"Just a bit outside!" That's how I felt joining the announcing fraternity of the racing world.
At the 2014 IMSA weekend at Canadian Motorsport Park [CTMP], yours truly announced 4 races - 2 for Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama and 2 for Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo. Plus, all the Practices and Qualifying.
So, let me tell you what THAT like!
And no, it didn't change my opinion of WHAT some announcers say [eg; Just today someone invoked the name of a young F1 pit reporter and got a earful of my opinion as to Accuracy vs Drama-Queen wordsmithing].
My experience DID affirm my respect for the SKILLS required to execute this task. And of those pros that CAN do this thing smartly, adding to the racefan experience.
Confirmed via my announcing debut was how far I still need to go to be 'good'. But, with each of the 4 races, improvement was made [So said others. Never trust the 'self-deluding' inner voice].
My oral work went out over the racetrack PA system to the fans at CTMP and to all the racefans tuning into the IMSA livestreams on www.fanschoice.tv.
But, don't look for the races on FansChoice, now. They are NOT posted on the site. NOT because my performance sucked ["So YOU say, Leo!"]. IMSA is saving the back catalogue as part of their negotiations for a media partner [TV and digital] to carry the Porsche, Lambo, and Cooper Tires Prototype Lites series.
As this was my 1st announcing stint, I just wanted to get the experience under my belt, figure out what needed to be done better 'the next time', and go from there.
So, I didn't counsel with the real announcers I know - eg; Brian Till, Tommy Kendall, Calvin Fish, Dorsey Schroeder, Greg Creamer, Townsend Bell, Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Steve Machett, Allan McNish, etc.. Frankly, was too embarrassed to ask them for advice before this gig [Didn't care to waste their time OR call attention to myself, if I really wanked at it].
And I say '1st stint' because, doing 'Race of Champions' color commentary while Tommy Kendall led the call didn't count [And yes, I recommended TK because I knew /DRIVE needed a solid pro as our 'base'].
Enough backstory. Here's how / what takes place behind the announcer's mic AND my key impressions of same.
1] PREPARATION - Study / knowing the facts / preparation will always compensate for any skills deficit. Works every time for me! So, when I showed up with my notebook of info - a] It helped me feel as ready as I could and b] It got the positive attention of the ones that hired me..... And the real announcer pros.
2] USE THE TOOLS - Sitting in the glass booth [aka 'fish tank'] that sits track-level at CTMP, able to only a few corners, means to do the job you need tools like Camera Shots of each corner, Race Control audio, and Timing / Scoring. That all takes logistics and $, which someone has to allocate for the Support Races, like Porsche Cup and Lambo.
So, let's just say that in some of the earlier sessions and the 1st race, calling the action via only the lap time intervals / position gaps on a Timing Screen with only a quick look at the cars in two 2nd gear corners, pressed my creativity to call the rest of the lap and the race action!
Welcome to the mental gymnastics of balancing imagination and facts.
But, when all the tools were put in play, the announcer's game is to grab all the input, process it quickly, and spew forth. Tell the story.
3] AMP IT UP TO ELEVEN - The first piece of unsolicited advice I got was "No matter how over-the-top you think you sound IN the booth, take it higher".
So, I prepeared by watching a lot of 'WWE Raw'? Point is / was, the onlt thing the viewers get from me is my voice. So, vocal inflection IS the conduit to convey emotion.
OK, but the words and thoughts matter too, right? Yes, but the good announcers bring it all - Enthusiasm, Passion, Info, Authenticity, Insights, and an Insider's Look.
4] CREATE CONTEXT / PAINT PICTURES - If the CTMP PA system wasn't playing Rod Stewart's 'Every Picture Tells A Story', those words were banging in my head as I got ready to to this announcing gig. But, 'less is more' as I felt no one needed me to describe what you could plainly see. But, maybe tey would appreciate it if content and context was added to the visuals. And sometimes, I told myself "Just shut the Hell up and let the pictures tell the story" because they were.
5] ENGAGE MIND THEN MOUTH - Wow, did this seemingly simple concept expose my 'rookie-ness'. Looking at all the info before me - My notes, The 10 TV screens [1 for each corner], The Timing Screen - All the while planning in my head what I wanted to say and where I wanted the story to go - I found my mind racing across all the inputs.
Afraid to fall behind the racing action by thinking too much, I adopted the sage bit of advice Kevin Costner's 'Crash Davis' character gave to Tim Robbins' 'Nuke LaLoosh' - "Don't think Meat, just throw."
However, I found myself saying what I saw, not the planned words in my head. Names got misplaced, car call-outs got put in the wrong sentence, ugh!
Like a rookie racer having to consciously [methodically] connect the dots between Braking Point, Turn-In, Apex, Throttle Point, and Track-Out vs intuitively making the corner-work flow...... I was clearly not 'a natural'. Or anything close. So, for now we just slowed it down a bit and went with 'See, Think, Say'.
6] THE AUDIENCE DOESN'T WANT DUMB - If you watch football [US or International] you'll hear the action called at multiple levels of information AND with no fear of getting into the details / complexities of the sport. Football announcers take the fans on the journey into the inner workings and emotions of the sport. WHY then do some in racing [the sport and broadcast] think that to be more popular the announcers need to dumb down the racing story?
Not me, not ever. The challenge is to respect the true-blooded enthusiast AND speak to the new fan without speaking down to them OR over their heads. It can be done.
And it's awesome when a fan says to me, "Thank you! I didn't know that / understand that and now I do. And it made me more interested in the racing".
To me, the announcer's responsibility is to treat the audience with respect. And to take them on that journey. If it involves a little uptick in knowledge, the announcer, producer, series director, etc. should be trustful that it will not tick off the viewer. Faber College was right.
7] TEAMWORK - Like racing, no one person can do it all. The driver needs the crew, the crew needs the crew chief, everyone needs the engineer, the owner needs to lead, and someone needs to find the $$!
To announce, you need the TV Director finding the shots and following your lead when you're weaving a story or seeing a race move develop.
It helps to have researchers. The crew from Grand Solutions fed me notes as they saw things that I maybe was missing.
And I wasn't going to do MY work without a color commentator in the booth with me. CTMP Track Announcer - Jim Martin, Automobili Lamborghini America Marketing GM - Jason Chinnok, and IMSA racer [and race-winner] - David Ostella all found a way to click with my announcing ranty-rants and complement my words to hopefully make for some decent racing discussion. Thanks, team!
8] IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU - As much as I like 'being Leo', announcing the actions of others is not the time to try and be the star. My job was to complement the show, not BE the show.
9] BUT IT IS ABOUT THE ACTION - Food Network, of all things, provided me inspiration for what I should be trying to say. Sure Food Network shows you food and how to make recipes. But, what they really do is describe food in a way that makes you WANT food. Viceral descriptions that make you want to taste that steak au poivre.
So, how to do the same with racing. How to make viewers feel what it's like in the car, at the limit, pushing for that pass, balancing the car on the edge of trail brake or tire wear, etc, etc..
Put the viewer inside the race, into the action, craving the experience, and wanting more.
10] ANNOUNCING IS A CRITICALLY IMPORTANT TACTILE TOUCHPOINT FOR RACING TO CONNECT WITH ITS FANS, FOLLOWERS, AND THOSE OUTSIDE RACING WORLD - Unless you think of your car as a static piece of art, the tactile touchpoints of that car - The places your hands interact with the materials, the sensations that feed from the controls, the dynamics of ride, handling, steering and stopping that translate back to you - Those are the inputs that define the car.
In racing, the same is true. It is the tactile touchpoints of racing define the racing fan experience - What you see and hear from the cars, your experiences at the track, and for broadcast, what you are shown and........ What you are told, via the announcing.
To me, Style, Vibe, Story, Context, and Content are the driving tactiles of racing announcing. Going forward, if given another chance, I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.