“I took the weirdest route [into sportswriting] you could imagine.” However, it was one that worked out well for ESPN writer and reporter Ryan McGee.
Growing up in Rockingham, North Carolina, McGee was surrounded by racing. Rockingham Speedway was just down the road, and his father was on the pit crew for Dave Marcis. This led him to attend the University of Tennessee for broadcasting with sports in mind, but the outlook wasn’t positive. Many told him, “‘with that accent, there’s no way you’ll be on TV.’”
ESPN hired him as a producer right out of college, and he was there when NASCAR began to gain national attention in 1994. ESPN2 added RPM2Night to their lineup, which is where he ended up. It was only a matter of time until ESPN decided to launch ESPN The Magazine and needed someone to write racing content.
“I was the only Southerner at the time . . . so I basically volunteered to write, and it just snowballed from there.”
Now he is a staple at races across the country, going along with the traveling circus that is the NASCAR media. When talking about that group of people, McGee mused, “The thing about [the members of the NASCAR media] is that they’re either exactly who you would expect, or they’re the complete opposite extreme. I think that’s a good thing because it brings so many cool perspectives.”
Those cool perspectives can also be found on Twitter, which has brought fans deeper into the lives of those within the sport. To McGee, it’s a double-edged sword.
“The good thing about the internet is that everyone has a voice. The bad thing about the internet is that everyone has a voice. There are more talented people covering the sport than we’ve ever had, and there are so many opportunities now. The problem? It’s harder for young people to stand out. [They] have to find what works and run with it.”
Another issue? The face that social media is giving fans a direct link to express their feelings to NASCAR. Although that sounds like a good thing, it may not be a positive. “There’s this image the sport can’t possibly live up to . . . you can’t manufacturer these moments. I think NASCAR listens to fans too much. Every time [the fans] complain, they try to please them.
“NASCAR is at a crossroads. This next year is very crucial because of the new TV deal in 2015. Same thing happened in 2000: all new things for the FOX and NBC deal in 2001. [The 2014 season] will mostly be tweaking the Gen-6. I like the Gen-6. There’s so much you can do with these cars.”
Don’t think that the writer is hard on the fans; he respects them to no end. That is evident on the podcast he does with close friend and fellow ESPN writer, Marty Smith. Marty and McGee’s following, affectionately dubbed The 406, listens in as the two talk about racing, college football, parenthood, and anything else that comes up in conversation.
“Marty [Smith] and I had hosted radio shows as fill-ins for a friend of ours, and it was so natural. We lobbied hard. ESPN finally said, ‘Quit bugging us’ and gave us a shot. The most fun we have is that one hour.”
One thing that makes the fans respectable is a quality both McGee and Smith admire deeply: passion. “You know, I don’t know anything about soccer. I don’t watch, I don’t understand it, I don’t get it. But if you’re passionate about it, I will tell you to go for it. I’ll respect you.”
Passion is what got him to this point in his career, and that still fuels him today. When it comes down to it, one piece resonates with him like no other. “In 2008, I did this piece on Aaron Fike [former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series rookie] . . . and he took that opportunity to tell me he use to shoot up heroin on race days. That changed the NASCAR drug policy into what it is today.” That is a change he is thankful he had a hand in.
It’s been a long time since McGee first entered the world of sportswriting via that interesting road. Yet, it worked out for the best; he’s writing, hosting, and speaking out about NASCAR, his passion. For that, he is respected.