The Ambassador of Motorsports- Bob Varsha

Bob VarshaBob Varsha has been covering the world of racing for over 20 years. In that time he has developed a valuable insight into the fast paced and sometimes glamour filled world of racing. Through it all, he has kept an open-minded approach to broadcasting while maintaining a level of professionalism that is currently missing in parts of the sporting world today. We recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his path into broadcasting, some of the great personalities of racing, and the various disciplines of the sport.

Mecca of Speed: You studied law in college, how did you make the transition to motorsports broadcasting?

Bob Varsha: While I was in college, my sport was running, I was a distance runner. Then I moved to Atlanta to attend law school at Emory University. I kept up with my running and fell in with the Atlanta Track Club. I became their first executive director when the club became big and cumbersome, needing a new business like approach. I did that for a couple of years.

In 1979, the folks at Turner Broadcasting decided they wanted to make a show around our big centerpiece world-class race, called the Peach Tree Road Race, held on the 4th of July. Somehow, they got my name as someone who knew the race inside and out. They asked if I would work the broadcast with their announcers. I did it and sort of forgot about it.

Six weeks later, they called and asked if I wanted to audition for a job. One thing lead to another and the next thing I knew, I was a broadcaster.

Over time I began to practice law less and less and do television more and more. Finally, I took a full time job at Turner Broadcasting, working at CNN Sports, which was very new back then.

Through them I got to know a production company that dealt exclusively with motorsports called World Sports Enterprises, founded by among others Ken Squire, who was the long time voice of the Daytona 500 on CBS. I began working with them on their new idea for a motorsports anthology show called Motorweek Illustrated. That show went on the air back in 1982 on Turner Broadcasting.

From there I went to ESPN for a decade or so as a freelancer. Then fell in with what was then Speedvision, now SPEED. Somehow twenty odd years have gone buy before I even knew it.

Mecca of Speed: To many you are the voice of Formula One along with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett. Recently you covered the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. How did you prepare yourself for the different drivers and chassis’ in the Grand Am series?

Bob Varsha: Motorsports are a year round thing for me. Probably like you, it’s something I get up and do every day. I hit the Internet, read the magazines and follow what is going on in the sport. Working for SPEED we are 24/7 on the subject, so it’s mostly maintenance at this point, compiling stuff everyday.

I actually started with sports cars back in the early 80s. Covering them is not a hard change for me. By comparison, later this week I’m going back down to Daytona where I’ll be working for the SPEED Report, our weekend news program covering NASCAR, which I haven’t done for a long time. I have been crunching for finals, so to speak.

Once it’s part of your life, you see the same stories coming around and you try to stay abreast of the news so it was really not a problem covering sports cars.

Mecca of Speed: You have seen Juan Pablo Montoya in Champ Car and Formula One. What do you think are some of the unseen challenges facing him as he makes his transition to NASCAR?

Bob Varsha: I have really changed my mind about Juan Pablo. When he first announced his change form Formula One to NASCAR I thought, this is going to come to tears for sure. Fitting in, adjusting to the car, a complete lifestyle change. But the more I thought of it, I considered things such as the fact he lives in south Florida. This is a way for him to stay much closer to home. He is very dedicated to his family, his wife Connie and their two young sons.

This might be an easier thing for him to do then I had thought. The epiphany for me, when the light went on so to speak was during the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I thought if it’s going to hit the fan, it’s going to happen there. He is a guy who has spent is whole career in open wheel cars. He has always had the car set up to his own liking and a backup car if there is something wrong with the primary.

What was he going to do when he has one car and he has to share it with two other drivers, the traditional endurance racing compromise? Lo and behold, his transition was seamless.

Scott Pruett, who I have known for many years (not only covering his racing, but when we worked together covering Champ Car on television), said he was a dream teammate. Juan Pablo was completely relaxed. Fortunately their driving styles call for a similar setup. The key thing in endurance racing is that you give your teammate a car that is as good as when you got it. Don’t use up the brakes, the gearbox, the engine and so forth. Scott said that Juan Pablo was perfect.

That leads me to believe that there is a lot more to Juan Pablo than I was giving him credit for. Right now I’m a Montoya believer. I think he is going to make his ride work.

Of course this is NASCAR, there is a certain question about how much he will be allowed to do, so to speak. The cars are so heavily regulated and the races are so carefully managed- it’s going to be interesting to watch.

Right now he is the flavor of the month in Daytona. I think he is going to do really well. I’m not going to say he is going to win the championship the first time out, but he did win the Indy 500 and the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona the first time. I wouldn’t put anything past him. He is a lot more gifted a driver than I probably gave him credit for in the past.

Mecca of Speed: Fans who tune in for a Formula One race on Sunday may think you only work 2-3 hours for a race, but there is much more to your schedule. What is the average schedule for you on a race weekend?

Bob Varsha: Just about everybody knows that we do virtually all the races, except the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis from a studio in North Carolina. Peter Windsor is on site at every grand prix, so all the technology to get his material back to us has to be organized.

For me as an announcer, I usually arrive the Thursday before the race. We do practice on Friday, qualifying on Saturday, and the race on Sunday. I live in Atlanta, and travel to Charlotte to do the race. David Hobbs comes from his home in Milwaukee and Steve Matchett comes from his home in France. We are all sort of bachelors for the weekend. We can immerse our selves in the race because we don’t have the family responsibilities that we do back home.

On Thursday, we have a brief production meeting to talk about what is going on, what materials the staff has prepared as elements for the show, graphics as so forth. A lot of this is heavily restricted by our contract with Formula One. We can’t do as much in a Formula One show as we can in a sports car or NASCAR show.

The races are usually in Europe, so we are up early in the morning. We watch the first practice and broadcast the second practice. We also watch the GP2 practice because we do that series as well.

On Saturday morning we come in and watch the first GP2 race. Our broadcast for qualifying is very different from our practice broadcast. This broadcast is slightly TIVOed, to make sure we show as much green flag action as possible from the three sessions. We delay it slightly by a few seconds up to a minute so we can show all the action.

That gets some folks hair out of place because they are following the timing and scoring on the Internet. I know that is a problem for them and I apologise for that, but we would rather they see all of the racing action.

Saturday afternoon we will record part of the GP2 broadcast. I’ll also usually have responsibilities for the news program. David and Steve go have a nice leisurely lunch and go lay by the pool.

Then it’s back in Sunday morning, all hands on deck for the race. In addition to the grand prix we will also have the GP2 show to finish up.

We have Internet responsibilities, a piece for, and then one or all of us will be involved in some combination of programs later in the day. This may be the SPEED Report, which usually falls to me or Dave Despain’s show Wind Tunnel. He usually wants one of us to come in and talk about that weekend’s grand prix. It’s a pretty full weekend with a lot of airtime.

Mecca of Speed: You and David Hobbs have known each other for a long time. Steve Matchett was brought in making the broadcast team as entertaining to listen to, as it is to watch the race. How did Steve Matchett join the team? Was it from his book Life in the Pit Lane?

Bob Varsha: That is exactly how it happened. Frank Wilson, who is now a Senior Quadrant Producer and Vice President at SPEED, has always been deeply involved in Formula One coverage. He has been at SPEED since it was first founded as SpeedVision back in the mid 90s.

Frank was looking around for a different perspective. He knew David and I had been working together for a long time and knew what we could do.

David is a driver and Frank was looking for a little bit more of an insider’s perspective. A mechanic’s point of view.

He was familiar with Steve’s books and called Steve out of the blue. He asked Steve if he would like to try broadcasting. Steve talks about this in the introduction to his third book, Chariot Makers. He came over and took a shot and things clicked. That is the way it has been ever since.

It was partly by design and partly by luck that Steve has the personality he does. He fits in nicely with David. Of course they have their mechanic vs. driver thing going back and forth which is all in good fun. They have a tremendous amount of respect for each other.

I’m the ringmaster between them during the broadcast.

I really treasure the fact that folks express their opinions that our trio (plus Peter) is unique and different from other television teams in motorsports. I’m proud of that and would like to keep the team together for a long time.

Mecca of Speed: Speaking of keeping people reeled in, do you keep in touch with Tommy Kendall?

Bob Varsha: I do. I see T.K. every now and then. It’s always interesting, always fun. He has a different perspective on things. He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known and one of the most intuitive drivers.

Martin Brundle likes to say that Michael Schumaker is one of the rare drivers that only uses 75% of his ability when he is driving. That leaves him 25%, a lot more then most drivers, to think about the big picture and not just about how to get into and out of this corner. He can think about how the race is shaping up. Where are his rivals? What are their lap times and what is the optimum pit strategy? Michael does a lot of that in his head in the car.

Michael and Ross Brawn were a team at Ferrari. It was not just a matter of Michael taking orders. Tommy Kendall is a lot like that.

If you talk to the great teams he drove for in Trans Am when he won four championships, you will find he was the same way. He always wanted information. He would call his own pit strategy from the car based on what his team was telling him about what his rivals were doing on and how the race was unfolding.

Tommy is a very bright guy. He is an economics graduate from UCLA. He could go far in the business world and perhaps maybe he will someday. That is a great interest of his, but he still has that racing itch.

I know he would like to get back into racing. I think he would like to own a team and possibly to drive a little himself. He receives request to drive all the time so I would not be surprised if he finds himself back in a racecar or up on the pit box, talking with the TV crews.

Mecca of Speed: Has he taken you for a ride in the Chicken Car?

Bob Varsha: I have ridden in the Chicken Car! In fact I was watching the Fox broadcast of a California NASCAR race and one of the cameramen happened to see the car out in the lot. This enormous yellow boat, with the head of a chicken on the roof. I was sitting at home saying, “That’s the Chicken Car!”

I grabbed the cell phone and tried to dial up Mike Joy, my Fox opposite. Knowing I wouldn’t get through to him, I was hoping he may have given his cell phone to someone and I could tell them about the car.

They saw the car. They were laughing about it, but they didn’t know what it was. I was not able to get through, but we did talk about it later. Tommy was not in the car, he had given the car to a friend to drive to the racetrack. That is pure T.K. through and through.

Mecca of Speed: As you said, we live racing day and night. With most people who follow racing at this level, there is usually one driver that got them hooked on racing. What driver was that for you?

Bob Varsha: Wow, probably Mario Andretti.

I grew up in the suburbs of New York and was not a passionate follower of racing. My closest contact to racing was a buddy up the street whose Dad owned a Plymouth dealership and sponsored a drag racer.

I wasn’t that deeply involved in racing until I got involved in television. For a long time, my portfolio at ESPN was not only racing, but also other sports like skiing, swimming, track and field and college sports.

I am not that much of a car guy; I’m more of a story guy. Sports are full of stories of great audacity and triumph, and sometimes great tragedy. Racing has all of that in spades. The more time I spend in this business, the more books I read and personalities I meet, or the departed personalities I learn about, the more respect I have for the people who make their life in the world of motorsports.

There have been so many great personalities and guys I wish I had gotten to know like Mark Donohue and Eddie Sachs.

Ayrton Senna is someone I wish I had been able to get to know a little better. I knew him at a very shallow level, but at least I can say I knew him and talked to him.

From the list of guys I admired from the very beginning, I would have to say the guy for me was Mario.

Mecca of Speed: What team do you think is going to be the surprise of the season in Formula One this year compared to how the team did in 2006?

Bob Varsha: That is a great question. I never put much stock in winter testing. That is why they call it the winter world championship. It’s so divorced from what is actually going to happen when we do it for real.

With the changes at the top with McLaren, Renault and Ferrari, the door is definitely open. I would say Honda and BMW are two of the key teams that have no significant changes from last year.

I was really impressed with BMW last year. If I had to pick a team to expect big things out of this year, it would probably be them. They are very business like and well organized. They don’t have the biggest budget or team, but they accomplished some things last year that were surprising.

I think they need one more driver. I’m not sure the line-up of Heidfeld, Kubica and Vettel are going to get it done for them. They need a superstar. As long as you have the car, the drivers will come.

Having said that, I’m surprised Alonso is going as well as he is at McLaren. He may bring McLaren back to prominence this year, and if he does that will further burnish the Alonso legend.

Even if he doesn’t win his third straight championship, if he makes them race winners again, that will be quite an accomplishment.

Mecca of Speed: If BMW has trouble they can start ice racing their F1 car.

Bob Varsha: That was pretty impressive. I haven’t seen any video yet, but I did see photos. That must have been something.

Everyone must have been very, very confident about the depth of the ice on the lake in St. Moritz. That was pretty spectacular. It was good fun.

Formula One teams have been doing more and more of that type of thing. Formula One, for all its stuffy reputation, has gotten a lot more sensitive to perception. There are a lot more street shows at places like London. They take the action to the public a lot more, which makes good marketing sense.

The best example we have seen of this was last year at Indianapolis at the U.S. Grand Prix. After the six-car disaster of 2005, they came back knowing they had to do something to make it up to the fans.

We did a day long taping at the fan plaza at Indy with virtually all the drivers. They were happy the way it turned out for the event.

It a sport that is as sophisticated as Formula One, you do something like that, give us your drivers, bring them out before a big warm crowd and there is nothing but positive feelings. There was lots of cheering and that sort of thing. It’s like we reinvented the wheel.

You talk with the P.R. officers afterwards and they say, “That was great, we’ll have to do that again next year.” I’m thinking that was a no brainer of a decision.

It was easily done, but sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. Formula One is susceptible to that as anyone.

Mecca of Speed: Formula One is a world stage with a mix of driver nationalities. You have always been very articulate with your pronunciation of driver’s names. Do you do your own research?

Bob Varsha: We go to the teams and the drivers whenever we can.

I take a lot of heat because I try and pronounce the driver’s names as they would like them pronounced. A lot of folks accuse me of putting on airs.

Ayrton Senna is probably the best example of that. People ask me why I pronounce his first name as Ay(e)rton rather then Ayrton which everybody else does. My answer is simple; I went up to him and asked him how he would like his name pronounced.

He said, “Well, it really doesn’t matter because English speaking people are going to call me Ayrton anyway.”

I had been tipped off by one of my producers who was Mexican in nationality that it was really pronounced Ay(e)rton. I know that has been a problem for some of my colleagues from time to time because they don’t quite latch onto it. To each their own. That is the way I prefer to do it.

It’s a sign of respect to pronounce one’s name correctly, even if you are not fluent in the language. I’m not fluent in Portuguese, French or German, but I think it’s worth the effort to try and speak the names of places and people as the locals do.

Mecca of Speed:  Looking to the junior levels of racing your son Matt raced in the Star Mazda series in 2006. Does he have prospects for this season?

Bob Varsha: He is certainly ready to go. He did not get the complete Star Mazda series in last year because we just ran out of money. Money is the fuel that really powers racing.

He did win a race and finished on the podium in Montreal and acquitted himself rather well, putting all parental pride aside.

He doesn’t get it from me. I can’t drive a duck to water. It must be his mom that has the racing genes in the family.

Again, parental pride aside, I think he is talented. I think he gets it.

He was a bit of a latecomer to the sport; he started racing when he was 14 or 15.

He got in a Porsche; in the cold on used tires at the Rolex 24 as a fifth driver for a GT team. He hadn’t ever driven a rear engine Porsche. In four laps he matched their qualifying time, in the cold and dark on Thursday night.

David Hobbs was standing there with me watching him when he did his time and David turned to me and said, “I think he will be alright.”

I would like him to get the opportunity. I know he is in the same position as so many talented young kids.

If you can hit a major league fastball you are going to have a job. They will find you, they will hire you, and you will be on your way. But that’s not true in racing. You and I, and anyone who has been around the sport for any length of time know there are some great undiscovered talents out there.

It has always been one of the great bar room games we get into from time to time on the road- who are some of the greatest drivers you have ever heard of who never got a shot? There are plenty of those because it takes money.

Unless, or until we find a sponsor, my son is not going to have anything unless one of those rare occasions comes along where someone with the financial clout, or owns a team decides to give a kid a shot.

Until that happens, we’ll just keep plugging and try and find a way.

Mecca of Speed: Looking at sports cars, what goes through your mind when you look at the new Porsche Spyder?

Bob Varsha: It’s beautiful. Sports car racing has always been the forgotten stepchild of the American racing fan. Not true around the world, but here in America where fans have so may choices of racing, from NASCAR and drag racing, to two different open wheel and two different sports car series.

I’m delighted to see the investment Porsche has made. I love technology. Yes it’s expensive, yes it makes it tough on a privateer team if a manufacturer like Porsche makes these sorts of vehicles available and runs them as a factory team if they choose to. Porsche has done in the past, but does not now.

Le Mans is probably my favorite race in the world, so I have plenty of reasons to like this car and the American Le Mans Series, but they are going to need help. The Audi factory team is dominating LMP1. Corvette is dominating GT1.

Those two classes LMP1 and GT1 probably won’t have an awful lot of diversity, which is unfortunate. We can watch the LMP2 and GT2 races to stay satisfied.

I love sports cars and endurance racing. I’ll always click over to whatever channel is showing sports car races and watch them.

Mecca of Speed: You mentioned your love of Le Mans. If you could pick three tracks across the globe that you love for the atmosphere or the racing, what would they be?

Bob Varsha: I’m a fan of big heroic tracks, that is way I like Le Mans. It is the last true road course.

Spa Francorchamps in Belgium is a hairy chested track, which is why all the drivers love it.

The third track would probably be Monza in Italy. Monza is a living museum. The track, the facilities, really haven’t changed that much. The old grandstand is still there, which was there during World War Two when it was tanks, not racecars using the facility.

If I had to pick three, those would probably be the three. Having said that, there are places like Suzuka in Japan that could be on the list.

We are losing so many of the great racetracks. Imola is being changed right now. Barcelona is being changed. I don’t know what those changes are going to produce in the way of a racetrack.

There are a lot of great tracks that don’t get international coverage. Places like Austria and Mugello are really cool racetracks, but don’t have big events right now.

Mecca of Speed: You have had the chance to ride with a variety of drivers, who has left the greatest impression on you.

Bob Varsha: Probably my collogue, David Hobbs. I always let him take the wheel of our rental cars when we travelled the world together for Formula One in the 90s.

I learned racing drivers have a very different view of things. In the movie Good Will Hunting, the character played by Matt Damon is a math genius with a terribly antisocial personality. In one scene he is talking with his girlfriend who plays piano very well and she asks him about his mathematical ability.

He says, “Well, it’s like when you sit down at the piano and look at those 88 keys, they just make sense to you, where it couldn’t be more foreign, strange, or unreal to me. That’s the way I am with math, I see those squiggles on the board and they just make sense to me.”

I think that is true of naturally gifted racing drivers. They have a car, which is an instrument. They have a racetrack that poses very different challenges every second, and those challenges change corner-to-corner, lap-to-lap, but it just makes sense to them and they deal with it that way.

Nigel Mansell once told me that he knows he is in the groove when everything slows down. As he is going faster and faster, it’s all being processed slower and slower, which goes back to Michael Schumaker seeming to have more ability than anyone else to do all that processing while he is going through the exercise of getting the racecar around the track.

All this is really fascinating to me. I always flinch when I hear supposed experts say they don’t think racing drivers are athletes, because they are athletes and more. They are athletes also performing a very intellectual exercise.

Having been driven around by racing drivers and seeing the calm easy way they approach it, it just seem so natural. They are working with a different set of physics then the rest of us.

As Hobbs says, it’s not about going to the grocery story, only faster, it’s very different.

Another thing I’ve noticed about racing drivers, is they all typically have very soft hands. They say this about baseball shortstops, basketball point guards, and football receivers. Most of the top drivers, when you shake their hands they are very soft. There is the sensitivity aspect. Is there a direct correlation here? I don’t know.

Racing drivers tell me they get so much feedback through their hands, through their butt, at least as much as their eyes and ears.

It’s a very different skill. For some of them it’s natural, for some of them it’s cultivated. Some of them just work their ass off to be as good as they can be.

Racing drivers are all different, but equally fascinating. That’s part of the reason I love this business- I get to tell these stories.

Mecca of Speed: In closing, who are the unsung heroes of motorsports?

Bob Varsha: I have always been fascinated by the relationship between drivers and mechanics. I talked with an old mechanic back in the Camel GT days, when Geoff Brabham was winning all of his championships with Nissan. I asked him about Geoff’s car and he said, “It’s not his car, it’s our car, we just let him use it.”

A true mechanic, someone who has the passion, knows if a few extra hours from him will make a better car, then that driver who uses their own unique talents can put the car on pole or win the race, the mechanic will put the extra time into the car. They know, when the driver wins, the team wins.

Beyond that, racing is an incredibly intensive manpower business. Not only in terms of designing, building, developing, maintaining and racing the car, there are the event people running the racetrack. People parking the cars, providing concessions and on and on and on. It’s a huge logistical effort.

I’m always fascinated to watch Formula One teams travel the world. These days Champ Car teams travel the world. Some day NASCAR teams will probably travel the world. It takes an awful lot of organization and commitment from a lot of people who have to love what they do because there is really no other reason.

As for the media, we will follow along. When the circus is in town that is why we are there.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time.

Bob Varsha: My pleasure.

Content credit Bob Varsha and John Vatne. Photo credit John Vatne.