It all began with one phone call.
In late 2013, Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, dialed Rick Allen’s number. The reason for the call? To see if Allen, who had been the longtime voice of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for the SPEED Channel and Fox Sports, wanted to jump ship and become a member of the brand new NASCAR on NBC unit.
‘I just appreciate you calling me and thinking that I’m someone you’d be interested in to call races for NBC,” Allen told Flood at the end of the call.
The decision for Allen to move from his home at Fox Sports was a challenging one. Everything would be different, from the people he would work with, his job and most importantly, the time he spent away from his actual home with his wife and two teenage boys.
— Rick Allen (@RickAllenracing) May 31, 2016
However, when Allen thought about his goals in life, he recognized that if he were to continue as a NASCAR announcer, his ultimate goal was to cover the sport’s premier division, the Sprint Cup Series. While he had limited experience with the Cup Series, he opted to take the job, leaving his comfort zone.
“I knew the Cup Series was the highest level in stock cars, and I decided that was ultimately a goal of mine – to call Cup races,” Allen said. “I was thankful that the opportunity presented itself, that Sam Flood made that phone call and he was pleased enough that he thought I could be the play-by-play man for this team. I’m just excited that it’s gone as well as it has.”
On Dec. 4, 2013, Allen was officially named as NASCAR on NBC’s lead announcer, with former racer Jeff Burton and former crew chief Steve Letarte joining him in the booth beginning in June 2015.
“My reaction was that I was thankful,” Allen said with an enthusiastic tone. “I was humbled by it because he was offering a position that I wanted, but I hadn’t gone and asked for it. That’s how I’ve always been during my life. Just the way I present myself, I want it to speak volumes to the point that people will see that and would like me to be a part of their team.
“That’s exactly what I was hoping for when I found out NBC was going to be taking over the Cup and XFINITY races. I was hoping that would happen, so I was very excited about it. I was thrilled I was being considered for that position, which I feel like is the highest position I could be in within stock car racing.”
Allen prepared to pack his bags at Fox Sports, even though he wasn’t going far. By July 2014, he was no longer a Fox employee. But the prospect of being the face of NASCAR on NBC was rapidly approaching.
Unlike his co-workers in the booth, Allen doesn’t have a background in NASCAR. However, he does have one in racing – on foot.
Competing for the track and field team at the University of Nebraska, Allen was a walk-on athlete who impressed right off the bat. Stepping onto the circuit, he won two Big Eight decathlon titles in 1991 and 1992, along with being named a three-time All-American runner.
While Allen never pursued a career in track and field, his passion to talk about sports became his focus. Once he earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from the university, he served as an announcer for the college’s athletic department, along with being the assistant director of development for the Cornhuskers.
As Allen focused on being a PA announcer, he began working for Eagle Raceway, a 1/3-mile dirt track that’s 25 minutes down the road from the University of Nebraska. He stayed there until 2003, when the SPEED Channel came calling.
“I never really aspired to be a broadcaster,” Allen said. “I got an opportunity and really enjoyed it. That’s where I turned my entire focus to and made sure I could be the best that I can be. The opportunity arose and I was able to call the Camping World Truck Series for nearly 13 years, and I’m very thankful for that because it gave me the opportunity to do what I’m doing today.”
Settling into the lead play-by-play announcer for the Truck Series, Allen’s deep voice took the sport by storm. He began becoming smoother in the booth, working with colleagues like the late Steve Byrnes, Ray Dunlap, Krista Voda, Michael Waltrip, Hermie Sadler, Todd Bodine and the rest of SPEED and Fox’s Truck Series crew.
Allen’s schedule remained nearly the same from 2003 until he left Fox in 2014. He covered the Truck Series anywhere from 22 to 25 weeks out of the year, plus a handful of XFINITY Series and ARCA Racing Series contests. As his resume continued to build year-after-year with experience, he began to get noticed more frequently.
“I met Rick early on in his career and it has been fun to watch him develop into one of the most talented voices in motorsports,” Flood said in the original press release announcing the NASCAR on NBC booth. “His energetic delivery, great voice, and ability to bring the best out of his analysts have led him to this well-earned position of covering NASCAR’s most-watched events.”
As Allen made a name a name for himself in the Truck Series, he was having fun while doing so.
Look up Allen’s name on YouTube, and you’ll find bloopers, such as “Just Married,” a pre-race game show skit with the SPEED crew and a handful of Truck Series competitors with their wives.
“I spent 13 years of my life with them,” Allen said, with his voice slightly cracking. “I had grown with them and they’re still my best friends. I continue to see them on a regular basis, and we’re always going to be friends. I have a different role at the racetrack compared to what I used to be in, but I still see those guys when we’re at the same racetracks. It was difficult to not be working side-by-side with them. At the same time, friends will always be friends.”
But Allen moved on, readying himself for the challenge ahead.
Working with Burton and Letarte, the group was immediately going to be compared with NASCAR on Fox’s broadcast crew, along with NBC’s predecessor, ESPN. Before the trio began their official journey on live television last year, they continuously rehearsed to get rid of any possible issues they would have, such as communicating with one another or just simple chemistry.
With a rain delay in the crew’s first race at Daytona, it tested not only their ability in rain coverage, but also how much humor they could get out of one another. Evidently, as Allen explains, helped the three broadcasters work out anything they felt like wasn’t as strong as it could have been.
“We get along very well,” Allen said. “I think it’s that we’re enjoying a race together. It’s not like we’re up there working. It’s kind of seeing what’s taking place on the racetrack, talking about it and explaining why things are happening on the track. Then, we make some predictions as to what we think might happen on the track. We’re having a great time.
“We’re very good friends and do a lot of things away from the track together as a group. When we’re at the track, it’s just a continuation of the time we spend together in other places. We just enjoy each other’s company. We have a great amount of fun, and hopefully, the fans understand that and have fun with us.”
Strolling through NASCAR garages is different for Rick Allen these days. His tall stature stands out more than his deep voice in the midst of the southern accents. Instead of roaming the Truck Series garage, he has found a new home, one with more teams, people and stories to tell.
Allen’s track and field background makes him quite different from the rest of his colleagues. However, he has simply fallen in love with this American form of motor sports.
“I thought if I’m going to be in the sport, I want to be at the highest level in the sport,” Allen said. “It took me a little while to realize my goal that I wanted to strive to be the best. That’s what I will always continue to do. Three years into working with NBC, I’m still very excited about the fact that I’m calling the Cup races and the XFINITY Series races.”
After the crew’s first season on NBC, there were a few things Allen says that needed to be worked on. Ratings, however, was not one thing that was on his radar.
According to Allen, the broadcasters don’t look at ratings. It’s simply not the best indicator of how good or bad of a job they are doing. Instead, they wait for phone calls from producers Matt Marvin, Jeff Behnke [vice president of NASCAR production for NBC] or Flood, eagerly awaiting feedback to produce the best possible experience for fans at home.
“That’s not a yardstick for us,” Allen said about ratings. “For us, it’s if our bosses like what we do. If they don’t like what we do, they tell us. We take criticism very well. We always want to be better, so we’ll listen to Sam, Jeff and Matt to get better.”
Taking that criticism and turning it into something constructive has been Allen’s biggest goal. Aspiring to be better and engage fans at home, he says he doesn’t want to stop getting better.
With Allen’s leadership role in the booth, he also takes on the role of being a teacher. While he wouldn’t say specifically what the NASCAR on NBC team needs to improve on to get better, he delved into what has improved since last year, when they went live on television for the first time.
“I think we explain more things than last year,” Allen said. “I think Jeff and Steve have realized the timing of when they can talk more, when the intensity needs to be a little bit higher or when things are happening on the racetrack. Once things calm down a little bit, we can explain why. That’s what I think we’re able to do better this year.
“We really dive into why things are happening the way they are. Jeff and Steve explain things in a way everybody understands. The more exciting thing is that we continue to learn how to be better at explaining things and having a better broadcast. I don’t think you’ll ever have a perfect broadcast. We’ll always strive for that, and we’ll always work toward it as well.”
While Allen is on Cloud 9 as of now, he still has goals outside of racing that he wants to achieve. With his job at NBC, he has already experienced more opportunities outside of NASCAR than he did during his time with Fox.
Over the past year, Allen has not only been the voice of NASCAR on NBC. He’s covered Verizon IndyCar Series events, college basketball games and Red Bull Global Rally Cross.
For all of the new opportunities, Allen is thankful to have found a new home. Now that he’s with NBC, the opportunities are endless, and he is grateful for each one that comes his way.
“We talked about doing the Olympics,” Allen said with excitement in his voice. “I was a track and field athlete in college. The possibility would exist if the schedule were to work out. At some point in time, I might be able to do track and field events, maybe the Olympics, Olympic trials or some track and field meets.
“I’ve done college basketball and I very much enjoy the college atmosphere, specifically college athletics. If I get the opportunity to do more of that, I would love it. If I get to continue doing what I do now, I’ll be very happy. I’m excited about all of the possibilities that have been presented to me. I’m hoping that they can continue and I’m looking forward to doing other things, like the Olympics.”
Hoping for a bright future with NBC, Allen is incredibly thankful to have received the phone call from Flood. While he was content with his gig at Fox, he has come to recognize his true potential.
No matter where Allen works, he knows one thing — if it weren’t for the support from his family, friends and colleagues, he would not be where he is today.
“The people,” Allen said when asked about the most memorable part of his career. “The people I’ve met have been very good friends in an industry where there’s a lot of passion. There’s an incredible amount of passion in this sport, and I was very thankful that I’ve been able to work with great people who have an incredible passion for the sport. That has helped me have the same passion to learn the sport and be as passionate about the sport.”