Getting To Know...Mike Massaro of NASCAR on ESPN

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Getting To Know...Mike Massaro of NASCAR on ESPN
(Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

He's one of the main faces of ESPN2's NASCAR Now program, hosting the show leading up to the race week or filing reports at the track for television audiences across the country.

You can see him calling the intense action along pit road all season long for the NASCAR Nationwide Series and down the stretch for the Sprint Cup circuit.

Long-time fans may even remember this reporter conducting interviews with the drivers from far-off locations at helipads or off track-grounds during the last hurrahs for RPM2night.

Mike Massaro, who hails from Connecticut, has been a fixture with the NASCAR television scene for the past decade.

From his days with TBS Sports in the late 1990s to his present positions with ESPN, the steadfast and diligent Massaro can be counted on to entertain, inform, and deliver the news and action of the ever-changing and fast-paced world of NASCAR.

Some NFL fans may even recognize Massaro for his SportsCenter reports during training camp and throughout the season.

I have to admit that the opportunity to interview such a highly regarded member of the NASCAR media, much less an ESPN personality, was pretty incredible. As a rookie journalist, I consider Massaro to be one of my broadcasting idols and one of the best in the business.

Through a series of email correspondence, I found Massaro to be just as I had imagined: relaxed, cool under pressure, and neat, willing to tell some stories and memories that would even make the avid NASCAR fan smile.

Now, being a native Massachusetts guy who grew up and went to college in the Boston area, I found it appropriate to talk about one of the greatest sports in America with a fellow New Englander, sprinkled in with some career inspirational advice for prospects looking into becoming a sports broadcaster or journalist.

As you'll read from the interview, we New Englanders are very motorsports savvy as our Southern neighbors. From regional heroes who had their finest hours in the Cup ranks to the fine racing facilities down in the Constitution State, Massaro has seen it all.

I think even some of the most hardcore of NASCAR fans may be surprised or in awe at some of the drivers that Massaro grew up following in the modified ranks.

Taking after one of my all-time favorite sports journalists and broadcasters in Dan Patrick, you may recognize the format and style of this interview.

So sit back, enjoy, and get to know NASCAR on ESPN's Mike Massaro!

 

Rob Tiongson: First of all, you're from Connecticut, but you went to college at Emerson in Boston. New England is not exactly the home of motorsports action and starts, save for Joey Logano and some regional modified heroes, but how did you catch the racing bug?

Mike Massaro: I always laugh when I hear that question. I think associating motorsports with the south is just a stereotype. There’s all kinds of racing in the northeast, and if you look at the various network’s broadcasters there’s a large percentage of us from New England.

There's Allen Bestwick who's from Rhode Island, Mike Joy from Connecticut, Dick Berggren who's also from Connecticut, Jack Arute, another Connecticut native, and Dave Moody of Vermont…heck, it goes back to one of NASCAR’s broadcasting pioneers, Ken Squire, who was from Vermont.

As for me, my father worked on a modified when I was a kid. My brother and I would beg him to bring us with him to the track on Friday and Saturday nights. We’d go to Stafford, Riverside Park, Thompson and sometimes Monadnock (NH).

My mom, though, wasn’t all that keen on us staying up late at night, so when we did get to go, that was a real treat. I still have a picture on my desk from 1978, sitting in the car my dad worked on. For my 8th birthday, my present was a lap around Stafford Speedway with my favorite driver, Brian Ross.

RT: Who were you favorite racers growing up?

MM:
Aside from Brian Ross, who to this day remains the coolest driver I ever met, I pulled for a few Cup guys. Geoff Bodine and Ron Bouchard because they were guys who I watched race modifieds in New England before breaking into Cup. I also liked Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, and Richard Petty as a kid.

RT:
When you joined the NASCAR broadcasting world in the late 1990s, was it as amazing as you envisioned it to be or about what you expected in it being a national phenomenon?

MM:
I remember it being very intimidating. Interviewing guys who to that point in my life I’d only seen on TV was completely overwhelming.

Even working with MRN radio the first few years seemed surreal to me. I was actually on-air with some of the people who I admired most (with such) broadcasters like Barney Hall, Allen Bestwick and sometimes Eli Gold and Mike Joy.

To use your word, yes it was amazing. It was hard for me to believe sometimes. It definitely made me work harder because I didn’t want to stand out as the amateur in the bunch even though that’s how I felt at the time.

RT:
Now what would you say was your "Welcome to NASCAR" moment as 1/ a racing fan and 2/ when you became a reporter in the pits and garage area?

MM:
I’d say my earliest memory of being a NASCAR fan goes back to the days when my father used to bring my brother and me to the track. I remember rooting as hard as I could for the car he worked on and was disappointed when he lost but elated when he won.

It wasn’t that often, though, because Brian needed to beat guys like Richie Evans, Bugsy Stevens, Geoff Bodine, and Ronnie Bouchard. These were guys who dominated New England at the time and were never easy to beat. It was the golden age of Modified racing in the Northeast.

My early memories as a reporter/broadcaster began at Stafford Motor Speedway where I worked as a track announcer shortly after college. During my first year, I remember interviewing Tom Baldwin Sr. after an on-track incident that led to a post crash altercation with Eddie Flemke, Jr.

I asked, “What happened?,” and he proceeded to rip into a profanity laced tirade directed at Flemke. Afterwards, NASCAR fined Baldwin for the remarks.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to audition for MRN Radio as an announcer. My audition was to be a turn reporter outside Turn 4 at Daytona for that year’s IROC race. Of course, the only way for an announcer to identify an IROC car is by its color, and the way the series ran in 1996, drivers weren’t assigned to any particular car until the day before the race. So how was I suppose to study?

I learned that the assignments would be made at an exclusive luncheon at a local country club so I pulled some strings and got credentialed. Being as enthusiastic as I was then, I was the first person there.

And as I was walking around aimlessly, looking for a way to kill time, I walked down a hall almost directly into Dale Earnhardt. Stunned, all I could manage to say was, “How’s the car?,” and I remember vividly, in classic Earnhardt style, him saying, “She’s aw’right.” Welcome to NASCAR, kid.

RT:
I remember when you were a part of ESPN 2's old motorsports program called RPM 2night. What are some of your favorite memories of the show? And was it a unique situation to have to report at bizarre locations like helipads or the outskirts of a track from 2001-'03?

MM:
There are some fun memories, most of which take too long to explain, like having Helio Castroneves steal croutons off my salad plate during a media luncheon, being chastised by a Muppett during an interview, or nearly drowning with a producer and camera man while trying to cover a charity fishing tournament in Homestead.

I think the best part of that show though was knowing that despite the obstacles we faced, like trying to cover the sport from outside the gates, or at places like helicopter pads and airport runways, was the fact that the drivers respected us enough to come out and do the interviews.

That speaks volumes about what drivers thought of the show and ESPN. While it was definitely hard covering the sport the way we were forced to, it did allow me to see a side of some of the drivers that others couldn’t. Drivers act much different once they’ve had time to decompress. And believe me, by the time we finally talked to them, they were decompressed.

RT:
Not to rehash the problem of Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series, but in your opinion, what's your take on some of the Cup drivers competing in a series often viewed as a "feeder" or minor league racing series?

MM:
It’s a catch-22 really. The series needs star power and they provide it. However, it has completely changed the series’ identity. I also think, in some ways, it’s hurting the Cup series. I think some of these drivers are overexposed and because of it, there isn’t quite the demand to tune in on Sunday. Some fans might be thinking, "I just saw those guys race Saturday, so I’m going to do something else Sunday."

RT:
If there's been one driver who seemingly gets the headlines on a weekly basis, it's Kyle Busch. Being a member of NASCAR on ESPN's pit reporter crew, do we television audience members really see the true Kyle Busch as a villain on the track or do we merely judge him by what we see on TV?

MM:
I think that’s the beauty of Kyle. He is the genuine article. He doesn’t hold anything back and says and acts exactly how he feels. Love him or hate him, one thing you can say about Kyle is that he is not fake in any way.

RT:
On the Cup side of things, Jeff Gordon's on top of the points standings with a win to boot this season. What's been different about the No. 24 team in 2009 than in 2008?

MM:
Not sure anything is different except the team really went to work on the new car. Last year, they were lacking overall performance with this car, particularly on mile and a half speedways. And with the schedule the way it is, if you’re not competitive at mile and halves, then you have little chance of winning a championship. The win you mentioned, coincidentally came at Texas—a mile and a half speedway.

RT:
Of the current drivers in any of the NASCAR series, who would you say you're friends with?

MM:
That’s an interesting question. The NASCAR community is really tight. We spend more time together than we spend with our families, so naturally, we build relationships. There are drivers I get along with really well, can joke with, and have personal conversations with on topics that have nothing to do with racing.

I have several driver’s cell numbers and occasionally call and text. I’ve been invited to a driver's wedding and I am partners with a driver in a NASCAR fantasy football league. I consider myself lucky knowing there are many with whom I have this type of relationship. However, socializing with drivers away from racetrack is very rare for me.
 
RT:
Free Association time. Get ready. Caution flag periods.

MM:
Bathroom break.

RT:
Pit stops…

MM:
Turning points of the race.

RT:
Hard news.

MM:
Tricky business. 

RT:
Boston.

MM:
College & Red Sox.

RT:
Good music.

MM:
U2….alternative rock.

RT:
Best sports city in America.

MM:
Boston. (Ed. note: Two points to Mike Massaro for that!)

RT:
Car of Tomorrow.

MM:
A work in progress (I hope).

RT:
Favorite vacation getaway.

MM:
Hawaii...I have only been there once, but it was paradise.

RT:
As a Filipino American, I'd classify myself as a minority in the NASCAR fan demographics. Has the sport truly catered to the diverse groups in the States or can it do more to promote itself to become a sport embraced by everyone?

MM:
I think the sanctioning body is really trying hard to become more diverse.  Unfortunately, there is no quick fix.  Most race fans are bitten by the bug when they are young.

NASCAR needs to reach children and retain their interest into adulthood. Because of that, the programs in place now may not start to really show progress for years. The same goes for realizing the goal of one day, having a minority driver or drivers at the Cup level.

The reality is that drivers start as early as five year olds these days. I think it’s unrealistic to think a team can identify a minority driver in his or her 20’s and try to develop that driver into major league talent.

RT:
It's almost ESPN's turn to pick up the coverage of the Sprint Cup action. Are there any changes for the viewers to expect at home in terms of new race features, pre-race segments, etc?

MM:
ESPN is always looking for new and innovative ways to bring the sport to the viewers. Unfortunately, they keep these things secret from the “talent.” Probably because we talk too much.

RT:
Last question—who do you think will win the 2009 Sprint Cup championship?

MM:
As well as Jeff Gordon’s running, I think he’s a contender, but out of pure respect, I’d say Jimmie Johnson. Until someone shows me they’ve got a stronger Chase program than the 48, there’s no reason to believe they can’t win it again.

 

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