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NASCAR TV talkers: Words of speed, Part 3

Every TV commentator has keen communication skills and not just verbal ability, it requires writing skills as well. It helps also to be photogenic with an attractive physical presence. Bob Dillner, FOX TV and Speed NASCAR commentator, has the required qualities all stacked in a very tall frame. Dillner is easy to spot in any NASCAR garage as he towers over almost anyone he interviews.

Reporter Dwight Drum @ Racetake.com at a Daytona International Speedway Goodyear tire test assumed the role as interviewer asking questions of Dillner who switched his normal role from commentator to interview subject. Dillner was skillful at that job too.

Bob Dillner [Fox & Speed TV commentator]

You spend a lot of time with drivers and some make a transition from the track to the TV booth. Do you have a comment on that?
“It’s kind of like having a baseball player in the booth for a Major League Baseball coverage,” Dillner said. “You need that expert opinion up there. That’s why I think the mixture of what we have on Fox and Speed, the crew chiefs and the drivers, from Hermie Sadler to Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds, it’s just adds that extra flavor of insight to everything. You always need your broadcaster up there to kind of separate the boys at times because they get to really talking a lot and sometimes you need to get back on track. But the combination of a play-by-play guy, a crew chief and a driver up other I think is really important for the fans at home. I think put together it gives them everything they want to know about what’s going on in the broadcast.”

Fans don’t always know how much work and what kind of work takes place for TV commentators. Can you describe that for a fan?
“I’ve always said some of these production meetings would make better television viewing than what actually goes on the air,” Dillner said. “Obviously you’re in a production meeting and you’re just having a brainstorming session and sitting there throwing out ideas --Here’s what I heard. Here’s what you heard. Well, we can’t cover that. We can cover this. Oh my gosh, that’s just rumor now. Let’s stick to the facts.

“Like I said, they should put a little fly camera on the wall -- some people would be really entertained. But it’s really hard because there is a balance out there of what you need to do. You need to bring the fans the appropriate information and sometimes your stuff in the garage area that you’ve thought about but it’s not exactly a done deal yet. And you have to have that delicate balance of reporting what the fans want to know, but only when it’s the truth.”

Do you know growing up and you’re tall enough to be a basketball player; what you wanted to do, doing what you do now?
“No,” Dillner said. “My dad brought me to racetracks when I was a kid and he was a racer. I always wanted to be a race car driver, but that takes a lot of money and a lot of talent, neither of which I had, so I decided I can talk and I can write so that’s kind of what I got into. I’ve been involved in the wrenching side of race cars and I’ve been in trim a little bit myself, but this is the next best thing. When I was 15 I started writing for area auto racing news out of Trenton, New Jersey and just kind of came up through the ranks from there.”

A switch to comments by others in motorsports with communication skills might accent what Gilner pointed out about the needs of experienced crew chiefs and drivers. Jeff Hammond has successfully shifted gears from crew chief to commentator. NHRA’s John Force has long been recognized for his antics and persona before a camera after his many drag racing wins. Both answer questions.

Jeff Hammond [Fox & Speed TV commentator]

Was your success partly about being in the right place at the right time:
“I was scared,” Hammond said. “I was petrified. Right place, right time --That’s been like the story of my entire career. When I became a crew chief -- right place, right time. Guys would leave. If they never leave you never get a shot. I remember Junior Johnson had a couple guys walked out the door in 81. I asked Junior, can I have a shot and he gave me a shot.

“Without having those opportunities just like this deal in television, you never know. This TV deal I hope it can go on till I’m 90, because it’s so much fun. I love working with SPEED and with Fox , Steve Burns, Larry McReynolds and I we’re like the three musketeers when it comes to qualifying, track side shows or whatever. We have a ball.”

John Force [14-time NHRA Funny Car champion]

Why do you think you are a natural at being a showman as well as a drag racer icon?
“I’ve been telling stories from when I was a kid to get a free sandwich,” Force said. “Then when I drove a truck in the early days I was in the truck stop pitching the deal to get a free cup of coffee. It’s just my deal. I noticed in the early days racing against Prudhomme and the other big hitters, that I couldn’t beat the guys, but if I was on fire, or I was telling a story because I crashed, or I got lucky enough to beat somebody, that if I had a good story the TV was all over it. It just kind of evolved that way, and I truly enjoy it.

“Every time I try to get in the booth and really try to do something on track and professionally, I’m not really good at that, I’m kind of off the wall with what I do. I’ve been offered jobs, but no, I’m staying in the seat of this Mustang for as long as I can, if I continue to do what I do, and I love what I do. I think it’s where I belong and I can make it work, put me somewhere else and I fail.”

It’s appropriate to return to Gilner for his insight into those who have the ability to perform in a race car and before a camera as well.

Bob Dillner [Fox & Speed TV commentator]

Some drivers like Jeff Gordon and John Force in NHRA seem to have natural speaking ability that transfers to TV and the booth. Where do you think that comes from and why does it work so well for some?
“I think everybody has become media savvy over the years,” Dillner said. “I don’t know if Dale Earnhardt Sr. could actually do that because he was brought up in the day when racing was just racing and then it became popular during his era. But if you look at Jeff Gordon -- Jeff came up in the middle of the spotlight on NASCAR. He became media savvy. I don’t know if I agree with you on John Force, because I don’t think people could shut him up. The producer would be screaming, ‘Go to a commercial break!.’ in order to shut John up.”

That comment caused hearty laughs from interviewer and subject. Force would no doubt join in that laughter.

With that too comes a break until the next part of this TV Talkers series.

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