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Behind the Scenes at Barrett-Jackson

I just got back from a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona where I shared the stage with the likes of Jay Leno, Bill Goldberg, Alice Cooper, Michael Anthony and Carroll Shelby. Yep, it was Barrett-Jackson time again. If you don’t know, for the past three years I’ve been hired by Speed Channel to do live on-stage vehicle commentary for the Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions in Scottsdale, Palm Beach, and in November of this year, a new event in Las Vegas.

My job is to basically offer some meaningful insight into each car as it crosses the auction block. My partner on stage is Mike “the voice of Nascar on Fox” Joy. Up in the announcer booth is Bob Varsha, a pro race announcer and next to him is Motor Trend magazine executive editor Matt Stone. A fifth guy, Rick DeBruhl roams the tents in search of feel-good stories and neat trivia bits. Rick also reports on the Haggerty Fantasy Bid program. Between us, we’re responsible for doing our best to “bring the television viewer up close and personal”. While the auction starts on Tuesday and runs all the way through to Sunday, we “only” do 39 hours on the air. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we do 5 hours live, that doubles to 10 hours live on Friday and Saturday and we do a “snack sized” 4 hour broadcast on Sunday as a wind-down.

Let me bring you into the process a little bit so you have an understanding of what it’s like to be part of this amazing spectacle. Like I said, Mike Joy and I are up on the stage as cars cross the block. It’s loud up there. Between the house public address system and the rumble of cars rolling up to the stage, we pretty much need to yell to be heard above the din. If you watch, you’ll notice we both wear head sets with antennae sticking out. In our right hands we hold stick microphones. Our left hands are always on a talk switch. The left hand ear piece inside the headset is tuned into an internal audio channel that’s not broadcast over the air. In this left hand headset we get instructions from the program director about commercial breaks, when to “lay out” i.e. when to shut up and let the bidding take over and we can also use this channel to request a drink of water or a bathroom break. To access this channel, we just flip the talk switch to the left and speak into the microphone. Viewers never hear this stuff, it’s sort of the equivalent of air traffic control at an airport.

But when we flip the talk switch to the right, anything and everything we say goes out over the airwaves – with an 8 second delay – and right into your living room. This is the time to speak carefully, clearly and correctly. Of course, through it all, there is a constant level of chatter feeding from the left hand head set that you just have to learn to ignore. Here’s an example of how it works. Lets say a Dodge Challenger rolls up on stage. Bob Varsha says something like; “Lot number 1350 is a ’70 Hemi Challenger”. Then Matt Stone will chime in and say something like: “The seller’s description says this one is a re-creation. Steve, can you help us determine what this particular Challenger started life as before the Hemi transplant?”

Hearing this through my right hand headset, I flip my talk switch to the right and say; “Sure guys, this one has the letter U in the fifth position of the VIN so we know it was born as a real-deal 440 R/T car. But a quick look under the Shaker hood reveals the presence of a Mopar Performance 472 crate Hemi. The overall execution is correct. I see a 727 with Slap Stick shifter, and a Dana 60 rear axle. The paintwork is top notch though there are a few light swirl marks visible on the quarter panels”. Then maybe Mike Joy will chime in with; “Back in the day these cars were not known for great handling. If you wanted that, you might have gone with the Challenger T/A with the 340 small block. It was a better balanced car for corner carving”.

Then with each of us having made our point, the program director might speak to us all (off air) through our left hand head set and say something like; “Okay guys lets lay out and listen to the bidding”. If the bidding drags on or there’s a lull, the program director might speak up and say; “Okay guys, feel free to add, repeat, feel free to add”. And so it goes for 39 hours.

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