(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Rick Allen on Booth Dynamics, Preparation

Greetings, race fans.  The 2018 NASCAR season is now complete.  Joey Logano, Tyler Reddick and Brett Moffitt have all claimed championship trophies and the teams are back home at their shops.

That said, there’s still some TV stuff going on.  As you may remember, I was in Homestead last weekend for Ford Championship Weekend.  Being on-site for races makes it very difficult to actually critique the broadcast.  I do have all three races at my disposal and do plan on critiquing them later this week.

That said, there are a couple of things that we should cover first this week.  First off, FOX Sports announced last month they are going to have a virtual studio next year.  This studio, which will be based at their Route 24 building in Charlotte, will be the home base for NASCAR RaceHub and pre-race coverage.  The Hollywood Hotel, which has been at nearly every NASCAR on FOX Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series broadcast since 2001, will be retired.

Such a move means there are going to be fewer on-air personalities for FOX Sports’ NASCAR coverage next year.  We already know the names of a couple of people that won’t be back.

Kenny Wallace previously announced that he’s leaving FOX Sports in order to race dirt full-time.  Sunday’s edition of NASCAR RaceDay was his last FOX Sports broadcast as a regular.  He does currently plan to return for Eldora next July as FOX Sports’ resident dirt racing expert.  To thank Wallace for his work with the organization, this feature aired on FOX Sports early Sunday afternoon.

You see John Roberts introduce the piece.  Turns out that he’s also on the way out at FOX Sports.  Sunday was his last broadcast as well.

Roberts’ departure doesn’t mean that FOX Sports is cutting back on their studio shows.  My best guess here is that Chris Myers will still be involved with the Cup broadcasts and will likely host pre-race coverage from Charlotte.  It’s somewhat unclear who would join him there unless Michael Waltrip stops going to the races as well.  The now-Gander Outdoors Truck Series editions of NASCAR RaceDay are likely to be much different next season.  What they will look like is a bit of a mystery right now.

Without races to critique, we’re going to go back to Charlotte in September.  Previously, we ran a feature based on an interview I did with Jeff Burton.  Immediately prior to that interview, I sat down with NBC lead play-by-play commentator Rick Allen and talked about his role on the broadcasts.  It was a very interesting time.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely aware that Allen came to NBC Sports after 11.5 years of calling Craftsman/Camping World Truck Series races on a combination of SPEED and FOX Sports 1.  He also called a couple of races in what is now the XFINITY Series during those split weekend setups.

At NBC Sports, he doesn’t just do NASCAR.  Allen, a decathlete during his days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also works on some track and field broadcasts when his NASCAR commitments allow him to.  He is also one of the backup play-by-play announcers for NBC Sports’ INDYCAR coverage, although the need for his services decreased this season after Formula 1 coverage moved to ESPN.

Given his decade-plus of experience in NASCAR, he was effectively plug-and-play when he started with NBC Sports in 2014, originally hosting NASCAR America before getting into calling events in early 2015.

Allen says that he was not asked to make any changes to his commentary style when he made the move to NBC Sports.  The only noticeable change is that he no longer uses the term, “Problems” when someone spins.  That has been replaced by “And around goes_____.”  That was a decision made by Allen.  Apparently, he had noticed some compilations of him saying it over and over, leading him to make a change.

One of the biggest aspects of NBC Sports’ NASCAR broadcast booth that you’ve likely noticed is the buddy-buddy nature of the broadcast booth.  This is 100 percent intentional and something that Allen spurred on himself.

“Immediately after I found out that we were going to work together, before it was ever announced, Steve [Letarte], Jeff [Burton] and I got together and talked,” Allen said.  “I want to have an enjoyable atmosphere, so we immediately became friends.”

At the time of his hiring, Allen admits that he didn’t know Burton or Letarte very well away from the track.  As a result, he created situations in which the trio were able to spend time together away from the racetrack.  That even included a trip where the three commentators and their wives took a weeklong vacation together.  The goal was to learn about each other and each other’s families.  The idea was to bind the broadcasters together as a group.  With Dale Earnhardt Jr. now being in the booth, the process continues to this day.

Speaking of Earnhardt Jr., Allen greatly enjoys working with the 44-year-old former full-time racer, referring to his addition as “ideal.”  Allen emphasized Earnhardt Jr.’s passion for the sport and his recent experience as being extremely beneficial for NBC Sports’ broadcasts.

In the booth, there is a line of communication between the booth commentators.  This communication, which is typically not heard on the broadcast, is where Allen, Letarte, Burton or Earnhardt Jr. can remind each other of certain topics that should be discussed and how they might be best addressed.  There is a switch on the mic that allows for this to be done, in addition to a cough button.

As with nearly any job that requires public speaking, there is a lot of preparation required.  Allen Bestwick (who just so happened to be in Homestead on Sunday) told Frontstretch years ago that he went through “volumes” of material to prepare for what was the Pit Studio anchor position at the time.

For Allen, the preparation is just as voluminous.  It’s definitely not just a couple of broadcasts a week on TV.

“The race prep for the next race starts when we’re traveling back from the race we just finished,” Allen stated.  “For the most part, all four of us in the booth travel together.  So, we start discussions not only about the race we just watched, but the one we’re expecting the next weekend.

“If a race ends on a Sunday night, we will get links to the race we just called as well as last year’s race at the track we’re going to, and we’ll watch them to refresh [our minds] and remember,” Allen continued.  “We’ll critique how we called the race from a year ago, then we’ll go forward with the research and prep, talking to drivers and crew chiefs, etc.  That all goes on throughout the week.”

To make a long story short, NBC Sports’ NASCAR commentators more or less breathe NASCAR during the week.  There are dozens of people to talk to, either on the phone, via e-mail or in person.

Generally, I write a critique column for Frontstretch.  I give my opinions on race broadcasts.  Having written this column for the last 10 seasons, I probably come off a little tough on the media partners at times, and not tough enough at other times.  I’m not the only person out there that is tough on Allen.

“I consider myself my toughest critic,” Allen stated.  “I watch all the races back [and] take notes from our producers.”

Similar to Burton and all the pit reporters, Allen also has multiple voices in his ears at all times.  These voices are the producers in the TV compound, his compatriots in the booth and the pit reporters.  Allen stressed the importance of communicating during broadcasts with producer Matt Marvin and keeping everything on task.  That is no easy task with so many things going on at once.

Allen and Marvin have an “ongoing dialogue” about the broadcasts.  They’ll talk about what works, what doesn’t and how things can be modified to benefit the broadcast and, by extension, the fan base.

Oh, and just to make to make things more interesting, Allen’s wife watches all the races and sometimes has notes of her own for him.  He describes her (in this context) as his second biggest critic after himself.

That’s all for this week.  With the NASCAR season now complete, the schedule is going to get quite a bit thinner.  This weekend brings the Formula 1 season finale from the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.  Otherwise, there’s some racing from Tucson Speedway on FansChoice as well.  That’s really about it.  TV listings are in the Television tab above.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below.  Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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As always, if you choose to contact a network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Kenny Wallace is annoying and should have left along time ago. A hyper poodle looking to find a human leg. Buh bye!

  2. Avatar

    Enjoyed the Rick Allen piece. Nice you had the chance to sit down with him. He is a good guy and does well. Yes they all genuinely come off as knowing each other and you can tell during the broadcast.

    Well of course Fox being Fox, gets rid of a decent guy like John Roberts and they keep the two Waltrip’s. I really would like to watch more truck stuff. I really like to know why? If you ever get any insight I would love to know or send it to me in a private email because I know nobody who does.

    Great job all year Phil with NASCAR. Glad you got to go to the show this weekend and I am sure you enjoyed the weather!

  3. Avatar

    You do not always come across as prepared and you do frequently miss some basic terminology which leaves me saying ‘huh’ at least a couple of times per broadcast. Your style and tone is acceptable, but the other 3 are have some issues. The biggest is that they make each other excited…ok, but when excited they all sound the same. And when it comes to co-announcers, three’s a crowd. Opinions are like and 2 is plenty. LaTarte is by far the most annoying, hyper and disjointed of the 3. While way, way more genuine than Michael Waltrip and less senile than his brother, LaTarte is an ‘over the top’ kind of person. That wears on me and others after 3 or 4 weeks….but then there are a dozen more. By the Playoffs, I’m watching the broadcast with MRN on…its that annoying.
    Rick, you may be ok with another season under your belt…I hope so, but there are too many cooks in the kitchen and one has got to go.
    I hope you take this in the spirit it is intended…as constructive. I also genuinely appreciate that you actually want honest feedback. It would be worthwhile to watch each broadcast together as a team over the winter and critique each other as long as egos permit it. Have a great holiday season.

  4. Avatar

    I used to like Rick’s calling of the truck races.

    Now, he’s just another “color commentator,” with very little actual PxP. The director shows Chase Elliot’s car, so Rick tells the heart-warming story of the “sireeen” in Dawsonville. When the director shows Martin Truex, Rick tells us the heart-warming story of the little team from “way out west” in Denver. Just call the damn race, Rick. There are other guys to provide over the top analysis (in the same irritating high-pitch southern drawl).

  5. Avatar

    Now that “problems” is gone, can we turn our attention to toning down the constant use of “side-by-side”? You’re a professional – surely you must be able to find some suitable alternatives.

  6. Avatar

    Just thinking aloud, but by 2024, when the TV deals are up, things will get interesting. NASCAR wants & needs OTT offerings of the races. The TV partners that choose to re-up for 2025 will want to drastically reduce production costs, because those 2.0 to 2.5 ratings are looking like the future norm. What may end up happening is that NASCAR will do like F1 & produce a common TV feed which the TV partners will carry.

  7. Avatar

    Allen is ok but Burton and Letarte have to go. Their shrill yelling during the race is annoying. Changed channels and watched another program while they were yelling like it was the last lap of the race. Burton and Letarte are beyond terrible !!

    • Avatar

      Golden throat Allen needs to go with the all of a sudden excited voiced Burton and Letarte. These maroons are talking like they are boradcasting on a radio show. Phoney excitement. Too little, too late. Junior in the booth makes more sense so Burton can go to MRN now. Letarte is winiing crewchief but a personality in the TV broacast he is not!