Sports Journalism: Assessment 2
Motorsport has, quite literally, scarred Will Buxton for life. The 35-year-old Formula 1 pit reporter’s romance with racing didn’t get off to the best of starts, but did it put him off? Definitely not.
(c) Will Buxton
“The first time I remember seeing racing cars was when my dad took me to the Prescott Hill Climb,” he explained, with a wide smile. It quickly vanished. “I must have been four or five, and I fell over a massive metal tent peg. I got a huge gash in my shin and I still have the scar, so you can say motorsport physically affected me.”
Despite being permanently scarred by motorsport, Buxton’s famously enthusiastic passion for racing had roared into life. Stumbling across F1 on TV sparked his love for “the colours, noises and excitement” but did the energetic Brit ever think he would end up working as a F1 broadcaster for NBC, travelling the world reporting on F1 for millions of TV viewers in the USA?
“No, never,” he admitted, with an expression of disbelief. “We grew up with Murray Walker, so it was never ‘I want to do Murray’s job’ because no one was ever going to take it. For me, it never seemed like a realistic possibility and I always wanted to write. I loved writing and that was always the thing for me. So, no, never in a million years did I ever dream I would be broadcasting, let alone in America. It’s crazy, completely crazy.”
Realising he wanted to be an F1 journalist was “an absolute lightbulb moment” for Buxton, at the age of 13 when three-time champion Ayrton Senna died. No one at school understood why he was so distraught. They didn’t get his pain. Trawling through motorsport magazines helped Buxton come to terms with what happened to his hero. “That was the day I realised what I wanted to do with my life.”
Developing his signature writing style – opinionated, unapologetic and lively – while studying Political Science at the University of Leeds, he completed his thesis on the politics of F1. The people marking it “hated” the piece and he narrowly avoided a fail grade, but it did present him with connections and introduced him to respected F1 journalists David Tremayne and Joe Saward.
It led to him writing monthly unpaid features for Saward’s grandprix.com website and after graduating, he quickly moved into his “dream job” at the official F1 magazine. But it didn’t last long. F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone decided to pull the plug on the magazine just weeks before the start of the 2004 season, leaving Buxton unemployed at the age of 23. It was a cruel twist.
There were few job options on the table, so Buxton – with the help of his parents – bought a campervan (as you do) and joined the F1 circus for the European leg of its world tour. “The FIA [F1’s governing body] said, ‘get yourself any publication and we’ll get you a pass’,” he explained, unusually getting serious for a second, before breaking into a reflective grin. “I applied for Metro, they paid me very little but they paid me and more importantly I had a publication, so I drove from race to race. Each day I would open up my map and see what looked nice in between [race tracks]. The year bankrupted me and I lost so much weight, but it was great.”
His rock and roll campervan adventures caught the attention of GP2, the feeder series directly below F1, and he joined as a press officer before being promoted to director of communications at the end of the year. It took Buxton off his desired career path but brought him closer to F1 champions of the future.
“I hoped at one point I would get back into journalism and having spent time with these guys coming through the ranks, I would know the next generation,” he admitted, warmly recounting memories from his GP2 days. “2005 saw Nico Rosberg as champion, 2006, I was PR for Lewis [Hamilton] in his championship year and so on. It was one of the best decisions I ever made, because it was huge fun, but I also learned a massive amount about press officers, journalism and also got great relationships with drivers that has stood in pretty good stead.”
The word ‘curveball’ seems to sum up Buxton’s career quite well and having just returned to journalism in 2008 to head up an online magazine, he was thrust into the vacant commentator role for the GP2 series. “Fellow journalist Tony Dodgins had suggested me to FOM [Formula One Management], because I used to be GP2 press officer and talked too much,” he said, with a cheeky giggle. It was a baptism of fire, but his first foray into broadcasting “went great”. It saw Buxton become the voice of GP2 (and later, GP3) for over six years, being established as a fan-favourite for his excitable commentary – he once reacted to a driver passing three cars in just two corners with the iconic lines, “oh shut up, that’s ridiculous”.
Another unexpected turn saw Buxton ditch print journalism altogether for television, when he was offered the role of F1 pit reporter for the SPEED channel in America. “They had heard my commentary on GP2 and said ‘it’s out there, it’s irreverent, it’s honest, and we love it. Do you want to be our F1 pit lane reporter?’” It didn’t take long for him to make a decision and he’s now hooked on the drug of live TV. He has remained on American TV screens ever since, moving with F1’s broadcasting rights to NBC in 2013.
The animated F1 pit reporter never expected to move into broadcasting and TV, so he doesn’t actually know what he wants to do next and what the future holds. But, he does have a back-up plan. If it somehow “all goes belly-up”, he’s going to become a history teacher.