You’ve won a big race, and you’re headed to Victory Lane. There will be a trophy presentation and photos. Reporters and the track announcer will ask you to make some comments and answer some questions. What should you say or do? Or, perhaps more important, what shouldn’t you say or do?
Our informal panel of experts — people who know lots about racing, reporting and public relations — offer these pointers for successfully dealing with post-race interviews:Don’t forget the sponsors and car owner, adds Bill Desmond Jr., who was a longtime racing media coordinator for NASCAR and others.
* Do your homework
“Many drivers seem ill prepared,” says motorsports journalist Ernie Saxton, publisher of the Motorsports Sponsorship Marketing News.
Dennis Huth, president of ASA Racing, which sanctions 11 regional touring series and 31 racetracks through its ASA Member Track program, suggests each driver complete a public speaking course.
“Think about your responses ahead of time and the questions you may be asked,” advises former newspaper sports writer Craig Cooper, who now works in public relations. He says to practice at home. “The big guys have to go to class to learn how to deal with the media, but it really isn’t that hard.”
* Speak up and speak clearly
Joe Skotnicki, a racing writer who also has years of racing PR experience, says, “I’ve seen guys interviewed at short tracks, and you wondered what they were saying because it actually appeared they were afraid of the microphone. Don’t be! You don’t know when you are going to get that chance again.”
* All you’ve gotta do is act naturally
Yep, it’s just like Buck Owens said in his song. Don’t copy those canned driver interviews that the comedians imitate.
“Things have become way too plastic and regimented,” says Huth. “Be candid without stepping over traditional lines.”
* Be humble
People like a gracious winner. “… Most folks don’t like it or understand when the racer who wins is brash and bragging,” says Skotnicki.
* Be positive
Choose your words carefully. “You’ve earned the right to talk to reporters with your win,” Skotnicki says. “Just remember, when it gets written it’s awfully difficult to turn it around or take it back.”
Also consider this: “Drivers in Victory Lane naturally have some fans in the stands, but many, many more who will get a first impression from their comments,” adds sports writer and racing historian Bill Haglund, former editor of a racing trade paper.
* Excited or emotional? Good!
“Some drivers act like it’s old hat to win a race, not to mention the money,” says Cooper.
“Any victory is emotional, or it should be,” adds Skotnicki. “Even for the guy who wins every week at his local track.”
* Make it fun
“I’ve always enjoyed a sense of humor, a driver who seems like he is having a lot of fun doing what he is doing,” says avid racing writer and former racing trade paper editor Barry Johnson. “I know everyone gets all tense and serious, but weekly racing is still pretty much a hobby, and everyone should be having fun with it, or it really isn’t worth doing.”
* Look ’em in the eye
It’s called eye contact. Huth says to look at the person who is asking you the question and keep looking at him or her when you start to answer. Then, as you continue, make sure you stare eye to eye with the rest of the media.
* Repeat the question
There are several reasons for this. “Do that to make sure everyone hears the question and to make sure you heard it right so that you can answer it correctly,” says Huth. “It also gives you a second or two more to think about your answer.”
* It’s OK to skip a question
Heck, politicians do it all the time. “If the question or your answer makes you uncomfortable, skirt it,” Cooper says. “You don’t have to answer every question.”
* Be specific with your car talk
Don’t just say your car was fast. “Tell them how it felt, how it was on the corners, why you were faster than everyone else on the straightaways,” Cooper says. “Talk about something you’ve done differently or some car changes you’ve made.”
* Give credit where it’s due
Face it: “It probably wasn’t all you or the car,” Cooper says.
Drivers sometimes don’t thank crew members, says Haglund, many of whom work for nothing, buy their own pit passes and are vital to the driver’s success.
But Saxton says not to rattle off a list of all of your sponsors. “The top two or three — the major sponsors — are all that can be included under normal circumstances.”
And Saxton and Skotnicki both warn not to read the names of your sponsors off the sides of your car. That’s “a bit tacky,” says Skotnicki.
Huth says to show appreciation for the promoter and track, too. “Whether they made money or not, we need more positive comments directed toward our entire sport and the stadiums,” he says.
Others you should consider thanking? Fellow competitors, family members and the fans.
* Get personal
It makes for a more interesting story. Says Cooper: “The reporter talking to you many not have seen your recent successes or even know much about you. Personal insights are always interesting to a curious reporter.”
* Don’t whine about other drivers or poor track conditions
As for fellow competitors, Desmond says, “Victory Lane is no place for grudge matches. I don’t believe I ever did a Victory Lane interview where a driver was hostile toward another driver. But if something in the race was important, that helped or hindered the eventual winner, a good interviewer could bring it up.”
Saxton says not to blame another driver for an incident,
“Every racer has made mistakes. Blaming another racer sounds petty and causes resentment by fans who just might take it out on your sponsors.”
Desmond suggests you say something like, “I know we rubbed a few times, but that’s racing.”
As for track conditions, Saxton favors no mention of them unless the comments are positive. He says you can say something like, “Conditions could have been better, but we all had to race on the same track and that would not have been possible without the support of my sponsors.”
Huth also favors the “soft approach” in most instances. “When asked about a rough track, say something like, ‘Yes, turn four was certainly a challenge tonight but, you know, it was the same for everyone.'”
Johnson says the track conditions are obvious to everyone in attendance, so commenting on them is OK. He says it’s good to hear from a driver how he handled conditions or what he thought of the track. “But a little tact doesn’t hurt ….”
Haglund agrees a rough or dusty dirt track, for example, shouldn’t be ignored. “But it also shouldn’t be the basis of comments. Drivers can remain positive by telling fans how they overcame those obstacles.
“Promoters have a big job and put a lot of money on the line each race night, and drivers have a big stake in the success or failure of all racing promotions,” adds Haglund, a former race track manager. “More drivers need to feel a responsibility for the success of a track. It’s a two-way street. The promoter has to make a buck to continue to provide a place for racers to race.”
* Don’t block that car
This is a no-brainer but often violated. “The sponsor pays big bucks to have his name seen by fans, photographed by the media etc.,” says Saxton. “When there are a dozen people in Victory Lane blocking the view of those names, the sponsor is being denied the exposure he has paid for.”
Whew! Our experts have given you a lot to think about. But don’t worry, the Victory Lane ceremony will come and go quickly. Says Saxton: “In my mind, the perfect Victory Lane interview is about two or three questions.”
“My experience is that most tracks don’t like a long Victory Lane ceremony because generally there are other classes to run,” adds Desmond.
You, the driver, have some control over the amount of time spent in Victory Lane. Says Johnson: “If a driver has the time and hasn’t been able to say what he needs to or thank who he needs to, he should be sure and speak up.”
Copyright 2008 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article appears in the March 2009 issue of Late Model Illustrated magazine.