Dave Rieff's goal as ESPN's new NHRA play-by-play announcer is to make those people sitting at home fall in love with the sport just like he did.
Rieff wants to share his wide-eyed wonder at watching a nitro-powered car rocketing down the track, going from a standing start to hitting 100 mph in less than a second, 280 mph in an eighth of a mile and eclipsing the 1,000-foot barrier in 3.7 seconds.
“If you have never been, you simply don't know,” the 43-year-old Omahan said. “The sounds, the smell. ... everything about it. It is just sensory overload.”
After working as a pit reporter since ESPN began its coverage in 2001, Rieff will take over in the booth this weekend at the 53rd annual NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. No more Omaha Lancers games Saturday nights for the hockey fan as he starts a stretch of 24 weekends on the road with the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the Lucas Oil Sportsman.
He's taking over for Paul Page and will be working with Mike Dunn, a 22-time national event winner who has been an analyst for the past 12 years.
It's a labor of love for Rieff, who became transfixed by racing when he was assigned to cover a sprint car event at the dirt track in Knoxville, Iowa, while pursuing a journalism degree at Iowa State.
Rieff, who is from Onawa, Iowa, remembers it was a cold night in April. There was snow.
“I was mesmerized with what these cars could do,” he said.
That first assignment led to a local show, to work for the TNN network and to ESPN.
There's something amazing to Rieff about seeing a crew chief look at his Racepak, which analyzes all kinds of data, and see from one squiggly line on what looks like an Etch A Sketch that a change in the diameter of a fuel fitting by a thousandth of a inch or the adjustment of the timing map will make a car go two-hundredths of a second faster.
“I would always challenge people who don't know much about racing to go out and see what it is all about,” Rieff said.
Rieff, the father of three girls, said he's excited to get back to work with his second family, as well as catch up with what's been happening with the sport during its three-month break. He's a little nervous about his new job, but figures his 17 years of work in the pits will carry him through. He's also gotten some experience doing play-by-play on the NHRA's other series.
No more bebopping, he said, from pit to pit.
“My butt is going to be in a chair behind a wall of television monitors,” Rieff said. “I'm curious how missing out on the reaction with people in the pits is going to be.”
His traveling routine will stay the same. Rieff leaves for each race Thursday, spends Friday researching and doing an Internet show on ESPN3, followed by a qualifying show Saturday and the elimination show Sunday.
Though he's just getting more time in front of the camera, he said it's been flattering and crazy to already be recognized in public. He's had people walk up to him at airports, restaurants and hockey games, wondering if he's that guy on ESPN. The NHRA is televised in 182 countries and territories and to more than 56.5 million homes across the world.
“I quickly try to remind them I'm not a celebrity, I don't have a star on the walk of fame,” he said. “I'm just a fan of drag racing who got lucky enough to get his foot in the door and get paid to go to the races.”
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