Mike Joy knows racing like the back of his palm. His efficiency in the broadcast booth comes with the power of his deep, yet soft tone that’s captivated NASCAR fans for more than a generation now.
With a mixture of Northeast American dialect and some southern terminology, Joy has built his career as one of racing’s great play-by-play voices. The 67-year-old continues to lead NASCAR on FOX’s coverage, just wrapping up the crew’s 17th season this past weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
Joy, one of the longest-tenured people involved in sports television, is already set for the 2018 season. His ideas remain fresh, an ability to adapt over time he learned from 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame member Ken Squier, amongst other key individuals who played a major role in making Joy the reliable broadcaster that he is.
Frontstretch spoke with Joy less than a week prior to FOX’s last race of 2018, discussing the 2017 NASCAR season, what the network could do to improve, his mentor and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: What do you feel like the biggest headline of the season is so far?
Mike Joy: I think the biggest headline is stage racing. This has been a game-changer for all of the teams, especially the crew chiefs and strategists. Knowing that cautions are coming at certain intervals in the race has had a great effect on race strategy and there are a lot more different strategies than just short-pitting or running the tank out until it’s dry. It really has been a game-changer. Martin Truex Jr. and [crew chief] Cole Pearn have taken advantage and they’ve piled up the most mid-race points by a wide margin. That’s likely going to see them all the way through to Miami. I’m a little surprised that nobody else has picked up on that strategy like they have.
Wolkin: Do you feel like any other team has the capability to rack up points like Truex and Pearn have done?
Joy: Yes. I think Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch have both run – if you look at the stats and how many laps each of them have run in the top two or three positions during the race – I think either of them would be capable of doing the same thing if that was the goal of their team. Right now, Kyle Busch’s goal is to win a race. I think the second biggest story of the year has been the failure of Joe Gibbs Racing to win compared to seven they had this time last year.
Wolkin: It certainly has been surprising to not see Joe Gibbs Racing win this year.
Joy: They’ve had speed and fast cars. They just either haven’t executed or have made some questionable decisions on strategy, like leaving Kyle out on the track last week (at Michigan) and not pitting him for tires with so many laps left. I don’t think there is any one reason why they haven’t won, but it sure is surprising.
Wolkin: You’ve been in NASCAR for several decades now. What does it mean to you to continue to provide fans with coverage week-in and week-out?
Joy: I love what I do. I continue to work at this several hours a day, either on the phone, on the computer, doing research, trading messages back and forth so we can be prepared for Sunday. It’s a great sport. Of all the sports I’ve covered, it’s by far the most difficult. Unless you’re at a track and field event or covering golf, every other sport has one ball in play at a time. To race fans, they find that lacking because here, the action can come from anywhere at any time. That’s a great challenge and great fun.
Wolkin: The FOX booth has been together for 17 years now. How do you feel you guys have improved from where you started?
Joy: I think when we started with Larry and Darrell, a lot of the commentary was of their personal experiences. Now, as we get further and further from their active careers and even Jeff’s, it’s more about the people who are on the racetrack. The biggest change is that the focus in coverage has really shifted to today’s drivers, their backgrounds and their concerns and feeling in the racecar.
I think you see that in any sport, where analysts come in to share their own experiences and then, they transition to trying to relate them to the people who are on the field, or in this case on the track. Both our data stream, with the information we receive from timing & scoring and from our people down in the truck, has greatly improved. The on-board cameras, with a great deal of development in them, have really improved.
I don’t think there have been any major changes. I think the biggest change was when FOX first came on the air and we introduced the first continuous ticker. A lot of people hated it. They said the cars are going one way, the ticker is going the other way. Now, if you watch a race without a scoring ticker, you’re lost. We looked at it on the left side or the right side, right across the top or the bottom, left to right or right to left.
We did a lot of research on this to get it right. The most valuable thing is every fan of every driver can find their driver’s number, position, and interval and see if that driver is gaining or losing on the leader. That is something that was previously impossible to do on TV because you could only show four to five cars at a time.
Wolkin: What is the biggest way that you look at that in-race data?
Joy: We look for developing battles, and that’s where our software has gotten really good over the years. I can instantly see the intervals. We’ve got call-outs that help us and the director find the cars that are close together on the racetrack and have a battle developing. We have software to help us to show where every driver restarts, what position they’re in now and the programming helps us identify drivers who have moved up a lot of spots and have backed off.
Those are all stories to tell, and we try to get them all on. We can’t always, though. The pit reporters have to sell a story to get it on-air. Someone says they passed the information along, but it never reached us, so it never reached air. You have 40 cars and things like that are going to happen from time to time. There are more stories than you can tell in three and a half hours.
Wolkin: When Jeff Gordon came on board, what challenges did you face in swapping from Larry to him, even though he had some experience doing television in the past?
Joy: I wouldn’t use the word challenge. I would use the word opportunity. By the time Jeff came in the booth, Larry had not crew chiefed a car in Cup for 16 years and Darrell hadn’t driven a Cup car for 16 years. It’s like when that subway door opens and you get a breath of fresh air. Jeff gave us a great opportunity to his years of winning and years of skill. Most importantly, it just happened.
He just came off the track at Homestead, running for a championship. To have that kind of experience and right now expertise was a huge boost to us. He was good right away. He’d done TV, hosted Saturday Night Live and had been part of races on TV. There was very little get up to speed with Jeff because he came in already knowing the job and already prepared.
Wolkin: That’s very important in terms of chemistry in the booth, especially that you now have two drivers instead of a driver and crew chief. How is it different for you, serving as the mediator at times?
Joy: It’s been very different. I remember the old ABC Indy days, when they had Bobby Unser and Sam Posey in the booth. Bobby had won Indy three times. Sam had not won it. He was Rookie of the Year, but he never won it. Bobby loves to hear his own opinion and have it validated, so he and Sam would argue. Sam was much better educated and a much better speaker than Bobby, but they argued a lot. It was pretty entertaining, but it wasn’t informative.
I think the benefit that we have, like when I had Buddy Baker and Ned Jarrett in the booth at CBS, was that we had drivers that were essentially from two different generations. It’s two different experience sets in driving the racecar. You don’t get conflict of opinion that much. It’s like trying to compare Babe Ruth to Roger Maris to Barry Bonds. You can’t really do it. The ball is different and the pitchers are different and the game is different. It really helps my job because there is a lot less arguing and more information.
Wolkin: Sometimes, it seems like Jeff and Darrell do get in a few disagreements. How do you try to ease things down?
Joy: Even if it’s a major disagreement, it’s in good nature because we’re all friends first. I thought it was pretty funny pre-race at Pocono that they said Ryan Blaney isn’t going to win a race this year. They [said he] just can’t put together an error-free race. Then, we get to the mid-point of the race and everybody’s picking drivers and I picked last, so I said, ‘Hey, Ryan Blaney is one error-free pit stop away from his first win.’ It happened. The good thing is we all have opinions and the thing you need to put out there is to let the viewer make up their mind on which one of those opinions we’re going to go with and see how it plays out.
Wolkin: As a broadcaster, you have to look up to Ken Squier. What’s an experience you’ve had with him that has shaped you as a broadcaster?
Joy: Ken was my mentor. When I was doing public address during college up in New England in the 1970s, they’d bring Ken in to work the big events. We got to work together and he got to learn what my capabilities were. He helped open some doors for me. We worked together at CBS for 16-17 years. He was a tremendous influence, both in how to tell a story, how to make these athletes bigger and larger than life, how to draw the most out of your analysts and I think most importantly, when to shut up.
One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, ‘I never learned anything when I was talking.’ I was very proud as part of the nominating and voting committee to work very hard at getting Ken Squier in the Hall of Fame.
I’m very glad we’ve accomplished this, not just as an announcer, but for the things he’s created, like Motor Racing Network, and the deals he made, like the landmark CBS deal to televise the Daytona 500 live. He created the first weekly news magazine show about auto racing, which was Motor Week Illustrated on TBS. All of the people in racing and the fans owe him a deep amount of gratitude for everything he’s done.
Wolkin: Do you ever think that you will be in the Hall of Fame one day?
Joy: Don’t even think about it. That’s not for me to think about. Someday, maybe that’s something other people will consider. Right now, I think the biggest kick I get is when someone comes up to me and says I’ve been watching racing all my life and I’ve been listening to you all of my life. That’s gratifying, and hopefully, that will be the case for a while to come.