The view from my couch

Behind the Microphone with Mike Joy, NASCAR on Fox
by Cheryl Lauer, February 16, 2007

SpeedCouch.com's primary focus is not on reviewing the actual races, but on discussing the way the races are presented to you and me, the racefan, by the broadcasting experts. Through the series of articles on “Behind the Microphone”, we try to bring you additional insight and knowledge of the people you see on camera or hear on the radio. This time Fox analyst Mike Joy is in the spotlight! I was curious about how Mike got interested in racing and how he got his start in broadcasting. Mike was kind enough to spend some time with me via telephone while he was driving down to Daytona last week.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Mike moved to Connecticut at the age of three when his father was transferred there while working for the Fuller Brush Company. Since New England had a lot of short tracks, Mike became interested in racing while attending college. Initially attending the University of Harford studying engineering, he later transferred to Emerson College because they had a strong program in broadcast communications. There were more than 40 short tracks in New England, but very few of them ran stock cars; it was mostly sports cars back then. Only 2-3 of the track were actually NASCAR sactioned. In the 1970s, every college had a sports car club, which ran road rallies and autocross. They organized trips to big events in the area and that's how Mike got interested in racing. He ran what he called “pylon” racing, where you would run your car against the clock, at Jack Arute, Sr’s track, Stafford Speedway in Connecticut.

Mike was working part-time while in college at a gas station for about $1.85 an hour. He also had another part-time job ‘busting tires” at a Firestone store which, because it was a union shop, paid a whopping $3.05 an hour. Around this time Stafford Speedway told him they needed an assistant or back-up track announcer and were willing to pay $25 a night. Mike thought “Gosh, I get to go the races and get paid for it too,” so he jumped at the chance to change jobs.

When I explained that I knew he had started out with his NASCAR connection by working for MRN, I asked how he made that transition from local broadcasting to this higher level. He explained that Ken Squier was one of the founders of MRN and also owns a race track in Barre, Vermont called Thunder Road. By this time Mike was working five nights a week as the track announcer at various tracks in New England and New York state. Many of these tracks would bring Squier in for their really big events and Mike had worked with him quite often on the public address system. It was Ken’s idea for MRN to give him a try-out and it worked out pretty well for him as he was able to move onto more NASCAR coverage.

Joy still lived in NE when he began traveling to the southern races while continuing to work with Jack Arute, Jr. on Fridays at Stafford Speedway. “We’d catch a ‘red-eye’ on Delta to Atlanta and then go to wherever a race was from there. We’d show up on Saturday and Sunday mornings pretty bleary-eyed. And at that time, MRN paid everyone a wage for the broadcast, gave them a plane ticket, and a hotel reservation. No rental car, no per diem, nothing else. There were quite a few weekends that we went home with less money than we left the house with. Jack called it “deficit announcing.” Still we were trying to work our way up and that worked out just fine.” I’d say so because in 1975, Mike ended up being the director in the booth which gave him a chance to see how everything worked in radio.

In October of 1978, an opportunity came for Mike to move to Daytona to work full-time, but not for MRN. There wasn’t an opening there yet, but his college background in marketing landed him the job as head of stock car racing publicity for Daytona Speedway. On the weekends, he worked part-time for MRN as a turn announcer, which he says is how everyone breaks into MRN. Then a year or so later, Mike went over to the radio network full-time and by 1980, thanks again to his college background in marketing and experience in broadcasting, he was literally running the MRN network.

In 1980, his long-time friend from Connecticut, Jack Arute, Jr. left MRN and that’s when Mike moved into the co-anchor seat, working with long-time MRN veteran, Barney Hall. Mike also has the little-known notoriety of anchoring the first live ESPN broadcast of NASCAR from Rockingham in 1981.

During the 1984 Daytona 500, Mike began working as a pit reporter for CBS. Since CBS only broadcast a few races, he was able to continue working the MRN broadcasts through 1985. During this time, he also continued do public address work at Stafford and actually worked as the promoter at Lime Rock Park, also in Connecticut. Unfortunately, as Mike was really getting into that job and making big plans for the next season, CBS greatly increased his network workload, so he reluctantly had to give up the Lime Rock job.

At the end of the 1985 season, MRN decided the people working the booth for their big events, like Daytona, should be the people working for the network all year long. So Eli Gold moved into the booth to work with Barney Hall and Mike moved onto pit road for the next couple of years. Over this time, he got busier with television and the time came for he and MRN to part company. Mike explained he just didn’t have the time to devote to them and they wanted to commit to people who were on their way up and not on their way out to television.

While I still consider myself somewhat of a “new” fan and even though I remember Mike working the pits for CBS in the late 80s, I mostly remember when he became the anchor for the [now defunct] TNN broadcasts. I asked him how this came about and he explained that David Hall, who was running TNN, and Eddie Wheeler had seen his work with TBS and CBS. When TNN entered the NASCAR broadcast business, they offered him the job to anchor their events starting in 1991. I knew TNN was just starting out at that time, but I felt Mike brought a lot of enthusiasm and professionalism to their broadcasts. I asked him what it was like working with Buddy Baker and the late Neil Bonnett. He remembers that time fondly, “We had a great time working in the booth. We really did. It was just like three good friends sitting around having a chat. Everybody kind of parked their egos at the door. We went in there with the idea we going to have a lot of fun and bring the viewer along for the ride. It worked out very, very well. It was a tremendous amount of fun.”

I wondered how Mike found making the transition from radio to TV. How did working with the producer in TV differ from his experience in radio. Mike explained, “It’s very different. In radio, the anchor is pretty much the producer of the broadcast. You have the director who manages the commercial load, the promos and the other ‘have to dos.’ But as far as the storylines and the flow of commentary and the continuity of the event, is really up to the anchor. In radio, it really is up to the anchor to both paint the word pictures and to also to provide continuity so the listener gets the full picture of the event as it unfolds. You have a lot more responsibility to the success of the broadcast in radio. In television, it’s the opposite. I have somebody in my ear, not constantly, but very frequently. So I’m really carrying on a conversation with three people at one time: the people I’m sitting next to in the booth, the people in front of the TV sets at home, and the people in the production truck.”

I know that has to be difficult. I can imagine the amount of multi-tasking that goes on. I’ve listened to the TV feed on the scanner when I’ve been at races live and I know how they are always telling the guys in the booth things all the time. Mike laughingly said, “Our boss describes it as herding cats’ and sometimes it’s just about as successful. It’s a tremendous challenge. To be able to walk out of that booth and say ‘boy, that was a great telecast.’ We really told the stories well. We really got across the depth and dimension of the event and it was really fun. The problem with the transition from radio to television for all of us in any sport is the difficulty as a broadcaster to let the pictures tell the story. Sometimes, the best thing you can say is nothing at all. And it’s very, very difficult sometimes to hold back and resist that temptation to state the blind obvious.” Mike explained that some people find it difficult to manage the transition from radio to TV.

Mike worked for TNN from 1991 to 1995. After that he became primary anchor in the CBS booth for Daytona 500 coverage beginning in 1998 and through 2000, the last year on their NASCAR contract. He also branched out and did commentary of Formula One racing on Fox Sport Net during the same period. Then in 2001, he became “the voice of NASCAR on Fox” when that network began covering the races.

I was curious how much preparation is required each week getting ready for the broadcasts on Fox. Mike explained, “Hours and hours. The Internet has made our job incredibly easier. Because the flow of information is faster. For example, the teams used to have to prepare a press release, mail it out Tuesday, and hope that you got it Thursday before you came to the race track. Then you’d have to read it on the plane. Now all of that material is available by email. So that helped an awful lot. But a lot of the preparation is just one on one talking and contact with people and the relationships you build and knowing the people you need to talk to get their stories before you go on the air. So, yeah, it’s a tremendous load of preparation. The pit reporters go into a telecast with page after page of notes. Up in the booth you don’t have time to look things up. So notes are a luxury that I tend to use very, very sparingly.”

Mike explained they have a statistician in the booth and they used to have a very good historian, Greg Fielden, but he has fallen ill. He had a stroke and is not ready to return to work yet. “It’s been very tough to fill that void; not to have somebody to ask things like “who won this race in 1968” and have that information off the top of their head.” He explained the announcers need these kind of answers fast before the story changes.

Again from years of listening to the TV feed on the scanner at the track, I really admire how Mike and the others keep things flowing especially when I hear how they are being bombarded with information from the production truck. Even when things are changing, I’ve been impressed with how the announcers are able to keep track of it all. I explained I know that must be a real challenge. Mike said, “Is it, but it’s one you warm up to – like ‘hey we did that pretty well.’ You get the feeling sometimes ‘well we screwed that up, didn’t we,” but by and large you hope you keep getting better.” Mike explained that Larry McReynolds says it’s difficult to do this job as an ex-crew chief because you don’t have the luxury of the stop watch or the running order or the positions to know how your team is doing. When you are a crew chief, you know you are doing a good job because your car is out front. Mike went on to say, “In TV, you don’t really know. It’s very, very hard. I told someone several years ago. It’s very simple: You do the show, the check comes in the mail, and they call you to do the next show. And as long as that circle remains unbroken, you’re doing well. You’re doing what they want.”

I asked who would be the Fox producer now that Neil Goldberg has returned to ESPN. Mike said it would be Barry Landis, who has been an associate producer for NASCAR on Fox for many years. He’s also produced football, baseball, and other things for Fox. Mike explained that for the last three years, he’s been in the production truck during the NASCAR broadcasts, so none of this is new to Barry. When Fox found out Neil would be returning to ESPN, they had Barry produce the last three races during the 2006 season. Mike said this was not so much as a try out for Barry, because they knew that’s who they wanted, but for Barry to assess all of the people he was working with to make sure that’s who he wanted on his team. Artie Kempner will return as the director for Fox, and Richie Zyontz will be the coordinating producer. Mike said that they would be losing their technical director, Rich Basile, who is moving to ESPN. The technical director is the one in charge of switching cameras during the broadcast. Mike believes Rich will be the director at ESPN, which is a promotion. “He’s been punching the buttons most of these six years, so he’ll have a very good feel for his job. And Neil is an excellent producer. Great sense of racing and he has very good long term relationship with the folks at NASCAR.” Mike assured me that no one was asked to leave, but with ESPN coming in there were just new opportunities which presented themselves to some of the Fox team members. Mike feels everybody at Fox is energized and excited with the opportunity to build something new out of what they have. He thinks if everyone had remained in place, they would not have had the same opportunity.

I asked Mike what a typical week for the broadcast team in preparation for a race telecast. I knew that Daytona was an unusual weekend, so I asked him to explain what would happen at California next week. He explained that they have a conference call with the production team on Tuesday. He usually does research Wednesdays and Thursdays. He will also probably arrive in California on Thursday afternoon. He has a friend with a classic car restoration business out there and he was going to try and get over to see him. Also one of the drivers wants to join him to check out his friend’s business. He went on to say that the production team may have a dinner on Thursday or Friday night. Describing Friday at the track, Mike said, “We’ll show up at the track Friday ready to go. Hit the ground in the garage. Most of our meetings are informal. We try to only have one formal meeting a weekend and last year that was Saturday mornings. This year, we’ll still trying to work through when that will be. We talk through our storylines and get a sense for the things we want to get on the air and try to find out what we need footage for and what needs further discussion and further back-up.” Mike laughed when he pointed out, “Saturday, we’re so used to doing the Busch races, I don’t know how we’re gonna cope with that – not doing them.” He explained that for the first few Busch races, he and Larry, Darrell Waltrip and a couple of the production people will sit down and watch the ESPN broadcasts together. The want to try to get a sense of what ESPN is doing; to try and see what they might be doing and Fox could do differently. “We’re always tweaking and we welcome the competition because it makes everybody better. We’ll watch the Busch races and then either get together informally or on the phone and have one last check over our storylines or anything that needs to be further researched. That’s it. Then Sunday morning, come through the [TV] compound and make sure everything is as it we need it to be. Then go into the garage and do a little prep and talk to people and get ready to go on the air.”

I remember that during the TNT/NBC portion of the year, Mike occasionally worked with the SPEED channel on Cup qualifying shows for those networks. I wondered if anything like that would be happening now that ESPN will be covering the latter part of the Cup season - or would ESPN be handling all that themselves. Mike said he thought that SPEED is still going to play a very large role, but he wasn’t sure if would be working on the shows yet or not. He did explain that he had been approached by Chris Long, who previously worked with the SPEED channel. Long is now producing the NASCAR Hot Pass show on DirecTV and has asked Mike if he might like to work as one of the anchors in the booth for their exclusive driver coverage after the Fox portion of the season ends. Mike explained there would be an anchor in a booth and an analyst, along with a reporter down on pit road. Each of the five cars chosen will also have a dedicated producer/director and an audio person and someone doing replays. Mike said, “Quite an expensive undertaking. And you know what - I think it will work. Some people are going to be curious enough to plunk down the $99 and they’ll make a go of it.” I laughed and agreed, citing a viewer who wrote me complaining that the audio and exclusive coverage was no longer available on cable and how was he ever going to be able to follow “June” every week. But the viewer went on to say “I’ll have to get satellite now, so I can watch Hot Pass!” Mike said, “That’s the whole idea, isn’t it? Now, it won’t be Dale, Jr. every week. Interesting set-up: DirecTV will pick four drivers and NASCAR will pick one every week.” He explained the screen will be split with the network broadcast always be in upper right of screen. Also, so that all the people getting the Hot Pass will count as Nielsen Households, the network commercials will always run on there as well. Mike pointed out that the networks would never have agreed to let DirecTV do this without commercials because they need people to see their commercials.

When I asked how much the people at Fox listen to feedback from the viewers, Mike said, “I think the most honest answer is some do and some don’t Some people do read the websites and some of the newsgroups. They do solicit comments and input and try to carry a sense of that to the people working the telecast.” He explained that others feel secure in their professionalism, and while the viewer input as a whole is important to them, they aren’t swayed by individual comments so much.

Mike gave an example of someone in New York doing a critique of the recent Super Bowl coverage. He explained that this person’s job was supposedly to analyze TV commentators and yet all the guy could talk about was how fat Jim Nance looked. Not how well the guy did calling the game. In general, Mike seems to feel that many print journalists are a little unkind to the broadcasters. He went on to say “I always sort of grind my teeth every time I see my name next to the words ‘TV personality.’ Because I’m a broadcast journalist. Yes, we have people who are personalities - Chris Myers is a personality. I just don’t feel that is my role. My role is to tell the story and to be a journalist. We don’t always get credit for that by the people who write in print or people who write on the Internet. So I guess it’s a roundabout way of saying every opinion counts for one, whether in a newspaper, in a newsgroup, blog or on website.”

Mike said he has no problem with criticism as long as it’s constructive. “If someone writes ‘boy Fox didn’t do a good job of this; I wish they had done so and so…’ you read that and you go ‘hmmm…maybe that’s a better way to try it.’…But when somebody simply says ‘Fox sucks,’ well, that’s just criticism without any inkling of what the viewer wants.”

I agreed with Mike that I don’t like people who will simply generalize about race coverage on TV. It’s like they have their minds made up or are trying to validate their own point of view. I’ve often seen folks make statements I know to be false about the coverage just to make the point in their article or post on a website. Mike was philosophical about this explaining that was just part of television because sometimes it’s hard for people to watch and listen at the same time. He said he’s had numerous occasions where someone would say “why did you say such and such about so and so” and it wasn’t what he said at all. It was like they had heard half of it and then filled in the blanks. Fox sends the broadcast team DVDs of every race, and he often uses them to go back to see “did I really say that” or not.

Mike had moved to North Carolina within the last few years. He explained that when Fox started in 2001, he commuted from Connecticut for the first year. But because he had two small children at the time, leaving Thursday mornings and not getting home until Monday at noon left a lot of the burden on his wife. She didn’t enjoy the prospect of fully bundling up a one and two-year-old to go get a gallon of milk in winter time. She wanted out of NE, so they moved to North Carolina at the end of 2001.

It’s clear Mike really enjoys his children, Scott and Katie. When he’s not working, he spends a lot of time enjoying their activities. Scott plays basketball in the winter, Katie is into cheerleading, and they both play softball in the summer. He does admit to “fooling around a little bit with vintage cars” and someday hopes to do more vintage sports car racing. Here’s a shot a friend of mine took of Mike last fall tooling around in a classic AMC Javelin at Lime Rock Park.

Mike also enjoys buying, selling and restoring classic cars and swears his next project will be a vintage race car. I knew that Mike recently worked on the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction broadcast on the SPEED channel. He said it was really a blast and was such a wonderful thing to cover. “It was just astonishing to see the kind of money people will throw or invest on old cars. The muscle cars of 60s and 70s are very popular. Some of the cars that weren’t very good then are worth a ton of money now which is really funny.” He laughed when he said, “This year, I only came home with one car, so that was pretty good.”

Mike has had a lot of wonderful experiences involving racing over his long and illustrious career, which doesn’t look to be easing up any time in the near future. Fox is just starting their second contract to cover NASCAR, one which will last for the next eight years. It’s quite obvious from seeing Mike on TV and talking to him that he loves both racing and his job. He said, “I think to sum it all up. Larry, DW and I agree. When anyone comes up and says ‘It looks like you guys are having a lot of fun up there.’ We just smile, because we are. When people recognize that, then they understand what we are tying to do and what it’s all about. And that’s a big boost.”

I want to thank Mike for spending the time to help me learn a little more about him and hopefully get to know him a little better. After talking to him for a short while, you realize that he really is a very down to earth person, who is generous with his time, in touch with the fans, and someone who truly loves what he does for a living. If only everyone could be so lucky!

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