Theater of the Mind: Hayden's descriptions awakens listener's imagination
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on February 20, 2011 1:51 AM
Radio personality Alex Hayden gets just a few precious seconds to paint a picture for the listener during each NASCAR race he calls from the pits or in the turns.
Once his mike goes dead, he hopes he's provided enough description so the listener can envision what's happening on the track at that exact moment.
"Radio is theater of the mind," said Hayden, who began his 15th season this weekend calling the Nationwide Series race and Daytona 500 with Motor Racing Network (MRN) at Daytona International Speedway.
"You don't have pictures for the listener. You have to paint a picture in their mind with what you say. So our job, especially in the early part of the season, is figuring out who is in what car, the different paint schemes, the different sponsors and things like that.
"Recognition and listening are the biggest challenges."
Hayden's preparation for a broadcast begins before he reaches the track each weekend. He studies every resource available and tries to soak up the NASCAR statbook that is updated weekly.
He carries a reporter's notebook and scribbles every single piece of information he discovers while chatting with drivers in the garage on practice day.
"It's the same cast of characters every week, so the further you get along in the season, the easier it is to prep (for a race)," said Hayden. "The relationship factor with drivers is huge. You have to make the time and effort, and hang out with people.
"Practice days are the best time to do that because there's nothing better than standing around a stack of Good Year tires, elbow propped up on the top tire and shooting the breeze. Most of the time you're just catching up on what's going on, and what's not even happening on the track."
Hayden and his MRN teammates take a "newshound" mentality to finding stories while they dodge through traffic on pit road during each race. They attempt to provide the listener with not only information about the drivers' pit stops, but add some unknown fact about either the driver, crew chief or a pit crew member who works behind the wall.
"You have 14 pit stalls (each) and 27 feet per pit box. You have to be able to see all of those pit stops at the same time with guys running everywhere," said Hayden, who will serve as the lead pit reporter for MRN this season. "You have to make sure you have a good relationship with the teams and I'm fortunate that I do. The biggest thing is finding the people you need to talk to, being able to get to them and report accurately."
Once Hayden and his co-horts compose their respective stories, they try to sell them to MRN producer Amanda Troutman in the tower. Troutman hears their pitch and breaks into the lap-by-lap broadcast if she thinks it's a good story the listener would enjoy.
If Hayden is working the turns during a race, his job is different. He has to "tune in" to everyone who is talking and pick up where they've left off when a pack of cars exit the turn.
He gets about seven seconds to compose a thought.
"You have to listen to everybody who is talking to have an idea of what your thought is going to be," said Hayden. "If I'm working the first turn, I have to listen to the guy in four, who drops it to the guys in the booth, who drop it to me.
"Normally, we try to set each up with a topic to talk about."
Hayden undoubtedly enjoys the dream he's living.
While growing up in Muncie, Ind., he'd pull out his Hotwheels and wear out the knees in his pants on the carpet as he raced his cars around a make-believe track and listened to the NASCAR broadcast. As he grew older, he turned down the volume on the TV and started calling each race himself.
Little did he know he'd work -- much less become friends -- with MRN greats Winston Kelly, Eli Gold, Barney Hall and Joe "Turn Two" Moore. Kelly is the executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Gold is the voice of the Alabama Crimson Tide in football, while Moore has his own syndicated TV show, "Race Line."
"It's awesome ... phenomenal," said Hayden. "Every week, we show up at the track and it's like story time. We have this big hauler where we pile in, sit back and listen to Barney, who has seen it all, knows it and lives everything with this sport.
"I've learned a lot from all of these guys. They're legends and heroes of mine. I am actually getting to live dreams every week by going to the race track and know these people, be friends with these people and work with these people."
Hayden, who loves sports history in general, has discovered there is more to NASCAR than just weekend races at some beautiful venues across the country. He experiences a side of the sport that the average race fan doesn't see.
Drivers spend their precious moments off the track not only with their families, but they also donate their time and energy to different charitable organizations. The graciousness has overwhelmed Hayden, who has become involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and United Way.
"I can't go into detail about all the things I've seen these guys do, but they're just unbelievable, incredible with how they donate their time," said Hayden.
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