"Racing in America is a second-tier sport. And that bothers me less than it used to."
I first interviewed motorsports broadcaster Dave Despain at one of ESPN’s now-legendary “Thursday Night Thunder” shows at Winchester Speedway in Indiana, which means two things: Since that was in the late 1990s, Despain and I must be pretty old (he turns 68 in May), and that we’ve been doing this for a long, long time.
When Fox killed off Speed last year to make it into one more general sports network, Despain lost his job, which was primarily the host of “Wind Tunnel,” which began as a truly vital motorsports talk show, but was shortened and neutered as Fox pushed harder and harder to eliminate anything that wasn’t all-NASCAR from the racing roster.
“And I thought that might have been it for my career,” Despain said. And a good, long career it has been: His love for motorcycles led him to become the public relations department for the American Motorcycle Association, which led to broadcasting some motorcycle races, which led to work as a pit reporter for NASCAR races on WTBS and CBS.
He then moved to the fledgling ESPN, and then in 2000 – with ESPN outbid for NASCAR races – he moved to the fledgling Speedvision. Which became Speed, which became another Fox Sports channel, and Despain was out of a job, along with a lot of others.
Shortly after, Despain called Forrest Lucas, owner of Lucas Oil and the fledgling (that’s a word that appears often in Despain’s life) MAV-TV, the relatively new cable network that, from Thursday to Sunday, focuses mainly on motorsports. (The rest of the week it’s primarily a “man’s” network, with lots of wrestling and Sylvester Stallone movies).
“I asked Forrest if he thought there might be room on television for a driver interview show,” Despain recalls. “He said he thought there was.” This led to two conversations with Bob Patison, longtime Lucas executive who was heading up MAV-TV, and that led to “The Dave Despain Show,” which premieres tonight (April 25) on MAV-TV at 8 p.m. ET, and repeats tonight at 11 p.m., then re-airs twice on Sunday.
It’s a half-hour show where Despain sits down with one motorsports personality for an in-depth interview. First up is drag racing champion John Force, and subsequent shows will feature a variety of racers, from NASCAR’s Kyle Larson to IndyCar legend Bobby Unser to AMA Supercross champ Jeremy McGrath to Grave Digger monster truck driver Dennis Anderson.
“We tape the interviews, which means we can spend as long as we want, a wonderful luxury I’ve seldom had before – my interviews have usually been short and sweet. This lets us get some wonderful material, and we cull it down to the most interesting, revealing, funniest stories the driver has to tell. It really turned out to be a wonderful way to do it.”
So once again, Despain finds himself on a network that is using motorsports to help increase demand for it, which hopefully will cause fans who don’t get MAV-TV to call their cable providers and ask for it. MAV-TV, Despain said, “has the potential to fulfil the dream that went away when Speedvison became a Fox entity with the inevitable, in retrospect, Fox emphasis on NASCAR. Which is fine. Fox is in the broadcasting business, they aren’t in the racing business.”
MAV-TV, which is currently airing racing series ranging from the Pirelli World Challenge to drag boats to endurocross, has already acquired a few programs from Speed, such as “My Classic Car.” They are serious, Despain said, “about trying to provide interesting programming for people who like a lot of different kinds of racing. They are making a push to be in more homes, and I think that’s why they wanted me. I don’t want to sound like I’m patting myself on the back, but I have some credibility and a lot of years in the business, and they are hoping my presence have help get people to call the cable provider and tell them, ‘We want MAV.’”
Of course, there’s precedent. “ESPN was just a funny little network showing Australian Rules Football in the 1970s. Then they did a NASCAR deal to have weekly live programming, and people called theirscable company, and it worked. ESPN was built on the backs of race fans. Then they turned around and 20 years later, did it again with ESPN2.”
It may not be as easy in 2014, Despain said, “but race fans are loyal people. They want to see their stuff on TV.” Having Lucas backing it “is crucial, as Forrest has deep pockets and an abiding love of motorsports, and that’s a good combination.”
Is it surprising that no one has a weekly motorsports highlight show, that airs a little about a lot of racing? It is, Despain said, “but I have to conclude that it’s a dodgy business model. That kind of show apparently doesn’t have the kind of following that makes it must-have programming for any network.
“ESPN would be the logical place for that but ESPN, when you get down to it, doesn’t care that much about motorsports. They come and go and when they have a lot of money invested in a NASCAR deal for example, then they are all in for the run of that contract. But then as we’ve just seen they are not committed for the long haul. They are there when it suits management’s particular objective.
“By the yardstick that measures modern day sports, racing isn’t in that mix, as much as NASCAR likes to tell everyone that it is a major league sport. Racing in America is a second-tier sport. And that bothers me less than it used to. I used to go crazy over that because to me, it’s the only sport that matters.”
So now, Dave Despain finds himself in a pretty good place – “semi-retired,” he said, with plenty of time to ride, and work on, his motorcycles, and this fall, he’s planning on making his annual ride to Mexico. “I have lots of time to ride motorcycles, but still the opportunity to put together some pretty worthwhile racing shows. It’s be best of all worlds.”