MICHAEL KNIGHT: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Be careful what you wish for.
That’s my advice to NHRA fans who say they’re happy Paul Page won’t return as anchor of ESPN2’s national event coverage next year.
I exclusively broke the story of Page’s ouster from the booth -- and let’s be clear, it wasn’t his choice to go -- on Wednesday evening, Aug. 15 here on CompetitionPlus.com. It didn’t take much longer than the time Tony Schumacher needs to run 1,000 feet for social media and message boards and chatrooms to start smokin’. Many seemed pleased, and while I’ve read all the comments, I’m still scratching my head like a tuner trying to figure out a 150-degree left lane at Bandimere Speedway.
Those who say Page -- most famous as “voice” of the Indianapolis 500 -- isn’t a “drag racing guy” apparently don’t realize his NHRA broadcast experience goes all the way back to 1973. And that, before the ESPN business suits ever cashed an NHRA check, Page was working with the late Steve Evans and Don Garlits on the old TNN shows produced by Diamond P. And Page’s collaboration with ace analyst Mike Dunn seems to me as good as, oh, I’ll use Ron Capps-Rahn Tobler as an analogy.
Something to think about: Most IndyCar Internet posters I surveyed immediately came out in support of Page’s return to that series.
While no official announcement is expected until sometime post-Pomona, the sports TV industry source who told me Page was out also said Marty Reid is likely to be anointed as Page’s replacement. ESPN apparently has an at least unofficial policy of not going “backwards” (reusing someone previously in the same job) as anchor announcers but that’s exactly what it would be doing in the case of Reid. For those who don’t recall, Reid sat in the network’s NHRA booth until reassigned to IndyCar and then NASCAR.
Reid has been about as successful on NASCAR on ESPN as Katie Couric was on the CBS Evening News and Ann Curry on the Today show. He was demoted off the Sprint Cup assignment last year and, to be polite, has struggled this season on the Nationwide series. A TV producer I hold in great regard told me after watching the Indianapolis and Iowa Nationwide races that Marty came across as “confused” and “sometimes angry.” A return to NHRA provides Reid with the safety net of primarily delayed TV (exclusive of ESPN3.)
With ESPN’s decision to force Page out made and irreversible, I’d like to see hard-working and enthusiastic Dave Reiff get a deserved chance alongside Dunn. Reiff has filled the role well on the Lucas Oil series shows and as a last-minute sub for an ailing Page at last year’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. John Kernan then could shift to full-time pit reporter duty alongside Gary Gerould.
Unfortunately, the same sports TV industry source who first alerted me to Page’s situation (an example of the benefits of maintaining regular communications with the “right” people, as explained in my July column) isn’t counting on that. The source told me that Jerry Archambeault, NHRA’s vice president, public relations and communications, has been working with Reid for more than a year to get Marty back into the anchor chair. As reported in my original story, multiple drag racing industry sources say Archambeault had been talking with ESPN production executives for some time about Page before the official word came forth.
The insiders I communicate with say Page apparently maintained too much journalistic and political independence for NHRA’s taste. The source said, for example, that Archambeault was unhappy when Page was quoted in a newspaper article that oildowns are a significant problem for live TV coverage. As if that wasn’t obvious!
In my four decades-plus of journalism and Business of Racing experience, I’ve found a person’s initial answer to a question is most often the most revealing. When I telephoned Archambeault to ask if he’d been in discussion with ESPN execs about Page, he responded only in general terms. When I asked if his speaking with ESPN reflected his own view or NHRA’s official position, I once again heard a by-rote response, which failed to directly answer the question.
NHRA does not have right-of-approval over announcers. When I was CART’s first communications director and did our first-ever agreement with ESPN in December 1980, we actually had that contractual right, although we never objected to anyone.
I’ll leave it at this: I find the circumstances surrounding Page’s removal troubling. I think you should, too.
Meanwhile, to all those who have posted your picks for the series’ new TV Voice, remember this: NHRA gives the impression it takes even the best-intentioned suggestions from those outside the circled wagons in Glendora as incoming enemy fire.
And, remember this, also: At the time the decision was made to replace Page, NHRA’s TV audience was UP on a year-to-year comparison basis.
Finally, remember this, too: Be careful what you wish for. That’s always been very, very good advice.