ESPN NASCAR lead reporter Marty Smith parlayed a summer writing gig during college – covering short track racing in a small Virginia town – into an impressive career as one of the most respected reporters covering the sport of NASCAR.
Along with his writing duties for ESPN, he appears regularly on television, providing unique insights and interviews that tell the tales and tug at the heartstrings.
A former senior writer for NASCAR.com, Smith became an analyst for ESPN and ABC’s coverage of NASCAR in 2007. Find his articles and videos online at http://espn.go.com/racing/nascar/.
Q. You went to college and earned a degree in media studies. How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a sports writer and what was it about the job that attracted you?
A. My mother was a tremendous writer. She had God-given talent. And she told me quite young that I had it, too. I always appreciated sports writing. My daddy was a Sports Illustrated subscriber, and I read every single line I could consume from a young age. I loved Rick Reilly back then. Still do. I always appreciated his cadence. He has an innate ability to produce the human element. That helped shape my approach.
My greatest writing mentor, though, was Ray Cox. Ray is the high school sports reporter/columnist at The Roanoke Times, has been my whole life. He covered my football, basketball and baseball games in high school. And when I got to college he hired me to cover high school sports at the RT. I always loved his cadence, too. Cadence is one aspect that distinguishes one writer from another. Mine is akin to his, though mine has evolved quite a bit in recent years since my television career began.
Ray always told me this about writing: At the end of every day you can see what you accomplished, and the next morning you can hold that accomplishment in your hands with pride. Your work is right there to witness. Every day. I still take great pride in that. I don’t care how many pieces I write, there is still a fantastic satisfaction that accompanies seeing it in print. I think the vast majority of writers feel this way. I love writing. It is among the most honorable professions.
Q. Tell me about a chance meeting you had in 1998 with the vice president of NASCAR. How did that meeting change the course of your career?
A. I was just out of college, 1998. When I graduated from Radford University, I accepted a reporting job at The Lynchburg News & Advance in Lynchburg, Va. My responsibilities were Liberty University athletics and NASCAR. Admittedly, I didn’t want to be there. I had bigger aspirations and no patience. But God is good. He has a plan.
One day I was seated at my desk and the phone rang. A nice lady on the other end asked me if this was Marty Smith, and did I cover NASCAR? Yes ma’am, I’m him and I do, I said. She asked if I’d like to do a piece on her son. I figured it would be a local street stock driver from down the street, and asked his name. “Paul Brooks.” Okay, what does Paul Brooks do? “He just got promoted to vice president of NASCAR.” Yes, absolutely. Give me Paul Brooks’ number. I called Paul and we hit it off. Several months later I got another call from someone who worked under Paul at nascar.com. I went to Charlotte and interviewed. I was offered the gig and accepted. Three weeks later I was on a plane to Sonoma, California. I never looked back.
Q. Why did you choose to cover motorsports as opposed to stick-and-ball sports?
When I was writing for the Roanoke Times during college, the school year ended and therefore so did high school sports. During the summer I was assigned to cover the local short track, then called New River Valley Speedway. (Now Motor Mile Speedway). I wasn’t especially thrilled with the thought of spending my Saturday afternoons/evenings in college attending short track races while my buddies were at parties pounding beers and chasing girls. But something happened on the first night I ever walked into New River Valley Speedway: I fell in love.
Two laps into the first Late Model race I covered, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was intoxicated by the sound and the smell and the intensity of the moment. I was enthralled by the passion of the fans — even those in the concrete grandstands on a Saturday night at a nowhere track in a nowhere town surrounded by farms. It was fantastic. It was me. All me. I still feel that same passion from fans every weekend. It’s what makes us, us. Passion wins. Always.
That summer at New River Valley Speedway was amazing for me. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing for the longest time. But the track operator, Lynn Carroll, and his wife, Stephanie, were patient with me and taught me the sport of NASCAR, inside and out – from ticket sales to concession stands to competition. My passion is a direct derivative of their passion. I saw them at an airport recently. (Daytona, I think.) We shared a few hollowing laughs about where I was and where I am.
Q. You have written some pieces about NASCAR drivers that really touch people on an emotional level. How do you tap into your own emotions and share a side of yourself that other writers might be reluctant to do?
A. When my daddy died in 2008, I made the decision that I would make myself vulnerable. I’d write in a way that sings when well-received, but can cut your soul when not. Vulnerability is one of the traits that separate great writers from the rest — a lesson I learned from my best friend. He’s a songwriter, and at times he is reluctant to let even me listen to his latest work because it makes him so vulnerable. When you unlock your soul and inject it into a piece, it can be a crushing blow if it’s not well received. But you have to take that chance. Because when it is well received, it is complete validation that you offered every bit of yourself to the consumer. Again, it goes back to passion.
Q. When did you branch out from print media to broadcasting and do you prefer one over the other? Do you enjoy doing television?
A. When ESPN called. I had dabbled with some work here and there on SPEED Channel and Fox Sports Net, but those were one-off analytical opportunities. ESPN wanted to hire me specifically to report NASCAR on television. When I got that call I was humbled and perplexed, given my lack of experience in the medium. But when I expressed that to them, they made it clear they would teach me television: they wanted who and what I knew. I jumped in headfirst and haven’t looked back, and my, what a blessing it is. I love it. Television made me a far better writer, too. It taught me the impact of brevity.
Q. What is the hardest part of your job?
A. Travel. I have three small children I want to see grow up. I want them to know my quirks, my passions, my love for them and for their mother, my wife, Lainie. I want them to know how I laugh and how I smell. That is very important to me. ESPN understands that, and my bosses have been quite accommodating. For example, my schedule in 2013 is much lighter in the first-half of the season. I do have the final 17-consecutive events, naturally, because that’s when ESPN broadcasts the races. But they’ve worked well with me to be home more during the FOX and TNT portions of the broadcast schedule.
Q. How important is a college degree for someone wanting to be a sports reporter?
A. In my opinion it’s important. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to go to school. Not everyone has that blessing. Experience in the field and understanding the dynamics and intricacies of breaking and reporting news, with fairness and accuracy, is the most important thing.
Q. You seem to have a knack for getting NASCAR drivers to open up to you. How have you been able to develop those kinds of relationships?
A. Time. Fairness. Accuracy. The Golden Rule. When I started covering the sport full time, I covered the Busch Series (now Nationwide) almost exclusively. I didn’t attend many Cup events back then, other than the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Charlotte and Darlington, etc.; The big ones. And back then, in 1998 and 1999, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth etc. were all fulltime Busch Series drivers. They hadn’t quite made it to the show yet, so I hung out with those guys a lot in towns like South Boston and St. Louis and Indianapolis and Nashville.
The first race I ever saw Greg Biffle win was a Truck Series race in Portland, Ore. I was one of the only media members around. These guys saw my face a lot. So we came to know one another on a personal level as well as a professional level. With time those relationships were cultivated, and remain quite strong today. Your reputation follows you out here.
Q. Elite athletes can sometimes be difficult to interview, especially in the heat of the moment. What is your best advice for young reporters in dealing with these situations?
A. Be prepared to ask succinct, contextually relevant questions in the moment. If you ask something the athlete deems frivolous, you’ll get an earful. Trust me. I’ve been there. Every journalist has been there.
Q. In recent years, we’ve seen the trend away from traditional print reporting towards digital media, including social media. How important is it for a journalist to adapt to change?
A. Vital. Nothing has rewritten the journalistic landscape during my career more than Twitter. What was once a 24-hour news cycle is now 24 seconds. It is imperative to disseminate the information in this medium, but with that comes great responsibility. Immediacy and thoroughness rarely find common ground. Impulses must be tempered. And that includes the athletes themselves. Whereas the media used to be the lone method for a celebrity to disseminate a message, he or she can now do so himself or herself and control his or her own message. It’s changed the game dramatically.