Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lessons Learned From Barney and Ken

Wednesday night, as part of its annual Hall Of Fame ceremonies, NASCAR announced the creation of a new award; the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence. Named for broadcast pioneers Ken Squier and Barney Hall, the award will recognize deserving members of the media for their efforts in the sport.

I feel like I have already won it, and here's why.

Barney Hall (L) and Ken Squier
In the summer of 1978, I was preparing for my senior year of High School, cooking burgers at a local restaurant, chasing race cars around New England to whatever extent my meager income would allow and writing a weekly column called Notes From The Northern Circuit for Val Lesieur’s Speedway Scene trade paper.
My main haunt was Thunder Road International Speedbowl, just a few miles up US Route 302 from my home in Montpelier, Vt. Dubbed “The Nation’s Site of Excitement,” Thunder Road was owned by Ken Squier, best known then (and now) as the man who first talked CBS Sports into broadcasting the Daytona 500 live and flag-to-flag. After years of manning the public address microphone at his rustic little short track, Squier faced an increasingly hectic travel schedule with CBS, and needed someone to fill-in on the microphone at Thunder Road.
Somehow, he chose me.
I didn’t really know Ken at the time, and I’m sure he knew very little about me. At best, he had read a couple of my newspaper columns, and found me to be an enthusiastic kid with a semi-workable vocabulary. More likely, he looked around the pits one Thursday night, saw me standing around with my finger in my nose and thought, “There’s a kid with some time on his hands.”
Either way, I was Thunder Road’s new track announcer.
Every week that summer, Ken would slip me the microphone for a couple of heat races, while handling most of the heavy lifting himself. The following morning, I would sit in his office staring at the carpet while he systematically stripped the flesh from my bones.
“You’re doing it all wrong,” he would say. “You’re telling people things they can already see for themselves. Here’s the way you should be doing it…”
Learning at the "Site of Excitement"
Squier took a typical, know-it-all teenager with a low tolerance for criticism and found a way to break through. I soon realized that a golden opportunity had been laid at my feet; an opportunity to learn the racing game from one of the premier voices in the history of the sport. I wisely decided to check my ego at the door and listen – really listen – to what Ken was teaching me.
Early on in the process, Squier ended our weekly disembowelment with the first in a summer long series of homework assignments.
“Go home and create a list of 15 ways to say, `side by side,’” he ordered.  “Bring it to the track next week.”
I spent the next few days playing amateur wordsmith, arriving at Thunder Road the following week with my finished list, ready to deliver.
“Door to door, nose to nose, elbow to elbow, wheel to wheel,” I said, rattling off all my new descriptors.
“Fantastic,” said Squier afterward. “Now use `em all tonight. Never say the same thing, the same way twice.”
In subsequent weeks, I crafted similar lists of ways to say, “on the inside, on the outside, nose-to-tail” and many of the other catch phrases announcers are called upon to use. In time, those phrases became a normal part of my race-night vocabulary, and before long, I developed a sort of “inner ear” that allowed me to monitor my own play-by-play banter and change the phraseology from lap to lap.
Squier was also a stickler for preparation.
Whenever he boarded an airplane for a NASCAR race, he did so with a briefcase filled with dozens – perhaps hundreds – of 3x5 index cards. Ken had a card for every driver, featuring his name, hometown, sponsor, crew chief, car owner and as many details of his career as could be jammed onto 15 square inches of paper. The top owners and crew chiefs all had a card, as well.
Ken’s personal assistant, Della Truax, culled through every racing magazine and trade paper in the country – every single week – updating information and re-writing those cards. He would study them endlessly, memorizing every bit of information for instant on-air recall. That preparation, combined with a God-given talent for storytelling, put Ken head-and-shoulders above the competition and made him the best in the business.
I learned from Ken’s example, and emulated him in every possible way.
Squier taught by example
At the height of my short-track career, I called races four nights a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day; chasing race cars from Ontario, Canada to northern Maine, from upstate New York to southern Connecticut. Each track had multiple divisions of race cars, and in all, I had memorized somewhere between 800 and 1,000 drivers. I drilled names, hometowns, sponsors and car makes into my brain with endless hours of pre-race practice, until I could introduce the main event field without so much as a glance at the written lineup sheet.

If you arrived at the track five hours before show time, you’d see me in the pits, waiting for the drivers to unload their cars so I could pick their brains. Squier taught me – mostly by example – that if I was going to do my job correctly, I needed to know what was going on in that garage. I needed to know who was angry at whom, who was nursing a balky powerplant and who was distracted with a kid in the hospital.
I owed it to the fans to educate, entertain and inform them; every single night. Ken Squier taught me that.
Squier’s influence went far beyond my early days in the sport. He was the one who insisted I send an audition tape to Motor Racing Network; an organization he helped found. He followed up (I’m told) with a telephone call to then-MRN President John McMullen, using his influence to lobby for a kid from Vermont he believed worthy of an audition.
He didn’t have to do any of that. In fact, it was in his best interest to keep me under wraps and hidden from the world. By the time he brought me to the attention of MRN, I was working full-time for Squier as PA announcer for both his racetrack and touring series, and as Sports Director and play-by-play man for his group of Vermont Radio stations. He could have kept me under his thumb forever, toiling away merrily in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
He could have, but he didn’t.
Instead, he remembered the people who helped him when he was an up-and-coming youngster. He believed he owed it to them – and to me – to pass that help along.
I will never forget it.
When I first began to get some national exposure with NASCAR and Motor Racing Network, I stepped into the realm of yet another mentor.
Barney Hall has been the central voice on MRN’s broadcasts since Day One; a comfortable pair of shoes that fans across North America have happily slipped into since the 1960s. Barney is a quiet, gentle man, and people who know him only through his radio work are shocked to discover he doesn’t say much when the microphone is turned off.
In my first few years with the network, my interaction with Barney was fairly limited and mostly business. We’d discuss who we should interview during the pre-race show or compare notes on a story we’d picked up in the garage, but that was about it. Barney studies people, taking his time to decide whether they're alright or not. He probably needed a little longer to make up his mind about me, and that’s completely understandable.
Hall enjoys respect and trust
Once you receive the Barney Hall Seal of Approval, however, you’ve got a friend for life and an invaluable sounding board. Barney is old-school in every possible way. He writes out his race notes in longhand on a yellow legal pad, and gets his information the old-fashioned way; by getting out in the garage and actually talking to people. There’s not a crewman in the garage who won’t lay down his tools when Barney Hall stops by, and no one in NASCAR commands more respect.
People respect Barney because they know they can trust him. He knows things most reporters never hear about, simply because he is worthy of people's trust. Secrets are safe with him, since he’d sooner throw himself under a jet dryer than break a confidence. He has served as an intermediary for dozens of major deals over the years, pulling a driver aside to say, “You know, you really ought to go talk to so-and-so. He might be looking for a driver next season.”
Barney taught me early on about the importance of earning respect in the NASCAR garage. “There are things you can talk about on the air, and things you can't," he’d say. “You can break a confidence and get a really big scoop, but it’s the last story you’ll ever break. If you don't have the trust of the garage, you've got nothing.”
Over the years, there has been a handful of reporters who betray a racer's trust to get a big headline. They trade their integrity for a fleeting moment in the spotlight and an opportunity to say, "I reported it first." Invariably, they regret that decision. In fact, there are individuals in the garage today who intentionally plant bogus stories with certain media members, simply because they know they’ll run with it without doing their homework.
I tell drivers, crew chiefs and team owners all the time, “I want to talk with you, before I talk about you.”
Barney Hall taught me that.

Photo Credits: Getty Images/NASCAR,


  1. Dave, you are dead on about both Ken and Barney. I only wished I had those mentors in my life back when I was still wet behind the ears. And maybe I could be walking in their shadows today doing what you love to do.

  2. "David" thank you for the inught, great story as usual for you.

  3. Dave, thank you for sharing your experiences of when you started out. Even after 16 years on the mic myself, I can still take things and learn, to help myself bring a better show to the fans. Congratulations on all of your success, and for helping us understand a little better.
    Kevin Boucher
    Seekonk Speedway Announcer.

  4. 3x5 index card - fifteen square inches - I see what you did there. Taught you to write as well.

    Quite the characters, and thanks for the stories about them.

  5. BOB MORRIS11:40 PM

    Dave I heard you say it in the best way. You went to ken squire
    high school and barney Hall university

  6. Dave - great article. I can't tell you how many races my Dad and I listened to on the way to some short track race or other on Sunday before they were all over TV. You learned well from your mentors and will have the opportunity to be bestowed with the award in their name someday soon. keep up the great work!

  7. Anonymous10:14 AM

    Thank you. That was great.

    One day you need to interview yourself for the Thursday night legends hour.

    Doug from NJ

  8. Anonymous2:29 PM

    you`ve done a great job, dave calling the races and the sirius deal

  9. Anonymous11:29 AM

    Ken should be IN the Hall of Fame....the sooner the better!

    Kevin F

  10. Roger From South Carolina8:23 PM

    Dave, as a kid who grew up in the 70's and 80's, I listened to MRN broadcasts with my dad on Sunday afternoons. You have to be one of the luckiest men alive to have been placed under the tutelage of those two masters of broadcasting. Here's to a lot more years of Mr. Hall on the radio and Mr. Squier imparting his words of wisdom on Television.