I met Paul Page for the first time in the late 1970s at the old Trenton Speedway in New Jersey. We got to talking while waiting for the crossover gate to open at a USAC Championship Trail race. A couple of years later, when I became CART’s communications director, we started working closely together and developed a long-term friendship.
Page began at WIBC Radio in Indianapolis in 1968. In 1977, while on assignment, he was almost killed in a helicopter crash near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That same year he took over as anchor of the worldwide Indy 500 Radio Network on short notice when the legendary Sid Collins died in May; in fact, he was Sid's hand-picked successor. Paul was the race's "voice" for 15 years and also called the action on NBC's early CART telecasts.
Page helped pioneer motorsports on ESPN as its first racing producer, of Midwest sprint-car shows. Page joined ABC in 1987, working the 500, inaugural Brickyard 400, and countless other events. In 2007, he brought his more than 30 years of experience to ESPN2's coverage of the NHRA Full Throttle series.
I sat down with Page last month in the ESPN compound at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. What most fans don’t realize is Page and Mike Dunn call the action watching monitors inside a production trailer and don’t have an “eyes-on” look at the track. I asked 10 questions. His answers have been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q. You’ve traveled all over the world to broadcast just about every major series. What is NHRA’s place in the racing world?
A. “I’d have to look at that from two different points of view. One, I’m a gearhead. From a gearhead’s point of view, I think it’s right there at the top, alongside F1, maybe IndyCar, certainly NASCAR. The reason I say that is, NHRA reminds me of what I consider the heyday of motorsports, starting in the ‘50s and extending into the early part of the ‘90s. There were a number of strategic factors: There was the motor, there was the body, there was the driver, all those elements that now, less and less, seem to mix in other series. NHRA still has all those tactical aspects. They also still have people who have fun. I don’t see a whole lot of that in other motorsports. I see guys get out of the car here and slap each other on the back and laugh. Now and then they get mad. I’ve never seen a swing but I’ve seen a lot of yelling. That shows me they are still passionate about their sport. So many other sports, I see no reaction at all. It’s become corporate. I miss that. Having said that, on the business side, it seems to me watching everything else that NHRA, while it may not be the biggest draw, has managed to stay more stable through the problems we’ve had with the economy over the last few years than almost any other motorsports. A lot of that has to do with the grass-roots approach that they have in bringing in the sportsman (classes) at the same events. It just seems to work for them.”
Q. When you called the Indy 500, you’d talk about the challenges of trying to cover 33 different teams on a 2 ½-mile playing field. What are the special challenges of calling drag racing on TV?
A. “Everything that happens in a drag race is jammed into 3.9 seconds. It’s one of the reasons I think some people don’t see the same level of sophistication in drag racing. It’s there. It just all happens so fast that you have to acquire an eye to look for it to see what’s going on.”
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Q. What are drag racing’s strongest and weakest qualities as a TV sport?
A. “Its strongest quality is also its weakest. It’s extraordinarily visual. It’s more visual than almost any other motorsports and we can put our cameras right there and we can intensify the camera coverage because it’s on a quarter-mile or 1,000 feet. The problem, on the other side, it’s the same shot. You don’t have the variety. I remember in the CART days at each track we’d have maybe one great shot and everything else was just there. In drag racing, it’s one great shot, but since you only have a quarter-mile to work with, there’s a lot of sameness there. How the director varies that cut becomes so much more important.”
Q. What are the chances NHRA will be on live TV in the next few years?
A. “There are several questions there. Is live TV in their best interest? I say that, because, live TV would put them probably at the end of the Sunday afternoon sports day which would put them head-to-head with a lot of other sports. Maybe they, therefore, would not fare so well in the ratings. That’s the first call somebody - not me - has to make: Does it work for them as a business model? Purely as a television person, they have to learn to really control their down time, whatever the cause of it, oil-downs being the most predominant. Obviously, they are trying to. But even if you did that, I’m not sure how you’re going to put a day that starts at 11 in the morning and ends at 4:30 or 5 on any channel unless we go, which we are, in the direction of niche programming. Maybe then, but what’s your rating going to be? Is it going to be 5,000 people? 50,000? Is it a number sufficient to justify the television coverage? That’s the problem there. I like the model that was used originally, which was tape delay the opening rounds, and then come in live for the semis and the finals. I think that’s a good model. Generally speaking, NHRA has proved they can get to that point, barring a catastrophic occurrence. But then, I go back and ask myself the first question: ‘Do I want to be on in the afternoon, or do I want to be on at approximately the same time every weekend?’”
Q. Does NHRA have to be on live TV to take the sport to the so-called “next level” of popularity?
A. “No, I don’t agree with that necessarily. I used to think differently. I used to think that live TV gave you legitimacy. I think that was true in the days when there were only networks. I think that was true in the first 20 years of cable programming. But the way things seem to be moving now with Internet availability, I don’t think it’s quite as true. Now, we’re on the air live on ESPN3.com. I think the whole live aspect has lost some of the luster it used to have. I only see that growing.”
Q. What should NHRA fans know about you that maybe they don’t know?
A. “I’m a gearhead. That’s my downfall. I love racing. I’ve had people say, ‘You’re doing NHRA, not the big Indy 500.’ Yeah, that’s true, but it’s still something with a motor and it’s racing. I like racing personalities. I like people who live in what I call a ‘life of festival desperation.’ That is, they know full well what they’re doing can hurt them, it can kill them, but they get out and do it and therefore live the rest of their life fairly open and fairly friendly. They may not think about what it can do to them but it changes their life to where they become a much more enjoyable individual to be around than, say, a basketball or a baseball guy. This job, as you know, is really almost an accidental consequence. I started out as a parts washer with George Bignotti’s IndyCar team. My first radio of any sport was the (1973) U.S. Nationals in stereo on a local Indianapolis FM station. It happened to have worked out.”
Q. I think it’s fair to say taking criticism is part of your job. Do you monitor such comments on the Internet or chatrooms?
A. “I used to. A lot of us used to. When the Internet, when (the late) Mike Hollander had his Racing Information Systems and all that, I think a lot of us paid attention because it was people that we knew, out of the racing community, but then it became a fashion to get on there and flame everything and then people started making stuff up. Gary Gerould and I called it, the ‘Jon Beekhuis Rule’ because he kept reading all that stuff. He was a new guy in broadcasting (CART) and he’d come in totally depressed. Finally, his wife said, ‘You may not read any of those anymore.’ If we’d catch him reading them we’d say, ‘What happened to the Beekhuis Rule?’ If I get a letter, that’s serious. I pay attention to a letter. A phone call, a fan coming up to me at the track, it gives me several things. It takes anonymity away from them. They are probably being very sincere. It gives us a chance to have a conversation and point out why we do something someway. I had an event last year, not an NHRA event, and it was horrible. None of the scoring worked and, as the announcer I know, because people told me, I got creamed for the event. None of the things they were creaming me for were things that I did. The scoring didn’t work – I don’t put those numbers on the screen. The producer makes the decision on where the show is going to go. Many times those things that you are accused of actually come from somewhere else. A really good example in drag racing is I’m not the guy that puts a show on that’s supposed to be on at 11 at night on at 1:30 in the morning. That’s not in my best interest. But it happens. I tell the fans when I get that question, ‘Write the company. Give them a letter. Don’t do an E-mail. In today’s world, E-mails don’t have a lot of impact.’ They need to let the networks know they are out there and care . . . When somebody comes up and we start talking about how something is done, I’ve gotten great ideas because we’re so close to it that we throw things away casually. Mike Dunn and I and the producer, Eric Swaringen, we talk about that all the time: ‘What are we missing?’ A Top Fuel dragster doesn’t shift gears. We know that. I’m not sure the vast majority of the public knows that. Someone will come up, especially a new person, and ask this or that and you’ll think, ‘We missed an entire deal there because we took it for granted.’ That helps me and gives me a feel for who they’re looking at.”
Q. What’s your answer to fans who say ESPN focuses too much on John Force and not enough on Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle?
A. “It’s more of a technical answer. We look at ratings differently than almost everybody else looks at them. What gets published is a pedestrian rating. It’s a number that is the whole show. We look at it in quarter-hour segments and by demographics, by the age group and income group and all of that. So, when we look at a show, we track what was on the air during that quarter-hour. We do a lot to try to get the audience to hang over into the next quarter-hour, because if I can get them two minutes in the next quarter-hour, it keeps the rating up. The ratings clearly show it: If I’ve got John on there, the rating stays with you. Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, are wonderfully sophisticated – almost too much so. A beautiful Pro Stock run is smooth and so calm, you know it’s fast, like any fast lap in any kind of racing. It’s great and you go, ‘Wow! Look at that number!’ Visually, it doesn’t suit television as well. Your next question could logically be, ‘Is it the chicken or the egg? If we covered them more would they get more coverage?’ No one’s ever logically answered that. I am a very strong believer that, in this business, people want to know about people more than anything else. They want the technical stuff, but a good human story trumps almost anything else.”
Q. It’s NHRA’s 60th anniversary season. NHRA has published a list of the sport’s top 60 moments? What’s your top moment?
A. “I was not on the air, still in an observation period, and I was standing on the starting line for the finals at Pomona when Tony Schumacher did ‘The Run.’ (2006.) I’m absolutely convinced that Doug Kalitta was going to be the champion, there was no way that Schumacher could lay down everything that was needed, the national record, etc., etc. When that car left the line, I’ve never sensed power like that. He just ran it right down the center. What I most clearly remember was, just before, Tony was as calm as can be. You wouldn’t know he was in an 8,000 horsepower car let alone with all that was riding on it. Those are thrilling moments.”
Q. This is the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500. Your career is strongly linked with Indy and you’ll be part of the radio network broadcast on May 29. Why should NHRA fans watch the Indy 500?
A. “Because they are gearheads. But you’re making a presumption there that I’m not so sure carries. I think of all the motorsports fans, drag racers are much more likely to watch everything else than, say, a Formula One guy come watch drag racing. Mike Dunn religiously watches Formula One qualifying. He loves it. I was just out on the starting line talking to one of the workers who was talking to me about he was going from here to Long Beach to do SCCA corner flagging. I think this is probably the most ecumenical of all the groups. They just like watching cars of any kind. A drag racing fan most likely will watch if it’s got a motor. I can’t tell you how many people come up and talk about snowmobile racing or rally cars or whatever.”
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