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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

TURNING THE PAGE

A big congratulations to Don (The Snake) Prudhomme (left), who I've known for 20 years, who received the Justice Brothers Shav Glick Award last Sunday during pre-race ceremonies at the California Speedway. Showing his great respect for Shav (center), the long-time and now retired Los Angeles Times motorsports writer, Snake left his SkyTel and Skoal NHRA teams at Firebird to fly back to Fontana for the ceremony. The award is presented for distinguished achievement in motorsports by a Californian. (Of extra interest to me since I'm a Golden State native.) Ed Justice Jr. joined in the presentation. I was introduced to Shav in my earliest days as a journalist and I respect him as much as any man I've ever known. (Photo courtesy of Dusty Brandel.)
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I first met Paul Page at Trenton Speedway in the late 1970s, as we waited for the crossover gate to open at a USAC Championship Trail race. A few years later, when I became CART's first communications director, we started working closely together and developed a friendship.

Paul began at WIBC Radio in Indianapolis in 1968. In 1977, while on assignment, he was almost killed in a helicopter crash near the Speedway. That same year he took over as anchor of the worldwide Indy 500 Radio Network on short notice when the legendary Sid Collins died in May; in fact, he was Sid's hand-picked successor. Paul was the race's "voice" for 15 years and also called the action on NBC's early CART telecasts. He helped pioneer motorsports on ESPN as its first racing producer, of Midwest sprint-car shows. Paul joined ABC in 1987, working the 500, inaugural Brickyard 400, and countless other events. This season, he's brought more than 30 years of experience to ESPN2's coverage of the NHRA Powerade series.

Paul has kindly shown me many courtesies over the years. Last weekend, at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird Raceway, we sat down inside the Don Schumacher team's hospitality area to talk drag racing:

Q. I remember watching you in the 1980s call NHRA events with the late Steve Evans on Diamond P's American Sports Cavalcade. Was that your first time broadcasting drag racing?

A. It depends on how you define broadcasting. The first time I did any broadcasting of drag racing was 1973, at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. I was working for a local station, WIBC, and on FM, WNAP. I've always been kind of a tech-head and I said, 'You know what? I bet we could do the U.S. Nationals in stereo.' And we did. There weren't any broadcast loops or anything out there at the time, so it was a lot different than it is today. We figured out how to do it and the audience liked it so much. We came on when the pros came out, but the rest of the day, we left the sound-effects microphone open behind all of the music on this rock station. That was the first time, but Diamond P was the first real play-by-play.

Q. What are the challenges of calling drag racing as opposed to oval or road racing?

A. The greatest challenge for me, right now, is the nature of the television. Because it's in tape delay, and we have all this digital technology, you may lay down four sentences and then sit there for a half-hour before you put the next sentence on because of an oildown or whatever. Regarding the sport itself, it's gotten so competitive, and so professional, everything is so close. I guess the best way to say it is when Evans and I -- and Big Daddy (Don Garlits) was part of that, too -- we kind of looked at the 60-foot times but we never referenced them at all. Now, everything's pinned on that. You've got to take your eyes off the monitor long enough to see what they're doing at 60 foot and the eighth-mile, because that's going to tell you where the run's going.

Q. The races are so fast, by that I mean brief, do you think that makes it harder to keep the audience?

A.
No. I think what is very difficult is, if you compare it to any other form of racing, throughout the day you are eliminating your field. We actually saw it in the ratings from Pomona. We were talking a lot about the Force family and it brought us a 10 percent higher rating going into the show. But the minute the Forces were gone, the rating went down. No other form of the sport are you eliminating competitors throughout the day. I think that's the single biggest challenge.

Q. Throughout the history of NHRA, there have been great personalities, and great rivalries. Does this TV format make it more difficult to tell those stories?

A.
It makes it more difficult because you can't predict where the day is going to go in terms of time. You've got a three-hour time block. You're trying to get it down to play a natural, exciting conclusion, but even if you get a small mistiming during the day, suddenly, it all backs up to the end of the show. You can't do the job you want to do at the end of the show. On the other hand, if what you're asking in part, and I think it is, should it not be live, yeah, it should be. But it's a crazy show to try to figure out live.

Q. Has ESPN dusted off it's 'Danica template' to cover Ashley Force? Is it going to be All Ashley All the Time?

A.
No, I don't think so. Times have changed from when announcers had a really big say in what you were going to cover. Now, it's more what the producer is pushing to do. In our case, that's what the producer at the other end of the line, the coordinating producer, is pushing to do. But that guy is Shawn Murphy and he knows racing. I think he knows we probably were going to over-do it the first race but there are other players out there. Yeah, you've got to capitalize on those things that are drawing an audience -- again, a 10-percent boost in ratings, but I don't think we'll always do it that way.

Q. As someone who has won many broadcast journalism awards, you know it's important to tell those other stories, too. Right?

A.
The sport doesn't survive without those other stories. It's enough of a problem on a good day to try to get everybody in and give everybody one good call, mention something positive about them.

Q. Coming into this environment, NHRA, from all your time especially in open-wheel, how's the cooperation been for you from drivers and owners and crew chiefs and PR people?

A.
You, above everybody, will understand this answer. This is now what open-wheel was in its good days. That is, everybody's helping everybody else. Everybody wants everybody else to succeed. I was amazed. I can walk anywhere: People say, 'Come on in. Let me show you what we're doing. Look at the data.' It's pretty cool. And the fans, you know, I had some rough shows. My first shows were really rough. But the fans, they'll pull you aside and say, 'You did this, you did that.' A guy, not 10 minutes ago, he had a couple of comments, but then he said, 'You're getting better. Thanks for doing this.' These are good people, and it reminds me of the old days.
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I'm pleased to announce that Susan Wade -- America's No. 1 drag racing journalist -- has been named editor of a new motorsports monthly, Race News. Coverage will go beyond the quarter-miles to include NASCAR, Formula One, IRL, Champ Car and sports cars. Look for the premiere issue in about a month. I'll be contributing a Business of Racing column. Susan also has asked me to get involved in another of her projects, 1320tv.com ( http://1320tv.com ), a site devoted exclusively to drag racing video. I taped the first of occasional motorsports biz commentaries last weekend at Firebird. That video will be posted to coincide with the launch of Race News.

[ What advice did John Force give daughter Ashley about dealing with the media? They told me that, and more, at Firebird. Please come back next Tuesday . . . ]