Commentary

Drivers have fun, find unexpected benefits from their radio shows

More Sprint Cup drivers reach out to their fans by serving as hosts of satellite radio shows, and they gain more than just exposure.

Updated: June 12, 2008, 7:33 PM ET
By Brett Borden | Special to ESPN.com

Drivers spend most of their time on television playing product pitchmen. Every time they are interviewed they squeeze in as many sponsors as they can, and commercials often have them playing other roles to sell their products.

[+] EnlargeTony Stewart
Brad Barket/Getty ImagesTony Stewart likes to give listeners of his Sirius radio show angles of racing not covered in the mainstream media.
But rarely do drivers get the chance to the play the role they come about most naturally ... that of themselves. This has led a handful of them into a world where they can be themselves, radio.

Jimmie Johnson helped start this modern trend with an XM radio show, co-hosted by ESPN's own Marty Smith from 2006-07, called "Not What You Expected." His show ran concurrently with two championship seasons, so obviously it wasn't too much of a distraction. The fact it provided an outlet for him to express himself probably helped him more than anything.

"My XM show was really a way for me to reach out to the fans in a different way," Johnson said. "It let them see another side of me away from the track. Having fun with friends, joking around. It's the kind of stuff you really don't get to see during a race weekend because we are so focused on our job, which is to win races."

Johnson and Smith spent each show trading stories with the guys he traded paint with on the track, as well as other friends and celebrities. But the biggest thing Johnson may have traded was an old image for a new one.

"It completely changed the general perception of Johnson from a pretty boy Jeff Gordon clone into a regular guy who's a jackass in his free time, like most of us are," Smith said. "I hear that from fans all the time, even today, that that show completely changed the way they viewed Jimmie. They'll say, 'We never liked him ... until we heard 'Not What You Expected.' Now we're fans of his.'"

If there's one thing Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't need it's fans. Voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for the past five years, his image needs no massaging. But he still yearns to show them a different side than the one they see on TV. And he loves the challenge of doing the same with his guests on "Dale Jr. Unrestricted" (currently on XM radio).

"I have a good time with it," Earnhardt said. "It's a chance for me to connect with my fans, and it's a chance to get some guys from the race track out of their element and they can chill with us."

Isn't it tough to build a window, no matter how small it may be, into the schedule of one of NASCAR's busiest stars?

"We make time for it," Earnhardt said. It's become routine. It's been fun as hell so far. I have a good time doing it and if it starts not to be fun anymore we need to maybe look at things differently."

Earnhardt loves that he gets to allow fans to look at things differently by having guests such as crew chief Tony Eury Jr. on.

"A lot of the fans were getting on Tony and I wanted to set the record straight, so to say," he said. "The media in general is interesting to me, and I thought I would take a crack at it. We have Mr. Hendrick [team owner Rick] this month and his story of 'Days of Thunder' is cool."

Has the experience given him thought to making a second career out of it?

"You never know," Earnhardt said.

Someone who basically has made a second career for himself before his first career is finished is Michael Waltrip. Waltrip's ubiquitous presence is felt on television and radio. The latter is a more recent development, though, and he wanted to approach the medium differently.

"Michael Waltrip Out Loud," which follows Earnhardt's on XM radio every Thursday, has a unique personality and flavor. The host and co-host, Tony Rizutti, like it that way.

"The behind-the-scenes stuff is always fun," Waltrip said. "Tony is a lot of fun, and we are always laughing and making fun of each other. On the radio we have a lot of fun with innuendos. We also like to slip in lines from the movies that we love like 'Talladega Nights' and 'Borat.' I don't even know if the listeners and fans think it is funny. It's funny to me so I hope they understand and laugh along with us."

Rizutti says the show doesn't even take calls, because Waltrip, who now has 50 to 60 shows under his belt, wanted the entire show to be about winging it and keeping the conversation fast and furious.

[+] EnlargeKellie Pickler
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKellie Pickler is in the driver's seat, so Michael Waltrip just needs to call his dream guest.
"Anything can happen," Rizutti said. "We get text messages from singers like Edwin McCain and Darius Rucker. It's a racing show, but we actually try not to talk about racing. We'll talk music and golf, and have guests on from those professions, and then we'll do some funny from the hip stuff. One of Mike's ideas was a weekly word or phrase that sounds dirty but isn't. You know, things like pulled pork and juicebox. We try to make it fun so people want to know what Mike's going to say next."

Rizutti plays the role of straight man, letting Mikey be Mikey.

"I am just trying to me," Waltrip said. "I just like to be me and the radio show is a time where people can hear it. I think they appreciate it.

"We try to have more than just drivers on our show. We have a more current events type of show. Tony and I like golf so we have had some pro golfers on. I do have a wish list of guests and at the top is Kellie Pickler. We've wanted her on our show for a long time so we hope to have her on. That's a goal of ours. Tony is working on it."

"Mike really wants her on the show," Rizutti laughed. "He has even volunteered to hold her hair for her while she's on."

Another driver who has taken the plunge, so to speak, is Tony Stewart. His is a much more serious show for the diehard racing fan. It's a place where Stewart gets to voice his opinions on his favorite subject, racing.

"My opinions don't change," Stewart said. "I just get to voice them in my own forum. The thing about the radio show that I like is that we can take stuff and show angles that other people never see. It gives me one advantage over the media, because I get to see things from a different perspective. That's probably the only reason the show works, because as far as journalism goes, the media is a thousand times better than I could ever try to be. I couldn't do what those guys do, but I can sit there and just talk about the stuff that I see. People tuning into the show want to see the sport from the side that I'm on. It's a format I feel really comfortable with."

All in all, radio is a format that has many a driver trading his driver's seat in for the equivalent of a La-Z Boy recliner.