Four ESPN principals say what moving on means to them.
It’s impossible to calculate how much of NASCAR’s current success is due at least in part to ESPN, which first televised live NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in 1981, and that continued until 2000 when, as it will next year, the network lost the rights to the racing.
ESPN was back in the sport in 2007, and through the end of 2014 – the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway November 16 – has continuously since then been a large part of NASCAR.
The network made available ESPN vice-president of motorsports production Rich Feinberg; lap-by-lap announcer Allen Bestwick, pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, and analyst and former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace for a farewell conference call. I participated on behalf of Motorsport.com. Here’s a condensed, edited version of the conversation:
Jerry Punch, you've been with ESPN since 1984. This is ESPN's 28th year televising live NASCAR racing, and you've been part of almost all of that. What are some of your top two or three memories from those years?
JERRY PUNCH: I'd be hard pressed to pick out one memory. Someone asked me last week how many times I've interviewed a champion, and because of the question I was asked to go back and count it up, and there have been 29 NASCAR champions in the 66 year history of the sport. I went back and counted, and I've interviewed 24 of the 29. Five I didn't get to talk with, and 20 of those 24 I actually interviewed while they were still competing in the sport, so I feel like I've been very blessed over the years from talking with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip in the early years to the phenomenal performance of Jimmie Johnson.
But I have to say, Alan Kulwicki's championship win in that final race when he pulled into victory lane in 1992 in Atlanta, pulled there into the start finish line to be interviewed, and Richard Petty's last race, that's one of those moments I'll never forget. Alan, driving the Underbird, the young man who came from Wisconsin with, as we said back in those days, a pickup truck and a pocketful of dreams and chased his dream and became a NASCAR champion with very few resources.
It was a day in which Davey Allison could have won it, Bill Elliott could have won it, and either one of those would have been great stories, but Kulwicki wins it and then we do the interview, and I turn and my producer in my earpiece says, now turn and say something because we're going to introduce Richard Petty. So I turned and introduced Richard Petty, and his rebuilt damaged race car comes out of the garage in Atlanta and makes one final lap and then comes down pit road, and we are feeding the house, the local Atlanta Motor Speedway as well as those watching on national television, and I interview Richard, and I caught myself because he gets out of the car, and for the first time I saw tears in his eyes and going down his cheek, and they were on my cheeks because I realized how special that moment was. It just doesn't get much better than that. I'd say those were probably at or near the top.
Allen, in an interview you did a couple weeks ago you were talking about the history of ESPN and NASCAR and you made the point that ESPN came along at the right time in NASCAR's history. Could you elaborate on that?
ALLEN BESTWICK: It's something that's very much been on my mind as I've reflected over these last eight years. If you look back on the history of both ESPN and NASCAR separately, you come back to ESPN and NASCAR together inevitably. NASCAR was this budding sport that had all this product, this great racing and these great characters, and it needed exposure, and this thing called cable TV came along, and this group that had an idea for a 24 hour all sports television network, and they needed sports, and they got together.
For a kid like me who grew up in the Northeast as a fan of local modified racing, all of a sudden I was able to see Rockingham and Martinsville and North Wilkesboro and Bristol and all these great places, and they made me want to go to those racetracks, those early telecasts, and at the same time, it drew me to this thing called ESPN, to watch, and it became a part of my daily lifestyle habit.
I don't think that NASCAR would be the sport and the entity it is today, and ESPN would not be the worldwide leader in sports today if they didn't have each other. You can't separate the history of ESPN from NASCAR and the history of NASCAR from ESPN. They're just interlocked together in what's made them what they are today.
Rusty, you got out of the race car at the end of the 2005 season and then you went right into TV, which was the plan for you. You've said many times that that was part of the reason you retired is that you had the TV deal waiting. How was it for you back then when you started off as pretty raw getting out of the car and getting into TV and started out doing IndyCar racing? How was it for you back then as a rookie?
RUSTY WALLACE: Well, first of all, I enjoy television, no doubt about that, and ESPN has made a lot of opportunities for me. But I'll tell you, it was tough on me, it really was, because I made a lot of mistakes. Just the way I presented everything, I was talking too fast, I was letting my sentences run together. I was doing just a lot of “Rustyisms,” and I had to learn to TV talk. I had to learn how to present a little bit better.
But that said, I had some good tutoring from the folks at ESPN to kind of clean that stuff up and get better at it, and I just had such a good time with the guys. I really have. ESPN has given me a lot of opportunities. I never thought in a million years that I'd come out of the car in 2005, and in 2006 I'd be calling the entire year as an analyst with Scott Goodyear up doing IndyCar racing. But I did, I did the Indianapolis 500 as an analyst in '06, I did the Indy 500 as an analyst in '07, and I had a great time with the IndyCar crowd.
And then when we got the NASCAR program, working in the booth for a year there, but then the brand new NASCAR Countdown show came on, and I was asked if I'd like to come down and do that, and I did, so I was with Allen with a host of other people, and now Brad Daugherty and Nicole Briscoe. But ESPN has allowed me to do a lot of different things in the sport; like I said, IndyCar, NASCAR in the booth, NASCAR in the studio, NASCAR on SportsCenter, all the NASCAR Now shows we've had. All kinds of different platforms, and I've learned so much, and nowadays when I go around to the races, a lot of race fans come up to me whether I'm at an airport or at the track, and they say, we really love your commentating. They used to say, we really love your driving. It's really changed a little bit, and ESPN has kept my name out there and kept me relevant and kept me going.
I work hard at it, though. I'm constantly down in the garage areas talking to people and come up with some related stories and stuff and some behind the scenes stuff, but I'm going to miss ESPN I really will.
There's not a day that goes by that I don't think I could still do it behind the wheel as a racer, and I still think that. But I'm smart enough to realize that that's not the smart thing to try to do again.
I love the television side of it, and again, I just love what ESPN has done for me. We're all a close family. We all get along good. We've all had our bumps in the road. We've all learned, and I wish we were continuing on, but we're not.
Q. For Rich, I know going forward, a lot of fans and viewers have wondered what can they expect from ESPN next year as far as NASCAR coverage? Some people are afraid that it's going to be totally ignored. Other people are wondering if you guys are going to just report on like the big events and ignore some of the other races. Do you have any sense of what that coverage might be like next year?
RICH FEINBERG: I do, and I can assure those asking the question and all fans out there that we're going to continue to cover NASCAR across all our news and information platforms in a very significant way. We don't have rights agreements with many different sports out there, but SportsCenter has an obligation to their fans to cover all sports, and as you may know, we recently announced that some of our folks who work on NASCAR are staying with the company long term like Ricky Craven and Marty Smith. We obviously have a lot of outlets for all our content, both over the air, cable, digital, dot com, et cetera. Our plans are to fulfill the interests of NASCAR fans who watch all our news and information programming, and I can tell you I personally have already been involved in our planning for coverage for the Daytona 500 in 2015 next year.
I don't think you'll see much of a change. We obviously won't be doing the races, but in terms of serving the interests of fans with our news and information coverage, we're full steam ahead.
Q. Rich, I wanted to ask you a question about ESPN going forward from here. You still have some motorsports properties, most notably NHRA. I was wondering if you saw an opportunity to maybe use some NASCAR resources and enhance coverage of that or any other motorsports series.
RICH FEINBERG: Well, in addition to the NHRA, where we've had a long-standing partnership and continue to have one is in the IndyCar Series, particularly the Indianapolis 500. This year, this past year was the 50th anniversary of ABC's coverage of the Indy 500, and next year it'll be the 99th Indy 500, and of particular interest to me as a race fan, the chance to do the 100th Indy 500 in two years.
Most of the motorsports I've been involved with over the years and behind the scenes there is lots of crossover. It may not be that apparent to the viewer. Normally things like the talent or the graphic looks or things that the average person would notice, but in terms of some of our technicians, our remote mobile unit facilities, partners who we work with in different technology, there's quite a bit of sharing already going on, and as we continue to go forward, if there are particular resources that perhaps have had a heavier weight of NASCAR assignments, it would certainly be my intent to keep them involved in our other motorsports properties. You know, whether it's the NHRA or IndyCar or NASCAR, candidly we go in to every telecast with the same goals in mind, and that's to serve our viewers. Behind the scenes there's already a lot of that sort of synergy that you're referring to in our production approach.
Q. Allen, correct me if I'm wrong, but you've been doing NASCAR since '86 since joining at MRN, and I wanted to ask you what will it be like next year without NASCAR? And secondly, at Homestead, when you sign off, what do you hope to convey with your final words?
ALLEN BESTWICK: Well, a couple things there. First, what will next year be like? It'll be different. You know, my life has been centered around daily involvement with this sport since 1986. It will be very different.
But at the same time, the opportunities that ESPN has afforded me and the events that I'm going to get to be involved in and get to be around are exciting. They're a big deal to me. They're going to be fun. They're new, and I mean, I'm going to have a chance to be involved in and around the British Open at St. Andrews next summer. How could you not be excited about that? It'll be very different. I'm a fan. I'll always be paying attention and I'll always be watching, but it'll be different, and obviously the thing that I'll miss the most are the friends that I've made along the way.
As far as Homestead, Homestead is about the champion. Homestead is about crowning a champion, and it's about whatever it is that we see unfold on the racetrack that night, and that's going to be the focus of our telecast.