As a driver, Dale Jarrett was trained to say the right thing at the right time. Like everyone else in NASCAR, he knew to thank the sponsors, all the guys at the shop and his manufacturer after every race.
Now that he’s retired, Jarrett has a little more freedom, if not the expectation, to say what’s on his mind.
After spending most of his adult life in front of the camera, Jarrett continues to make the transition into ESPN’s television booth. Much like manhandling a car around Darlington Raceway, Jarrett now realizes talking about a race isn’t always as easy as it looks.
“I’ve said a number of times it would be great for drivers to spend a little bit of time to see the effort that takes place to do one of these races for television,” Jarrett said. “It’s a completely different way to look at the sport. I wish I had done that when I was a driver.”
Jarrett’s career evolved as the sport made its detour away from the dusty back roads of the South to Madison Avenue. Roles expanded from driving the car to being the face of a Fortune 500 company.
Instead of selling a product, Jarrett now has a greater challenge – selling a race.
“It’s a show; it’s entertainment,” he said. “You have to make it entertaining, but you have to be sure it doesn’t look like a setup. You can’t oversell it. People see through that, but you’re still selling.”
Now 56, Jarrett believes NASCAR should focus more on tracks that offer the best racing and fan experiences.
“We’ve proven we can put as many people on a half-mile and three-quarter-mile track as we can at big tracks,” he said.
The challenge is to find a balance between fact and fiction, spin and reality.
But deep down, he is, and always will be, a driver.
“If I’m going to make a mistake, it’s going to be from the competitor side,” he said. “It was different when my dad (Ned Jarrett) and Benny (Parsons) used to do the races (on television). Now everybody has their own spin. It’s not easy because I know how hard it is from their side.”
Brad Keselowski learned a few weeks ago that NASCAR doesn’t like anyone challenging the way it does business, especially its finances. Jarrett isn’t bound by such restrictions. If you ask him a question, you will get an answer.
Jarrett said the sport needs more characters who are allowed to act naturally.
He believes a race winner should earn more money, even if it means cutting the field to 40 cars and giving the winner the extra money.
He also said there should be a greater emphasis on winning, not running for points. The best way to do that is to give a lot of extra points for wins, as well as bigger paydays.
Jarrett certainly has credibility in the garage area. He won 32 Sprint Cup Series races and the 1999 championship. Counting a 20-year run in the Nationwide Series, he won more than $61 million.
His father, Ned, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011. Ned Jarrett won 50 races and two championships before moving into the television booth. The father gained even more notoriety in 1993 when he took control of the CBS microphone for the final lap of the Daytona 500 with his son and Dale Earnhardt fighting for the win.
“It’s the Dale and Dale show coming off Turn 4. You know who I’m pulling for. It’s Dale Jarrett!” Ned Jarrett said. “Come on Dale! Go, baby, go! He’s gonna make it – Dale Jarrett’s gonna win the Daytona 500!”
After the race, the elder Jarrett tried to apologize to Earnhardt because he felt like he lost his objectivity. Earnhardt wasn’t upset with the call, saying “I’m a father, too.”
Dale Jarrett now tries to tie that same kind of passion with a sincere level of honesty when he’s behind the microphone.
“Nothing can take the place for being a competitor,” he said. “I can see things others can’t, and I have to say that. That’s not always easy to do.”
But something race fans have come to expect.