Stock car racing is an original American sport that has legions of followers who believe it to be as hallowed as the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights. And in some ways it would be hard to argue against the point. That’s because since the advent of the automobile, Americans have had a love affair with cars not just as a means of transportation but also to see how fast they can go.
Especially in the south, making cars go fast was and is a way of life for many. That’s because the genesis of racing in the Deep South was a result of moonshine running – an activity that not only required fast cars but was the essence of a livelihood for some in a time when moonshine was the only cash crop available to many who were impoverished in that time.
As moonshine production digressed, a more organized form of racing evolved on tracks carved out of pastures. It became the roots of competitive car racing and best of all, people came to watch. From those humble beginnings stock car racing materialized in a lot of places in the Southeast like Charlotte North Carolina, Darlington South Carolina, and Atlanta Georgia and most famously on the beach in Daytona Beach in Florida. Racing as a sport was eventually and officially systematized into a sanctioning body with the formation of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) by Bill France Sr. in 1947.
Fast forward to today and it’s undeniable that racing is literally a mania that reaches all regions of America. It has become a polished and professional sport that has all the glitz and excitement anyone could want. It is a full-throttle media sport and is covered in press, television, movies, and of course on the web.
Many media personalities have come through the ranks as trained journalists and broadcasters, but other have come to the forefront because of their broadcast personality and their extensive background on the track in the profession of racing.
One such personality is Larry McReynolds. His storied career has spanned four decades. He’s worked with such luminary drivers as Donnie Allison, Tim Richmond, Mark Martin, David Pearson, Joe Ruttman, Morgan Sheppard, Ricky Rudd, Brett Bodine, Davey Allison, Lake Speed, Ernie Irvan, Kenny Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Mike Skinner, Dale Earnhardt and many more. His first duties as Crew Chief was with Kenny Bernstein followed by Robert Yates and later with Richard Childress.
He has influenced the careers of countless people in racing and today Larry is best known for his role in NASCAR racing from the broadcast booth. When you look at his career, he stands out as a significant example of the consummate racing professional and it’s for that reason a conversation with Larry made sense. So we asked him to talk to us about the sport he loves.
Join us now for insight into the life and career of one of America’s preeminent crew chiefs and one of the best known race broadcasters in the business.
How did your career in Racing begin?
It began with a little ole team out of Greenville South Carolina. It was kinda funny how it came about.
Before Greenville I was working on late-model stuff as a volunteer in Birmingham and we were having a lot of success – winning a lot of races. The guy that owned it was a man by the name of Bobby Ray Jones.
Again, I was just a volunteer, worked at night and on the weekends. And in a lot of cases you almost paid your own way too. He’d supply a bed for you to sleep in and transportation. But when it came to food, you bought your own food. If we won he might buy us a meal.
Dave Mader was the driver. For a while we won a bunch of races – big races in ‘77 & ‘78. Then Mike Alexander started driving in 1979 and we won a bunch of races with Mike.
I worked in a junkyard during the day and on racecars by night and on the weekend nights. It wasn’t unusual for me to work all day at that junkyard – run to where the shop was on the other side of town, run through a drive-through to get something to eat and then quit just in time the next morning to go home, take shower and start the whole thing all over again. I’d do that a couple of nights a week.
I tell people that racing is a little bit like a disease, it gets in your bloodstream. I really got the hankering to make a living doing this. I didn’t see how I was gonna do it in Birmingham but I wasn’t really sure how to do it. It’s amazing how things happened. God’s got a plan for everything. I worked on the counter at the junkyard and I’d run out back periodically to check parts – I’d put somebody on hold on the telephone to go check something.
We had a guy that worked the yard that drove a big forklift. He had a terrible habit. He’d pull that thing up in the back of the shop and leave the forks up. The guy that owned the yard and I got on him all the time to lower those forks. I said somebody’s gonna walk into those forks one day.
So one day in July of 1980, I had somebody on hold and was gonna run out the back door to check something – I walked out the back door and centered that fork. I mean it was a pretty serious injury. I had a ton of stitches. So I had to sit at home, hot and in the middle of the summer, for about a week for it to heal a little bit. I had read every magazine, watched every soap opera… I was bored stiff.
NASCAR used to put a little ole newsletter out, just a monthly newsletter and always on the back had classifieds. I was thumbing through it. I looked at the classifieds and a the very bottom was an ad about a new Winston Cup team starting in Greenville South Carolina – the ad said; will run full 1981 season – looking for mechanic / fabricator.
I thought about it a little bit – I called the number. A lady answered, we talked about fifteen minutes. I hung up thinking I was one of about 5 million applying. I went back to work and almost forgot about it. I came home one afternoon Mom said there’s a lady that’s called here twice for you today. I called her back and she asked me to come to Greenville and work with us a little bit to see how it goes.
I went to Greenville to work and within two weeks the owner Bob Rogers said he wanted me to come to work. I never will forget the first paycheck I got. I thought I’d died and went to heaven. I’d never made a penny working on racecars in my life. I said to myself, are you kiddin me? I actually worked on racecars and got paid?
I flew back to Birmingham, told my mom and my dad what I was gonna do. They told me it was the craziest thing they ever heard – I’d probably be back in six-months broke and hungry. They said they’d feed me but wasn’t gonna bail me out of debt. I said you guys are probably right but I gotta go try.
So I packed my little ’71 green Pinto, I hooked the U-Haul behind it (before I ever put anything in it the rear bumper was dragging the ground) I loaded my stuff in it and up to Greenville I moved. Thirty-three years later – I go back (Birmingham) for holidays, but I didn’t go back to live.
Did you get advice from others on your decision to go full time into racing?
Before I made the decision to move to the Carolinas, I wanted to talk to somebody, somebody besides my parents about how screwed up I was or give me the OK sign to go and do it.
I knew Donnie Allison and I went out to his late-model shop and chased him around his late-model car for thirty minutes trying to tell him what I was doing. He finally stopped and said; I’ll tell you what do, you need to go do it. He also said I can tell you this. That checkered flag y’all won a few weeks ago – you better go find that thing cause it’s gonna be a long time till you see another”.
He was right. It took eight years before another came around with Ricky Rudd in ‘88.
How did you get into broadcasting?
1994-2000 I had started doing some casual part time broadcasting for a company called World Sports owned by Pattie Wheeler. How that came about was Pam Miller, who is today, the Pit Producer for Fox called me and asked me to dinner. She said we’ve been watching some of your interviews; we’d like to use you. On some off weekends or maybe during a truck race or Nationwide series we like to use you for some pit reporting.
They were doing TBS & TNN stuff so from ‘95-2000 I’d do ten or twelve of those a year. Didn’t make a lot of money but I had fun and sure enjoyed it. I even did a couple of Nationwide races for CBS. I never ever, ever visualized I’d be doing it for a living.
At the end of 1999 the new NASCAR TV package was signed to begin in 2001. One day in December of 1999, I was down in the fab shop at Childress, it was one of those moments you remember – I was covered in Bondo dust from the top of my head to my feet working on the Daytona car. I was paged to the phone – picked up the phone in the body shop and it was an Australian gentleman by the name of David Hill who introduced himself as the Chairman of Fox Sports. He said We want to create a broadcast team like we have doing NFL where we have a play-by-play announcer that’s been in the sport – we’ve hired Darrell Waltrip as our driver analyst – and we’ve watched some of the tapes of stuff you’ve done over the last few years and want to know if you’d at least have a conversation with us. I said sure – I’ll have a conversation.
It took me all the way to the end of July to make my mind up. Couple of reasons it took me that long – first, I was scared to death. I thought when they put me six feet under I’d be going – two tires or four? But the biggest stumbling block was I had just signed a new three-year contract with Richard Childress. I was only about to start the second year.
Fox had already said if you come to us, you come to us clean and not have any baggage. We don’t buy contracts out. So when I finally made my mind up to do it I went to see Richard before the Indy race and I laid it all out.
At first Richard was mad and I considered saying it was all a joke but soon he said he wasn’t real happy about it but he could tell I was sincere about why I wanted to do it. He said, who knows after a couple of years you may want to come back.
I thought – that’s good to hear, but then he said you still have a contract. So I thought oh-boy here we go. I began to think again that I was gonna say it was all a joke and go back to work on the racecar. But Richard said, Contracts can be negotiated out of. He said, here’s how we are gonna resolve this – we are headed to Indy and traditionally we go to St. Elmo’s in Indy for our traditional dinner there. Here’s what we’re gonna do – I’m gonna buy everybody dinner and you are gonna buy some really good wine and we are gonna call this deal even. That’s how it happened
Two reasons I took the deal – one was that I knew there was going to be a small box of people that were gonna do this and if I turned it down the opportunity it may never come again. The other reason was – it was only a two year deal, enough time to see if they didn’t like me or I didn’t like them. But fourteen years later, I’ve never looked over my shoulder.
My goal is, as long as Fox is doing NASCAR and I have that desire to do it, I will do this.
Would you go back to being a Crew Chief?
It would be tough to go back and be a Crew Chief – I do think I could go back on the box and call the race because I know more now than then. I don’t think I could be a good Crew Chief but I think I could be a good strategist. I barely was a high school graduate and don’t have what it would take on that level today.
That’s hard to say. I walk into my office every day and those two Daytona 500 trophies are there. First, it’s the Daytona 500 and I’m fortunate enough to have been a part of winning two of them. But it’s also because of who I won them with two very special drivers that are no longer with us (Davey Allison and Dale Earnhardt Sr.).
Another is two years ago, watching Brandon (son) drive into victory lane when he won the ARCA race at Talladega my home track.
Since 2008 racing attendance declined, however in recent years it is beginning to comeback. What would you say is the reason?
You can’t say it’s one thing. I think it’s a long list. I think the car that’s running now has gotten some folks back – I think the Car of Tomorrow about destroyed us. It about put us out of business.
I think the competition has started to get a little bit better. At this point we’ve had fourteen races and had ten different winners. I think Danica Patrick drug a few eyeballs our way. I think it’s too early to tell if the new format is working out but so far the competition is good. The only thing I questioned in the beginning was re-racking four teams at the end of the chase and sending them to Homestead and saying have at it. But I like it now. Now we don’t have to get a headache over the scenarios – now you just run better than the other three at Homestead and you’re the champion.
Our broadcasting group in ’08, ’09 & 10 was real nervous about the ratings. This year, although the ratings have been a little down there is no nervousness. When you think about it they just spent 3.8 Billion over ten years to broadcast NASCAR. With ratings down some you’d think they’d be jumping out of windows but I think they’ve taken a step back and looked at sports and seen basketball’s down, hockey’s down, and baseball’s down but out of our fifteen weeks with Fox this year we won the sporting events for twelve of the fifteen weekends. So I think they are looking at the glass not as half empty, they are looking at it as half full. Yeah the ratings are down but we are still winning the weekend. Our qualifying shows on Fridays – which I think is another great move by NASCAR, has been out rating baseball games.
Broadcasting races is like standing on the thinnest edge of a razor blade, because you are trying to cater to so many varieties of fans. We cater to a person who is a first time viewer, we cater to the fan that doesn’t want the technical stuff, and we cater to the fan that wants to know everything about everything.
Hopefully we do it right – tell the story – explain why – and have fun.