Up close and personal
My days as a TV sports reporter in Green Bay provided me with opportunities others dream about. Almost all of them came because I spent lots of time at my favorite place, Road America, located about an hour south of Green Bay. I loved when there was a race coming up because it meant I’d be down there a bunch of times that weekend. Nobody else in the Green Bay television market covered motorsports like I did. I loved it. I got to interview some cool car guys. While some people might be intimidated by their names, I’d just walked up to them, videographer in tow, and asked them if I could chat with them. Hey they put their pants on the same way I do, one leg at a time. The only one who turned me down was Bobby Rahal who was having a crappy practice day at Road America. So here are the ones that did talk to me and I still remember to this day.
Sweetness was soft-spoken but really nice guy. I watched him torture the Packers on multiple occasions. I remember a time when the game was in Chicago and he lined up at quarterback. It was almost guaranteed he would pick up at least five yards on the play because the Packer defense played back in case he threw the ball. Guess it was a very early version of the wildcat.
I caught up with Payton a couple of years after he retired and started dabbling in racing. He happened to be at, you guessed it, Road America. The event was the track’s June Sprints. My videographer got some great shots of Payton racing. When Payton came into the pits to take a break a Chicago TV station interviewed him and then we were up. I’m thinking that I’m interviewing perhaps one of the greatest running backs in the NFL. He was cool but you had to be on your toes and be prepared because if you asked him something like what his last lap was, 5:16, and it was 5:18, he would call you on it. Click on the image to see my story.
Who? In case you are not a Packer fan, he coached the team from 1988-1991. Lindy was a great guy to interview and really a nice guy. I remember a stretch where the Packers were going through field goal kickers at a good clip. Myself, along with the other two TV sports guys, talked to the new kicker and Lindy or the special teams coach. Now normally the kickers don’t do any work until after the seven on sevens and shooting video is not permitted. Most head coaches won’t let any video be shot because they’re paranoid the upcoming opponent would get a hold of it like say Bill Belichick. Now only am I reporter but also a fan. I mean like I’m going to give some video to the “da bears”. Lindy made an exception that day with the stipulation that each TV reporter attempt a field goal. My shot hit the centers butt.
Lindy was also a huge car guy. He had a couple of Porsches. We talked racing all the time. Lindy had the opportunity to go through a drivers school at Road America and I talked to him after that. Great guy, NFL coach, not so much. In the 1989 season the Packers went 10-6. After that a handful of wins and was let go. Later on, it was pretty much the same story with the Indianapolis Colts.
This is dating me because when I interviewed him at Road America when Marlboro was his big sponsor. He brought two or three cars to compete. Penske was a kind of hero to me because of all the wins he and Mark Donahue racked up in the Trans-Am series in the late 60’s-early 70’s with the AMC Javelin. I would describe Penske’s personality as strictly business. He was pleasant to me but there wasn’t much if any small talk before the tape started rolling. Maybe that’s why his nickname is “The Captain”. Hey it works for him. Look how many wins he has under his belt, 23 national championships, including 12 in Indy car racing.
By far the most personable driver I ever interviewed. Mario could have just crashed his car and maybe a team mates but he would always do an interview. He was a yuck it up type of guy before, during, and after the interview. After you introduced yourself to him he would use your first name often during the interview. I’d come back to the TV station and one of the staff would ask me if Mario and I were buds since he used my first name in the interview. That did not rub off on his son Michael at all.
There was this one-mile oval, Wisconsin International Raceway, just south of Green Bay, in Kaukauna that I also did a lot of stories. Every year they’d bring in a couple of the big names in stock car racing. One year it was Darrel Waltrip. He did a live shot with me (live interview in sports) and couldn’t have been a nicer guy. What an ambassador for NASCAR.
Met Gary on a trip to cover the 500. It was late in the day when I interviewed him. We finish and he says “Hey you want to go for a ride on the track?”. Well duh. So we hop in one of the pace cars and off we go. We did a couple of laps and he’d tell me where the apex of the turns were, speeds, and shift points. Not even thinking about asking for a ride so it was a real treat. Another super nice guy. The racing world lost a legend when he died in 2014.
I should have a ton of autographs, right? Nope, because that was frowned upon as not looking professional. I did go back outside of an interview situation to ask for an autograph but never for me. Of all the guys I mentioned above, the one that I would have wanted was Walter Payton, easily one of the greatest NFL players of all time.