A Personal History
There are very few personalities in NASCAR with as much versatility as Tony Rizzuti. Whether it's managing Public Relations programs for Fortune 500 companies, designing video games, or broadcasting to a world-wide audience, he has been an integral part of nearly every facet in the sport.
Born in Rogers, Arkansas, Rizzuti grew up in a racing family. His father, Mike Rizzuti, worked during the week for TRW, so he could go racing on the weekends - with his young son tagging along. The elder Rizzuti crewed for a local dirt track driver named Troy Petty and while success locally seemed good enough for most, Mike Rizzuti had bigger ideas.
Capitalizing on the name "The King" made famous in NASCAR, Rizzuti convinced Petty to change his number to 43 and paint his car like Richard's. Troy became an instant crowd favorite, allowing the duo the means to go asphalt racing against the likes of Dick Trickle and Larry Phillips.
Eventually Rizzuti watched his father go from crew chief to driver. The family moved to Iowa and bought an SCCA GP car to race on their own and Rizzuti Racing was formed. The family backyard was cut in half as a race shop was built to accommodate the team - Tony and his Dad. In reality, it was really just his Dad. Tony enjoyed going to the races, but working on the car just didn't interest him. Instead he would hang out in the garage and watch the NASCAR races on television pretending to be the legendary Ken Squire and Jackie Stewart. It was this interest in broadcasting that led Rizzuti away from racing and in the end, right back to it.
During his high school years, Rizzuti was the voice of many Bettendorf High School sporting events. He spent several Friday nights as the Public Address announcer for the school's football and basketball games. He also found a liking for tennis. After walking on the BHS tennis team during his freshman year, Rizzuti dedicated himself to the sport and quickly rose up the ladder. He won two Mississippi Athletic Conference titles in Singles and one in Doubles which qualified him for the State Championships.. The success on the courts would take him out of the corn fields of Iowa and to The University of Central Florida (UCF).
Rizzuti arrived in Orlando, Florida with his rackets in hand. However, his collegiate tennis career would last less than a year. He turned once again to broadcasting and by his sophomore year, he was handling the announcing duties for the UCF Golden Knights Football on WUCF radio. The Knights grew from a Division II team to a Division 1-AA power. Rizzuti was in the booth and on the field as the program continued to prosper, eventually making the jump to Division 1A.
The experience in the Orlando market reporting for WUCF led to a job at WFTV-9 in Orlando. Rizzuti worked in the sports department at the ABC affiliate covering local sports including the Orlando Magic and Tampa BAy Buccaneers. He was also a key asset for the station's yearly coverage of the Daytona 500.
Rizzuti returned to the Quad Cities and spent a short time at KWQC-TV 6 in Davenport, Iowa. While at the NBC affiliate, he covered University of Iowa Football and Basketball, the CBA's Quad City Thunder and Iowa/Illinois High School football playoffs.
In 1996, Allen Bestwick of the Motor Racing Network (MRN) called to ask about Rizzuti's interest in broadcasting NASCAR's newest division, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series (NCTS). Without hesitation, the answer was yes and he was back in the racing world once again. Rizzuti was the pit road announcer for MRN Radio for three years.
During that tenure, he also helped video game maker Papyrus get their NASCAR Racing 1999 game, the first to feature the truck series, off the ground. Rizzuti went on to consult and beta test future Papyrus/Sierra games with the likes of Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He capped off his role in the gaming world as one the featured voices in EA Sports NASCAR 2004 for the XBOX and Playstation 2.
NASCAR was seeing the growth of the truck series and Rizzuti had befriended its biggest star, Ron Hornaday, Jr. Hornaday's PR manager had taken a new job and the Palmdale, California native asked Rizzuti if he would be interested in taking over the position at Champion Sports Group (CSG) in Huntersville, NC. After meeting with CSG Owner David Allen, Rizzuti decided that the opportunity to learn the business side of the sport was one he couldn't pass up. He joined CSG as Managing Director of the NAPA AUTO PARTS account and traveled week to week with Hornaday.
NAPA and Hornaday enjoyed great success in both the Truck and Busch Series. Hornaday captured two NCTS championships and the most wins in the series at 25. In fact, in 1999, Hornaday had won one of every four races in his No. 16 NAPA Chevrolet.
But Dale Earnhardt had different ideas on where the NAPA program could go. He wanted to go NASCAR Winston Cup racing and Hornaday wasn't a part of that plan. NAPA and DEI announced Michael Waltrip as the driver of the No. 15 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet Monte Carlo in 2001. With the change in place, Rizzuti decided it was time to do something different within CSG. He helped Hornaday land a Cup ride of his own with AJ Foyt Racing that same year. However, he chose not to go with the veteran truck star. Instead, Rizzuti moved his focus to CSG's newest client - footwear and apparel giant, Nike.
In 1999, Nike introduced a revolutionary shoe to Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). It was the Nike Sub 18 pit shoe and the traction it gave the JGR pit crews was something they had never had. Rizzuti became National Sales Manager for Nike Racing. He sold and marketed the new Nike pit shoe to the other NASCAR teams. Of the 43 teams that started the 2002 Daytona 500, 40 of them outfitted their crew’s in the Sub 18.
The exceptional coverage of the sport was a win for Nike and with the shoes success, the Beaverton, Oregon based company expanded their crew apparel program that had Joe Gibbs beginnings as well. Rizzuti and Allen brought on NASCAR giants Richard Childress Racing (RCR) and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. And while those two teams were good enough for Nike, Rizzuti charged on. He acquired AJ Foyt Racing, Tide-PPI Racing, MB2 Racing, Petty Enterprises and Busch Series champions, PPC Racing.
As quickly as Nike made a mark on the sport of NASCAR, they stepped away as new management had different ideas on where the brand should focus. Meanwhile, Hornaday was hired at RCR to drive the No.2 ACDelco Chevrolet in the Busch Series; one of CSG's other clients. The timing was perfect and Rizzuti reassumed his PR role with the company and was reunited with his good friend. The two visited Victory Lane three times over the next two years while never finishing outside of the top-five in the points standings.
The end of 2004 meant another change for Rizzuti. Hornaday returned to his truck series roots, signing to drive for his former protégé Kevin Harvick. Rizzuti decided to go the “Happy” route as well, taking over the PR and Marketing duties for legendary sponsor GM Goodwrench.
The No. 29 team saw its share of highs and low’s that year. GM Goodwrench celebrated its 25th anniversary as a primary sponsor in NASCAR. Rizzuti created a special edition press guide to commemorate the special year, which was shipped to dealerships around the country. He also planned and executed 25th anniversary events around the country on behalf of General Motors.
Harvick swept wins in both the Busch Series and NEXTEL Cup Series races at Bristol Motor Speedway. He also grabbed the pole at Richmond International Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway, where he was voted into the Talladega Walk of Fame.
2006 marked a defining point in Rizzuti’s career. Wasserman Media Group (WMG) purchased CSG and Rizzuti was asked to oversee all of the company’s PR efforts in NASCAR. He relinquished his GM Goodwrench role to manage the marketing department for WMG. One of the clients that remained a fixture at the newly acquired company was NAPA.
As with any new management takeover, personnel changes were made. The No. 55 NAPA team formed by driver Michael Waltrip was left without a PR manager. Rizzuti assumed the role of Director of Communication of WMG and NAPA Senior Account Manager. It didn’t take long for Waltrip to recognize Rizzuti’s skill sets.
In April of 2006, Rizzuti left WMG after eight years to join Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) as Senior Account Manager in Sponsor Services. The thrill of joining a race team as opposed to an agency fueled the decision. And to get on the ground floor of a brand new team with new NASCAR manufacturer, Toyota, was something that he couldn’t resist.
Rizzuti managed the development of a new Michael Waltrip website and managed the MWR Public Relations department. The openness of the MWR structure has allowed Rizzuti to return to his broadcasting roots as well.
Eventually, those roots took hold and the Iowa native returned full-time to Radio and Television, ending his two year tenure at MWR.
Lately, Tony Rizzuti has been featured nearly everywhere. From handling play-by-play and pit reporter duties of NASCAR SPRINT Cup Series races for NASCAR Hot Pass on DirecTV, bringing ACC Football and Basketball to On-Demand homes on the East Coast, to hosting the syndicated television show Three Wide Life, he is one of the most sought after talents in sports. So much so, that Charlotte, NC sports radio ESPN 730 recently tabbed him as the afternoon drive host on The Bottom Line.
What will the future bring? Stay Tuned!!
Copyright Rizzuti Media Group, Inc. 2012