Q: How do you balance telling the story of starting a new season but giving the prestige of the Daytona 500 attention?
MJ: When you watch the Super Bowl I don’t think Jim [Nantz] and Tony [Romo] are going to spend a whole lot of time talking about who caught a pass or dropped a pass in Week 13. It stands alone as the ultimate event of the session. Even though our season runs in reverse, I think we still have that same priority. During the 500 telecast you’re going to hear a lot more about what drivers have done in the 500 than you’re going to hear about championships won or Championship 4 or whether somebody is going to be good at Atlanta. I think we have two main goals, one is to tell the story of the biggest race of the year and the players in it, and second, because it is the biggest race of the year, to get a large percentage of the viewers to tune in next week and follow this series. To do that, you have to make them care about the drivers or the owners, the crew chiefs, the teams, the new cars. But mainly it’s about the drivers, and if I can get you interested in a driver there’s a high probability you will tune in next week and the week after that.
Q: When you’re calling a race are you focused on what you’re seeing on the monitor or are you bringing attention to what you see outside the window?
MJ: Artie Kempner is a great director and sometimes he’ll get in my ear and lead me, ‘We’re going to the battle for seventh,’ or ‘We’re going to so and so,’ but usually he’s relying on us because he can’t see the track, he can see the output of all of his cameras but he can’t see the racetrack. We’re mainly looking at the racetrack more so than we’re looking at the monitors. Unless there are graphics that need to be read or if something big happens. The booth probably drives the coverage more than the production truck, except when we get into features or we get into pit stops or we start moving the coverage around between battles. Usually it’s us looking at the track, and I’m on a talkback with (producer) Barry Landis and we have spotters on the roof who are not tied to cameras talking about what battles they’re seeing of interest that make a good story.
Q: You’ve made excellent calls over the years,. How much are you preparing ahead of time or does it come naturally in the moment?
MJ: You start thinking about that with 20 or maybe 10 laps to go and how you would frame it if Driver A or Driver B were leading. Now, if it’s a side-by-side battle like Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex (in 2016) you don’t have to. You call the finish. You call the action. It comes together in the last couple of laps when you know who’s out front. I knew what I’d say if Aric Almirola came to the line ahead of Austin Dillon. Then all hell breaks loose on the backstretch and suddenly it’s all different and all of 1998 just came back in the moment because I knew no matter what happened Artie’s cameras would be on the 3 as Austin Dillon brought it to the line. I guess one great ability in doing this, not just for me but anybody, is to switch gears on the fly and change the story, and that’s one reason I so love calling auto racing.
In football on a play from scrimmage there’s only three things that can happen: Somebody runs with the ball or somebody throws the ball or somebody drops the ball. And there’s only one ball. In the Daytona 500 there’s 40 of them bouncing around out there and the story can change from one to another in a millisecond. That makes it a great challenge but it makes it very, very satisfying at the end of the day when you feel like you’ve told their story.
Q: When going into a new season what do you look forward to covering or talking about?
MJ: One of the things we get really excited about is having a lot of question marks. How will Jimmie Johnson do? How will Chad Knaus do? Will the new Mustang be competitive right away? Have the Chevy teams equaled the Toyotas and the Fords in terms of development? What about the new aero package? What about the new horsepower package? What about some of these new drivers? What about drivers who changed rides? Can Martin Truex and Cole Pearn keep their success now that they’re part of the Joe Gibbs machine? There’s just so many stories and so many question marks, and the great thing is we’ve got 18 weeks to work all that out before we have to hand it off to NBC and they race for the championship. I think the more of those questions we have the better chance we’re going to have of a really interesting first half of the season. And boy, this year we’ve got plenty of question marks.