Nicole Briscoe wasn’t working last weekend at the Daytona International Speedway. She got paid to be there. She again hosted NASCAR Countdown on ESPN for the Nationwide Series Friday night.
But it wasn’t work. At least, she doesn’t consider it to be. She’s simply doing what she loves and having a blast in the process. Briscoe, who started hosting the Countdown show full-time just last season, repeatedly smiled and tried finding words to express how much she loves her job.
Or at least the part of her job that has her at the track. Getting there’s a different story and Briscoe didn’t hesitate to say she could do without airport delays and TSA checkpoints.
“I feel like I’m kind of lucky because I really have fun and I work with a great group of people and I enjoy the challenges that come with it,” said Briscoe Thursday in Daytona. “It’s not that I find them challenging in a frustrating sort of way, I find them challenging in a fun and new environment.
“I’ve always said I don’t find my job difficult. I find it fun and entertaining. What I find difficult is the sacrifices you have to make in your personal life to make it happen. I get paid to do that kind of stuff. Miss out on family reunions or miss out on holidays. You miss Father’s day, you miss Mother’s day. You get stuck in airports, 200 nights a year away from your family.”
According to Briscoe that’s the hard part, the part that drains on motorsports professionals the most. For her, she’d love to be able to live in a vacuum, away from those challenges. That way she’d be a happy camper or at least happier than she already is.
“Fun,” she said of her job. “There are fans that pay to come here and pay to get to see what I get to do. I get paid to do this. This is my job. I think if everyone had as much fun doing what they do as what I do, the world would be a happier place. There isn’t a Countdown that I have done – and it hasn’t been that long – that I finished the show, looked to my left at the guys, whoever it is, and smiled and left.”
Take Daytona for instance. She flew in Thursday morning and immediately headed for the track. Her day was mostly prep work; meeting with producers and those she’d be working with. At some point there’d be a get together with the other analysis on the Countdown show, this week Rusty Wallace and Ricky Craven. What were their thoughts for the weekend?
Afterwards she’d take time to walk around the garage and get a feel for the weekend before going back and meeting with her producer. That’s the time to toss around ideas and other bullet points they think need to be in the show.
It’s during that time Countdown starts to take shape. If there’s a need to meet with NASCAR about questions or concerns, that’s the time to do it. Thursday is the short day.
Friday’s the big day. A bigger production meeting takes place with every individual who will be involved in the broadcast.
“Countdown, you know in advance in theory the topics you want to discuss,” said Briscoe. “You have it in outline form and you go into the race broadcast with that at least. You’re going to start with ‘Hi, hello,’ we’re going to show the anthem at this time. Those things are scripted and then it goes to hell from there.”
There’s no scripting a live race. But at least you can be prepared for it. There’s meetings, talking, writing and talking some more. Talking to people in the garage and those on the track. Then there’s the rehearsal for what’s called the traveling circus. Just to make sure everything is working and ready for when the lights come on.
It’s not all about NASCAR for Briscoe, but it is about speed and racing. Married to IndyCar star Ryan Briscoe, she’s never far from a track. On Thursday Nicole headed for Daytona, Ryan to Toronto for his next race. Work first for her then shed head to Toronto to be with Ryan.
“This is my last IndyCar race that I get to go to this year,” she said. “Probably the last IndyCar race I’ll even get to watch. Most of the time, they’ll be on the air and we’re on the air.”
It’s nothing new for Briscoe because as she makes it known, she had her job and career before she met Ryan. While sometimes it can be hard to keep up with it all, she reveals, “When I get to go there and I’m there, it’s like that’s the treat. That’s the special occasion. And it’s actually more relaxing.
“The only time it’s hard is when he’s on an oval. Then I get worried and I’m a little more nervous.”
Last year during the Chase, Briscoe and ESPN were in Dover while Ryan was racing at Kentucky. A fast, mile-and-a-half track where the action’s normally a big pack in tight quarters. Just like Las Vegas and Texas. Briscoe said she and even Rusty Wallace were keeping one eye on their job and the other on Kentucky. And even though she couldn’t watch what Ryan was doing or where he was, she knew he was safe.
“If that makes any sense,” Briscoe said. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens [this year]. I think we’re in Chicago and they’re in Fontana. We’ll see.”
It’s not as hard as one thinks for Briscoe to split her time. She has yet to find herself in a position where she’d rather be with Ryan than working. But that doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.
“If it was Indy. I won’t miss Indy,” she said. “Indy is too cool, Indy is like the track, the race. I can’t – that was hard. I missed it one year and I won’t ever do that again.”
While Daytona, Richmond and the Bristol night race are on her list, the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Briscoe’s favorite track. For good reason: it’s played a major part in her life.
Indianapolis was the track where she hosted Countdown for the first time as its permanent host. Something she was more nervous about than anything she’s ever done professionally.
That’s when it became her job, when it became her seat. It was exciting, new, a little bit scary with a hint of don’t mess it up. There were thoughts of wanting people to like her, to like the broadcast. Being the new person fearing being the weak link. All those emotions wrapped into one.
“Indy hands down is my favorite racetrack,” she says. “I love Indianapolis for everything that place is because I think one, that was my introduction – my true introduction into American motorsports. And everything that place is, it gives me chills.
“When I was working at Indianapolis you’d get there for a race morning to do the five o’clock broadcast and you’d get there at three o’clock in the morning and it’s quiet and the pagoda is all lit up blue and purple and it feels like you have to whisper and tip-toe around because you’re walking on hallowed ground.
“The track is coming to life and you have to be respectful of everything. And so much has happened there that effects what we see today. Not just what we see on the racetrack, but the cars we drive. That’s where it started. So I love that track.That’s the track that’s aaahh”
There’s no stopping her from getting to Indy. For both herself and Ryan.
“That’s a really important part of his life and when you’re in a relationship you have to be able to share those important things and be apart of that person’s life,” said Briscoe.
“It’s also helpful because he’s stressed and there’s a lot of things going on and there’s not always family that can go. You want to be able to be there for each other and that’s the one.”
Something Briscoe never thought would happen. As she, or her mom could tell the story with a laugh, her career never took the path she expected. At 11-years-old she had a fascination with needing to know what was going on in the world around her.
So everyday she’d come home from school, do her homework then pull out her bright pink beanbag chair and plant herself in front of the TV. She’d watch “Nightly News” with Tom Brokaw and absorb all she could. That was her thing, back before the 24-hour news cycle and the ever-evolving Internet. And no newspaper she said, because her house didn’t get it.
In collage her life quickly found the fast track. A professor told her to immediately go find an internship. Figure out what she liked and if it was going to live up to expectations. Her internship led to a job, then another. All while she was still in school.
Then came a job in another city. Then she had an interview in another city and an eventual move to Indianapolis and switch to motorsports. That’s where Briscoe’s life changed forever.
“I was never a race person before I moved to Indy,” she said. “I had seen a racecar on the track before when watching a NASCAR race on TV. But my family was stick and ball like football, basketball, and baseball.
“Racing was never a part of our lives. So I moved to Indianapolis and when you move to Indianapolis in the month of May, [you get sucked into it]. And it happened to be the time the Pacers were playing the Heat in the playoffs and my boss wanted to go to Miami and hang out on South Beach and so he was like, let’s send the rookie [her] to the track.”
A classic case of everything happens for a reason. One things leads to another and Briscoe has experienced it her whole life. Something she’s grateful of and can now look back and laugh about.
“If you would have said to me 10 years ago, ‘You’re going to be working in racing,’ I would have thrown a bulls— flag at you,” she said with a wave of her hand and chuckle. “I would have said there’s no way, I don’t know anything about it, it didn’t even make sense.
“Now it’s crazy how much it’s so much apart of my life, both personally and professionally that literally I would have hoisted the flag, I would have saluted it. No way in hell would I have believed you.”
Now, as close as Briscoe is to racing there are still those unbelievable moments. She admits racing at Daytona and Talladega freak her out because of the unpredictability and dangers.
Talking to Briscoe though about those topics and many more is easy. She’s open and willing to talk. She gives well thought out and honest answers. When the discussion turns to Dan Wheldon and his death last October in Las Vegas in the IndyCar Series it doesn’t take long for Briscoe to become emotional.
It hasn’t even been a year yet and it’s still tough. It will most likely always be tough. Made tougher by the fact that just a week later she and the rest of her ESPN cast went on air at Talladega. It was during that time Briscoe delivered a heartfelt sendoff to Wheldon.
She becomes quiet, puts her head on her hand and glances off. The emotions coming back to her and she seemed to be fighting them.
“I can tell you now, it’s a blur a little bit,” she finally said about that weekend. “Ryan went to Australia right after the Vegas race to do a race that he had been planning on doing. I had to fly home alone. My best friend is getting married that weekend. My best friend is getting married, like my sister, the highest of the highs. But on the other side the lowest of the lows.
“I drove overnight after my friend’s wedding to Talladega. I left my friends wedding at eleven o’clock at night and arrived at the racetrack in the morning to do the broadcast.”
Briscoe pauses as she relives the memories. Having been much closer to the situation than most, it’s not surprising how much it affected her and still does.
“That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in terms of my career,” she said of the broadcast. “I just wanted to say the right words to honor his wife and his kids and to honor him. I was so afraid – I wanted to get through it, I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to cry because I didn’t want my emotions to get in the away of what I was hoping to do and to achieve.
“I think Brad Daugherty said something like, the drivers compartmentalize. They go out there and that’s their job and that’s what they do, it’s all they know. And it’s not scary for them because it’s what they do; it’s what they know. It’s scary for the people who watch and I think I pointed it out because that’s the part everyone else forgets about.”
Something Briscoe clearly remembers from Talladega is what took place during the race. When there was a crash fans cheered. Even from inside the pit studio in the infield, she heard those cheers.
“People were applauding for an accident and that bothers me,” Briscoe said. “It would have bothered me before Vegas in IndyCar. It bothers me. I remember being really, really uneasy with it that day. It was hard.”
Even harder was Briscoe talking about Wheldon. She talked about his life, his career and said his greatest gift was his legacy in the family he left behind. Many watching applauded Briscoe for the courage and strength she had of getting through the 1:15 second piece.
It was touching, it was appropriate and it well said. It was something that when asked about the idea Briscoe quickly put her hand to her heart but said it was a team idea to include it in the broadcast.
“He was a champion, he was an Indy 500 winner, he was an amazingly talented, gifted driver,” she said of Wheldon. “He’s going to go down as one of the legends in IndyCar racing. When something like that happens, the motorsports family – something happened in our family and it was natural to acknowledge it.
“What I said was something that came from me. I write what say; it comes out of my own mouth. So, I said that. I wrote it. But it was a group decision to do something about him.
“Look at what happened here eleven years ago [Dale Earnhardt’s death]. That’s a part of this sport that we can’t go out there and see what we see on a weekly basis without the dangerous sides of it and when something, whether it’s absolute tragic or someone just gets hurt like Eric McClure, things come out of it.
“The sport gets better and sometimes it takes a really awful thing to get there but you learn from it, you learn from those mistakes, you learn from those tragedies. IndyCar did, IndyCar’s still learning. NASCAR is still learning. But that’s what good about it too.”
Added Briscoe, whether she was back at the track at Talladega or somewhere else, it still would have been hard. It was still fresh. The emotions were still flowing.
Yet, for as much as Briscoe still thinks about Wheldon and his family, she and the rest of the motorsports family race on. There’s plenty of work to be done and things to watch for. On the NNS side, Briscoe has been impressed with the “emotional roller-coaster of the points battle.”
From Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse to Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish climbing into contention. It’s Hornish who Briscoe is particularly interested in watching. She calls him “a freaking legend in IndyCar, he is awesome” who came to NASCAR and was knocked down from the perch he had been on.
Now he’s back up, fighting for a NASCAR title. On the other hand, Dillon, a rookie, isn’t making very many mistakes or wrecking cars. He’s completed every lap this season. It’s making all four drivers a great storyline, each fighting and looking to prove something.
However it plays out, Briscoe feels certain about one thing, it’ll go down to Homestead. As will she, sitting in her chair in the ESPN studio covering not only the NNS but soon the NSCS, starting of course at Indianapolis on July 29.