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Versatile Varsha enjoys Speed Channel gig

February 11, 2007|by JASON STEIN / Wheelbase Communications

It's hard to figure where Bob Varsha would be today if he hadn't received that unusual request more than 25 years ago.

Maybe he would be a world-class runner, a practicing attorney, an occasional actor or a nationally known broadcaster who can cover the drastically different worlds of Formula One racing and Nordic skiing.

Or maybe he would be, as he is today, all of the above.

There are unique personalities in sport, and then there's Varsha.

He defines eclectic; he exudes exotic. Ask him about the Barrett-Jackson collector-car auction and he'll tell you everything unique about that 1960s Porsche sitting on the "block." Ask him about case law or rights of defendants and he will captivate you for hours. Ask him about foreign languages, and he'll settle into the nuances of different cultures.

"I guess I am just a guy who was never really interested in one thing," Varsha said during a telephone interview from his office at Speed television, the sports channel devoted to all things racing and motorsports.

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"I was always a bit different, and I think it still shows in what I do today."

Varsha was different in a way that in 1980, just seven years after graduating from New Hampshire's Dartmouth College, and a few years separated from making the finals of the United States Olympic Trials marathon team, Varsha, the practicing attorney, was asked to be Varsha, the on-air personality.

Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta, Ga., was looking for someone to cover a marathon.

Varsha, with his good looks, strong voice and running experience, accepted the invitation.

If you know Varsha now, you know the rest of the story.

"I thought, 'Hey, why not?' he said. "It sounded like it could be a good deal of fun."

Turner management was so impressed that they asked if Varsha wanted a job and a new career.

The change didn't disappoint.

Within six years, he moved to ESPN TV where he was the host of Formula One racing for this sports channel. Not that motorsports would contain him. In those early days, Varsha also covered gymnastics, the World Alpine Championships and the New York and Boston Marathons.

"When you are young," he said, "you have to get as much experience as you can."

Another broadcasting company was looking for the same experience and that's where Speed and Varsha made a great match.

In 1999, after successfully becoming a household name at ESPN, ABC Sports and CNN, he switched to Speed, a network that was looking to broaden its identity and scope.

Varsha, the man for all (sports) seasons, was a good fit.

"When I started, we had 11 programs related to motor boats and airplanes. But we became a reflection of a changing marketplace. People vote with their viewing habits and the staggering thing is that the interests became so broad. TV is a very personal medium for everybody. We see that demonstrated every day and we had to expand."

Varsha became one of the cogs in that expansion.

At Speed (then Speedvision), he hosted coverage of F1, the 24 Hours of Le Mans (France) endurance race and the 12 Hours of Sebring (Florida). Eventually, Varsha's voice became a staple on racing radio, hosting his own syndicated program called "The Fastest Hour in Radio."

Mostly, Varsha became an authority on racing and one of the most sought-after analysts of the sport espousing his views to 60 million viewers.

Just ask him.

On the fiasco at the Formula One race in Indianapolis, Ind., two years ago when most of the cars decided not to race because of concerns over tire safety: "I think it did enormous damage to Formula One's reputation. But it is all part of a larger picture that Formula One is missing in the United States. Formula One underestimates its need to go out there and compete in the American marketplace for fans' attention."

On the appeal of racing channels: "For a person who loves cars, all things related to the car are important. We need to satisfy that hunger. I get letters from people with arcane interests. They want Japanese GT racing on Speed."

And on the future of racing: "The sky is the limit on different forms of racing."

Varsha never intended to become a major broadcaster in motorsport, but he is one.

He has appeared in movies, traveled the world and helped the network expand into new areas.

"Look, I never thought this network would be doing some of the things it is doing and I never thought I would be here. It's a great ride. I gotta tell you . . . a great ride."

Jason Stein is a feature wrier with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2007, Wheelbase Communications

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