The Difference Between Being An Average Or Great Announcer

Roughly 15 years after announcing my first race, it still blows my mind that I get paid to talk about race cars. I always say that if I wasn’t on the mic, I’d probably just be sitting in the stands saying the same stuff to anyone who would listen – but for free. I mean, that’s what I did for the first 23-or-so years of my life.

I would sit in the stands and try to memorize every sponsor on every car. I’d listen to every detail the announcer had to say about each driver. As new cars pulled onto the track, I would wait impatiently to hear who the driver was, and where he was from. I was reading trade papers like SPEED SPORT and Midwest Racing News from cover to cover – multiple times – each week. I wanted to learn anything and everything about as many racers as possible. Yeah, you could say I was ate up with the racing bug pretty bad.

Heath Lawson photo.

In 2003, I got my first chance to announce. Several Sprint Cars from the Memphis area were headed to Mississippi’s Columbus Speedway for a special event, and the local announcer at the track didn’t really know the guys because he rarely got to see them race. As a result, the track promoter – Tim O’Brien – called and asked me to come and help.

You know these guys backwards and forwards, and this is something I know you can do. – Tim O’Brien

While I knew these guys inside and out, never in a million years would I have thought I’d ever hop on a microphone and talk about them. Initially, I was adamant in my refusal to take on the task. However, I can still clearly remember O’Brien’s words a decade and a half later.

“You know these guys backwards and forwards, and this is something I know you can do. It will help us give the fans a better show,” O’Brien said. He then concluded in his typical assertive manner by saying, “I’m not asking you to do this, I’m telling you that you are going to do it.”

Looking back now, it’s all comical, and I’m very thankful that he gave me no choice, because it ultimately launched my career. However, back then, I was scared senseless at the thought of talking on a microphone where people would be able to scrutinize my every word.

I remember being crazy nervous before the start of the night’s event, but by the end, I was honestly, pretty comfortable. Putting down the mic at the end of the night, I had a feeling of accomplishment. My feeling of euphoria was further accentuated when O’Brien handed me an envelope with $100 cash in it, and said, “Good job tonight.” I remember asking myself, “Can this be real? I just got paid cash to have the best seat in the house and talk about racing!” From that point, I guess you could say the rest is history.

Throughout my tenure in racing, I’ve paid close attention to what others do behind the microphone. From both their successes and failures, I’ve learn what to do and what not to do. Any chance I get, I still like to listen to others announce so I can continue to evaluate how I can improve my own style.

I’ve taken little bits and pieces from dozens of other announcers while incorporating it into my style, to make it my own. With that, comes my first piece of advice in making sure you are a great announcer and not just an average announcer.

There’s nothing wrong with learning from other announcers, but don’t try to be exactly like them. Develop your own style. Odds are good you have different strengths and weaknesses than the person you are imitating. By trying to be just like them, you are selling yourself short. Furthermore, if you are trying to be just like somebody else, you aren’t separating yourself from the herd.

Next on the list is preparation. While it’s very important as an announcer to spend time in the pit area, talking to racers, before and after the races (we’ll address this fully a little later in the article), it’s equally important to do your homework in advance. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that 90% of your announcing preparation for an event should be done before you ever get to the track.

With the amount of information that is readily available on the internet, you can compile sponsors, hometowns, chassis, etc. for most drivers before you ever get to the track. I use everything from social media pages, photographer sites, and even do Google searches to work on my notes. Many times, my race week preparation starts as early as Tuesday.

Fellow announcer Dustin Jarrett, shares in my approach. “I’ve found that I can do a much better job of presenting valued information to the fans by doing my homework during the week leading up to the event,” the veteran announcer commented. “It’s our job to be prepared and entertain the fans. I found out long ago that if I wait until I get to the track to get all of the information collected, I’m usually going to fall short of the mark.”

Whenever possible, try to be at the track before the pit gate opens. This gives you time to test the mics and speakers to ensure that everything is ready to roll for the night’s show. Then, when the gates do open, you are free to head pit-side to talk with drivers and crews, which is imperative if you want to get those gold nuggets and breaking news updates.

Dustin Jarrett working an event at Eldora Speedway. Heath Lawson photo.

While 90% of the note prep can be done during the week from the comfort of your home, that last 10% might be the most important part of what you present to the fans. These are the little tidbits the average fan will find interesting, but would otherwise never know if you didn’t share it over the microphone.

Things like injuries, chassis changes, new sponsors, driver birthdays, and more are golden nuggets that make you look more informed, while giving the fans more bang for their buck. Legendary announcer James Essex, has made this part of his race-day regime for decades. The Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series (LOLMDS) announcer makes it a priority to spend time walking the pits before each race.

“Stuff changes quickly in our sport, and you can’t assume anything anymore,” Essex noted. “Some of these guys change chassis builders and engine builders almost once a month, and there’s always sponsors being added and removed. Throw in some behind-the-scenes news and notes, and spending an hour or so walking through the pits before each race, is about the best thing an announcer can do.”

From my experience, not only do regular trips to the pit area allow you to get fun facts and other relative notes, but it also allows you to get to know the drivers — and for them to get to know you. This can make your job much easier as time progresses. As they get more comfortable with you, you’ll actually find that they’ll actively seek you out to share updates and breaking news.

Last, but not least, keep the fans regularly involved in the show. When racers pull onto the track, poll the crowd to see who they think will win. During breaks in the action, take a wireless mic and interview random race fans. Use intermissions as a chance to bring young fans down on the track for foot races. Interview each foot race winner, so that they can feel like a rock star.

Getting kids involved with the show is important. Heath Lawson photo.

You’d be surprised how little things like this can not only engage the crowd, but also give them added reasons to keep coming back to the track each week. Being the announcer is an incredibly fun job. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it can be taxing on some nights. It’s like anything though, you get back what you put in.

Going the extra mile to prepare in advance and to get to know the drivers will quickly separate you from a lot of announcers. Don’t be that person who just “mails it in” by showing up last minute every week, doing a half-hearted job, and then collecting a paycheck at the end of the night.

Taking pride in your work can truly make all the difference. Who knows, that extra effort might be the very thing that propels you to the next level in pursuing your dreams.

About the author

Ben Shelton

Ben got his start at historic Riverside International Speedway. His accomplished motorsports media career includes journalist, race announcer, and on-air personality.
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