Date published: March 19, 2010
The popular and insightful announcer also hosts special events and ESPN coverage, and writes prolifically, making him one busy guy
Since he announced his first major NHRA race - at Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania in 1985 - Bob Frey has evolved into one of the most iconic personalities in drag racing; his face and voice have become as familiar to fans as the starting-line Christmas Tree. In addition to calling all 23 of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events, he co-hosts the entire schedule of ESPN Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series shows and as part of those broadcasts hosts the NHRA Sportsman Spotlight segments, for which he visits one member track in each NHRA division, and provides the stats for the ESPN NHRA Full Throttle event coverage. Frey is equally ubiquitous on the special-events scene - he hosts the NHRA Full Throttle and Lucas Oil awards ceremonies, the annual SEMA Breakfast, and many other events, such as this year's Legends Dinner during the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline. He also works extensively with the Drag Racing Association of Women, a cause that is very dear to him.
A true artist in the world of communications, Frey is as adept at writing as the spoken word, and he contributes his monthly Bob Tales column to National DRAGSTER and two weekly columns for the Drag Race Central Web site.
Frey has built a legion of fans with his captivating commentary and earned the trust of drag racing's top competitors because of his honest and straightforward approach.
Do you ever get to spend any time at home?
During the race season, I'm probably home only four weekends. So I've cut back lately on my offseason activities. One year, I did nine additional banquets, and each of them takes up three days of travel time. Now, I'm like a teacher. They get a break in the summer, and I get the same in the off-season.
How do you maintain such a busy schedule?
I drink a lot of tea, which they tell me has more caffeine than coffee. A bunch of Coca-Colas during the day never hurts, and I've always had a good metabolism.
I think the fact that I look forward to all this makes it a lot easier. If it were work or drudgery, it would be just miserable, and it would drag you down. The best way to explain it is when the year begins in Pomona, you're really excited, and you can't wait to get out there. I enjoy everything about the year, but by the time that the Finals comes around, if I had one more week to go, I think I'd probably call in sick.
I haven't experienced any sense of burnout yet, and that's because there never are any two racing weekends that are ever the same. You very rarely have a weekend without some surprises, some upsets, and some moments when you go, "Wow! I didn't see that coming." You see that the races hardly ever go by the ladder. And how can you not be excited about starting out at the 50th Winternationals and then with all the things that are happening in Gainesville with the Hall of Fame inductions and the things that they are doing for Darrell Gwynn? It's really cool.
What are the differences in preparing for a national event and for a banquet?
The banquets are the only jobs that I fear. At a national event, the race cars themselves are the show. I just try to fill in between and hopefully entertain and inform the fans about what's going on. The cars are the story. But at a banquet, the emcee is the focal point. There are a lot of people there, and you've got to keep it going and make it enjoyable. The first banquet I ever took my wife to was the 1967 Division 1 banquet. At 11:30 in the evening, they were still passing out awards, and I was saying, "This is just dreadful." I don't care if you're Jay Leno or Dave Letterman. If you're still passing out awards at 11:30 p.m., that's a pretty bad evening. The banquets are social events, and you want everyone there, including the wives and other family members, to have a good time.
What do you try to convey to the fans when you are announcing a national event?
I do feel a certain amount of responsibility toward the spectators, and even more so to the casual fans, to at least inform and entertain them a little bit. So if they are there with their family and maybe aren't real gearheads, they can still go away and say that they had a real good time, and they left knowing a little more than when they came.
At every race, I try to explain the qualifying procedure, why they run the way that they do during eliminations, why one racer gets to pick his or her lane over the other driver, and the rest of the basic fundamentals. It's a real fine line to walk because you'll always get some gearhead who says, "Everybody knows that." But everybody doesn't know. A lot of fans may be first-time visitors, and you don't want them sitting there saying, "Holy mackerel! This is confusing." You have to explain how someone who runs a 7.00 flat beats the guy who runs a 6.90. I try to do this without alienating the hardcore fans who pretty much know what's going on. It's always very enjoyable when someone comes up to you after the event, and they say, "You really had us laughing" or "My wife really enjoyed that." That makes me feel that I did my job.
What is your preparation routine for a national event?
I have a list of all the drivers who are currently racing, and I'll go back and take the major players like John Force, Warren Johnson, Larry Dixon, among others, and find out how many times they've attended the event, qualified in the top half of the field or qualified No. 1, and so on. Then the information is right at my fingertips while I'm doing the race.
The pre-race ceremony is one of the many reasons why you won't see me out late on Saturday night. At a race where there are four Pro categories, there are 64 drivers you have to introduce. The easy way to do it would be to announce just the name of the driver and where they qualified. But I'll try to come up with something like, "Here's Warren Johnson. This is his 35th appearance at this race since it was first run 40 years ago, and he's looking for his sixth victory at this race." If it takes a minute to come up with those kinds of notes for each driver, that's at least another hour I need to get that prepared. I'm not trying to make a big deal about it, but I feel we should make the introductions something special by giving the fans some useful information and giving the drivers their due credit for their accomplishments.
You've always had a sense of humor with your announcing style. How did that come about?
It's almost by necessity. Everybody knows that I'm not a technical guy. I don't pretend to do technical stuff, and I don't want to do it. But I think that the amount of people in the grandstands who are hard-core techies is a pretty narrow group. I think that the vast majority of them are there for the entertainment value. The key to anything is to play to your strengths, and my strength is more in the entertainment value than any technical aspects.
How extensive is your database, and how do you put it to use?
I have a complete collection of every issue of National DRAGSTER. But even though I have thousands of magazines such as Hot Rod, Car Craft, Popular Hot Rodding, Super Stock & Drag Racing Illustrated, Drag Racing, and others, I only have the issues from about 1965 through 1978 because that's when they covered the type of racing that I'm most interested in. Before 1965, the magazines had a lot of how-to articles on building cars, and after the late 1970s, they started getting into street rods and vans, none of which have any interest for me. And I've archived about 7,000 articles out of the magazines from that period because I get a lot of calls during the off-season from fans whose fathers or grandfathers used to race. I can now research their questions about those people without having to thumb through all the magazines I have and come up with something fairly quickly, and it's something I enjoy doing, especially in the offseason. It took me several years to put the Pro database together with the help of Rick Green and Larry Sullivan, and I just finished a similar program for the Sportsman racers. It was a lot of work accumulating all that information, but it's now very accessible and user-friendly.
How do you get all of your articles done when NHRA has back-to-back races?
It's a matter of making the best use of your time because I only have Tuesday off between the races. So on Sunday night, I go back to the hotel, I go through my stats, make notes of little tidbitty things that caught my attention, review the previous race for any possible continuing story lines, and then do some research on the next event so that I can tie things all together. I try to get the story written by Monday night. Sometimes if you have a long flight, you can get most of the outline done on the plane, so it can be completed when I get home. Then when I'm traveling on Wednesday, I will try to do the interview for my Thursday Sportsman story and get it finished when I get to the next hotel. If I happen to write about someone who just won a race, I try to get the interview done in the winner's circle, which saves me a lot of time. You just have to plan ahead as much as possible.
The biggest challenge I have with the Bob Tales columns that I write once a month for National DRAGSTER is coming up with a topic, and sometimes that can take days. But on some occasions, they just pop up, like the time my wife took me to an arts-and-crafts store, which was just as crazy as me taking her to a speed shop. But the novelty of the experience actually gave me an idea for the column, so you just never know.
How did you get into announcing?
I had been going to drag races since 1964, and one night when three of us went to Atco Dragway [in New Jersey] in 1966, we found out that the track's main announcer, Jack Musilli, had been hired by NASCAR to announce their drag racing series, and the track was looking for somebody to take over. I figured it was something that I probably could do, and it would also be a good way to get into the track for free and watch my friends race. I auditioned for the job and got it. It was cool.
What announcers influenced you most early in your career?
Jack Musilli was a very good announcer, and there was another guy named Norm Grimm, who is still at the track after having started there in 1959. The two had such completely different styles, and I'd listen to them in the grandstands and pick up the best points from both and then add in other things that I wanted to try a bit differently. I also had a lot of drag racing record albums that I listened to a lot. And then the first big-time guy to come in was Jon Lundberg, who came in with the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars and the U.S. Pro Stock Drag Racing Team. I was just awed by what he did.
I worked the NHRA divisional races for a while, and it's no secret that I worked for IHRA for 12 years. Then after coming back to Atco, I worked some NHRA races for Mike Lewis and got my first shot at an NHRA national event when they started having them at Maple Grove [Raceway] in 1985.
It was just a logical progression. You start out with local races, like I did by announcing every car that went down the track at Atco, including Wednesday night events and test sessions, for 18 years. Then I began some points meets and moved on to bigger races. After I worked my first national event at Maple Grove, I got together with NHRA's Bernie Partridge to work some more national events. So when I talk to local guys starting out now about paying your dues, I can empathize with them because I certainly did during the early stages of my career.
What advice would you give to aspiring drag racing announcers?
I think that most of the announcers could learn to be a little bit better versed on the drivers and the cars that they are working with, even at the local track. You can't impart the information to the fans if you don't know the information. I think I still work hard to this day in what I do. Ever since they put the computers into the announcer's booth, it has made the job a lot easier, but it's also made the announcers a lot lazier. I still walk out in the staging lanes and talk to the drivers to get information about them. When I'm doing the ESPN Sportsman shows and the guys are out there running the alcohol cars that I'm not as familiar with, I'll still spend a lot of time with them. I'd tell aspiring announcers to learn as much as they can about the cars, the drivers, and what they do when they race, when they're away from the track, and what makes them tick.
How can drivers improve their communication skills?
Don't be so corporately appropriate all the time. If you speak from the heart, the sponsor will still get the exposure. The drivers have firesuits with all the logos on anyway. Steve Evans used to be really great in handling this. With his first question, he'd get all that pop about my oil sponsor, my gas sponsor, my wheel sponsor, and how he couldn't race without them. Then Steve would pause and ask a second question. With all the sponsor stuff out of the way, he'd get the answer to the first question, and that's what they ended up using on the television show. I know you have to plug your sponsors but not to the extent of taking away your emotion and letting us know what happened. I think that people would rather hear a real live, honest-to-goodness driver giving them the real feel about what happened rather than spieling off all the corporate stuff.
Have you ever been intimidated by a driver?
No. But I've been awed by them. I was awed when Shirley Muldowney called and asked me to help induct her into the Talladega Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2004. And I'm still a fan at heart. I have a picture hanging in my house taken at the 50th U.S. Nationals, and it's me, John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Shirley Muldowney, Don Garlits, and Don Prudhomme, and it's all autographed because I'm a fan. It's one of the real nice perks of the business because I can pick up the phone and call Don Garlits or Don Prudhomme. It's like if you were covering baseball and got the chance to hang out with either the Phillies or the Yankees. Although, I hate the stinkin' Yankees.
Who are some of the most intriguing racers that you have met, and what makes them so interesting?
Obviously, Garlits is intriguing. Shirley is intriguing. Just for the length and breadth of their careers and what they've been able to accomplish. "Jungle Jim" Liberman was a unique personality, and it was neat to see him and be part of that era. Kenny Koretsky would have to be on the intriguing list simply because he is.
Recently, I've been talking with Steve Chrisman a lot, and we talk about his father, Jack, and he tells me so many neat stories about the era he raced in. It's also great to talk to someone like Steve or Larry Dixon, people who really love the sport, love the history of it, love what their dads did and what they contributed. Steve's been around this sport since the 1960s, when he used to hop on the trailer and go racing with Jack, and Larry has been around drag racing all of his life. I really appreciate guys like that who not only can make a living with the sport, but also appreciate what their families and predecessors have done.
You have developed a modest, self-effacing persona. How did this come about, and how does it work for you?
I guess a lot of the self-effacing stuff comes from the fact that I've never driven one of these things, never tuned one, or never owned one. To be successful, you have to find your own niche. If everybody did everything the same way, people would either hire the cheapest guy or the nicest guy. You try to offer something to your employer that maybe they can't get from somebody else. I can only tell that when I get invited back, it means one of two things: I either worked cheap or did a good job.
I pretend to be geeky, and you could say that I'm content with my geekiness. But I'm not as geeky as most people think. I had fun spinning the basketball on my fingertip with Curly O'Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters in the Pomona pressroom last year, and in the one-onone game I had with [former NBA star] Tom Hammonds a couple of years ago, he was actually a little bit surprised. Afterwards, he told me, "Not bad, Bob."
Is there any aspect of you that your fans don't know about?
I think that one of the reasons that I've been able to hang around for so long is that I am what I am and don't really have very many secrets. I guess one thing that most fans don't know is that I'm a lot more of a private person than most people would think. I do so much talking and entertaining during the day, when I get back to the hotel, I just want to sit back and unwind. You'll never see me in a lounge or a bar. My routine is to go to a fast-food place and go back to the room to relax. I work hard in the day and just want to unwind in the evening.
During the course of my career, I've eaten at McDonald's in 47 states, five countries, and two continents. So that will tell you about my eating habits and how exciting I am. I'm a pretty dull boy away from the races.
Does your family mind you being on the road so much?
No. I actually asked my wife a couple of years ago to let me know if she ever tired of my schedule. She said that would be tough because it's what I do, what I love, it pays the bills, and helped us put three kids through college and get three daughters married off and end up with five grandchildren. In the last couple of years, we've traveled and done whatever she wants to do during the off-season. That's why I've cut back my work in that area in recent years. It's a great time to be with the family and recharge myself for the next season.