One-on-One with NASCAR on Fox's Larry McReynolds
You might know him as an analyst for NASCAR on Fox. You might not. Instead, you might know him as the man that led Dale Earnhardt Sr. to his lone Daytona 500 victory in 1998. If not, you might even recognize this man as the man who sat atop the pit box on the famous No. 28 Ford for Robert Yates Racing throughout the early-mid 1990s with Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan.
This man's Twitter handle has the No. 28 in it, and there is beyond a good reason as to why.
Larry McReynolds has done his fair share in the NASCAR world since he became a crew chief in 1985. McReynolds just finished up his stint with Fox, but will now play a different role at TNT. However, Fox is where he got his start as a household name in the NASCAR world, and a lot has changed in his life since then.
McReynolds spoke with Speedway Digest last Friday afternoon for an exclusive 45-minute interview. As we went to sit down, McReynolds put down his smart phone, and had told some of the most compelling parts as to what it is like to be inside of that broadcast booth. With a NASCAR on Fox watch adorning his wrist, the 55-year-old retired crew chief discussed his life as a broadcaster, and shared some stories from his days in racing while working with some of the top drivers in the sport in what ended up being an emotional interview.
Joseph Wolkin: What has been the best part about working with the FOX crew?
Larry McReynolds: I don’t think I can say it is one thing, but to me – the neatest thing is how close our group is. The first 15/16 weeks of each season, we spend more time with each other than our families. I truly believe that is one thing that has made our whole deal click and work for 14 years. We are not just broadcast partners, we are friends and I think that is critical.
I relate it to all my years on race teams. I don’t think that it is coincidental that the race teams and then the drivers that I worked with – the ones that I had the best friendship and relationship with happens to be the ones I had the most success with. I told this story many times. We all have a huge ego. We wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we didn’t. That’s facts of life. You talk about Darrell Waltrip, myself, Mike Joy, throw in Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond, Michael Waltrip – that is enough ego to fill this media center out of the cracks. But I think that what has made it work is the biggest part of our ego is – let’s just have a good broadcast.
Let’s take this race to the fans. Let’s have fun doing it and they’ll enjoy it. I would have to say though, just the camaraderie between our whole group, even the production truck, Barry Landis and our producer, Artie Kempner, and the list just goes on and on and on, just how close knit we truly are. Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip are two of my best friends. I feel like if I have a personal problem of any kind, I could pick up a phone and call either one of them probably quicker than I can call anybody just because of the friendship that has been acquired over 14 years.
JW: How have you guys been able to develop chemistry since you guys started working together? Were you friends before that?
LM: Really and truly not. We were friendly with each other. Someone refreshed my memory that back in the day in the late 1990s, working for TNN, the three of us did a Truck Series race together. But outside of that – I worked with Mike a couple of times. I never really worked with Darrell on racecars, but I almost believe that chemistry within a team – whether it is a race team or whether it is a broadcast team or whatever kind of a team, I believe you can grow it and make it better, but I believe it has to be there pretty solid from the get-go.
I keep going back to my days as a crew chief. Probably the driver that I had the most success with and the closest relationship with was Davey Allison. I remember the very first time going to the race track with him. We went to a test at Darlington, and we didn’t have cell phones or anything back then. I remember I could not wait until lunch time when I could find a pay phone to call my wife and tell her how great this was going to be.
It was not because of how fast we were, but because the first time he went out and ran and he came in and I let that window net down – I knew it was there. I go back to the first time the three of us went to the booth at Daytona for a practice session in 2001. I knew that before practice was over – this deal was going to click. We feed off of each other a lot. We have grown stronger and better in 14 years, but I just believe that the chemistry was truly there when we first started, and maybe that is what David Hill’s gut feeling was when he put the three of us together.
JW: How do you make the transition to TNT after working with the Fox group?
LM: Other than just changing logos, that is the only difference. Certainly, every broadcast group has different philosophies. I play a different role over there, which I like, but still trying to do the same things. When we first started the Fox deal – we had a lot of meetings, a lot of seminars and a lot of just talking - mainly our bosses giving us what we needed to be doing. The list of stuff that they threw at us was as long as my body.
But the three things that I picked up on that I could tell meant a lot to them and they wanted us to focus on a lot were – you have to tell the story, no matter what it is about. If Jeff Gordon dumps Jimmie Johnson getting into the corner, don’t try to tell the fan that Jimmie Johnson’s foot must have slipped off the throttle. Tell the fan what they just saw. Another important one is to explain why. Why did that crew chief just change two tires? Why did he change four tires? What are the consequences? Never let the viewer turn the broadcast off and have a why question that didn’t get answered. The third one is easy for us. Have fun. People accuse us of a lot of things, but I never, in 14 years, heard anyone say that Fox bunch doesn’t have fun. If we aren’t having fun, how can we expect the viewer to have fun? Even though I play a different role, even though I change logos for six weeks, I take those same philosophies to the TNT broadcast.
JW: How does the Fox crew try to increase the ratings week-to-week?
LM: Even after 14 years, I’m not convinced, and I say this cautiously, there is a damn thing that we or I can do up in that booth that will all of a sudden turn a TV on. It would be nice to know if we could. My gosh if there were, we would be doing it. As a broadcaster, I hear ratings, I hear ratings decline, I hear this, and sure you are concerned about it because you care, but I try to focus on things that I can control. I’m not sure ratings are one of them.
The feedback that I do get – which is I think is what Fox hangs its hat on, is everything is down. Let’s lay football down. That is a novelty. But I hear basketball is down, baseball ratings are down and the one thing that I have been hearing is that we are winning the weekend (in terms of ratings). I think that is important. It is no different, Joseph, than attendance. This place (Dover) could be a little bit of a different story unfortunately and I don’t know why, but I always use Brooklyn, Michigan (Michigan International Speedway) as an example. We go there in two weeks, and no question – there will be 20 thousand empty seats. Won’t challenge that. Won’t deny it. But my G-D, there are still 100 thousand people there.
There are still 100 thousand people there. That’s more people that will be watching college football up in Ann Arbor attending a Michigan football game. It kind of upsets me and hurts my feelings and makes me mad. Most of these people in here (the media center) won’t write about the 100 thousand people. They will only write about the 20 thousand empty seats. That’s so unfair. I wish I could wave a wand and figure out why the crowd is down here (Dover) for both races. It is the only place that we go to twice where we just don’t have a good draw for either race. Bristol has become a bit of a challenge in the spring, but when we go back there in August, it is packed. The biggest thing that we are trying to do as a broadcast is – to come up with things and do things and create things that attracts the younger demographics.
That is the group we’ve lost. I just think there are so many options for the younger demographic. There is one of them right there (points to his smart phone). If I am traveling during the ESPN part of the season and I can’t watch the broadcast, I can go right there and it is almost like watching the race. You almost have more information. For so many reasons, it is going to be tough (to reach out to the younger demographic). We set the bar high in 2004 and 2005. Are we ever going to get back there? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s going to be anything the broadcasters can say that will make that rating number move.
JW: How hard was it for you to leave Richard Childress Racing and join FOX?
LM: Toughest decision I have ever made in my life. Even though in the late 1990s, working some off weekends for TBS and TNN, even doing some Nationwide Series races for CBS at Homestead, I really enjoyed it. Never saw myself doing it as a career. I absolutely felt like when they put me six feet under and threw dirt on my face, I would always be a crew chief. When I got the call from David Hill at the end of 1999 as they were starting to prepare for 2001, a lot of things started going through my mind.
Again – this was the toughest decision I ever had to make, and I really involved my family a lot on it with my wife, Linda, and my two oldest kids, Brooke and Brandon, for this decision. There were probably two or three reasons that tipped me to accepting it. I didn’t want to ever live with the ‘what if?’ What if I had taken that? What I do – it is not like being a crew chief. It is a very small box of people that do what I do. I felt like if I turned it down, I would almost second guess why and that the opportunity would never come back again. The other reason was – they were offering me a two year deal and my thought was, I’ll go do it and if they don’t like me, maybe I don’t like them, I can go back as we have seen a lot of people do, mainly coaches.
I felt like I was going to stay close enough to the sport that I could always go back. It was a decision we made, my family and I, and I have never looked back over my shoulders. I never second guessed it for one minute. We went in that broadcast booth for practice at Daytona in 2001, and the track opened for practice and the cars started filling out of the garage area and I went ‘oh my G-D what I have I done. This doesn’t feel right.’
Darrell and I are different. You can work on these things (the cars) until you are 100. You can’t drive until you are 100. Even though we were the same, we were different. Mentally, you can still do the crew chief deal for a long time. Physically, you can’t do it on the racing side. I think we both went through withdrawals, and people ask me all the time – what is the toughest part about being a broadcaster? You might think my reaction would be when the camera comes on, say for instance for the Daytona 500 with over 20 million people watching us, and if you say just one thing wrong – you can’t take it back.
There are a good several hundred thousand just waiting for you to say something wrong where they can Tweet or e-mail about it. But that doesn’t bother me. I look at that camera when it comes on with the red light on top and I treat it just like the conversation you and I are having right now. The toughest part, and I think Darrell would probably tell you the same thing – is after being competitors for all of those years, we never ever needed anybody to say you are doing a good job. We knew. We had practice sheets, race results, a stop watch, points results, so no matter how many times I screwed up during a race – if we pulled into victory lane, I didn’t need anybody coming along saying good job. I know – we won the race. Or if we finished 15th, I didn’t need anybody to come tell me I did a bad job. I knew it – we finished 15th. We don’t have that measuring stick in broadcasting. We have ratings, we have Twitter.
There have been a few broadcasts where I looked at Darrell, and Darrell looked at me and we would go ‘I guess it was okay. What do you think? I don’t know but I’m sure if it wasn’t they’ll be calling from Los Angeles in the morning.’ That is still today the toughest part – there is no measuring stick. It’s not about competition, it’s just a matter of was it good or was it bad?
JW: Looking back at all the years you have been working with FOX, what has been the highlight moment for you?
LM: Probably some of the very close finishes that I was a part of calling. The Kevin Harvick win at Atlanta in 2001 in his third start in that car and him coming up to the line, beating Jeff Gordon by several thousandths (of a second). The Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch finish at Darlington (in 2003). All three of us got caught up in the moment of that one. Probably the finish at Talladega where Jimmie Johnson won by four one-thousandths of a second. They still replay that a lot today with my voice going ‘four one-thousandths of a second.’
Personally, Harvick beating Jamie McMurray at Talladega in 2010, and I started setting it up what looked like to me was going to happen, and lo, and behold, they got to the tri-oval exactly how I predicted it. That is always a good feeling as an analyst when you predict something and it makes you look like a genius. That is one thing that I have never been afraid to do – it is almost like rolling the dice from the pit box. I have never been afraid to say something is going to happen and then it won’t happen. That is a part of being an analyst.
One thing I have always worked hard on, and maybe this comes from being a crew chief for 18 years, I try to never say that was a bad call, that the crew chief made a bad call. I will point out the consequences because that call was made. Here can be the benefit and here can be the consequences. In 14 years, there was no question. Last week (at Charlotte) was a prime example. When your driver calls in on the radio and says ‘I have a bad vibration,’ you don’t come to pit road and change just two tires like Clint Bowyer. You change all four. Lo, and behold, Murphy’s law – if you change just one side, it will be the other side. It is just Murphy’s law. There have been a couple of times, but I try not to do that because that garage area is my life line. I spend a lot of time in there talking to drivers, crew chiefs and engineers. That’s what keeps me knee deep in this sport and on top of what things are going on. I don’t want to cut that life line off. I’m not afraid to call somebody out, but I don’t want to call somebody out when they maybe don’t really need to be called out.
JW: What has been the biggest regret of your career?
LM: I don’t know that I have any regrets. There were some along the way moments where maybe I second guessed something that I did and kind of – I don’t know if I ever regretted. Probably the one that I second guessed the most, and I don’t regret it by no means, but I second guessed myself at the end of 1996 if I made the right decision to leave Robert Yates Racing and go to Richard Childress. For what I was able to accomplish at Richard Childress Racing and help Dale get that win in 1998, but I don’t know if I ever regretted anything.
I have never really made a lot of major changes throughout my career. In the early part of my career, I was working for owners all over the place. I think it was called ‘growing in the sport.’ I felt like for a while there, the pattern was – I would go work for a race team and six months later, they would run out of money and close their doors. Once I finally got hooked up with Kenny Bernstein and the No. 26 car and he made me crew chief for that Quaker State car, he and Robert Yates and Richard Childress were the only owners I worked for essentially from 1985 to 2000. I really only worked for one broadcast group since 2001 (with the exception of TNT as of late). I have not really made too many changes throughout my career. I guess when you sit and you have to think about it – that means you don’t regret anything you have done, and I don’t regret anything I have done or any decision I made. You question things or second guess things maybe, but I don’t think I regret any.
JW: Looking back at Ernie Irvan’s accident at Michigan in 1994 – could you guys have won the championship for Robert Yates Racing had he not been involved in such a horrific event?
LM: I am always hesitant to forecast things that you aren’t able to forecast. I get asked a lot of different things with Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan like ‘how many wins would they have? How many championships would Davey Allison have?’ We don’t know and we won’t ever know. But I do feel like that 1994 season, in all my years as a crew chief on a race team that was as poised as any team that I have been affiliated with that was on track to win a championship.
We had a lot of strengths. Qualifying – I think that particular weekend, we qualified 14th and at that point, that was one of our worst qualifying efforts of the year. The laps we were leading. Ernie Irvan missed the last 10 races and still won the award for most laps led that year. We could win at Martinsville, we could win at a road course, we could win at a mile-and-a-half, we could win at a superspeedway and we just had a lot of strengths. We had a lot of consistency and a lot of versatility. Ernie was as healthy as healthy could be. He was sharp on his game. Our race team had overcome so much with what we went through in 1992 and 1993, and I think honestly – the bunch we were racing for the championship with knew we were the group to beat.
JW: As a crew chief, how do you react when your driver is involved in a near-death experience?
LM: I think because of everything I had been through, I was about ready to give it up. Not that I am a person that gives up, but I felt like our team and me personally, had been through so much. But the one thing that kept me going because I knew I was the captain of that ship and the crew was going to react how the captain reacted. If the captain reacted and jumped overboard, the damn crew was going to panic and jump overboard with him. I knew I had to be the leader there.
The one thing that I still live with today comes from today comes from my biggest role model, and my biggest role model even today was Davey Allison. Davey Allison had a little saying that ‘there’s nothing that can come my way today that G-D and I can’t handle together.’ If anybody could relate to that, Davey Allison certainly could. From his dad having a career-ending injury at Pocono in 1988 and losing his brother (Clifford) in a practice crash at Michigan, so if anybody could talk the talk and walk the walk, I think Davey Allison was.
As close as I had become to Ernie, I won’t say I quite had the friendship that I had maybe with Davey, but Davey and Liz Allison are Brandon’s G-D parents and my wife and I are Robbie’s G-D parents. But I did develop a really close friendship with Ernie, and it wasn’t long after that accident that I wasn’t worried about him driving a racecar ever again. I was worried about him still being able to be a dad and be a husband and be a friend. Once we got through that hurtle, then okay, when can we get this guy back in a racecar? When that happened at Michigan, my selfish feelings about him driving a racecar were far from my mind.
JW: How did you guys cope with switching drivers while worrying about Ernie Irvan’s recovery and after Davey Allison’s death?
LM: Kenny (Wallace) sat in nearly every race in 1994, but in 1993 we went through different scenarios. Robby Gordon filled in at Talladega two weeks after the crash. Lake Speed filled in most of the month of August for us and then Ernie started at the Southern 500 (at Darlington). Kenny was perfect for us because Kenny is happy go lucky, upbeat, you never see him down, had some Cup Series experience and he was one guy that was available that we could put in there and keep him in there for the rest of the year until we figured out what we were going to do for 1995.
JW: When are we going to see you back on the Weather Channel?
LM: I don’t know. I enjoyed doing that though. I love the weather. People ask me what is it with the weather, and I guess it just comes from following it for so long as a crew chief to see when it rains. I have apps on my phone, on my iPad, on my Mac at home. I was devastated when DirecTV took the Weather Channel off for a few months there, but I don’t know. I call it a little bit of a hobby. I did enjoy doing those two-three times I went to the Weather Channel in Atlanta. Heather Tesch was blown away by some of the terminology I used. I did (my research) that morning. I knew about the high pressure and the low pressure and the look on her face was priceless because I think she thought I was going to go up there and talk about how we might get some rain and here I am talking about the high pressure and low pressure. She was like whoah.
Joseph Wolkin (@JosephNASCAR) is a sophomore at the Queensborough Community College as an English major. He’s a native of Whitestone, NY, just outside of New York City, and has been attempting to find roots of motorsports within his area since 2004. He started out as just a fan, but over the course of his high school career, he ended up falling in love with writing.
Joseph has been covering NASCAR since 2011 for several different websites. Recently, he was named as one of two lead NASCAR columnists for Rant Sports after working for the site for over one year. Working with Rant Sports for approximately 14 months, Joseph has covered New York City area sports teams such as the New York Giants, New York Mets, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and more.
Through his passion is for NASCAR, Joseph has adapted to changing times and realizes that he has numerous opportunities in the journalism work. As one of the top young sports writers, his goal is to become one of the top motorsports writers of this new digital media era. However, he also believes that it’s important to stick to the traditional routers of print publications after seeing his high school newspaper dissolve due to a lack of funding.
Currently, besides his duties with Speedway Digest, Joseph is a columnist with Fronstretch.com, Motorsport.com and has a weekly article in NASCAR Pole Position's digital version - ROAR! Weekly Race Preview Magazine.
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