“This is the first time that I let myself take a breath and say, ‘Okay, I miss it,’” Czarniak said in a phone interview last week. “This is what I want to be a big part of, the first thing that I’m doing as I build back to whatever the it is going to become. I’ve grown a hell of a lot in the last year and a half.”
Czarniak, a Fairfax County native and James Madison University graduate, had an offer in 2017 to remain at ESPN, where she hosted “SportsCenter” among other roles, but she and the network couldn’t come to terms. During her first year as a free agent, the mother of two provided Super Bowl coverage for WRC in Washington, her home for six years before she left for Bristol. That led to a gig producing digital content for Joe Gibbs Racing ahead of last year’s Daytona 500. Czarniak has also anchored sports segments on CNN, contributed to a to-be-announced documentary and launched her own podcast, “Players,” which focuses on the intersection of sports and country music. Walking away from a prominent position at ESPN was a difficult decision, but Czarniak said she has no regrets.
“Once I got over my freakout factor of staying relevant, I think I just kind of let myself let it go,” said Czarniak, whose husband, fellow WRC alum Craig Melvin, is an anchor for NBC and MSNBC. “I just realized something great is going to come from all of this and you just have to listen to yourself. I have loved the time I’ve had to spend with my kids and I’m definitely still keeping that in the forefront because I realize how fast that goes. This has been such a blessing.”
Czarniak wasn’t actively looking for a more regular position, but when FS1 inquired about her interest in sharing hosting duties for the Thursday and weekend edition of the new-look “Race Hub,” the 41-year-old decided the opportunity was too good to pass up.
Racing is one of Czarniak’s main passions. Her professional introduction to the sport came in 2003, when she was working as a news reporter in Florida and the Speed Channel hired her to interview fans at a Dale Earnhardt tribute concert. Shortly after that, Czarniak took a job with the network as a pit reporter for the minor league ARCA series. When she joined WRC in 2005, George Michael allowed her to continue covering NASCAR for TNT. Czarniak didn’t cover much racing during her first two years at ESPN, but in 2013, she became the first woman to host TV coverage of the Indianapolis 500.
“It has truly been a thread throughout my entire career and was so unexpected,” Czarniak said. “This is really not where I thought I would be, but I’m literally overwhelmed with gratitude because it makes so much sense . . . The way I feel when I’m around racing is unlike the way I feel when I’m other places. I love talking about this sport. This is what’s going to make me happy.”
Darius Rucker, Cole Swindell and Scotty McCreery are among the musical artists who have been featured on Czarniak’s podcast, which launched in November and helped her realize two of the main things she missed about sports broadcasting: the people and the interviewing process. While Czarniak’s primary role with FS1 will be as a host, she taped an interview with Gibbs earlier this week that will air before Sunday’s Daytona 500. “He was tremendous and extremely open and emotional about losing J.D.,” Czarniak said of the legendary Redskins coach and race team owner, whose elder son died after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease last month.
Czarniak, who made her “Race Hub” debut last week, will be back in FS1′s virtual studio in Charlotte for Daytona 500 coverage Friday and Saturday. Throughout the season, she will share hosting duties with her friend Sara Walsh, a WUSA alum who joined ESPN in 2010, was let go as part of the network’s mass layoffs in May 2017 and returned to the airwaves as a sideline reporter for Fox during the football season. Czarniak already knows many of the people she’ll be working with at FS1, including the producer who initially contacted her about the opening, from her previous experiences covering racing.
“Every one of my friends that works here says it’s a great place to be, with how they treat people,” Czarniak said. “That was a draw to it. They made it so easy and exciting to me, as far as when they were talking about this opportunity. They were flexible and it was a matter of, if I’m going to have a foot back in this, this is where it really makes sense . . . I just felt that family feeling for me here, right out of the gate.”
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