celebrating 40+ years of motorcycling

Race Commentary: Some things I have learned.

Now, if you’ll indulge me, a few perceptions from many years of race commentary at many circuits around Australia.

1. Don’t try and make the race sound exciting when it isn’t. The punters in the stands are among the best informed of any motor sports enthusiasts. Yelling and screaming as some do to try and “beat up” excitement is futile as the spectators will spot the phony a mile off.

2. Do your homework. As mentioned above, the spectator is expecting you to know a lot of stuff he doesn’t. Telling him that bike #3 is leading bike #4 doesn’t cut it. He can see that for himself. If, however, you can tell him details about the bike and the rider that he DOESN’T know, then you will have done your job well.

3. As noted above, watch the race! It may seem simplistic to say so, but the action is happening on the track, not on the screen. And years of practice and familiarity can enable the good commentator to spot subtleties of riding style, machine performance and a host of other variables, none of which can be measured by the most sophisticated of electronic devices.

4. Allied to #2 above. Make friends with the riders and the officials who are running the meeting. They are goldmines of information.

5. STOP TALKING! This may seem like a bizarre one, but it’s one of the best and it’s also one of the hardest to carry out. In a full day’s racing, you may call anywhere between 16 and 30 races. That means that the spectators are potentially hearing your voice for 6 or 7 hours. After the first hour or so, you start to merge into the background noise, no matter how good and entertaining your commentary is. So, when you don’t have to talk, DON’T. It gives your vocal chords a rest and the spectators’ ears a rest at the same time. Then, when you DO speak, they notice.

6. Be fair. Every person has their favourites, bikes and riders and teams. Treat them all fairly. If they are doing well, praise them. If they are doing badly, sympathise, but don’t play favourites. I’ve worked with commentators who have had their own axe to grind and who have spent much of the race talking about the rider currently circulating in 13th place, for no other reason but that that rider was a member of their motorcycle club or had some other connection to them.

7. Respect the  authority of the people for whom you are working. Whether you are being paid or doing the job in a voluntary capacity, YOU are the public face of the meeting. People will form their opinion of the promoter by what they hear over the PA as well as by how they see the meeting being run. Call the officials by their proper titles and ensure that the listening public knows that you respect the job they are doing.

8. Humour. Vitally important. Not “forced” humour; trying to make things funny when they’re not, nor “insider” humour, when you make it subtly clear to the spectator that YOU are in on the joke and they aren’t.

9. Value your constituency. Nothing cheapens the public’s opinion of you more than if you treat them like they don’t matter. The spectator is why you have the job in the first place. Respect him and let him know that his presence at the meeting and his support of it is valued and appreciated.

10. Don’t “double guess” the Clerk of Course. The CoC is THE BOSS of the meeting. What he says on the day is IT, whether you agree with his decisions or not. If he says a rider has jumped the start and incurs a 20 second penalty as a result, then that’s what happened, even if, from where you sit, high above the S/F line, the rider’s start looked perfectly legal to you. It is not for you to say whether a rider passed under a yellow flag and should be penalised; that is the CoC’s call and you don’t presume to tell him how to do his job over the PA any more than he would presume to tell you how to do yours.

11. Be careful of your opinion. Like it or not, people place great stock in what you say. I well remember at a mini bike meeting in Canberra years ago when a little 8 year old boy flung down his bike on the track and stormed back to the pits when a decision went against him. The teacher in me kicked in and I criticised his little temper tantrum over the PA. It didn’t take long for his irate parents to come storming up to the box demanding to know how come I had the right to criticize their little boy. And they were right. I had a right to criticize his riding and his conduct on the track, but I didn’t have the right to criticize him as a PERSON.

12. If you don’t know, SAY SO. The public expects you to be the expert, and, if you’ve done your homework well, you will be, 99% of the time. But there will always be things that you don’t know that will catch you “on the hop”. So, if you don’t know, don’t pretend that you DO, to bolster your own ego and reputation. Most of the time you will get away with it, but there will be enough times when you get exposed as a fraud for the public to start to suspect that you don’t know what you are talking about ANY OF THE TIME. “I’m not sure about that, but I’ll check in the pits at lunch time and I’ll get back to you on that one.” is always the best policy.

13. Watch the pack. whilst everyone is interested in the battle for the lead, and the impact that will have on the overall result, many commentators (and TV directors) fall into the trap of JUST watching the leading bunch. TV coverage of, or on-course commentator’s fixation with the leading pack can mean that the spectator misses out on some sterling action that is taking place further down in the field. This can be especially critical if a fancied rider has had to come from deep in the pack to get to the leading bunch, for any number of reasons. So, while keeping tabs on the battle for the lead, watch for battles deeper in the pack as well and highlight them too, and it helps keep your audience’s interest right to the end.

14. Teamwork. Often you might be called upon to call the card all by yourself, and that can be quite difficult. But it is actually easier than when you have to share the commentary with another announcer, especially if that person is unfamiliar to you. Sit down and talk about how you are going to divide up the day before the racing starts. Decide on who is going to do the “stats” and who is going to do the “colour”. And develop some unspoken signals that you can use if either of you find it necessary to interrupt the other for a reason during a race.

I well remember the Six Hour in 1979 when I had the pit mike in my hand and I saw the race leader, the late Alan Hales, crash the GS1000 Suzuki in Stop Corner late in the race. Will Hagon, bless his soul, was eulogising about some arcane aspect of something or other, and had competely missed the most critical piece of action that had happened in the race so far that day, and finding a way to interrupt him so that the unsighted spectators at the top of Bitupave Hill could know that the race leader was out, was quite a challenge. Finally, I commited the cardinal sin and talked straight over the top of him.

I apologised later and he graciously accepted it, but it illustrated that we should have had some sort of system worked out so that something like that didn’t happen.

After you’ve worked with someone a few times, the understanding becomes unconscious and it starts to just “flow”. David Curtis and I have such an understanding and, to any spectator listening, it would seem like our “patter” is rehearsed, so smoothly does it flow. Mind you, if we hadn’t worked it out by now, there would be something very wrong.

15. Others using the PA. Often a promoter will want to have a talk on the PA himself and this can be very tricky. On the one hand, because he’s your boss for the day, you need to be deferential and polite. But, on the other hand, you also need to be aware of the purpose of the request. If it is just so he can “blow his own trumpet” and massage his ego a little over the PA, then you need to politely ensure that you keep the commentary flowing about the RACING and don’t allow it to become a commercial. This is a very difficult situation in which to be placed.

Then he may invite a rider to join you in the booth to provide some “expert” commentary. This is also a two-edged sword. Some riders are excellent commentators and I’ve had the pleasure of listening to some of our top-flight riders explain, in stunning detail, aspects of racing and setup that I could never have known. At other times, the rider concerned should best have left his helmet on, as he seems to be terrified of the microphone, has great difficulty expressing himself clearly and doesn’t make a lot of sense when he does say something. Again, since he is usually there at the promoter’s request, you just have to grin and bear it.

16. Ask questions. This is crucial when you are working as a team. The punter in the stands expects you to be an expert, but he also expects that you won’t be a “know-it-all”. The way that you avoid giving this impression is to ask frequent questions to your announcing colleague/s so that you give your co-commentator the opportunity to be the “expert” and answer some of the tough questions. It’s a “win-win” situation. He looks good because he answered the question and you look good because you were prepared to acknowledge, over the PA, that there was something that you didn’t know.

This can be an especially useful tool when you have a rider as your “expert” and you feel that he/she is floundering.

17. Advertising. Our sport runs on money, even at the Club Race level. It costs so much to promote a meeting these days that, unless you have some good sponsors, you’re never going to get past first base. SO, it is incumbent upon the announcer to regularly and fulsomely thank the sponsors and “plug” their products and services. The difficulty comes here when someone approaches you in pit lane and says, “Hey, mate, I have this little business that I’m trying to get off the ground and I wonder if you can give me a mention or two over the PA during the day?” In many cases, this will be OK and, in all the meetings I have worked, I have been given great latitude in what I said over the speakers in terms of bikes for sale, etc, etc.

BUT, be careful that, in offering to help out in this scenario, that you are not inadvertently advertising a business or a product that is in direct competition to a business or a product of one of the meeting’s sponsors. Remember that the sponsor has paid good money to have his name and details in the programme, and he’s not going to look too kindly on you plugging the opposition who has paid nothing for the privilege.

As always, a little forethought and common sense can prevent a serious breach of protocol.

18. Accidents. They happen and they will always happen. How you handle yourself when one takes place is critical. The golden rule is “The less said, the better.” If necessary, make public the number/s of the bike/s  concerned (as long as you are ABSOLUTELY SURE), but do NOT comment on possible injuries and do NOT apportion any blame for the accident, even if it is abundantly clear to you and to everyone else what happened. Note that the accident has happened and move on. If it is serious enough to bring about a stoppage to the race, note that and conclude by saying, “That’s all we know at the moment, we will get back to you with more details when they are confirmed from Race Control and also let you know when racing is due to be resumed.” Turn off the microphone and cut to some music.

Remember that there is going to be someone in the pits frantic with worry when their rider doesn’t come around on that lap and the last thing you need to do is to add to their concern.

I love commentating. You’ve probably figured that out already. And I take pride in my work. Paid or unpaid, I like to think that I am giving the promoter value for his investment. It’s not without co-incidence that I keep getting asked back, time and again, to handle the microphone.