Behind the Scenes with Matthew Dillner
By: Farrah Kaye
On race day, NASCAR fans tune in for several hours – on different channels – watching driver interviews, cars battling for position, pre-race ceremonies, special pieces on tracks or drivers and more.
It’s easy to recognize the voices and faces that tell us these stories. It’s not easy, however, to recognize some of the people that help put these productions together.
One of these behind-the-scenes faces is Matthew Dillner (if that last name sounds familiar, you’ll find out the exact connection below), a cameraman and go-to guy for special projects (like the special videos you see before the races air). Dillner was kind enough to spend some time with RubbingsRacing.com to give us the scoop on what he does, his connection to racing and how he got into the business. And of course, what his connection is to the Dillner we all see every week (that’d be Bob Dillner of Speed TV).
There are lots of things going on behind the scenes. So what exactly does Dillner do?
“I’m a cameraman – I guess is the simplest way to put it – for Turner Sports, nascar.com, TNT, and I do some shows for ESPN, too,” Dillner explained. “On the Internet side I do a lot of live little cool things, like the Garage Cam and some feature shoots. On the ESPN side I shoot a lot of artsy ‘B roll,’ artsy footage that you see on the music video shoots.”
Dillner makes sure to make it clear he doesn’t take his job for granted.
“I’m blessed because I, quite frankly, in my opinion, have one of the coolest jobs in TV and I’m extremely fortunate.”
Recently, while in Las Vegas for the race weekend, Dillner saw one of his videos playing on the video board behind the check in desk.
“That was cool. The day you don’t see your work on TV or the big screen of the MGM and don’t get geeked up about it .. if you don’t get geeked up about it you might as well be in a box.”
So that begged the question: What was the coolest moment of Dillner’s career?
“Seeing stuff on the open of the ESPN show for Daytona or Indy or Homestead season finale. Any of that is really cool. It doesn’t get old. I’ve been doing it for so long but it never gets old.”
But as Dillner continued, he explained it was not his proudest moment. His proudest moment came from something much less known to the average race viewer.
“Work wise, something that’s not very known for most people – it’s not anything with ESPN or nascar.com – I used to work on a show called Totally NASCAR. I was making a move to NBC and my producer said ‘before you make the move, if there’s any piece you want to produce (because I used to do producing too) you can do it.’”
Out of anything Dillner could choose, he went to his passion: short track racing.
“I wanted to do a piece on a place that’s special in my heart – Bowman Gray Stadium. It’s an unbelievable little short track. It’s the Wrigley Field of racing. It’s so cool. So he let me do it and I really dug deep and did the story and I won the Russ Catlin – Miller Lite Award of Excellence for the story and [also] won a Telly Award for it. It was a piece about a local short track going up against stuff from Indy and Daytona and the big money productions and it was just me and a few people that helped me out at Totally NASCAR. To me, being that it was grass roots kicking the crap out of the big time, I like that. It was kinda underdog-ish. That’s my probably my most proud work moment in my life.”
Now we know Dillner likes short tracks and racing. Why not be a driver? There’s always a story.
“When I was a kid I wanted to be a race car driver because my dad was a race car driver and I used to look at pictures of his race cars and dream of being a race car driver. But as a short track racer that I love, Mike Cope once said, ‘If you don’t have a famous last name or a pile of money big enough for a show dog to jump over you might not make it in this business.’”
Without the last name or money, Dillner sat in the stands and decided to work with his brother behind the scenes in the sport he loved so much.
“We always went to races and I never got to be a race car driver so my brother and I were both big into the sport. [We said] ‘What are we gonna do to be into the sport?’ It just happened to be that the best opportunities for us came on the media side.”
Dillner explained of how he got into the business.
“[My brother] is in front of the camera. I’ve got a face for behind the camera, so it works out perfectly. You can’t have too much Dillner in front of the camera, because there [can] be too much Dillner in this world so it’s better to have one behind the camera so we don’t over-saturate the airwaves with Dillner because that wouldn’t be good.”
With all this mention of his brother, Dillner took a moment to explain who is brother is and how they got into NASCAR media together.
“My brother is Bob Dillner, he works for Speed channel. He’s the guy that beat me up as a kid and tore my ligaments and cartilage in my knee and sat on my finger and broke it. But I still love him and I always will,” Dillner says fondly of his older brother.
“But he and I kinda got our start in TV together. He was 23 or something, I was 16 and we came up through the ranks together and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be where I am. Even though I think it’s more weighted that way, he even says the same about me which is pretty cool. [I'm] always proud of what he does as far as on the camera and what he does. That’s my bro.”
With his older brother guiding the way, Dillner got involved in NASCAR media during a world-wind editing session, angering his father and teaching himself how to edit.
“I guess I had a Doogie Howser opportunity. My brother started a local TV show on News 12 Long Island called Long Island Trackside. I was basically a gofer, a grip – go get this, go get that – guy.”
How did he go from a grip to an award-winning cameraman?
“Our first show, my brother was so green in TV he thought he would be able to put together – edit – the show in one night. He was like, ‘hey come with me.’ So I’m there, watching him do what he does and it’s a school night. My brother [calls our dad and says] ‘hey dad he’s gonna be home late.” My father was pissed. Then he was like ‘hey dad, he’s gonna be home really late.” My dad was really pissed. Then it was ‘hey dad, I’ll bring him to school the next morning.’ He was really pissed.”
The night kept going.
“‘Hey dad hes gonna miss a day of school.” [After] 52 straight hours of editing, working, no sleep, we turn in our first TV show together. I had taught myself how to edit at this point, it was crazy. He got married that day. Woah, wait. Let me back up. We went home, [got] sleep, mom woke us up, we watched our first show together, then we got dressed up cause he was getting married and I was his best man and he got married that day. So yah, welcome to TV.”
After a quick introduction to the TV world, Dillner has been in the field full time. He says it’s his love for racing that keeps him going.
“Ever since, even through school, I worked almost full-time in TV. [I've] always been a part of it but I’m not in it for TV. I’m in it for racing. I mean I’d cover a tennis match – if it pays, it pays,” Dillner says of his career. “But there’s no other sport that I’d be on the road 30-something weekends for and dedicate most of [my] life to than racing because it’s the coolest sport.”
With the NFL lockout and hard economic times (and the always unknown factors), what would Dillner do if NASCAR (or racing in general) ended tomorrow?
“I would cover hockey because I love hockey but there would always be a void in my life. But if I didn’t cover racing, I’d be bringing my kids [when I have them]. I’d be like my dad. My dad couldn’t race because he didn’t have a lot of money, he couldn’t keep on racing and have a family. So he stopped but he always brought us to races – that would be me,” says Dillner of what his life would be like if his job ended today. “I’d be the guy sitting with a seat cushion at a local short track bringing my kids there and raising them around the sport. That’d be me if I couldn’t cover races. I’d be around the scene.”
It’s more than obvious that Dillner is a fan of the sport, having grown up around it and now having covered it for years. What is his favorite moment (if he has one at all)?
“Most of my most memorable moments have nothing to do with being at the racetrack. A few years ago, maybe 2005 or 2006, my niece was racing a bandolero and I was there pretty much alone with her. She wasn’t doing that good in racing at that point and she won the race that day. The joy on her face when I lifted up the top of the bandolero and I saw her all ‘ahhh.’”
Dillner continues to explain how family, friends and the relationships you have (or build) in this crazy sport are what matter at the end of the day.
“The family moments to me are the coolest moments. It’s that … it’s seeing my nephew win his first quarter midget race … it’s being at the racetrack with my mom and dad. It’s something I never appreciated as a kid. Now that I’m a 35-year-old man, I appreciate it ridiculously. So it’s the little things.”
Being on the road so much of the year can be tough. Dillner is lucky to have his brother there, but he has also built other relationships in the garage.
“In this Cup garage, it’s the relationships, it’s walking up and down pit road and the crew guys that you’ve known for 12 years that you high-five with and fist bump and drivers that give you crap when you walk by. It’s the relationships,” he says of the people he’s met over the years. “When we’re in the box, that’s all we have. When we’re done in this life, it’s the relationships that you’ve built that are more important than the video you shot, are more important than the cool things you did. It’s the people that you actually get to meet, hang out with.”
During the offseason, Dillner became engaged and the topic of a someday family came up. With his roots so deep in racing, how would he bring up his children (when that day comes)? Will they be racers?
“[I will] let them choose their own path. My parents never forced racing down my throat and you cant have that approach here. You gotta love this to be in it because there are so many people that work in this industry that are miserable and I don’t understand it. If you’re miserable go cover tennis, go cover badminton, soccer,” he says of needing passionate people in NASCAR. “This sport, there’s so many passionate people that sit in the grandstands every weekend that would absolutely love to be sitting here (like you are or I am) – to be on the inside looking out. So we’re all stupidly blessed for some reason to be able to have that opportunity.”
“You gotta have a passion for it and you can’t force a round peg into a square hole so when it comes raising kids, when I hopefully have kids some day, they’ll be going to races with me, but no, I’ll never force them to be a race fan. Heck no.”
Besides being a cameraman at the track, Dillner also runs a website called SpeedEats. Mixing together his love for food (his words) with his life on the road, he put together a website where fans and people living on the circuit could find good food.
“SpeedEats is because I am the Pontiac Dillner, which means my brother is narrow and I am thick, I am wide. I am a little bit plump, squishy and I like food. I have always had a passion for food because I like to eat it. My grandmother always loved to cook for me and I loved to eat,” said Dillner of where his passion for food came from.
But being on the road, it’s hard to come by good food. Dillner was on a mission.
“So I’m on the road all the time and everybody is always like ‘hey Dillner, where should I eat?’ because I don’t go to places like Applebee’s. I don’t go ‘okay, what’s to eat tonight? What’s off our exit?’ like everyone else in our industry. Eighty to ninety percent of the people in our industry do that. I like to go to the mom-and-pop place .. the place off the beaten path, the local joints. So basically SpeedEats was created because people are always asking me where to eat. So I’m like why don’t I do a website about this? So right now we’re very small, we have a good small cult following and hopefully that cult following grows and as long as it’s fun I’ll keep doing it.
Dillner used to work with his brother on another website, Speed51.com, but gave that up to work on his work-life balance.
“I used to co-own Speed51.com with my brother and I gave that up last year. I still have an extreme passion for short track racing .. doing their radio broadcasts, helping when I can. I love short track racing but I had been at that site with my brother for eight or 10 years. Besides that, you need to work hard but you need to have fun while you do it and you need to also take time to be with your family and do the right things,” Dillner explains of finally finding the balance he needed. “Most of my life all I did was work and worry about work and when I wasn’t worrying about work, I was thinking about work and I’m done thinking about work all the time. You gotta live.”
Dillner doesn’t discount the fact that he’s blessed to be at the track.
“This is so cool. There’s about to be 100,00 fans around us – life is good. Not enough people realize that.”
Before the interview ended, Dillner asked to add one thing close to his heart. Fans may be familiar with Lonnie Clouse and Back2Back Ministries after Trevor Bayne mentioned him after his Daytona 500 win. Dillner explained, in detail, what Clouse does and how he’s been involved.
“We were talking about people in this sport and one of the biggest influences on my life in this sport is one of the people that most people don’t know about. He was a chaplain with MRO but he’s also a real close fiend to a lot of the guys here, whether it be crew or drivers like Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier. [His name is] Lonnie Clouse. A lot of people don’t know who he is.”
Dillner continued on, explaining in detail what Clouse does and what drivers (or fans) do to help.
“He was in this sport for a few years and made a huge impact, especially on my life. I got to go down to Mexico and go serve some orphans down there. We have this great job but what we’re doing isn’t really that important. I do it because i have a passion for it. But [Clouse] moved his whole family down to Mexico to care for orphans. It’s not just some single guy that goes ‘yeah I wanna go down and help some people out.’ This guy just did the most amazing thing and I’ve been close friends with Lonnie for a while and it still baffles me – what he’s done.”
“When Trevor Bayne won Daytona, he gave him some props and Back2Back Ministries, and that’s helping those guys out a lot. but he needs some more ‘disciples’ (in the religious world) – people that spread that message.”
During the interview, Dillner was looking over the skyline of Las Vegas and thought of all the money that is poured into the city on a daily basis that could go to better causes than casinos.
“We’re in Las Vegas – if we could take the finances that go in to that little city over there – just look at it from the outside – if we could just capture one day of all the money that is in there and somehow put that into something, whether it’s the orphans or cancer research … think of the impact you can have on the world. I was thinking about that on the drive back in to the track the other day. Just think about all that. I mean this is a filthy town – this is Sin City! But you think of all the money. That’s what I like about a guy like Trevor or Carl. I don’t make the big bucks so I do what I can but I can’t have an impact like people like that. So to see people like that, to see people like Carl do what he did last year with the motorcycle, that’s rocking. That’s the coolest thing ever. To see people like that take the platform. You don’t have to take the platform and preach to people but to take your money and your fame and do something with it … that’s wicked cool.”
Many thanks to Matthew Dillner for taking the time to speak with RubbingsRacing.com