effort into winning this race. I thought we saw that Sunday. I know from personal experience that when you have something done or you did something to yourself at a particular racetrack, it makes you want to win that next race that much more, because now you’ve conquered something that you felt like conquered you.
So I expect a tremendous effort. Some people think, well, he’ll be scared to race a restrictor plate. There’s nothing scared in Kyle Busch. I expect him to put a huge effort out there to try to win this race, and he needs as many points as he can. It’s very clear to him and that team that they’ve got part 1 done in their quest to make the Chase, but they’ve got to have great finishes for the next 10 weeks to make it happen.
Steve, is there anything you can say as a former crew chief that would kind of ease a driver’s tension if he has any tension about going back to a place like that?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think that what makes drivers special, what makes these superstars very unique and what makes their stories necessary to be told is they are unlike you and I. They are a unique breed. That’s why they’re behind the wheel. Not only do they have a remarkable talent. You know, I love racing. If I could drive, I would. As a little kid, I wanted to be a driver. Anyone who loves racing as a little kid wants to be the driver. I don’t have the ability to do it. These guys that we watch on Sunday do. They have an uncanny ability to drive a race car in a level of competition that I can’t dream of.
But what also makes them unique is their mental toughness, and I think Kyle Busch has been talked about a lot over the years for some of his emotional explosions on the radio, but I think what we’ve seen in the last six or eight weeks with his return, Sonoma was spectacular but I was impressed when he got back into a race car in Charlotte and was so unbelievably fast in a new package that he has never driven. To be in the top 5 in practices, that proved to me that it was only a question of when he proved on Sunday that that question has now been answered, and I think coming back to Daytona will be special because I agree with Jeff, he’s going to want to conquer the place that forced him to sit out of a race car. But other than that, I think he is. I guarantee he’s coming off the plane here expecting to win, putting forth a winning effort, and that’s what makes him and the other 42 people that will fine up on Sunday very unique individuals.
Jeff, Steve and Rick, do you have a favorite? Do you have anybody that you think should be the person to pick as far as the race this coming Sunday?
STEVE LETARTE: We’ll see how practice goes.
RICK ALLEN: You guys jumped all over that question, didn’t you.