ESPN reporter Marty Smith was long a favorite of NASCAR viewers, but when the network lost NASCAR rights in 2014 he was suddenly thrust into a new role. Smith has since found himself as a jack of all trades for ESPN, reporting on various sports and serving as one of ESPN’s top interviewers for TV.
His “Marty Smith’s America” segment on SportsCenter has grown into a podcast and he’s sat down with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nick Saban, and, most recently, Tiger Woods. While Smith has become much more than a NASCAR reporter over the past few years, he will always be tied to the sport and remains close to it thanks to his relationships with some of the sports biggest stars, none bigger, or closer to him, than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Smith made his debut as a commercial actor recently thanks to Dale Jr. in his Dewey Ryder campaign for Mtn Dew, returning to his role as a trackside reporter to interview Danny McBride’s Dewey Ryder character. Smith spoke with Uproxx Sports on Wednesday from Augusta National where he discussed what it was like being on set at the track with McBride, his favorite Dale Jr. story, what it was like sitting down with Tiger Woods, and how he gets his hair to look the way it does.
How did your involvement with the Dewey Ryder campaign come together and what was it like on set working with Danny McBride?
Well, my involvement, I’m not really sure, to be honest with you. I’m real close with Dale Jr., he’s like a brother to me, and so, I imagine that it probably was facilitated in that way. And then Mountain Dew came directly to me, and of course, I was like “What? This is crazy,” because I’ve been a fan of Danny’s forever. Eastbound & Down, all of his tremendous career, and I just found it would be hilarious because I love country humor. And if ever there was country humor, it’s Eastbound & Down.
When I got there, we shot the piece at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, which is kind of home for me, which is also sort of funny. I had talked to Jr. about Danny before I did my part because they had had a commercial already together last year, and I’m like, “Man, what am I expecting?” And he’s like “Dude, he’s the funniest son of a bitch ever. Like, be ready because he’s quick.” And so I was like “Alright, man, I got my A-game on, I’m ready to go.” He’s so funny. I mean, I don’t know the stuff that comes out of his brain is manufactured. It’s fascinating, because he and I- I was basically playing myself, right?
And, so, I was asking him questions and there was a script but I didn’t use it. I just did what I do, and said a couple funny things that I wish were in there, there was one moment I got him pretty good at the start. When we first started rolling, I was like “Well, I’m just gonna kind of ad-lib this thing.” And I said, “Thanks guys, I’m down here in the garage area with Dewey Ryder and it was an inauspicious start for you, Dewey. In fact, I just spoke with one of your competitors who told me, quote, ‘he can’t drive a hot nail up a snowman’s ass.’ ” And, the look on his face was classic. Like, “Okay, this guy came to play.” They ultimately ended up not using that, but that’s an old NASCAR saying for somebody who just can’t drive. And from there it was just fun. He’s a brilliant mind, like he’s brilliant. He might play a dumb ass, but he’s anything but. He’s extremely, extremely brilliant. And I was thrilled to get to spend the time with him, I had a lot of fun, and selfishly hope it continues, hope I get to do it again.
Doing that interview — when you do interviews, you obviously want to ask pointed questions but in this one you kinda got to cross that line and be a little antagonistic. Was that fun and maybe something that there have been times where maybe you’ve wanted to do that in the past that maybe you’ve held back and this was an opportunity to let loose?
It’s funny because it’s not my style at all, in my real career. And the director wanted to me to kinda go at him that way. And, I mean, like if I was interviewing someone who had a tough day, no matter their ability, in my real job I would say, “How would you assess your performance?” Very open-ended, very simple. But they wanted me to go at him in the commercial. So, it was a little bit out of my norm. But, of course, he’s so funny. He made it about my hair. It’s the easiest way to come at me on any social media platform, people love to bust my ass about looking like Jimmy Neutron. He went after the mousse and that was funny. I should have gone straight for the perm mullet, and I failed miserably there.
You mentioned that you’re real close with Dale Jr., and, getting to know him over the years, are there any Dale Jr. stories that stick out to you that you’d be able to share?
I got a million stories, man. But I’ll tell you one that people will appreciate. And this one’s rated PG, so I can actually tell it. 2014 was a really resurgent year for Dale. He had gone through such a hard time since 2009, that era of his career. And he was performing so badly on the racetrack that he felt like he was stealing somebody else’s ride. He didn’t feel like he deserved to be there. Throughout that whole time, I can remember telling him, “Get your damn chin off your chest, man. Get your head up, puff your chest out. You’re gonna come out of this.” It was just a real tough time.
Then he got together with Steve Letarte, who is his former crew chief and now an analyst for NBC. Steve has this indomitable will. He’s a very unique personality and it really impacted Dale. So in 2014, he comes out of the box and wins the Daytona 500. I think he won Pocono that year, he had a bunch of wins. The last of which was the Martinsville race in October of that year.
After that race ended a bunch of us, a bunch of his buddies, congregated at his home in North Carolina and had a victory party. And we’re throwing down pretty good, and somebody flipping through the channels at his bar, and the race is on. So we put the race on every TV and stopped talking and we watched the race again. And watching him watch himself be successful, because he was pumping his fist like he was a fan. He was pumping his fist about his own success. It was so wonderful to see that unmitigated, uninhibited joy that he had achieved like that. I just sat back and kinda watched. I didn’t talk to anybody, I just observed him. Again, we were in it pretty good, we’d had a few, maybe a few too many. It was just unbridled joy, and it was awesome to see. His evolution as a person is fascinating. I’m so proud of him, where he is now, he is so happy and so fulfilled and so joyous, and it is just awesome to see.
You mentioned 2014, after that ESPN transitioned out of having the NASCAR rights and you transitioned into doing more sports and branching out. What’s something you’ve really enjoyed about that and getting to do a bunch of different sports, from college hoops and college football to being at the Masters this week. What’s something you’ve really enjoyed about getting to spread your wings more?
This is going to be a ridiculous answer, but I love all of it. The diversity that I’m left with in my career is invigorating, it’s inspiring to me. I’ve got to meet and interview people I’ve never dreamed. People I’ve admired forever like Nick Saban and Tiger Woods and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s just the opportunity to sit across from them and have their time and have their attention, and ask them open ended questions that enables them to tell me about their fascinating lives. It’s a blessing beyond my comprehension. I will never get used to it. I will never forsake it. It will never become mundane. I will never become complacent. Look, there’s better reporters than me. There’s certainly better-looking people than me. And people that even have better opportunities.
There’s never going to be anybody that out-passions me. If there’s one thing I can control, it’s passion. I have used that as my compass, that and kindness as my compass, and I’ve been so fortunate. Who gets to sit across from Tiger Woods for 50 minutes? It’s still hard for me to rationalize it, brother, I’m serious. That’s not hyperbole. I’m not trying to be cool, that’s the truth.
I wanted to ask you about that Tiger interview. Anybody that grew up a golf fan or has been a golf fan in the last 20 years, that’s got to be a bucket list thing. What was that entire experience like and was there anything that surprised you about him now that he’s — we knew peak Tiger as fans and now it seems like we have something of a softer Tiger, kind of a more reflective kind of guy than he ever was when he was at his peak.
I think that’s astute. It’s not like he doesn’t want to win anymore. He said one of the most striking quotes anybody’s ever said to me about the desire to win. I asked him, “Why were you so unstoppable for so long?” That very simple question. And he said, “I just want to beat you.” And I said, “Tiger, it can’t be that simple.” He said, “Marty, I didn’t say I wanted to win. I said I wanted to beat you.” You think about that bro. Think about that statement. That’s another level of competitive desire. That’s a Nick Saban, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. That level of competitiveness that drives you to ensure that you have maximized the talent you were given and the work you put in.
So, okay, he’s more human, he is more vulnerable. And I saw a man who was filled with joy. I saw a man who has taken all of his experiences in life and, at this point in his life, I mean he said it to me, he is basically getting a second lease on a career. His back pain was so severe, he didn’t think he’d ever play again, and he didn’t care to. The fact is he couldn’t because he was in so much pain. And then he gets his back fusion, and he’s like, “Aw, I’ll never be able to swing the club like I used to.” He’s killing it. He’s one of the favorites to win the Masters right now. I was so impressed with how happy he seems. And it was really nice to see and to be in the presence of that.
Before I let you go, I got three quick things for you. First, Masters prediction, who you got and, are you riding with Tiger or you got somebody else this week?
I’m riding with Tiger, for all the reasons I just told you.
Secondly, you walk into the Masters concessions booth, what’s your go-to lunch? What are you picking out?
Well, am I working or not?
No, you’re just there as a patron.
Let’s see, I’m going egg-salad sandwich, I’m going barbecue sandwich, and I’m going cold beer.
Finally, you mentioned the hair earlier … the people need some hair care tips. What’s a Marty Smith hair care tip for the folks?
People think it takes me a really long time to do this, it in fact doesn’t. I use something called American Crew Forming Cream, comes in this little circular container. I get like a nickel-sized scoop of that, I rub my hands together, and I rub my hands through my hair and I leave. I have the thickest hair ever so it doesn’t take much. There’s my hair care tip, use that stuff.