Thursday, January 13, 2011

Media Spotlight- Ryan McGee

Author's note: Before you move forward, please allow me to express my deepest thanks to Mr. Ryan McGee for the opportunity to peek into his life. I genuinely appreciate his graciousness in granting me this interview.


Ryan McGee

You may know him as one of the front men for ESPN. He's easily one of the most recognizable names and faces in the NASCAR industry. He's credited with writing the script for “Dale,” a documentary on the life of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, and the author of “ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History.” He's a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and is a contributor for ESPN.com and “NASCAR Now.” In addition to NASCAR, he also covers college football and occasionally, he touches on other sports. His passion still lies in the two sports that his childhood revolved around. Meet Ryan McGee.

Ryan McGee was born in Rockingham, N.C. He grew up in the heart of NASCAR country, migrating all around the state.

"My father worked (and still works) as a college administrator, so I essentially grew up on college campuses. It was a great childhood," he says. "I went to the University of Tennessee (Go Vols!), where I met my wife, though it took me several years after college to wear her down and get her to marry me."

He finally did convince her to marry him. The couple now resides in Ryan's home state of North Carolina and have a 6-year-old daughter and a dog.

One only has to make an educated guess that, as a child of the South, he grew up watching racing.

"I can remember listening to MRN as a kid, then watching the Daytona 500 on CBS, the Indy 500 on ABC, Evel Knievel on ‘Wide World of Sports,’ and eventually anything with an engine that aired on ESPN and TNN. Basically, if Dr. Jerry Punch or Dave Despain were hosting something somewhere, I was watching."

What you might not know, however, is his interesting connection to former NASCAR driver Dave Marcis. Ryan's father was the gas can man for Marcis.

"In the mid-1960s, my father met Dave Marcis during basic training for the Army and Dave said when he came south to go NASCAR racing he'd need locals to help him as the pit crew. So whenever he came to Rockingham, Charlotte, or Darlington to run Cup races he'd hire Dad as his gas can man."

The media pride themselves on remaining unbiased and impartial. But take a man who's been a racing fan for as long as he can remember, put him in the media, and he'll still be a fan.

He was a fan of Terry Labonte and Harry Gant in NASCAR and A.J. Foyt in IndyCar. But his favorite is the King.

"It's no secret that I have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with Richard Petty. I stood in line to get his autograph many times as a kid and he was always ridiculously kind to me. It kind of spoiled me because when I'd try to get a stick-and-ball athlete's autograph I was like, "Why isn't he as nice as The King?""


Ryan at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with Red Byron & Ray Parks

"As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I also have a bit of a Ricky Bobby/Cole Trickle addiction."

Racing isn't the only thing that Ryan covers professionally. He also has been given an opportunity to cover college football. It isn't just a job for him, though; he's a big fan of both racing and college football, among other sports.

His father was a college football referee for his entire adult life. Growing up around the field ingrained in Ryan a love for the game.

"I grew up on the sidelines for games, practices and scrimmages while Dad was working."

"ESPN The Magazine was kind enough to throw me some steady college football work over the last six to seven years, in between motorsports gigs, and this year they really ramped up my football work for ESPN.com Insider."

Even though covering two sports can be a daunting task, he handles it well.

"It's very difficult in the fall to cover two sports full-time, but it's a dream come true for me so I don't complain."

In the sports industry, he's worn many hats. He's worked in a lot of different aspects of media, not just journalism and writing.

"I worked in local TV sports for a split second; covered high school football for the Monroe, N.C. newspaper; worked in minor league baseball for a year; and was a production assistant on SportsCenter, so I have pretty much covered them all. And I'm very fortunate that ESPN The Magazine allows me to hit a lot of different sports, even outside of racing and college football."

It's clear that he's got a love of both football and racing, but which one came first? As he tells it, racing and college football are equal.

"As a fan, both at the same time, with plenty of baseball and college basketball mixed in. We were an equal opportunity sports household ... except for soccer. Professionally, racing definitely came first," he says.

"I went to work for ESPN as a production assistant right out of college and at the time I was basically the only southerner in the company. They had an interview with Bill Elliott that came in and literally no one but me could understand what he was saying. A few months later we started 'RPM2Night' on ESPN2 and I was on my way to the racetrack with a garage pass hanging around my neck."

What brought him to want to write motorsports was his love for the sport.

"Because I love it. And we get access that writers who follow other sports simply don't get. That's a fact."

He worked hard to get to do something he loves but, there's always a “what if.” When asked what he imagines himself doing if not for writing, he replies "I honestly don't know. I'd like to think astronaut or play-by-play man for the Red Sox, but I'd probably be in education, like both my parents."

"I was always jealous of those professors I saw while I was growing up, riding their bikes to work, having every summer off, and living stress-free. I still think I want to teach one day down the road."


Ryan (R) with Marty Smith at the NASCAR Hall of Fame
As with any job, reporting has many ups and downs. He tells us that the most rewarding part is "finding myself in the middle of moments and situations that make me say, ‘I can't believe I am standing here.’ Marty Smith and I talk about that all the time. We call them Time Machine Moments, when you want to go back and see your 8-year-old self and say, ‘Dude, in 2009 you are going to fly with Richard Petty from the Coca-Cola 600 to the Indy 500 and back all in one day!’"

With highs like that, it's hard to imagine any lows. But, even as a seasoned veteran to the NASCAR media industry, there are still times when it's hard to feel like you're being heard, he says.

"I think it's getting harder for individual stories to stand out, to escape being lost in all the noise that's out there right now. When you really spend a long time reporting out a piece you want that story to have some legs, to really sink in and touch people. But the shelf life for even the best long-form features right now is maybe two or three days and then it's over because the turnover of new material is so fast now. There is a lot of great stuff being written and reported by a lot of very talented writers, but I feel like sometimes it all gets drowned out."

As a man who's been around the NASCAR circuit once or twice and a fan since childhood, where would he choose to travel back to if he could visit any point in racing history? He says he'd like to revisit a little bit of the past he's already experienced.

"I was asked this other day. I would say back to the mid-'90s, the time when I started covering the sport. There was still a bit of old school innocence in the garage; it was looser than it is today. But that being said, today's drivers are light years beyond the guys I started out covering when it comes to good sound and quotes."

Just like the hero in the film “Talladega Nights,” a lot of the older drivers weren't very good in front of a camera or a microphone. Although they probably didn't all sound quite as bad as Ricky Bobby, Ryan tells us that back when he first started covering racing, interviews and quotes were very difficult to get.

"Back in the day it was like pulling molars to get the guys to say much of anything. Bill Elliott was brutal. He's easier now, but still a lot of work."

Just like the cars have gotten sleeker and smoother on the track, today's drivers are much easier to interview.

"Like I said earlier, I think we have more great 'talkers' than we've ever had in the garage. I don't want to single out a favorite, but guys like Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson can make anything sound interesting. Even the guys who were not good just a few years ago are now great conversation."

"By the way, it drives me crazy when people call Johnson vanilla. He gives every answer to every question a ton of thought and is a quote machine. Just because he doesn't flip people off and act like a moron doesn't make him boring. It makes him smart," he adds.

It may be hard to believe, but there's still a whole world outside of sports. When asked if he could interview anyone, dead or alive, the response was somewhat unexpected.

"Saying George Washington seems a little too out there, so let's go with Martin Luther King Jr. Getting his perspective on the world today would be beyond tremendous. Or maybe Ted Williams. Not the homeless guy with the great voice that's been all over the news here lately, the baseball player."

As mentioned before, Ryan has had the opportunity to work on a lot of projects. One of them was the “Dale” documentary. It chronicles the life of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, killed in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. The film used the 1998 Daytona 500, the race where Earnhardt finally earned his only elusive Daytona 500 victory, as a backdrop.

Ryan tells us of the inspiration for using that race in the film.

"That was a team decision we made during my time as editor-in-chief at NASCAR Media Group. We had all of this tremendous material and this gigantic life to try and sum up in 90 minutes, so we needed a thread to connect it all. That race, which was really the defining moment of his career and also the moment that kind of boosted NASCAR in the mainstream, was the logical choice. It got us to the highest high of his life. Then the '01 Daytona 500 provided the backdrop for the heartbreaking final stanza."

Asked if he'd learned anything about Earnhardt while working on the script he replies, "Oh, so much."

"I was one of the few people on the production team who had actually known Dale, so it was amazing watching these super talented filmmakers, most of whom had come from NFL Films and owned truckloads of Emmys, as they really started to grasp how larger than life Dale really was," he explains.

"And I always tell the Teresa Earnhardt haters that if they had gotten to sit with her as she watched each progressive cut of the film as we went along, then they would have a totally different perspective on her. She never once told us to throw anything out or add anything editorially, certainly nothing big. Her biggest concern was making sure her man looked good and that the legend stayed intact."

While working on the film, he had the opportunity to interview some key people in Dale Earnhardt's life.

"We spent an entire day at Richard Childress Racing, interviewing Richard in his old office and then we did Danny Lawrence, Chocolate Myers, and Will Lind together in the old shop, which is now the RCR Racing Museum. Listening to those guys tell their best stories and seeing them deal with real emotions, all while sitting 20 yards from the '98 Daytona 500-winning car, was just unreal."

Although he didn't get the chance to work on the “30 For 30” special on the tragic story of Tim Richmond, he tells of how he and his former colleagues had tried to bring attention to his tale.

"While I was with NASCAR Media Group we shopped a Tim Richmond documentary to a lot of different networks, including CMT and HBO, but the timing was never right. It was frustrating for me because we had so much amazing material in the NMG library it just had to be done. Then when the ‘30 For 30’ series came along it finally allowed my old coworkers to get it done. When you hear Bill France Jr. finally admit they screwed up the drug test or hear Tim's sister admit that they were all afraid he would commit suicide in the middle of the Daytona 500, it's just amazing stuff. "

The opportunity never surfaced for him to work on a Tim Richmond special, but he was given the task of authoring a book on NASCAR's defining moments. The book is called “ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History.”

"When ESPN was getting back into the NASCAR game they had a team of researchers put together a list of moments that was twice that long and then had a panel of writers, racers and experts vote on the top moments. I had a vote, but by the time the list got to me it the 100 was already determined."

"The most difficult decision with the book was whether we should present it as a countdown from 100 to 1, like ESPN television was doing, or do it chronologically. I really pushed to do them chronologically because I wanted the book to stand alone and I also wanted it to have a definite ending point so that past 2005 fans could add their own moments."

And there have been quite a few "moments" in NASCAR since 2005. Increasingly, these moments have taken place on Twitter and Facebook. Watching drivers bicker back and forth, funny banter between drivers and media, which brings a new outlook on the relationships between the two, and seeing the drivers’ personalities firsthand have brought a lot of new people and have gained the drivers and media a respectable following of fans.

These "new media" outlets are providing a place for NASCAR drivers and fans alike to vent, connect and network. Social media has opened new doors for NASCAR fans. Ryan is very active on Twitter and professes to be a fan of new media.

"I'm a big fan. I think new media can be a tremendous reporting tool. But it's like anything else new; we're still kind of figuring out how much is too much or too little, personally and professionally."

Even though new media has presented lots of opportunities for those who are serious about trying to break into NASCAR, there are a lot out there he feels are just trying to grab attention.

"More people have a voice, which is good and bad. For every person who takes it seriously there seems to be a dozen people who are just shouting to try and get people's attention."

But he feels it has been a way for him, and others, to hear from the fans.

"For me, it has created bridges that would've never existed before and exposes me to more opinions and voices and people than ever before. Like you and I doing this interview. Or the famous Jeff Gluck Tweet-ups before races. There's a community there and the people who are a part of it genuinely love the sport."

He still feels that it's a good place for writers and journalists to make their mark in the sport. Being such a believer in new media, he drops a few pieces of advice for novices trying to build a reputation using the tools that are now available.

"Just get in your reps. Practice, practice, practice. With blogs and social media there are so many more outlets for finding your writing style and your voice. When I was coming along, you just wrote it down or typed it up and hoped that maybe someone other you and your Mom would read it."

Even without the luxury we now possess of Twitter, Facebook and blogs, Ryan was able to find his way into a dream job in the industry that he truly loves.

"I know how fortunate I am to get to do what I do for a living. I hope that the folks who watch and read my work get to feel like they are living it along with me. To me that's the best part, sharing those ‘I can't believe I am standing here’ moments with the people that aren't able to be there with me."
Ryan with Tony the Tiger at Bristol Motor Speedway

"Thanks to this new frontier of social media and ESPN's willingness to keep finding new avenues for content, there are more and more opportunities for me to do that, and just as importantly, get to know everyone out there riding along with me."

Ryan McGee was the last guest to appear on the now canceled hour-long NASCAR podcast, the Hour of Horsepower. You can listen to the episode he was on here




Photo credits: ESPN.com, Ryan McGee, tweeter @dianeinla, Ryan McGee

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