MRN Announcer Spotlight: Tony Rizzuti
By: Jeff Wackerlin - @JWackerlin Twitter and Instagram | MRN.com on July 23, 2014 | 12:00 P.M. EST
Rizzuti talks with John Wes Townley in the pits at Eldora Speedway. (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)
Get to know Tony Rizzuti - Pit Road Reporter - in this week's edition of MRN Announcer Spotlight. Tony can be heard on NASCAR and TUDOR United SportsCar broadcasts and he hosts "SportsCar Insider" at MRN.com. Along with his broadcasting duties, Tony is also the Director of New Media at MRN.
Q: When did you first become interested in broadcasting?
Rizzuti: As long as I can remember being a kid, I wanted to do this. It goes back to kindergarten. I used to love watching the afternoon college football games, usually USC or UCLA on ABC, and that’s just something I decided I wanted to do. I wanted to be a radio or TV broadcaster and stuck with it the whole way.
Q: Who were some of your broadcasting role models growing up?
Rizzuti: I'm a huge Dodger fan and love Vin Scully. Keith Jackson, too, because he used to do those afternoon games on ABC. A lot of people never liked the guy, but I always like Jim Lampley. I liked his delivery and the fact he was always prepared. He was probably a little bit cocky but as a broadcaster, and what he delivered, I always liked that. But Scully and Jackson were probably the two I looked up to in stick-and-ball sports. On the racing side, I was always a huge fan of Ken Squier and Mike Joy. To me, those two are the epitome of great broadcasters.
Q: How did you get involved with the Motor Racing Network?
Rizzuti: Dumb luck. I grew up in racing. My dad was a crew chief in Dirt and Asphalt Late Models. As a baby and as a kid, I was always around racing. We used to eat dinner and listen to "NASCAR Live," and my dad would have me dial the phone multiple times to try and get through. Then, I would hand him the phone to ask Eli (Gold) the question. I always loved MRN and never in a million years did I think of making a career of it. I was always planning on doing stick-and-ball sports, even though my favorite sport was racing. I was working at a local ABC affiliate in Orlando, WFTV. The weekend sports anchor, Greg Warmoth (now the news anchor), that I worked directly for was on a flight with Allen Bestwick. They got to talking about different things and Allen brought up racing, and Greg said, "We have a guy that works in our sports department, Tony Rizzuti. He knows all of it, drags everything to Daytona and sets everything up." Allen asked Greg if (he) was any good and Greg said, "Yeah, he's a good kid and we're trying to find him work right now." Allen said NASCAR is starting a new thing called the SuperTruck Series and MRN is going to cover it, but it will be a different crew. He said have him send me a resume, so I did. I wore Allen out every week for probably three months. Finally, John McMullen called me and told me to come to Daytona (in 1995). Then in February 1996, I auditioned in Turn 3 during an ARCA race, did pit road for the IROC race and then they brought me back to work the garage for the Pepsi 400. Then I made my pit road debut the next February at Rockingham, the same time Alex Hayden did.
Q: You spent a number of years working with drivers in a PR role. How did that come about and who were the drivers/teams you represented?
Rizzuti: Back in those days and still to this day, you kind of had to have another job. MRN was something you did on the weekends. I did all the Truck Series races starting in 1996. I built up a pretty good relationship with Ron Hornaday. His PR director, Dana Landry, went on to work for The Nashville Network's overall motor sports division. He said, "Hey, you get along with Ron and we need a new PR person. You should do this." At the time, I was only doing the radio. I didn’t have that second job. So I went to talk to them, but was going to have to give up the broadcast thing. I loved Ron, I met with Dale Earnhardt and it felt like a home there. So I went to David Hyatt and said I hate to leave you, but this is a great opportunity for me. I worked for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Ron; and that led to my working with Kevin Harvick and the GM Goodwrench team. There were a couple years in there that I did MRN races when I was working with Nike. I then went to work for Michael Waltrip when he started his Sprint Cup team. He brought me on to run his communications and marketing department. I did that up until 2008. DirecTV through Michael came and asked if I wanted to be a pit reporter for "NASCAR Hot Pass." So I went back into the media side and when that went out of business, David gave me a call and said he would like to have me back at the network.
Q: What's the funniest story you have from working with one of those drivers?
Rizzuti: This is going to be an odd story, but I've told this one before. Hornaday and I did an appearance - I think he was driving the AC Delco car at the time. We were in Joliet, Ill., and had to do an appearance at Harrah's Casino. We had to share a hotel for some reason, we could only get one room in the hotel/casino there. This was toward the end of Michael Jordan's career in the NBA and I remember yelling at the TV, "Michael needed to hang it up - he just didn’t have it anymore. There was no place for someone that old in the sport." Ron was about the same age and was saying, "What? Old people can't be in sports anymore?" I was like, "Yeah, pretty much." He didn’t say anything and about five seconds later, he jumped onto the bed. He had the telephone from the room, and he was holding me down with one arm and hitting me over the head with the telephone saying, "How about this old man?" Then he pinned me down and wrote all over my head with a Sharpie. I guess his point was that old guys still have it. He made that point very clear and he's still racing.
Q: Outside of motor sports, what are some of your hobbies?
Rizzuti: I like to play tennis. I played in college so I've picked that back up. It's good exercise. I like golf and I'm big into IRacing. I love to do the SIM racing because I can’t afford to go racing on my own anymore and I probably wouldn’t like to hit a wall at 45. I like being a kid, so I'm a "gamer," like sports and play guitar.
Q: Prior to Charlotte, where are some of the places you've lived and what was the racing scene like in those places?
Rizzuti: When I do a race, I always say I’m from Bettendorf, Iowa, because that’s where I spent a majority of my youth - from kindergarten through high school. I was born in Arkansas and that’s where we got into racing. The guy my dad crewed for kept his car with a drag racer by the name of Timmy Thompson who was big in that area. He had a big shop. Mark Martin kept his cars there. That's where his dad kept all of Mark's cars, so we kind of ran in that same circle. When we moved to Iowa, my dad started sports car racing. The day after I graduated from high school, I moved to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida because I played tennis there my freshman year. But Iowa is still what I consider home.
Q: What's your favorite restaurant on the NASCAR schedule?
Rizzuti: I want to say what everybody else has said and that's "Babe's" in Texas. And I'm going to honor my Iowa heritage and say going to "Maid Rite" in Newton, Iowa, to get one of those loose-meat hamburgers still feels like home.
Be sure to check back every Wednesday for the latest MRN Announcer Spotlight.
Previous MRN Spotlights