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In the Hot Seat with Bobby Labonte (Part 2)

It seems Bobby Labonte enjoys sitting "In the Hot Seat!" (Photo: Bobby Labonte | Facebook)

It seems Bobby Labonte enjoys sitting “In the Hot Seat!” (Photo: Bobby Labonte | Facebook)

While Bobby Labonte retired from NASCAR Cup Series competition in 2016, he’s an active member of the community as a FOX NASCAR analyst. As established in Part 1 of Labonte’s “Hot Seat” interview, the 57-year-old NASCAR Hall of Fame racer has a fervent passion for motorsports that’s like a friend or relative who loves NASCAR.

Beyond Labonte’s incredible career in the Cup and Xfinity Series, the Corpus Christi, Texas native provides insightful observations and perspectives on NASCAR Race Hub on FS1. If the first part of Labonte’s “Hot Seat” focused on his past exploits, today’s closing segment spotlights the amiable Texan as the sharp, informative analyst for FOX NASCAR.

Recently, I caught up with Labonte to talk about his recent racing efforts and role with FOX NASCAR. For the conclusion of this interview, Labonte considers the future of motorsports journalism from his perspective along with FOX NASCAR’s coverage and the road ahead for the 2022 season. Without further ado, let’s get the checkered flag with Part II of “In the Hot Seat with Bobby Labonte” here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : We’re going to talk a little bit about your FOX NASCAR role, because you’re not just a racecar driver or an analyst, but to me, you’re also a journalist like me. Maybe you don’t break news like Bob Pockrass does, but you also provide information to fans today. So I mean, let’s actually kind of ask a really cerebral question here.

Considering your years as a driver, you dealt with the press. But now you’re with FOX NASCAR, so you obviously have seen how digital platforms and digital journalism has changed the landscape of media. So I mean, where do you see journalism and press going as far as advancements with technology and the platforms that you and your peers can tap into at FOX?

Labonte reflected on the reasons why he and his peers were well received during their heydays. (Photo: Darryl Moran)

Labonte reflected on the reasons why he and his peers were well received during their heydays. (Photo: Darryl Moran)

Bobby Labonte : Yeah. I mean, that’s a great question. I don’t necessarily have a total answer, but I have a feeling. What I love about doing the weekday shows, the Race Hub shows, for me, I love doing it, and to me, it’s like getting in a racecar. You get a little nervous. You’re like, “All right, we’re getting ready to go live.” And I’ve done it enough now, you’d think I’d get kind of used to it, but I don’t.

But I’m still a fan. I still love the fact that your adrenaline’s rushing. You’re getting excited. And I feel like it’s… as my wife would say, “You just talk about racing, and you’re really good at just talking about racing,” right? So I just kind of talk about more what I know.

Sometimes Larry Mac, he’ll do all the stats. He knows all the numbers, and I’m like, “I don’t know all the numbers, but you do.” So, and I’ll just talk about racing and how my experiences have been. Going forward, I see that… I think that to me, in my mind, it’s what’s always… they’re always trying to get more… I don’t want to say more better, because that’s a redneck way to say it, but more better. More and better. More and better, maybe that’s a better way to say it.

And so whether it’s more in-car cameras, whether it’s more graphics, whether it’s drones, seeing different angles. I love the fact of getting personal. I don’t do it myself, but I love the fact when you get to know people. Because I think back in the day, I was pretty much a household name because of my sponsors, because of the Coke commercials, the commercials we did.

Pretty much household name when it came down to it, right? Somebody heard of me, right? Little bit more difficult today because sponsors don’t activate in some of those ways.

But you know, how do you get to know a Kyle Larson? Well, easier for me than you, because I could probably call him, because I’ve got his phone number. But you might not know what he’s like, right? So to me, I think those… and it’s not that it’s not done, because they do things, but it needs to be done more in finding out what people are like, what do they do, so that you become more interested in Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott and the Daniel Hemrics, the Austin Cindrics.

How did you do that? We kind of know, but you also want to… they want to become a household name. Some of them are becoming that, but not a lot of them, right? Because sponsorships don’t… they change, and it gets confusing. So, anyway. I think that I see maybe some documentaries, something with that.

Again, they do it, but what’s the next stage of that? How do you really get into that? How do you take all that and become a household name? How do we make you a household name if you’re driving the No. 48 car and you’re Alex Bowman? Where 75 million people know who he is, not 12 million, right?

So how do you grow that? And so that’s kind of a question that I’m asking myself. But those are some of things, and digitally with… I think seeing things at the track, and more graphics, and more… a drone, or this and this and this, and step that up to the next level, and then somehow get to know people better. I mean, I know some of them, but how many people don’t know Alex Bowman? And maybe… I don’t know. Some of that so that they become household names.

So as far as the broadcast goes and the studio stuff, just you’ve got to enhance all that. Every year, you’ve got to enhance more. So I think if you’re watching the rearview mirror from Denny Hamlin’s car at Daytona because you know he’s going to be leading, and somebody’s going to be right behind him, and they’ve got a new rearview mirror, and how does that look? What people are thinking, and how they get to this point throughout the week. Things like that.

Personal stuff, I think, is a big thing. But graphically, I think that it’s just to got to get more. How can we get cleaner, crisper, better drone footage, and let the drones out there, and kind of have that camera angle so that we’ll sit there and we’ll want to view it from a different angle and have people become fans and want to go.

Tiongson : Usually I think that’s what makes storytelling so great, because it still involves a human interface. Technology can be great as it is, but I think you really nailed it right there, journalist to journalist, about how we have to know people, not as the celebrity who they are, but who they are personally, and I think that’s a great art form of journalism that I’m glad we both understand very well.

I know it’s the off season, and I’m sure it’s nice and quiet, but there’s a lot of changes happening next year besides the new car. We have the Busch Light Clash at the Colosseum in LA. We’ve got some new tracks coming to the circuit soon. I mean, you and your peers at FOX NASCAR are going to have a lot to contend with next year.

But when you think about the potential to connect to new fans who may not be from the southeast – like me, I came from Boston, Massachusetts – connecting to those fans, how much are you looking forward to this opportunity to explaining the nuances that you and I know very well that somebody out in the West Coast may not understand, and being able to grow as a broadcaster and journalist?

By all means, Bobby Labonte appreciates the potentially winning moves by NASCAR for 2022 and beyond. (Photo: Darrell Ingham | Getty Images)

By all means, Bobby Labonte appreciates the potentially winning moves by NASCAR for 2022 and beyond. (Photo: Darrell Ingham | Getty Images)

Labonte : Yeah, I think that the new car is just going to be the biggest variable to explain to people how it came to be and how it will hopefully resonate with fans of all ages, but ones that are growing up to become serious fans at a younger age, right? So I think the car is a huge talking point, and that’s going to evolve throughout the year.

So, if they didn’t have a new car, then you’ve got to go, “Okay, well, we’ve got a couple new tracks. We’ve got a couple this. Couple changes in the teams.” But the new car, you’ve added some teams, drivers have swapped around, teams have merged, you’ve got more teams.

So I think that just itself lays it out there when you think about it. That’s like, “Oh, we’ve got a lot more to talk about than we would if they didn’t do anything,” right? So I think that’s the number one thing that’s carrots that’s hanging out there that’s going to be a challenge, or something, every week, every week, every week.

And then obviously NASCAR, Ben Kennedy, everybody there that has said, “Hey, we’re going to go to the Los Angeles Colosseum.” I was like, “Holy crap, that’s going to be crazy. Can I get tickets?” And it’s like, okay. So I’ve raced at Bowman Gray. So it’s a quarter-mile track around a football field. Same thing. But it’s not the same thing.

But the fans are right there on it. LA’s a great… believe it or not, some people might not think this, but it brings in a lot of ratings, a lot of race fans right there. There’s a lot of history of racing around that area, dirt tracks, to the Agajanians, to IndyCar guys that would make it and go to Indy, but they kind of grew up there, not the Southeast. So that’s a smart play.

Who knows how the race is going to be, but smart play as far as making that goes. But I think that’s just going to be… that’s going to be that, and then there’s conversations that will be… new teams (with) Petty GMS announced. You’ve got Allegiant, Maury, I think, that’s now expanded his teams. And then you’ve got… all the way throughout. I think there would be great stories no matter what, but I think that’s the big carrot, and then the rest of them will fill in the gaps of new teams, and the Xfinity Series and the Truck Series and their champions and what they’ll do and the next move that they make, all across the board.

I mean, I think as a racecar driver, if I were in it every week like I used to be, I’d be like… I wouldn’t care as much. But when you talk about it, you have to look for something to talk about, and these are great things to talk about. And we’ll have… in my mind, it’s going to be all year, down to the championship, and this new car is going to be evolved throughout, because it’s not perfect, and it won’t be perfect for a while, maybe, but it’ll evolve.

And then just the players and how it’s going to be, and the new facilities, and starting off the year different than the old Busch Clash in Daytona. So yeah, I think there’s plenty to talk about. The car is the big carrot that’s going to carry you, and then there’s a lot of stories within, and I think especially the new teams and how that can… what will be the breakthrough, or the success or failures, and what happens there, and the changes people make, as always.

That’s always a good one. But more teams are better, so I like that part.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Bobby Labonte and Megan Englehart of FOX Sports for making this interview possible! For the full, audio version of my interview with Bobby, check out Ep. 9 of The Podium Finish Live! on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major streaming platforms now!

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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