Here’s another insightful installment from Elon Werner, all about interviews. Most fans just see the athlete, or coach, in front of a microphone, or in a room full of shouting reporters, and don’t have any idea how all of that happens, or why some sports stars might seem put off or grumpy to have to do it. There’s former football star Marshawn Lynch with his classic answer for every question, “I’m only here so I don’t get fined” and star big league pitcher Zack Greinke, who has suffered from social anxiety disorder his whole life. It got so bad right after he made the Major Leagues he wanted to quit the game, despite his love for pitching and the many millions of dollars he would eventually be paid. If you don’t have it, you can’t relate. I try to relate, but I don’t have it.
People are different. Some crave the limelight and others want nothing to do with it. Some can’t wait to talk to reporters and others think there is nothing worse in their world. I’m telling you it doesn’t define them as good or bad people. We’re all just people. We’re different. I understand it. As a matter of fact, many of the most reclusive athletes who seem to hate interviews are consistently considered great teammates and friends in the locker room and on the field. They’re good guys. They just aren’t comfortable with a mic in their face.
Personally, in my own small corner of the sports universe, I’ve been interviewed far more times than I’ve been the host. I’ve, obviously, seen both sides of it a million times, and in motorsports I know who is apt to give the same canned answers versus the drivers who will ramble on for multiple minutes. We’re all different.
When I first started working for Del Worsham, back in 1997, he was basically terrified of microphones and cameras. It all started when he won two races as a 21-year-old rookie and had to do impromptu interviews at the top end after just having jumped out of the car. As he put it, “I knew they were there, so I drove the car all the way around the corner and down the return road to get away from them. And when I got out of the car there they were. They followed me!”
Del didn’t dislike the media. He liked them a lot, as people. He just didn’t have the confidence to feel like he had anything important to say. He was nervous. He really just wanted to drive but professional sports aren’t conducted in a vacuum, so he had to adapt.
One day, maybe a year after I joined the team, I got interviewed about something, and Del was watching and listening. When it was over he said, “You made that look so easy. How do you do that? How can you make it look so easy?”
I said, “I’m just talking. Just like you and I are right now. It’s just conversation. Just talk. Just be you.”
From that point on, he got better and better. The Del Worsham of today bears absolutely no resemblance to the guy who tried to drive away from the camera crew after winning his first race. He’s a gracious, insightful, and honest interview subject. He’s not just good at it, he’s great at it.
So here’s Elon’s take on the whole thing. Enjoy, and make sure to click on the “Like” button at the bottom if you did, indeed, like these stories.
NOTE: The Vandergriff story, below, will give me nightmares for the next week. I’m serious. Yikes.
Athlete and coach’s interviews are part of the fabric of sporting events. We have all seen joyful interviews following world championships or big wins, and we have seen short, curt interviews where the player or coach would obviously rather be anywhere instead of in front of a microphone. I have been lucky in my career to experience many more joyful interviews than the opposite.
Racing, and drag racing in particular, has a well-earned reputation for featuring some of the best interview subjects and also the most open relationship with the media. Most all the drivers have some level of the gift of gab but hands down the king of the quote is John Force. The only other athletes I could compare him to when it comes to memorable quotes or wild interviews would be the great Muhammad Ali or Charles Barkley. Both of those legendary talkers always brought their “A game” to the every interview and Force, in my opinion, outshines them both.
There are always two sides to every interview, those being the interviewer and the interviewee. Midway through my career at John Force Racing we launched John Force Entertainment, which was a company that Ashley Force Hood ran thanks to her immense talent behind the camera and in the editing booth. She earned a degree from Cal State-Fullerton in Communications with an emphasis on Film Production, so not only was she a natural behind the camera she had an excellent education to back up her skills. One of the ideas we came up with was an internet show called Nitro Rewind. At the time we were looking to add an element to our television deal with ESPN and give more teams exposure. It was a novel idea for one team to look to promote other teams but it was done altruistically to promote the whole series.
I was tapped to be the interviewer since I had decent relationships with all the teams. Each race we would try and talk with one or two teams about how their season was going or if they had a special story line. I would also interview the winners of Top Fuel and Funny Car at the end of the event.
One weekend in Atlanta we had reached out to talk with Bob Vandergriff Jr. for the show, since he was from the area and had also just added a number of sponsors. I set up a time to go to his pit for the interview and he was right on time, which is always nice. I set up my camera, plugged in my microphone and dove right into the questions. Bob was great, answering with thoughtful and funny lines about racing and business. We talked for about 10 minutes and I wrapped up the interview. I thanked him and began to break down my equipment. I realized something was wrong when I hit the record button to stop the recording and the red light came on. I had forgotten hit the record button at the beginning of the interview and had recorded none of what Vandergriff had said.
I swallowed by pride and re-approached Vandergriff and explained the situation. He was miffed but willing to do the interview again if I could wait for him to warm up his Top Fuel dragster. I told him of course I could wait, and fifteen minutes later I restarted the interview. The first thing he said when we started was to confirm I was really recording. I told him I triple-checked and yes we were rolling. He was great again and I packed up my equipment and went back to the JFR pit area and our media center. I popped the data card out of the camera and slid it into my laptop. I had to transfer all the recordings onto a hard drive that we overnighted back to California so the show could be edited on Tuesday and then posted first thing Wednesday morning. This was way before WeTransfer or Google Drives for massive data transfers.
I opened up the file and started listening to the interview so I could log key sections for Ashley to more easily find good segments. The video started and I could see Vandergriff on my laptop screen but I could not hear anything. I thought the speakers might have been turned off but unfortunately my microphone had recorded zero audio. To say I was devastated was an understatement. I was mortified about the prospect of having to go back to Vandergriff’s pit and ask him to do the interview for a third time. When he rolled back into his pit after his qualifying run he saw me with my tripod and camera and just shook his head. I sheepishly approached him and explained by situation. He took it in stride understanding that I was a PR guy trying to do TV production work and he told me he would give me one more shot.
The third time was the charm and I finally got everything to work. I think it took me about two hours of videoing, waiting around and downloading to get a four or five minute segment for Nitro Rewind. I was sure to share it with Vandergriff when it posted and I think his feedback was the first take was the best. I quickly got out of the film production business, luckily, as Ashley started coming out on the road more. Running those interviews always gave me a greater appreciation for the camera guys working for ESPN then and FOX now. If I had a chance to help them out I always took it, since I knew they were having to deal with all sorts of issues throughout the day.
In addition to getting experience as a television producer I was lucky to also have a two-year run as the host of a motorsports talk show on KTCK 1310 AM “The Ticket” in the late-90s when I was the PR guy for the Texas Motorplex. The station was very young in the Dallas market but was quickly gaining popularity. I met with the new program director Bruce Gilbert to give him a pitch for more motorsports coverage. He said he left the content of the weekly shows to the host but he was thinking about adding some live programming to the weekends and he would consider some motorsports content. I thanked him, picked up the check, and went back to the track.
The next day Bruce called me and said he was thinking about having a motorsports show on Saturday morning. I told him I thought that would be a tough time slot for a show but I would help the host however I could. Bruce shocked me by asking if I would be the host of the show. He said he would give me an hour to talk about whatever I wanted to in the motorsports universe and it would be the lead-in to The Tee Box, which was a pretty popular golf show.
I hosted the show for two years. The first year the time slot was Saturday mornings from 6am-7am. I had a lot of loyal listeners that were UPS delivery guys loading trucks or overnight convenience store employees. It was a blast and after a year I was moved to Sunday afternoons and given a two-hour show. The biggest perk was being able to go to any motorsports event in Dallas – Fort Worth as a member of the media. I was able to go to the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Texas Motor Speedway and The King himself autographed a copy of his coffee table book chronicling the history of every one of his No. 43 stock cars. I even did radio remotes on location in advance of the NASCAR race. The highlight was being the “talent” along with Rusty Wallace for a round-table about the growth of motorsports in North Texas. I will say one of my career regrets is not pursuing that show as a possible full-time gig. The Ticket has become one of the most decorated radio stations in the country and I was on the ground floor. I took a lot of my experience from hosting a radio show to make myself a better PR person.
My all-time favorite John Force interview didn’t happen at an NHRA event but rather in 2009 when we were in Florida at the NASCAR season finale at Homestead doing a media tour with Robert Hight, after he won his first Funny Car world championship. We were in the pressroom waiting for our press conference to start, with some executives from Ford, and since we were early Force was off to the side looking for a cup of coffee. A small group of media members gathered around him and looking back it was an all-start media line-up. If my memory holds up the group included Holly Cain, Terry Blount, Nate Ryan and a German writer Wolfgang Monsehr, who is an institution in motorsports journalism.
Wolfgang asked Force if he would ever consider racing in Europe and with zero hesitation Force said absolutely not. His emphatic response caught us all off guard and Wolfgang asked him why. Again Force was defiant and said “Because of the sharks!” At this point Force had everyone’s rapt attention. Wolfgang could not have been more confused when he let Force know that there were no sharks in Germany. Force responded that he knew that, but he wasn’t going to get on an airplane to fly to Europe or Germany, have it crash and then get eaten alive by sharks. He explained this in such a matter of fact tone that everyone was stunned and Wolfgang was furiously scribbling notes. Before anyone could even ask their own follow-up questions Force spotted a pot of coffee and walked off. I was left there to try and clarify if Force was serious or not. I had to tell the group that yes, Force was terrified of sharks. He grew up a surfer but as soon as he saw the movie JAWS he never again went into the ocean above his knees.
While that interview was a classic the best quote Force ever dropped on a journalist was his comment to esteemed motorsports journalist Michael Knight, following the 2013 NHRA Winternationals. Courtney Force had qualified No. 1 and dominated the event, winning the season opening race and grabbing the points lead. At the same time, the national media was going nuts over the fact that Danica Patrick was on the pole for the Daytona 500, and Force was more than miffed by the attention. At the next race, the Arizona Nationals, Force told Knight that he understood Danica getting the top spot was a big deal but he added, “It’s not like she delivered the baby Jesus.” I thought Michael was going to fall over. He looked down at this recorder to make sure he got that comment on tape. We all knew Force was on the record and the next day, when the quote appeared in the paper, it took on a life of its own. Force just rolled with it and Courtney Force handled the extra attention like a champ, complimenting Danica on her accomplishment but also pointing out the inconsistency of the media attention. She had been on the pole too, and then had won the race!
The Forces were always great interviews and they knew how to make any interviewer feel at ease. They also knew that they needed to give more than a basic answer. I try and tell all the drivers I work with to be story-tellers. You don’t have to be over the top like John Force but if you can tell a story with some insight or feeling, a reporter will always respond to that and be appreciative.
Thanks everyone. Bob and I have a pretty neat concept in mind for an upcoming blog, so keep an eye out for that!