The first part of Sunday’s media column — a conversation with new Fox TV analyst Jeff Gordon heading into the Auto Club 400 — is at this link.
Here’s more from where that came from:
Q: We watched video again of how the Daytona 500 ended and how you and Darrell tried to predict the finish, what drivers might do what. Then Denny Hamlin makes a move, slides by Martin Truex and you get the closest finish in Daytona history – the first race you get to call. You say right at the end: ‘I got chills in my spine. That was amazing.’ Is that still amazing to you how you got to be there on your first real day at TV work?
A: (Sighs) I mean, what I’ve realized stepping out of the driver’s seat and into the broadcast booth … I guess .. I forgot how much I just love racing. Over the years as a driver, as a competitor, you get so focused on the race and you aren’t able to step away and view the sport in a way you’re a fan. I really am a fan. When I’m in the booth, that fan comes out and I get excited for every race, for every green flag, can’t wait to see the race, what the drivers’ are doing. Two of the four races we’ve had so far, right at the wire, photo finishes. When you’re inside the car, or from broadcasting, it’s just so exciting. To see that race come like that was a huge thrill.
Q: You’re able to see the beauty of the sport from a whole new perspective?
A: Absolutely. As well as you see how crazy some of those drivers are as they come to the finish – and to realize, I was one of those crazy drivers, sliding and banging and going three wide at 200 miles an hour … I can’t believe I was out there doing it.
Q: And you’re around to talk about it.
A: Yeah, I feel very fortunate. I walked away at a great time, a great final season, a great career, I’m healthy and very content and fulfilled and still get to be part of this.
Q: Have you experienced any blowback from drivers yet from things you’ve said about them? Sometimes an athlete who leaves the field doesn’t want to step on toes of recent competitors, feeling almost he’s part of that fraternity.
A: (Laughing) I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and look at things from both sides and see as many camera angles on things. That probably bit me a little bit at the beginning when someone just crashed and you’re looking at the damage to the cars and the marks that led them into the wall and you start to say, ‘Maybe this happened ..’
I’ve learned: Don’t speculate. Don’t say, ‘I think …’ Wait until you’ve got as many facts as possible. Still, I’ll call it as I see it and if a competitor has an issue with it, we can discuss it. If they can prove I wasn’t right, I’ll be the first to admit it.
Q: At Fontana, you’ve had success (a three-time winner, going back to 1997) … people like to refer to this as the “L.A. race” or the “Hollywood visit” by NASCAR. You know better How much of that really happens and how much are you really out there on the outskirts, at the track, pretty far from all that glamour? How do you frame the Fontana visit to those who don’t know as much?
A: You wish you could always come to L.A. for an extra day or two. I got to do some voice-over stuff for a Disney cartoon yesterday. There’s a side of Hollywood we can tap into, with celebrities at the race. The beautiful weather. But what’s impressed me is the fan base we have out here. Tremendously loyal and avid. I was in the garage (Friday morning) at 7:30 a.m. and couldn’t believe how many were already out for autographs and teams to unload their cars.
Q: When we think of you in L.A. now, we have this Fox promo to watch – where it looks like the L.A. police have you on a freeway chase, only to follow you over to the Fox lot and get a selfie taken with you. That was funny but did it convey well? Police chases may be seen as entertainment to some but they can be pretty dangerous in real life. Did you get some good feedback on it?
A: Well, I’ve done a couple of pranks before over the years with Pepsi Max, and people have related me to some of these things. I think everyone took it in good jest and Fox did a great job the way they laid it out and you get to the end and it’s funny. It got far more attention than I think we ever expected. I applaud them for doing it and the way they introduced me to this season as a broadcaster. It was a lot of fun.
Q: Nobody needs another O.J. Simpson-like celebrity police chase down the 405. Glad you came out of that one OK.
A: Me too (laughing).
Q: If there were any reservations might Jeff had coming into the booth, have you been able to smooth over in the last few months?
A: As a driver, your whole world is so structured with meetings and appearances and that might have been, ironically, most overwhelming. A lot forget that as an active pro athlete, he had a lot more experience in the media than anyone with ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Pepsi commercials, then last year as a guest on Xfinity races. Of any other uber-driven athlete as Jeff, I don’t think there was ever a doubt about his preparation side Maybe it was more on how he’d come off, how well he’d play with others, that kind of the stuff was in the back of his mind. All your success as a Hall of Famer is based on performance — how you finished, winning or losing, the purse. Now you’re transitioning to the world of broadcasting, a completely subjective business, no exact science why people like or dislike you. He was prepared for all that. He’d finish a practice show and ask: How’d it go? We can work on this or that, or do it that way one time and another way another time. Jeff is smart enough to figure this out. He knows at the end of the day the same thing that got him to what made him a great driver will get him to that same place as an announcer. The one person who gives the best results is yourself. A lot of athletes don’t want to do this job. A big part of what we do in producing is protect people with microphones. If you wrote down the jobs in the world that made you most vulnerable, it would be having a microphone in your hand in front of millions of people that would be close to the top.
Q: What other ex-athletes could you compare Gordon to at this stage in broadcasting?
A: Take a Troy Aikman. He was about as successful as Jeff in sports, had the same drive and determination and self awareness, and all that made him an excellent analyst. He’s got thick skin, but it he isn’t a guy who won’t listen to anyone. He’s realistic. From a Fox perspective, for sure, Troy and Jeff are two excellent examples of how guys have done it best. We have discussions among us all the time: Look at the history of TV and which announcers are highly successful at their craft? Very few turn out to be good broadcasters. I’ve had the pleasure as well to work eight football seasons with Darryl Johnston, and he’s the same way. He understands it’s all about hard work, homework, just as it was as a player. And none of these guys are into broadcasting because it keeps their name in bright lights. They love the sport so much they want to stay involved in some major level. That’s a big difference. There are plenty of examples of broadcasters who have taken the mike just to stay relevant. That’s not the driving factor with Jeff. He’s an absolute pleasure to deal with — first to show up at meetings, last to leave. You see the success he had at the track coming into the booth.
Q: How do you see the chemistry between and Darrell Waltrip working despite what might be out there on social media?
A: First we knew Jeff would get offered some TV jobs, but with us having Mike Joy and a fan favorite like DW, that had to be appealing. We knew he could grow with it instead of straight out being the spotlight guy and still make it happen.
Back at Daytona we had the benefit of doing preliminary races and practices. We realized Jeff is a different kind of entertainer than DW. While Darrell may be more colorful, Jeff has a knack for figuring out quickly what’s happening, what are the nuances, and make it very palatable. At Daytona, he made the huge decision: I’ll talk about what I know and bridge the game between my knowledge and that of the viewer, and he took advantage of that. I had no doubts people would like him. He can find things and foreshadow things like Tim McCarver would do in his heyday.
No one wants to tune and listen to someone talk to them like they’re an outsider. You hear NFL broadcasters sometimes throw out terms like a ‘Cover Zero Cloud.’ Half of that is BS. Some race car analysts might say that if someone is changing two rear tires on a pit stop, it has to do with getting ‘on a different pit cycle.’ What does that mean?
As for him and Darrell, there’s no BS whatsoever. Darrell realizes what he and Jeff have in common is they’re multi-champions at the highest level, but he also understands Jeff’s personality is much different than his. He’s smart enough to use what Jeff brings. The audience may treat them as if they’re both the same, but they both know Jeff is new to this. They do disagree on somethings. And that’s good because they respect each other.
They may be in a discussion about a car’s breaks. Jeff says: Now a days, a driver can adjust all four corners of the breaks. Darrell might come back: Why? That’s why so many of them screw things up. And Jeff might agree. It’s bringing two generations together in a cool dynamic. Darrell is a good ol’ gearhead and Jeff grew up when engineers build the cars. Seeing them together is great. We had a dinner the other night in Phoenix and I laughed so hard listening to them go back and forth. No nasty digs, just two guys telling tales about racing. That’s what we want to bring. And both these guys know what they’re talking about.