Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: The 2009 NASCAR Chase Field Hits Manhattan, Hard Rock Café Style

A few weeks back, one of my colleagues at Frontstretch, Mr. Phil Allaway, wrote an excellent piece on how ESPN put together at-track NASCAR race broadcasts. It was the sort of behind the scenes “Insider” look at the sport that you don’t often get to read and if you haven’t checked it out you really should. So with Phil’s column in mind, I thought I would do something similar, albeit on a much less impressive and detailed level, for the Chase Drivers Media Day that I attended yesterday with Tom Bowles, our site’s Managing Editor.

The venue was the Hard Rock Café in Times Square, Manhattan and it was an opportunity for TV, radio and print media members to interview all 12 of the Chase field before we get underway with race one of the final 10 this weekend at Loudon, N.H.

Despite the inclement rainy weather, upon arrival at the Hard Rock, NASCAR’s presence was immediately obvious by the cluster of fans surrounding the two “show” cars parked right outside the location. But my first stop was to pick up my credential. Now, I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of live sports events over the years but despite that I still love getting a credential – it makes you feel so wonderfully “part of something” regardless of the fact that it’s just a ribbon, a colored piece of card and a large clear plastic folder.

Anyway, I digress… the event itself was held in what the Hard Rock Café website describes as their Live Venue; a subterranean space that includes a stage and room for up to 600 people. There were booths set up for the radio broadcasts and also a 20×5 meter high backdrop, resplendent with NASCAR and Chase logos for the TV crews to shoot against. Then there were high-backed director-style chairs for the drivers to sit in and be grilled by the print media.

As you would expect at such an event, there was plenty of food and drink for the hungry masses to consume with plate upon plate piled high with deli sandwiches, oversize bowls of pasta and salad, a sumptuous array of pastries and sweet treats and the requisite coffees, teas and sodas. The format for the event was simple. Drivers were shuttled into the “Live Event” room on a meticulous schedule by their PR handlers and some NASCAR folks and each would spend some time with the radio crews, the TV cameras and then the print and online media.

Once a driver had completed radio and TV chores, they were “announced” on the floor for us writers (just in case any of us failed to recognize someone.) At that point, depending on which particular driver it was, the reporters gather round and start firing off questions.

Now, although it’s a scene I’ve witnessed live and on television on multiple occasions, it struck me especially that it must be such a bizarre experience for the person getting interviewed. Having so many digital voice recorders shoved just inches from their noses (and in some cases for those overzealous types hoping not to miss a pearl of wisdom this is literally 2-3 inches from said driver’s face) must be strange no matter how many times you experience it.

What’s fascinating, too, is the range of questions and the angles at which the writers query the drivers. Some ask the same generic questions (which tracks are you looking forward to visiting, who are the biggest threats, how is it to be in New York, do New Yorkers care a hoot about NASCAR, etc.). Others clearly have stories in mind and ask their questions accordingly – sometimes about one specific Chase driver.

You also can’t help but note how the actual questions are asked: Some ask in clear concise fashion; some garble their questions and others ramble, often to the point of distraction. As for me, I mostly sat back and listened. In fact, I asked but a handful of questions all day – and more on that later.

That said, it’s always interesting to listen to a driver field questions for an extended period (anything from 15-25 minutes) as you can start to get a much clearer sense of their “off-track” personality – what makes them tick if you will – than you can from the brief sound bites you typically get on the pre-race and race broadcasts.

One such individual is Jimmie Johnson. I know he gets labeled with being “vanilla,” but the guy clearly has a fantastic dry sense of humor. And before you start in the comments section, the No. 48 is not my favorite driver – not even close. Here’s an example. When asked what makes crew chief Chad Knaus so special, he paused, chuckled, paused again and said “I’m trying to be nice now….”

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Johnson continued more seriously on the subject of his tightly wound crew chief, giving some insight into just why they’ve become such a formidable team, “What makes him happy is to build fast racecars. That’s what his life revolves around. At times he can be misunderstood but if you really think about what makes him go… it’s performing and building fast racecars.

“The guy’s intense. He asks a lot out of himself and the people who work for him and nobody puts in more hours than he does… We have a hundred and something engineers at our race shop and Chad brings more new ideas and develops them without a formal education than any of these guys with degrees do. He has a way to somehow figure it out. It’s really amazing. He drives a lot of the technology that comes through Hendrick Motorsports.”

One other common theme on the day was parity; with almost every driver commenting on the Chase being more open than it has been in years. I’ll defer here to Mark Martin, and it’s fair to say I could listen to the veteran talk racing all day. His passion and enthusiasm for the sport is incredible, even after so many years and so many near misses and disappointments. “I don’t think there’s any darkhorse,” said the 39-time race winner, “I’d be really surprised if [Juan Pablo] Montoya can’t make a charge for it [the championship]. I’ve been watching him. I think there’s more there.

“Definitely know [Greg] Biffle and Carl [Edwards] are capable of hitting it even though they’re not on it right now, they’re capable of hitting it. And all they’ve got to do is hit it and get on for 10 [races].” Let’s hope the old boy is right in his assessment and the 2009 Chase goes right down to the wire at Homestead.

And to finish: I’ve mentioned before in this column, I’m a huge fan of the Speed Channel show This Week in NASCAR. So I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask regular guest Biffle about his experiences on the show with the loquacious wheelmen on the No. 55 NAPA Camry. There really was only one approach, so I just came straight out with it, asking the Biff what was what more difficult: winning a Sprint Cup race or getting Michael Waltrip to shut up on This Week in NASCAR?

“Getting Michael to shut up,” was his instant answer… “It’s tough, really tough. But we’ve got to deal with Jimmy Spencer now. He’s going to be on the show as a regular guest… and he’ll come in and give his loud mouth opinions. I just tell him to shut up…” said Biffle with a smile.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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