Veteran SPEED announcer Bob Varsha takes over the reigns as Online Media Instructor, bringing decades of experience and insight to help drivers gain the most from their media relations. In addition to utilizing his expertise as a judge in numerous motorsport scholarship programs for up-and-coming drivers, Varsha has been a tremendous supporter of SAFEisFAST with frequent mentions during Formula One race broadcasts.
Accomplished Motorsports Announcer
Best known as the lead announcer for SPEED’s Formula One coverage, a position he took over when he joined the network (then operating under the Speedvision moniker) from ESPN in 1999, Bob Varsha holds a degree in law and was an accomplished long-distance runner. The native New Yorker twice attended the U.S. Olympic Trials as a marathoner while undertaking his law studies at the Emory University School of Law, from which he graduated in 1977. He looked set for a bright career as a corporate litigator until fate intervened in 1980 and he was invited by TBS to cover a renowned foot race in Atlanta. Before long he had found a new profession. In addition to announcing virtually every form of motorsport in the world, Varsha’s wealth of knowledge includes the experience of supporting his son Matt as he attempted to follow his dream of becoming a professional racecar driver in the middle 1990s. Varsha will continue with SPEED in 2013, commencing his season by leading coverage of the 51st annual Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Bob Varsha answers your questions!
Hey Bob, I’m 14 and I just recently started karting. I was wondering if there was any one way to get into higher motorsports, and whether you could give me advice to get to these programs?
You’re starting in the right place, and the one way I can think of to move up is winning. Simple as that. There is a large array of programs for the young driver moving up from karting, including open wheel, midgets, legends-type cars and sports cars, on both dirt and pavement. Whenever you are faced with a choice as to what your next step should be, look for a series where you can win. Winning is what gets people’s attention.
I used to race as a teenager back in Peru but then gave it up and focused on playing tennis. Now I live in the States and I’m 25 years old, but my passion for F1, NASCAR and racing in general never died. I would like to start training and see what I can do with it, even though I’m old (for the sport). What should I do or where should I start?
Despite the fact that you’ve raced before, I would still recommend a refresher at a good racing school, and try a few races to see where you stand. Starting over at 25 isn’t a big deal if you have the skills; Damon Hill started his F1 career at 32, although I hasten to say he was Damon Hill, a future world champion with a friend in Sir Frank Williams. You can race something less than an F1 machine and still have a fine career.
You have been the voice of Formula 1 as long as I can remember. Thank you for all the years you gave to the sport. In 2013 and beyond, is it possible for an American living in America to become a paid F1 driver – not buying a seat but being paid for talent like Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton and so on?
The simple answer is yes, it’s certainly possible. But an American won’t get there while living full-time in the USA. He or she will have to do it the same way aspiring grand prix drivers from every other part of the world have to do it: by going to the hotbed of open-wheel racing in Europe at the appropriate stage of their career, and working their way up. And while you might someday become a paid F1 star, you will not likely get there without very heavy financial support from somewhere.
Cases such as Lewis Hamilton being brought under Ron Dennis’s wing at McLaren, or Kimi Raikkonen stepping into a Sauber with just 23 races in any kind of car under his belt are ultra-rare. We have to stop looking at “buying” a drive in motorsports as some kind of ugly stain. Drives are routinely bought at the highest levels of racing, including F1.
Do you know of any good karting teams and driving schools in America instead of Europe?
There are great karting programs all over the country, and you can find them on the internet with a simple search. The same goes for driving schools, both the big national organizations like Skip Barber or Bondurant, and the programs offered at individual tracks across the country. If you don’t have internet access, grab a few racing/karting magazines from your local newsstand and look for ads.
You are the best F1 lead announcer out there with a wealth of knowledge, decades of experience and a sincere interest in U.S. driver development. Why are you not going to NBC Sports with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett for F1?
Thanks for the kind words. I have a contract with FOX/SPEED that has at least a year to run, while David and Steve (and Leigh Diffey and Will Buxton, for that matter) were finished with their deals when NBC came calling. They were free to go elsewhere, and I was not. Of course, there’s always the possibility that NBC didn’t want me in the first place, but nobody has told me that.
For a young driver just making the move out of karting, how important is it to have my own website? What is the best way to make myself known to people within the industry?
I think a web page is very important, as it is the most common and comprehensive portal for people to learn more about you. As far as making yourself known, you must first decide who the most important people are for you to reach out to. If you’re just starting out, then the Roger Penskes and Chip Ganassis of the world probably don’t need to hear from you just yet. Start with the influential people in the next career step you have planned, whatever that series might be.
You are one of my favorite commentators and you’re the one who introduced me to SAFEisFAST. Anyways, how do you suggest getting sponsorship at a young age – roughly 10-15 years of age?
I must reiterate that I am no kind of sponsorship expert. But, if you’re just starting out, your best bet is your family and friends, and their business and community connections. Once you have a resume of results, and you know precisely what you need to find in the way of budget, you can start thinking about how to convince someone that you can give them several times the value they invest in you. Keep all your media clippings along the way to help in this process.
Thank you for your consistent support of young drivers. I hear you will be concentrating on announcing sports car races this year for SPEED. I know the Mazda Road to Indy offers some fantastic opportunities for aspiring open-wheel champions, but since my goal is to be a Le Mans winner, how do you suggest I go about pursuing that goal?
If you want to be a sports car racer, then I’d suggest you go that way. The Mazda program isn’t just for prospective Indy car racers; several young drivers have found a path to Mazda’s strong sports car programs, such as Tristan Nunez, Joel Miller and Spencer Pigot, who are veterans of the Team USA Scholarship program but will race with Mazda at the upcoming Rolex 24 at Daytona. Generally speaking, I would say start at whatever level you can afford and do well in, and look for opportunities to open up. Just because you start racing open-wheel cars doesn’t mean that’s all you will ever have a chance to do.
Hi Bob, in this transition, I’m curious to know what’s happening and how the change from SPEED to NBC Sports will impact NASCAR and F1 coverage as we know it…and whether you and the others we have depended upon for the real motorsports news will be part of it? Thanks!
Well, I certainly can’t speculate as to what NBC is going to do with F1, or how it will impact viewership. Certainly NASCAR has been a staple on FOX/SPEED, and I’m sure it will continue to be so in the future now that we have a new rights deal with them. Other than the announcers moving to NBC with F1 I am not aware of any personnel departures from our team covering NASCAR, sports cars, motorcycles or anything else.
How can you demonstrate the level of reach and impact of a sponsorship to a potential sponsor? I know big teams in big championships have all kind of data like TV viewing figures, hits on websites, etc., etc., but what if you race in a championship that doesn’t get televised or the media coverage of it is minimal? How do you convince them it’s worth it. Thanks!
I’m no expert on finding sponsorship, but there’s no question that series without media attention are a tough sell. I would suggest that the situation calls for a careful analysis of a potential sponsor’s core business, and then suggesting programs built around racing to promote that business or product, maybe starting with the fans at the track and building outward to the community at large. I would find ways to get key company people excited about racing, perhaps through things like driving schools and lapping days. I would also emphasize to a prospect that aside from direct financial or other support for the actual racing, a sponsor needs to commit resources to activating their relationship with you in addition to their normal advertising. Both partners in a relationship need to work for their mutual advantage.
Bob, I am from the Long Island area and have enjoyed your F1 commentary since 1988 when I finally got cable TV. I’m pretty sure you were on board at that time and can still remember you repeating Ayrton’s name during those incredible McLaren/Honda years. Thank you for such dedicated decades of obvious love for this sport. This didn’t go unnoticed. Question – Can you briefly explain what happened to Matt’s driving career? Understanding that this may be too personal for you to disclose, we were all certainly rooting for him.
Big hello to a fellow Islander! Matt is doing fine, and thanks for asking. He did what I consider to be a very mature thing – and something all aspiring drivers will likely need to do at some point. He looked around at the pro drivers he had come to know, took note of how difficult it can be to establish and keep a pro racing career going – including lots of cold calls, door-knocking and general scrambling for sponsors and drives that is the daily life for many in this business – and decided it simply wasn’t what he wanted to do at this point in his life. He lives and works in the outdoors in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and does some instructing and demo driving for manufacturers around the country to stay sharp. He’s happy, so I’m happy.
Jack Mitchell Jr
What is the best way to work sponsors’ names into an interview without just listing them? Thanks!
I think there are several ways. One is to think about what your sponsor’s product or service is, and then figure out a way to use that name or phrase in answering whatever question you are asked in the interview. That way you’re not thanking them outright, but using their product name in connecting with the listener. Another way is to make your relationship with the sponsor the focus of your answer. Still another might be to work their advertising punchline in your answer.
I am a 16-year-old club racer and I am trying to gain exposure for myself and team. What is the best way to distinguish yourself as not just another racer? Thanks.
As I suggested in another answer, nothing sets a racer apart from his rivals like winning. Aside from that, also suggested earlier, is that you take a critical look at yourself and your team, and fashion a solid media presence via a resume, web page and other forms of social media, keep them updated and accurate, and do all the outreach you can to the media, starting with your local area and the markets at which you will race. Involve your sponsor in this process, so as to assure them that you are working hard on their behalf as well.
I’m really interested in motor racing but I’m not sure how to start. I live in New York and I’m looking for places nearby. Do you have any suggestions?
Start with a driving school. If you’re in New York City, your nearest option is Lime Rock Park in northwestern Connecticut. Further afield is New Jersey Motorsports Park in southern NJ. Both offer various programs of racing instruction. If they are too far away you might ask your local Sports Car Club of America chapter or car clubs (yes, there are car clubs in NYC) about opportunities such as autocrossing on local parking lots. Car people love to share their passion.
Hey Bob, thanks for being here and thanks for all of the shout-outs during the Formula 1 races while I was racing with the Team USA Scholarship in England. That was such an honor to be mentioned by you. Other than commentating, what else would you like to do? And who is your favorite F1 driver? Thanks.
Hello, Tristan. Congrats to you and Jack Mitchell Jr. on your terrific drives for the Team USA Scholarship program in the UK. I was proud to mention your success on SPEED. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather do than what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years or so. Long-haul trucker, maybe? Fighter pilot? Wine maker? Picking a favorite F1 driver would be tough, but if I had to I’d probably choose Rubens Barrichello. Great guy.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Team USA
Thank you, Mr. Varsha. As in every spectator sport, athletes will eventually have to face a microphone and a camera. It usually happens after a misadventure or a less then par performance during the event. What advice can you give the young and up-and-coming race car drivers when they are faced with this situation, especially when the adrenalin is pumping and those drivers honestly believe that they did everything correctly?Furthermore, what is the responsibility of the reporter to recognize when an interview is going to go badly before they interview the driver?
Second question first: a reporter’s responsibility is to the viewer. When something important happens, good or bad, the reporter’s job is to get the story, and that includes the perspective of the people involved. It is not to judge whether an interview is likely to go well or badly, but to give the athlete a chance to state his or her case. Kyle Petty once told me one of the key lessons he learned from father Richard was that when a driver’s day ends, for better or worse, the job of the press is just beginning, and it’s the driver’s job to give them what they need to tell the story. Your fans deserve it, your sponsors demand it, and if you like having the media around when times are good, you should be a stand-up guy when things don’t go well.
So how do you do it? Everyone is different, but broadly speaking you have to be able to frame your emotions and speak your piece without losing control. You may be blameless, you may be totally at fault, or somewhere in between. Stuff happens. It’s okay to be angry, and it’s just as okay to admit a mistake. The way you handle the situation should be a reflection of the person you want the viewers to feel you are. If you can’t control yourself, by all means ask not to be interviewed at that moment. But sooner or later, you must reveal to people who you are, or they will make up their own minds without your help. And always remember that you are the spokesman for a team supported by sponsors. It’s part of your job description to represent.
You must have interviewed hundreds or perhaps thousands of drivers during your career. Do you have one interview in particular that was memorable? Or else who do you consider to be the best interviewees, and why?
There are so many drivers I’ve enjoyed interviewing, because they are interesting people who offer interesting answers; drivers who make the interviewer feel as though they really care about the questions. People like Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Darrell Waltrip, Dan Gurney, Sir Jackie Stewart and Rubens Barrichello. Ayrton Senna once gave me an interview in South Africa I will always remember. We started out with just Ayrton, me and my cameraman, and when we finished I turned around to find literally dozens of cameras and microphones behind me! He was that big of a star. And I recall the time Dale Earnhardt Sr. floored me at a long-ago NASCAR Cup banquet in New York when he told me he wanted to race at Le Mans. I miss both men very much, and I wish they had been able to meet one another, because they were kindred souls.
I am a new fan of Formula 1. This was my first year of following the sport, and I greatly enjoyed the coverage that SPEED Channel gave the sport. I am sorry to see Formula 1 go to another channel. That being said, my question is: During SPEED’s broadcast it was sometimes mentioned that certain drivers felt they had to raise money in order to maintain a seat in a Formula 1 car. Do the drivers of the “lesser” teams actually have to pay for their ride? Thanks.
Thanks, James. Racing is expensive, and bringing money to gain a seat in Formula 1, as in virtually every other form of motorsport, is as old as time. Lauda, Prost, Mansell, Senna, Schumacher all paid for their first drives, or had those drives paid for by others. That’s why it’s great to see successful drivers such as Mark Webber and Kimi Raikkonen giving back by helping young drivers on their way. Once a driver has proven himself a winner, the need to bring sponsors to the team usually evaporates. But given the huge budget discrepancy between the Ferraris and McLarens of the sport and the Marussias and Caterhams – probably approaching two hundred million dollars a year – you can see why small teams need drivers to help on the financial side.
I will probably be racing in the SCCA’s TCB class in 2014, and it gets NBC coverage, along with the three other classes in the World Challenge series. As a relatively new driver, what are some tips to get TV coverage and create relationships with the reporters?
Besides running up front, you can maximize your chances of attracting press coverage by presenting an interesting story. Think of all those NBC Olympic features focusing on some facet of an athlete that the producers found compelling. Look critically at yourself, and think about what makes you different: personal or family history, your path to the sport, your skills, interests and achievements, any challenges you’ve overcome to get where you are, and so on. Once you own your story, make sure the press knows about it via releases and follow-up. Once you reach stardom the press will seek you out, but for now you need to tell them who you are.
As far as relationships with the press goes, remember The Golden Rule and treat reporters as you would like to be treated: take them seriously, be on time, and do your best to give them what they need to do their job of telling people about you. Being a good, cooperative interview makes reporters more likely to talk to you again.
What advice would you give to a Sonoma State Communications Major that is an avid automotive enthusiast who would like to turn this passion into a career as a motorsports commentator?
I was lucky that my first job in television came by invitation on a national network; I was a lawyer and had never even given it a thought before my media career found me. By far the more common path in TV/radio is to start small, working at a local station, developing your skills and demo reel, and watching for every opportunity. Don’t limit yourself to motorsports; try your hand at anything that will get you some experience. I started at CNN, and covered more than a dozen sports besides racing, including skiing, cycling and figure skating, for ESPN before moving to SPEED. Work hard on your writing, and read as much as you can to learn good observational skills. And don’t give up.
Hi Bob, how old is too old to become a professional race car driver? And I don’t mean NASCAR because they have plenty of “senior” drivers. Specifically, I am referring to other series such as Formula One, world rally, endurance racing (Le Mans), Porsche Cup, Ferrari Challenge, etc.? If you are physically and mentally very fit, is there any age restriction (officially enforced by the FIA) or is it that sponsors don’t like to have an “old” driver representing them? What do you recommend is the best way for an older driver to move into this career? Thanks.
You don’t specify what age you mean when you say ‘old.’ There is no upper age limit by rule when it comes to driving racing cars as a profession, but without question age is a factor in building a career. Getting to the world championship level is reserved for drivers who demonstrate great talent (and great resources) while working their way up the ladder, often for a decade or more. That’s extremely difficult if you’re starting out later in life. Don’t rule out making yourself a success in another kind of career and then scratching your racing itch in series such as Porsche Cup and Ferrari Challenge where the drivers are not, contrary to what you wrote, professionals.
After competing in the Skip Barber Championship Shootout as well as the Team USA Scholarship Shootout, I’ve learned a lot of helpful information about media. What do you believe are the most important tips a driver should know about the media side of racing?
Hi, Jake. As we discussed at the Barber Shootout seminar, a young driver dismisses the media at his peril. Racing takes money, money comes from sponsors, sponsors want return on their investment, and that means media exposure. So one of the key skills a young driver needs to develop is the ability to get his sponsors in front of the media through a combination of performance, personality, appearance and attitude. The media is made up of people doing a job, and the more you can do to help them do that job well, the more likely they are to come back to you again and again. You achieve that by being personable, honest and articulate about who you are, what you think and what you are doing.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: The Complete Driver
Mr. Varsha, to me and so many other fans out there, you are an integral part of Formula 1 in the U.S. Your charisma and excitement partnered with Hobbs’ and Matchett’s insight — not to mention Will’s on-scene coverage and antics — really made the races worth watching. Do you plan on making a comeback into the Formula 1 scene? [please say yes!] Thanks, -Everyone who watched SPEED F1 coverage this year
Thanks very much. I really enjoyed my time calling the F1 events and I would welcome the opportunity to return to the sport someday. But that’s not my decision to make right now. I’m sure Leigh, David, Steve and Will will do a great job on NBC. I have a job at SPEED that I love, and I hope to do it for a long time to come.