Drivers and crew chiefs have a lot on their minds during a NASCAR race. Getting them to agree to express those thoughts in a way beneficial to a broadcast is a tricky proposition ... one that requires experience on their side of the exchange.
Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace certainly fit that bill for ESPN. Petree is a former crew chief who worked with many of the top wrenches in the sport today. Wallace is a former champion and longtime star whose respect in the garage area and knowledge of what a driver might be thinking comes in handy during a race.
Petree, who from the broadcast booth helps set up the interviews between Wallace and drivers and crew chiefs, says Wallace and Dale Jarrett, who joined the ESPN crew this year, make that job a lot easier.
"When either of those two guys come on the radio, you instantly hear the respect in the drivers' voices," he said.
Wallace was a driver who talked to the broadcast booth many times during his career. He understands as well as anyone what will get a driver to provide the most inside of inside information, and what will make him want to throw his microphone out the window.
"The only times I got irritated was when they came at me with a stupid question in the heat of the race," Wallace said. "If they came to me before the race and said 'This is how we're going to do it,' I was all too happy to help. The tough thing on a driver is a surprise when he's thinking about something else."
What constitutes a surprise?
"Questions like 'You really stunk in practice this week, what are you going to do to get better?' or 'How do you think you're going to run today?' " Wallace said.
"If I've moved up through the field during a race and you want to ask me what I might have done to get there, then that's a different story. I remember that happening once and I told them that all I had done was adjust air pressure in the tires. I'm sure people around the water cooler the next day talked about that because they wouldn't have thought it could make such a difference."
Is there a danger of giving something away during a race by talking to the broadcast booth, and in turn, everyone else with a TV or radio? Depends on who you ask.
"I never worried about that at all," Wallace said. "I understood the difference between giving away valuable information to my competitors and giving the audience valuable information."
Some of the crew chiefs, however, view it differently.
"Not all crew chiefs are crazy about the idea," Petree said. "Some of them are forthcoming, but others play their cards a lot closer to their vests."
Still, crew chiefs talking to the broadcast booth is a development long overdue. Networks began to realize how the head wrenches could enhance a broadcast.
"Crew chiefs didn't always talk to the broadcast booth," Petree said. "But it's a team sport and I think more and more people understand that. Fans want to hear from the crew chiefs now."
Wallace cited Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. as one example of a driver-crew chief team who are good at talking to the booth during a race. Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne were another tandem he mentioned. Not all drivers are good talkers, though, even though they might be great guys.
"You'll get a guy who might be the easiest guy to get along with in the garage," Wallace said. "But you ask him a question during the race and he'll say 'Yep' or 'Nope.' Then you have guys who are just naturals. Kevin Harvick is a great guy to talk to during a race. Heck, I talked to Adrian Fernandez in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago. He speaks broken English, but his personality makes up for it. He was prepared, we were prepared, and he did a great job."
Speaking of Mexico, sometimes there are jokes going on behind the scenes that don't make the air. Petree didn't make the trip south of the border, and Jerry Baxter, David Reutimann's crew chief who has worked with Petree before, let him know about it.
"Every time I got on and asked him if we could talk to him or his driver, he said 'What's up? How come we didn't see (you) in Mexico?' " Petree said.
But it works the opposite way, too.
"Sometimes if I know someone else is listening I can have some fun with them," he said. "That happened one time with one of Richard Childress drivers. I was having a little fun at Richard's expense and I told everyone up in the booth I could probably get him on the line. Sure enough, I reeled him right in and he came on to defend himself. We were all laughing."
In a tight, tension filled race, sometimes that can be the thing that breaks the ice between the booth and the competitors.