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Jamie Little is ready to make history in motorsports (again)

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 1/27/2021 Alex Andrejev, The Charlotte Observer
a person wearing a costume: NASCAR reporter Jamie Little walks the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24, 2020, in Concord, N.C.. © Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America/TNS NASCAR reporter Jamie Little walks the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24, 2020, in Concord, N.C..

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's not that Jamie Little doesn't like stick-and-ball sports, she said. It's just that motorsports are what she loves.

So despite prodding from Fox Sports executives who have watched her in action as a NASCAR pit reporter and see her as a star covering leagues like the NFL with a larger audience, Little has stuck to her path carving a space for herself among men in motorsports for 20 years.

Little was the first woman to cover the Indianapolis 500 as a pit reporter on broadcast television in 2004. Before that, she was the first woman to cover a televised motocross event. In 2015, she became the first woman to cover both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 as a TV pit reporter.

This year, she'll become the first woman to call race play-by-play on television for a national series as NASCAR's ARCA Menards announcer for Fox Sports.

"I've never set out to be the first to do something," Little told The Charlotte Observer, "but I've never been bashful about it either. I've always been put in these roles where when I am the first to do it — it was just the natural progression of my career."

Her move to ARCA is in addition to continuing pit reporting duties at Fox for NASCAR's Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series — she'll juggle all four series at this year's Daytona 500.

In terms of audience viewership, ARCA is a downward move, but Little said the challenge of learning how to call live races motivated her to ask Jacob Ullman, Fox Sports production senior vice president, about the opportunity. Then there was another element influenced by history.

"I got a call from Leigh Diffey, who does play-by-play for NASCAR on NBC," Little said. "And he was like, 'Jamie, you're going to think I'm crazy, but these women have been getting promoted in other sports to do play-by-play. I think you're the one to do it for NASCAR.' "

Little said the conversation gave her the boost she needed to make the inquiry after enjoying her experience filling in for Adam Alexander as a play-by-play announcer on FS1 for a few Xfinity practices in 2018. Before that, she said she thought the role would be "fun" but not really "her thing."

"I just thought that's what the men do," Little said. "(The ones) that have been around forever as sports reporters, that's what they do."

Little said she also hesitated to be so far from the racetrack in the broadcast booth — away from the heart of the action — but after trying it, she realized it was "really cool."

"It's a totally different challenge. It's a different perspective. It's a different job," Little said.

Fox Sports announcer Mike Joy might be the most recognizable play-by-play voice in the NASCAR world. He has been calling races since before the network joined NASCAR as a broadcast partner in 2001, and every year since. For NBC, Rick Allen has traditionally held that role.

While women such as Beth Mowins and Meghan McPeak have held play-by-play positions across professional sports, NASCAR has yet to see a woman in the role that's considered the lead voice of race broadcasts along with the analysts who provide additional commentary.

Little will be joined in the booth by longtime Fox NASCAR and ARCA analyst Phil Parsons, who Little said helps provide the historical race insight as she works to keep the broadcast on track. The duo's first rehearsals started in December over Zoom. Last weekend they met drivers at Daytona during an ARCA test session before returning to Charlotte for a few rehearsals at the Fox NASCAR studio.

"She basically puts the ball on the tee and hopefully I can explain what happens after that," Parsons said of the booth dynamic.

Little put it in racing terms as a "driver-crew chief" relationship, where she'll steer the broadcast and mention something about a driver or moment during the race, setting up Parsons to elaborate. She said the newest challenges are figuring out the timing for cutting to commercials or other on-air shots, but she's learning to make it more of a "conversation" instead of an "interview" as she's used to on pit road. Parsons said the early rehearsals have gone smoothly.

"(Little) is a go-getter," Parsons said. "She works really hard and wants to broaden her horizons somewhat, and I applaud her for that, and I think this is a great series to get her feet wet doing this role."

Ullman similarly sees the opportunity as a stepping-stone for Little, where she can "cut her teeth" in the booth, and potentially transition to higher NASCAR series down the road. He said Little has excelled at everything she has done so far.

"She's one of the top broadcasters we have in our company, be it in motorsports or otherwise," Ullman said.

While Ullman said the fact that she's the first woman in the role for NASCAR isn't lost on Fox, he said it's not why she's getting the opportunity.

"She's getting the opportunity because she's good at her job," Ullman said. "She's really good at her job."

After 20 years in the industry, it's no surprise that Little is setting the standard. When asked if other women need 20 years of experience to follow in her footsteps, she said, "No way."

"I say, 'Why did it take this long?' " she said. "We've had women covering the sport for so many years now that it is a question of why has it taken so long, but all it takes is the first person."

She said she knows from experience there's always hype around being "the first."

"Any time you put the 'first for a woman' or the 'first for' somebody it makes it a bigger deal," Little said. "And I know there's a responsibility with that and I love it."

"I love the idea of getting that opportunity because I know it's going to open up doors," she added. "There are plenty of women out there that are as knowledgeable about this sport, or more knowledgeable than I am, and hopefully this will open the eyes to other executives to say, 'Why can't we put a woman in this role? What's taken so long?' "

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