Leigh Diffey Takes Unconventional Route to Indy 500 Broadcast Booth
If Leigh Diffey were to stop on pit road prior to Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 and start doing jumping jacks and pushups, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise.
The voice of the Indy 500 on NBC, Diffey is one of the most in-demand announcers in motorsports and other sports as well. But few individuals know that Diffey’s career to the broadcasting booth began, of all things, as an elementary school physical education teacher in his native Australia.
Instead of a microphone in front of him, he had a coach’s whistle around his neck, trying to improve the bodies and minds of his young students at Ipswich Grammar School in Queensland, Australia.
That was nearly 30 years ago, just one of many jobs Diffey had after graduating university, including stints working as a physical trainer, an attraction presenter at Warner Brothers Movie World (theme park), a construction laborer and other jobs.
There even was a short stint of racing motorcycles himself, but he quickly realized he was a better announcer than a rider.
“My plan was that I had no plan,” Diffey chuckled in an exclusive interview with Autoweek. “I was just rolling with the punches. I was doing a little bit of commentary on the side and commentary kept growing as other things went by the wayside.”
Ironically, just as his teaching career was taking off, so too was his broadcasting career – and quickly.
“It got me to the point of my saying, well maybe this could be for real,” he said. “I fell into (broadcasting) when I was 20 years old and by the age of 24, I was already thinking that it could be a career for me. And by the age of 25, I was working in network television (in Australia).
“It was a very, very fast acceleration and a trajectory of learning and growing and different opportunities and just going with it, and at the same time pushing hard to find those opportunities as well.”
From there, the teacher-turned-broadcaster's career took off. He moved from Australia to the United Kingdom, where he called a number of different motorsports series, including Superbikes, Rallycross, Supercars and Formula 1.
It was the latter that caught the attention of folks in the former CART Indy car series in the U.S., so Diffey accepted a job offer with the series and moved to the United States, where he remains today, including becoming a U.S. citizen in 2011.
Had it not been for Diffey’s love of motorsports and announcing them—starting with broadcasting motorcycle races in his native land—he'd probably still be teaching P.E. But he laughs and admits he’s lost some of his hardbody physique and conditioning himself over the years. Traveling and sometimes eating on the fly while you’re doing your day job can do that.
“No!” he said with a big laugh when asked if he’s in good physical shape. “I’m in television commentator’s shape.”
But getting serious again, the 52-year-old husband and father of two added, “I still pinch myself. Yeah, it was a very unconventional route here. And I feel very, very fortunate to have had a lot of people in my corner, believed in me and gave me opportunities to prove myself, whether it be in motorsport or other sports and other avenues.
"Even though it's been a long time, I've been fortunate to be an industry survivor. This is my 25th year now in network television, it’s never lost on me at all. I feel lucky, I feel privileged, I feel fortunate every week, whatever the sporting event that I'm going to cover.”
One of Diffey’s key attributes is his versatility as an announcer.
“I just love telling stories,” he said. “I love being that communicator and being a storyteller. And my now 11 years at NBC has made me a better storyteller. And there's never any substitution for enthusiasm. Enthusiasm will always win out, and it doesn't matter what you're talking about.
“You could be talking about enthusiasm for your physical training, enthusiasm for gardening (or) enthusiasm for cooking, and enthusiasm will always win out. That's something that my parents instilled in me, is just if you've got a passion, go for it.”
Because he’s seemingly constantly in motion, traveling around the U.S. and internationally, while he’s appreciative of the success he’s had for over two decades, Diffey admits he has two regrets.
The first is not being able to spend more time with his wife and kids, and the other is to go back to his teaching roots and talk with young kids growing up, including telling his own inspirational story of how he came from a family with a blue collar background to where he is today.
Given all the racing series and other sports he’s covered over the years, Diffey has only two things he’d still like to achieve in his career. First is calling Australian Rules Football and, what else, a big race.
“I know it's on the wrong network and it’s not going to happen anytime soon, but I'd love to call the Daytona 500,” he said. “I've done them all, Le Mans, Bathurst, Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500, Rolex 24 at Daytona, Sebring, I've done a lot of the landmark motorsport events around the world and the Daytona 500 is pretty much the last big one left on my list.”
When he climbs into the NBC booth on Sunday, it would not be a surprise if Diffey pinched himself, wondering how a former gym teacher is about to be heard by hundreds of millions of racing fans worldwide.
“I do pinch myself, but I try not to, so I don’t get scared,” he laughed, before turning serious again. “I'm reminded of that often, and I don't ever take it for granted. I've worked very, very hard and there's been great sacrifice. I don’t see my wife and kids as much as I’d like. I moved away from Australia and from my parents and siblings and relatives, so there's been a lot of sacrifice over that period of time.
“I do know how fortunate I am to be in this position and I love it. I love every single day. (When he’s asked if he’ll retire) my answer is never.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski