Rick Allen to fulfill lifelong dream, will call first IndyCar race on Saturday

(Photos courtesy NBC Sports)

NBCSN announcer Rick Allen will be making somewhat of a detour this weekend — and a welcome detour indeed.

The lead play-by-play announcer for NBC Sports and NBCSN’s coverage of NASCAR during the final 20 races of the season, Allen will call a Verizon IndyCar Series race for the first time in his career – this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

With Leigh Diffey covering the second round of the Formula 1 season, the Bahrain Grand Prix, Allen will fill in for NBCSN’s first IndyCar race of the season, Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway.

Regular IndyCar analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will join Allen in the booth.

“I never look at a broadcast as just another event,” Allen said in an interview. “Every event that I do is a big event. And one of the biggest things I like to look at my career and the way I’ve called races is I lean on the people that know the most about it.

“I’m very lucky to have Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy in the booth with me, two guys that have such incredible talent and abilities not only behind the wheel, but also in the broadcast booth. I’m going to rely on those guys a lot.”

But Allen will do what he does best, too.

“And that’s to call the racing action,” he said. “But I’ll also take us down roads that Townsend and Paul are going to be able to explain what’s going on on the racetrack, why they’re happening the way they are, what’s the strategy that the teams are going to be employing, those types of things that they know so well.

“That’s my job, to get them engaged and involved in the broadcast. I don’t take it lightly, I’m definitely going into it knowing this is not my forte, as far as this area of racing. But calling enough races, I know how to call them and I know how to engage the people I’m working with.”

Rick Allen with Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte in the NBC Sports NASCAR booth
Rick Allen with Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte in the NBC Sports NASCAR booth

In addition to Phoenix, Allen has two other IndyCar races coming up: the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 17) and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (April 24).

“I always look to do as many things as I can in my career that becomes available to me,” Allen said. “I was given the opportunity to call a college basketball game earlier this year.

“I’ve always loved motorsports and racing, and so calling NASCAR for so many years now, the opportunity to call an IndyCar race when it was presented to me, I was ecstatic. I really wanted to do it.

“Then they told me the races they were looking at, Phoenix, Long Beach and Barber, I thought ‘Oh my goodness. You couldn’t have picked better.’ I guess if we had the Indy 500 and I were calling it, that would be the pinnacle.”

Even though Allen has long been known for his NASCAR broadcasting and acumen, the Grand Island, Nebraska native has been a longtime IndyCar fan.

“My first race that I ever traveled to was the Indianapolis 500 back when I was probably 11 years old,” he said. “It was incredible. It was one of those events that sticks with you forever and that was the first professional sporting event I ever went to.

“I very much enjoy IndyCar and one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is just because we’d have companion events when I was doing the Camping World Truck Series at places like Kansas and Texas and we would watch the guys in practices.

“It would absolutely amaze me watching a Truck go around the track, and then watching the IndyCars go around the track. The comparison of the two was just mind-boggling, to see how much faster the IndyCars were going and how close they were side-by-side in the turns. It was very amazing, so I’m very excited about these races.”

With NBC not starting its part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule until July 2 with the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Allen has had plenty of time to study up on the nuances of IndyCar.

And he’s more than ready.

“Phoenix, it’s a very fast racetrack,” Allen said. “Long Beach, the rich history there. And Barber is such a beautiful facility. It’s just an ideal situation for me to cover a sport that I really appreciate and respect, and also to be a part of it just as a fan, to be able to experience it first-hand.”

One other keen IndyCar memory that Allen possesses involves one of the greatest open-wheel drivers ever, A.J. Foyt.

“One memory that I will always cherish is walking through the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the ‘500 was over,” he said. “A.J. Foyt, somebody from his team, was standing up on one of the haulers and was throwing pins into the crowd that said ‘Five for Foyt.’

“He was going for his fifth Indy 500 win but didn’t get it, so apparently this guy just had boxes of these pins and he was throwing them out. I got one of those pins.”

And he still has it.

Starting this weekend, Allen will make his own memories in the IndyCar world, as well.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”