21CF Chats: FOX Sports host, pit reporter Jamie Little on Daytona 500, Danica Patrick, covering 3 racing series’ season openers

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Versatile FOX NASCAR pit reporter Jamie Little shifts into overdrive this weekend at Daytona International Speedway for the 60th running of the Daytona 500, live on FOX on Sunday, Feb. 18 (2:30 p.m. ET) – already her third motor sports season opener of the 2018 racing season.

Jamie, covering her fourth “Great American Race” for FOX Sports, is coming off a grueling pit reporting schedule late last month in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which opened the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. Prior to that, she hosted FOX Sports’ coverage of the kickoff of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross season from Anaheim, achieving a multi-discipline racing trifecta just 40 days into the new year.

Amid her 17th year as a broadcaster, Jamie has covered everything from the prestigious Indianapolis 500 to the Winter X Games. She was the first female pit reporter for the television broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 (2004), and in 2015 became the first female pit reporter to cover both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 for network TV’s live, flag-to-flag race coverage.

As she turns her thoughts to 200-mph racing in NASCAR’s biggest race of the year, Jamie offers her perspective on the new NASCAR season, her rigorous on-air schedule, Danica Patrick’s retirement and more.

You were assigned the season openers for three very different racing disciplines with Supercross, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and NASCAR. From a host and reporter’s perspective, how do the challenges differ in covering each of the three races?

There definitely is a difference when it comes to hosting versus reporting. I host our Supercross coverage, so I have a script I stick to with ad-libs here and there, depending on how the races unfold. A host is essentially a traffic control cop.  When it comes to on-air talent roles, reporting is the most difficult, in my opinion. It’s my job to dig up the stories pertinent to and entertaining for fans watching at home. I’m self-produced, meaning what I say on the air comes from what I have learned on my own. There’s a lot of responsibility with this role. When you cover different forms of motorsports, such as the IMSA Rolex 24 (24-hour race) at Daytona, there’s a whole new lineup of drivers and teams. This job is all about relationships, and the Rolex 24 is a race I have very little experience doing. Thankfully when you’re on air, people often recognize you and know your work and credibility. That helps a lot when it comes to covering new events and forms of motorsport. But this week is about the Daytona 500, and covering that race is a blast. Although it’s so familiar to me and I know most people in the garage, it’s the first race of the year, and so many things are different and new. Daytona is NASCAR’s Super Bowl, so it’s definitely challenging and a bit of an adrenaline rush to come on the air with our biggest race as the first one of the year.

What did your schedule look like for the Rolex 24, even when you weren’t on the air? When did you sleep?

It’s incredible to cover a 24-hour race. It’s a lot of work and excitement. On Saturday (the day it began), I was at the track by 8 a.m. I did prep, had meetings and organized my notes and stats and arranged my pre-race interviews. The race coverage began six hours later at 2 p.m. I then consistently repeated being on the air for two hours at a time until 1 a.m. I went back to the hotel, ate, showered and slept for four hours and then I was up again at 6 a.m. and at the track by 7:30. I was back on air from 9 a.m-3 p.m. with a couple hours’ break. By the time I flew home, I had slept four hours in a 42-hour span. That makes the days of having a newborn sound all too familiar! It was tiring but very rewarding. And our viewership was up over 20 percent, which made it so worth the sleep deprivation.

Danica Patrick makes her final NASCAR start this weekend in the Daytona 500. You have covered her since her early IndyCar Series days. How would you characterize her impact on NASCAR? On young women?

 She is so polarizing and always has been since 2005, her first year in IndyCar and the year she became the first woman to lead laps at the Indy 500. She has influenced women of all ages, race fans or not. I believe there are more girls racing now because of her. For her to race at the top level of NASCAR every week alongside the men is incredible. In what other sport do men and women compete against each other on the same playing field? I think her impact on the sport won’t truly be felt until years down the road. There have been so few before her who’ve made it to this level. I only hope there’s many more after her who do.

How far away do you think NASCAR is from seeing the next Danica Patrick?

It’s hard to say. I see a few girls out there now who could make it as far as Danica as far as talent and desire, but unless they get an opportunity with a good team and a solid sponsor to back them, we may not see the next Danica for decades. Plus, being good in a go-kart is one thing. Being good and competitive in a 3,300-pound stock car is another.

How much does your own dirt bike background help you when covering Supercross? By the same token, do you feel you can relate better to IMSA or NASCAR?

When I first made the switch from covering two wheels to four wheels, my mentality was “It’s all a racing mentality, just different vehicle and rules.” For sure, riding dirt bikes helped my understanding of how they worked and how the riders “felt.” I did the same thing when I began covering IndyCar and NASCAR. I put myself through about five different driving/racing schools. I actually got my racing license in California to race open-wheel Formula cars. I loved it. The only racing I did was for the Toyota Pro Celebrity race in Long Beach. I went through three days of schooling and ended up winning the race! I beat a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion to the line for overall, becoming just the second woman in 32 years to win the race. Ironically, that same day, Danica Patrick won her one and only race in IndyCar in Japan. That was one of the coolest moments of my life. Those experiences truly help me in my job. And the “street cred” with drivers isn’t too bad either.

Who is your pick to win the Daytona 500 and why?

It’s hard to pick since we haven’t seen these drivers have their hours of practice yet, but I’m going out on a limb to say seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson will win. Chevrolet is unveiling a new Camaro model this year, and I have a feeling they will come with a vengeance. Plus, with all of the “young driver” coverage, I could see him winning it just to make a statement about the veteran guys.

What is the biggest story you will be watching in the 2018 NASCAR season?

The new Chevy Camaro and how it performs is one. Can Toyota pick up where they left off, winning a third of the races and the championship (in 2017)? How will the rookies do and who will win first? And the over-the-wall pit crews have been cut from six to five members. Teams will be getting creative, which could lead to some injuries, mistakes and longer pit stops. Whoever figures out the choreography and executes the smoothest and fastest will be a major contender this year.

You have the privilege of sitting down with Danica Patrick for an exclusive interview just a couple of days prior to her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500. What do you most want to ask her?

I’d love to know a few things from Danica, most specifically how she envisions herself and her brand beyond “race car driver” and what does she hope people most remember about her and what she did in the sport.