ESPN’s team of Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree, and Allen Bestwick sat down with Julie Sobieski (ESPN VP – Programming & Acquisitions) and Rich Feinberg (ESPN VP – Motorsports, Production) during Wednesday’s media Day at Daytona International Speedway to discuss ESPN’s past, present and future with NASCAR, as well as other topics. Included here is a full transcript of the group’s discussion courtesy of ESPN and NASCAR. Thank you to both companies for allowing this transcript to be posted. Enjoy!
JULIE SOBIESKI: There’s a tremendous buzz and excitement for the start of the season and for ESPN, we’re really thrilled to be a part of it this year, as we were six years ago, getting back into the sport, and as we’ve been for over the last 20 plus years as an integral part of the NASCAR sport.
The value to ESPN still starts with the great racing on the track and the drivers themselves, but as a media company, for us it now extends far beyond the telecast of the races themselves, across our multitude of platforms, from news and information to ESPN.com and ESPN Mobile, ESPN W initiative that we have. The new women’s initiative is now actively following the story with Danica and also with Johanna Long, ESPN Radio and ESPN Magazine. We’re just thrilled with all the buzz and excitement heading into this weekend and happy to be here.
RICH FEINBERG: As always, it’s a privilege for our production team to be here in Daytona. It’s a special place for a lot of people, and that includes every one of us.
Really it’s been a short 13 week off season for us as it has been for many of you, where Brad K won his first championship in Homestead, as well as Roger Penske winning his first Sprint Cup championship, that was an exciting time for us and our team to broadcast to all race fans and ESPN fans.
Over the past 13 weeks, our team has been working hard to make all our plans for the 2013 season. Delighted that our entire talent group will be returning again this year, the same group that we’ve had last year, and that includes Carl Edwards will be joining us as a booth analyst for several Nationwide races throughout the season. We’re delighted to have Carl with us.
NASCAR and ESPN continues to be an important partnership for our company and our weekly productions of both the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series are by far the largest technical productions our company does on any sport that we cover. We’re proud to take on that challenge, and we think that our efforts manifest itself on the air quite well.
We kick it all off this Saturday at noon with ESPN coverage of the Nationwide race. As many of you know, last year’s Nationwide race here at Daytona was a great start to our season, and in fact it was the most viewed Nationwide race ever on cable television, delivering over 4.4 million viewers, so we hope that we will continue that energy going into 2013. We’re really looking forward to the season, and thank you all for being here.
Q. Allen Bestwick, there’s been a lot of talk during the winter with all the announcements about who’s competing in the Nationwide Series, about what a stacked field it is, what are your thoughts on that?
ALLEN BESTWICK: I know everyone’s attention has been focused on the Gen 6 car and everything that’s been going on in the Sprint Cup Series, but we had a conversation on Tuesday as we got ready to come down here thinking about the Nationwide Series and what are the stories. And my two partners here, one of them, Andy (Petree), said, you know, really this is shaping up to be the best season ever for the Nationwide Series, and Dale (Jarrett) jumped in and said, and I think this is shaping up to be the best ever Nationwide race at Daytona.
Now, think about their history at this race and in this sport, and they’re not prone to overstatement. So for them to say this could be the best season ever for the Nationwide Series ever, and this could be the best Daytona race ever for the Nationwide Series, in my admittedly somewhat sleepy mode with our morning conference call, I sat up and said, whoa, that’s a big deal, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.
Q. For Andy, along those lines, the rules differences between the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series. Can you talk a little bit about how the races are going to be so different?
ANDY PETREE: Yeah, this race here at Daytona I think for the Nationwide Series is going to be a lot different than what we’re going to see on Sunday. I think it’s going to be a lot like what we saw last year with the Nationwide cars, a lot of pushing, a lot of tandem drafting, the finish was incredible last year, let’s hope it’s not quite that incredible with so many cars getting tore up. But that’s what you’re going to see in the Nationwide race, you’re going to see a lot of that, and I think you’re going to see a whole different style of drafting on Sunday with the new Gen 6 car, so I think the fans are going to be a lot of variety this weekend, a lot of different style of racing.
This is my seventh season now with ESPN, and like Allen said, I think it really does have the potential to be the best Nationwide season we’ve ever seen, and I’m really excited to cover it. I always get excited for Daytona, and I can’t wait for Saturday.
MODERATOR: Both Andy and Dale Jarrett have 20 year anniversaries going on. This is the 20th anniversary of Dale’s first of three Daytona 500 wins. He won the ’93 race for Joe Gibbs Racing and Andy was the crew chief of the car that he passed right at the end with Dale Earnhardt, and he’s still sore about that. And also this is the 20th anniversary of the first Sprint Cup championship that Andy won as a crew chief with Dale Earnhardt. And one more for Dale Jarrett, this is five years since he drove his last Daytona 500 in ’08, so a lot going on for you, Dale.
DALE JARRETT: Yeah, there is a lot going on, but just glad to be back here and a lot of exciting things happening and going on. We are excited about the Nationwide Series. As you look at the lineup, it’s just incredible to think what it could come down to whenever we get back to Florida in November as to the championship battle that we may be seeing. But it’s all going to start here Saturday, and I do believe that we have potential to see something maybe that we haven’t seen before. We kind of saw that last year, and I don’t know what you do to top that with the guy running 11th coming out of Turn 4 wins the race, but I think the potential is there to be even more exciting, so really looking forward to that, and it’s been nice, kind of reliving that 20 years ago that it happened with Joe Gibbs Racing, Andy not so much maybe, but it was a very, very special day, and this has been tremendously successful place and proud place for the Jarrett family over the years, and just glad to be back here.
Q. For Rich, how many races do you think Carl is going to be doing, and what makes Carl what do you like about him in the booth?
RICH FEINBERG: Right now looks to be about three. We’re still kind of finalizing the schedule, and it’s one of those things that evolves as the season goes on. Obviously his priority is competition. What I like about him is the currency. He’s currently racing in the series and is a competitor on the track, and the ability to speak to that in real time to our viewers as a driver as well as the charisma that I think he brings to the screen is something that we value in our telecast.
Q. But you don’t know which three yet?
RICH FEINBERG: We’re still working on that.
Q. And for Andy or Dale or anybody, what’s going to make this Nationwide season so good? What guys are you looking at?
ANDY PETREE: Well, I think the championship battle in particular you’ve got Regan Smith that’s coming over to JR Motorsports. We saw what he could do in the last racer at Homestead. I expect him to be a really tough competitor for the championship. We’ve got Travis Pastrana that’s going to run. We’ve got so many different storylines. I just think we’ve got a lot of strength out there. You’ve got Elliott Sadler now with Gibbs, still hungry to win that championship. I just think we’re going to see a really great championship battle.
DALE JARRETT: You’ve got Vickers over there at Gibbs. You’ve got Austin Dillon obviously last year showed he could be a part of that championship battle. Kyle Larson is coming in and nothing but good things being said about him, really looking forward to watching him move along here and seeing that progress.
The last few years the championship battle has been good between Stenhouse and Sadler, but I think we’re going to see a lot more company up front, and that always is more exciting.
Q. Dale, I’m sure you’re aware that all three winners over here crashed somebody on the last lap without penalty. Does that send a message to Nationwide drivers and Cup drivers and Truck drivers that last lap, white flag, anything goes, if they can do it over there, why can’t we do it?
DALE JARRETT: Well, I don’t know about how NASCAR will view that, and as a driver, I don’t know that you just take something that you see out there and say I think it’s kind of how you grew up and the situation that you’re in. Trying to do that on the two and a half mile racetrack here obviously creates a lot more danger than doing it back there on four tenths of a mile track at the speeds that they were running. I think you have to pick and choose that.
But I think NASCAR over the last few years has kind of opened that up. I’m not going to steal Robin’s line, let the boys have at it or whatever, but I think that they’ve opened it up to where they like that aggression. That’s what got this sport where it is. I’m not saying that what took place back there was all okay. And I think that sometimes there’s ways of doing it without it being so noticeable, but I think that it’s that that opportunity is out there, but you’re putting yourself in a position.
I think that there’s a lot that NASCAR will let go by, but you’re also putting yourself in a position for them to make a call, and sometimes that call will go for you and you have to be willing to accept the penalty if it does come down.
Q. For Rich, how closely are you watching this track drying apparatus be developed, and how big a deal is it for TV to get back to racing quicker?
RICH FEINBERG: I’ve seen the equipment, but I haven’t really been involved or been asked my opinion about it. From a broadcasting and production point of view, it’s really amazing how long NASCAR fans will stay with a telecast during a rain delay. Obviously less rain delays and more competition on the track is what fans want to see.
But it’s always amazed me, I think back maybe 15, 16 years ago when there were extensive rain delays, our network would go to standby programming, perhaps a race from the week before or the race from the year before, and what we hear from the audiences these days is they don’t want that, they want continuing live coverage. We get tremendous cooperation from the teams, the drivers, from NASCAR, and the access is unbelievable in this sport. So it does give us a chance to sort of dive deeper into stories and talk to the drivers more and offer their thoughts. But at the end of the day, if the track drying process can be expedited and we can get back to competition quicker, we know that’s what the fans want to see.
DALE JARRETT: I think our pit reporters and probably pit studio will be glad that it’s going to happen a little quicker, although they do a terrific job.
Q. Dale and Andy, as former driver, former crew chief, former car owner, what’s the conversation like tomorrow, the gamble versus going all out and try to win the thing?
ANDY PETREE: Well, I’ll speak from a crew chief/car owner’s point of view, I’ve never put a car on the racetrack that I didn’t want to go win, no matter what. That would be my mindset is to go win that 150 mile race, and everything else takes care of itself. Now, there is going to be some risk to do that it looks like. I still want to go win. There’s good cars in the truck; I’m sure you can win from the back, and starting on the front row is kind of nice. You don’t lose the prestige of actually qualifying on the front by having to go to a backup car, but it does make your job Sunday a little tougher, but I’ve never put a car out there that I didn’t go try to win.
DALE JARRETT: The great thing is for Danica and that team for three days they’ve had the wonderful opportunity to talk about being the fastest car here and her the fastest driver. It’s been a great thing for our sport. Now comes the issues with that very same thing that got you there and got you all of this attention is how do you handle this. It would be a real letdown if something were to happen. But these cars are difficult to drive here, and the drivers that I’ve talked to but with the limited experience that she has, she needs to be out there practicing today, and she needs to run in the race on Thursday as much as she can, and if something should happen, then they’ll just have to deal with that. They still know they won the pole and they had the fastest car. She needs the experience out there in race conditions as much as she possibly can to get herself ready for Sunday, to get the best finish and opportunity to get herself in the best position.
As much drafting as she probably, she has a lot of experience in stock cars here and was really showing a lot of potential here, but these cars drive so differently by what these drivers are telling me that there’s a lot more for her to kind of learn now, unlearn some of the things that she did learn there, and get with what it takes to drive this Gen 6 car and be fast. They’ve just got to throw that aside. They won the pole, they were the fastest car, they built the fastest car, now they’ve got to get her ready to race on Sunday.
Q. For Andy, as a former car owner, years ago the Nationwide Series financially, the teams were in a lot of trouble, but as you said, you pointed out the number of drivers, the number of farm teams for the Cup teams, the standalone teams, what’s changed, and especially in a time of economic distress for the Cup teams? Why is this field so full from an economic standpoint?
ANDY PETREE: Well, you’re probably digging into it a little deeper than I have. I don’t really know. I don’t have a good answer for that. But I know the economics are different in the Nationwide Series than they are in the Cup Series. There might be some sponsors out there, a lot of sponsors that maybe can participate at that level, and it’s a high level in the Nationwide Series where it wouldn’t necessarily be gnat Sprint Cup Series.
Maybe that’s some of it. We’ve got great talent that has kind of found themselves out in the Sprint Cup garage, like Regan Smith. He’s a great talent. Now he’s over here in the Nationwide Series. That’s good for the Nationwide Series. I don’t really have a good answer for the economics of it. Maybe it’s a sign of good times to come.
Q. Julie, what’s ESPN’s position on renegotiating the television contracts with NASCAR?
JULIE SOBIESKI: Well, I said in my opening statement, we have a long history with this sport. We’re certainly interested in continuing our relationship with NASCAR. There’s no secret we want to continue that conversation with these guys. We still have two years left of the deal that we’re in now. Our negotiating window doesn’t begin until later this year. So right now we’re excited about the start of the season and we’re putting all of our efforts toward that.
Q. I know there’s three television partners. Would you want to pick up that middle section of six races?
JULIE SOBIESKI: I think right now our opportunity is to look at the package that we have now, and that’s the conversation that’s looking in front of us. Depending on how that conversation goes, there’s certainly lots of different ways to have discussions. We don’t know what NASCAR’s interests are, but right now we’re looking at that for the first conversation that we have.
Q. And then the second question is about the ratings, particularly the Chase ratings. I figure that finale probably was disappointing considering it was a good championship race, so the ratings effort was disappointing considering it was a great race and you had a great new champion. What does ESPN want to see happen coming off the year before when you had the big impressive number and the great Chase?
JULIE SOBIESKI: I mean, certainly back in 2011, that was a huge number for us, and the stars perfectly aligned for that number to sort of come together. I think we all want the ratings to be bigger and better on any sport, on any given occasion. We’re never satisfied, and I don’t think NASCAR ever is, either. But the ratings are still extremely strong week in and week out, particularly at that time of year with a tremendous amount of competition. Brad is a great champion, and we think he’s going to continue to serve in that role all year. We think there’s going to be another great championship battle, but there’s been several great battles now over the last few years. We’re looking forward to that continuing. Competition on the track ultimately is what gets people interested and star power and storylines that transcend sport, and we’re looking at one of those right now with Danica leading CNN and The Today Show and others. I mean, we couldn’t be asking for more now. We just have to hope for a fantastic race on Sunday, and the season will take care of itself.
Q. Julie, you guys have not started negotiations with NASCAR yet; is that fair?
JULIE SOBIESKI: Yeah, we’re always in conversations with NASCAR. We’ve been in conversations with them since the day we started our relationship, but our formal window has not begun.
Q. The scuttlebutt is that you and NBC are kind of the ones being talked about for the remainder of the schedule after the FOX block. Would it make sense for ESPN maybe to move up a little bit and do like the midseason range versus the late season range because you guys have so much stuff in late season, and do you feel as if the Nationwide Series and the job you’ve done there, does that give you some leverage with NASCAR to say, hey, you can keep that platform there and we’ll take whatever chunk you want to give us for Cup?
JULIE SOBIESKI: I’m going to let you do the speculating. Like I said, we’re happy with the relationship that we have with NASCAR. We want to continue those conversations. Carving up a package is not necessarily our role. We’re going to have discussions with NASCAR over the year and as we get closer, Nationwide is a fantastic property. It’s very strong. The ratings have been strong since the moment we got it and it continues to get stronger, and everything that our great hosts and analysts here have said about this season continues to make it that much stronger, but so is the Cup Series. And so we’re going to look at this as one large discussion that extends across all of our platforms, and we’ll have that discussion with NASCAR outside of the press.
Q. Andy, Danica obviously has a lot to learn here over the next week or so, but she’s got a team made up of a lot of guys who have won a lot of races, guys who have won Daytona 500s. In terms of being one thing she doesn’t have to worry about, how big of a comfort do you think that is?
ANDY PETREE: I think that’s a comfort, that she’s got a great team and team owner, all those good people around her, and I think every driver in the garage is trying to help her. But she’s got more experience here than any other track that she’s raced at in a stock car. I think it’s going to serve her well. Nobody has more experience in this Gen 6 car than she does, and everybody has got to learn how to handle it, and this next practice is going to tell a lot about that.
But I think she’s got a big advantage here. I think this is one of her best tracks to really shine and to have a legitimate shot at winning. I think to say she’s a favorite, I wouldn’t say that, but she is on the pole, she’s got a chance to win. And I think she’s got a chance just like anybody, but I think this is probably her best track to do that.
Q. Julie, as far as the Nationwide Series goes, what is the challenge of trying to juggle schedules with a series on four networks throughout the year, and then Andy, can you talk about Tony Gibson and where you think his strengths are and why you think he might be successful with Danica?
JULIE SOBIESKI: I think to start with the juggling, we’re fortunate enough at ESPN to have multiple platforms to carry our programming. I don’t look at that as a disadvantage, I look at that as a strong advantage for us to be able to do that.
ANDY PETREE: You’re talking about Tony Gibson, and I’m a big fan of his. He’s a real seat of the pants type crew chief, a lot like I was. I think he’s a great people motivator. I think he’s got a lot of confidence in Danica’s ability. He’s had a lot of experience with different drivers, and I think he’s got a lot to bring to the table. He’s very good technically and just has a way of getting a car right, and I think he’ll do a really good job for Danica.
Q. Andy and Dale, is it difficult for you guys as you become further removed from the car and it has continued to evolve? How do you stay up on what you would assume the car is doing or what guys are having to do to the cars to make them competitive today?
ANDY PETREE: Well, it’s just the relationships that we have in the garage area. I’ve got a lot of good friends in there, a lot of guys that have been crew chiefs for a long time and actually a lot of the new guys. And I’ve tried to stay very involved technically in the cars.
In my retirement, after I was a team owner and crew chief, I was building these suspension test rigs for all the Cup teams and Nationwide teams, and almost all of them now have it. So I’ve been in these shops a lot. I deal with a lot of the engineering staffs, a lot of the crew chiefs. I talk to them on a technical level when I’m in the garage area. It’s my passion. I really enjoy the cars, so I really stay up on it.
I mean, just last year I built one of these modified cars because I wanted to build one. Never driven one. I built one, tried to go race it a time or two, and then sold it. That’s the way I do it. I really like to be hands on, so I do that some. But I do stay very connected in the garage.
DALE JARRETT: Yeah, my way is just fortunately I’ve made more friends than enemies from the driver standpoint through my career. So I can go and call these guys, go to their bus, talk to them. I try not to bother them too much in the garage area because they’re working there. But they give me a lot of information there. And even though the race cars have changed certainly now with this new car in particular, I can understand when they’re telling me something about the cars and get that. As they’ve changed some of these racetracks, they’re very good to sit down with me and tell me about what used to be the feel and what used to happen at these tracks. So yeah, I’ve been removed now a little over five years from actually being inside these race cars and these tracks, I still drive my school car some just to have an idea of that. But that doesn’t give me the idea of what they’re going through, but it is those relationships and friendships that I think help me keep kind of current with that so I can undertand what they’re talking about. So fortunately these drivers are very good at giving me information and those friendships mean a lot to Andy and I both.
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