During the recent meeting between Frontstretch and Rich Feinberg, the Vice President of Motorsports for ESPN, there were quite a few interesting facts that came to light that many of NASCAR’s fans might not be aware of. In an effort to give the network some of the credit for what they do in broadcasting races – since they seem to take so much blame – here is some of what we learned about the Worldwide Leader In Sports’ coverage this season, and what they do on a weekly basis that many of you might not realize.
ESPN is a much different company than they were when they left NASCAR coverage, and NASCAR is a very different sport than it was when ESPN left. Back in the day, there were a handful of cameras and a dozen or so employees who put on the coverage on a race weekend. Now, the company uses up to 75 cameras to cover the action that takes place during a race, with types ranging from track positions to crew cams to wall cams to pit cams to in-car cams to handheld roaming cameras. Each and every one of those cameras is HD. FOX, NBC and TNT put on HD broadcasts, but ESPN is the first company to use HD in every single camera and every single microphone involved in the process. Nothing that is broadcast is sent over the air non-HD. There are 250 people involved in the production of a race weekend and most of those people are on-site for four days while the event is being put on the air.
It was pointed out to Frontstretch more than once this past weekend, that the amount of technology utilized in putting on a Cup race is bigger and better than that used to broadcast the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is a one-day event, and the NASCAR broadcast is put on 38 different weekends throughout the year; it is the longest sports season of any sport in the United States. As an example of the cutting-edge nature of the technology, the HD in-car camera technology arrived in Daytona this February the morning of the race. It was delivered by a gentleman in a briefcase who was flown to the track in a chartered jet to make sure that it was successfully handed over to ESPN in time for it to hit the airwaves for their very first race production back in the sport.
ESPN is also the first company to put two female pit reporters on their broadcast team for their Cup races. There have been female pit reporters before, but there was only one on any of those broadcasts. ESPN has two and also has a female reporter in the pit studio for their cut in coverage during the races. They are also the first company to have a full-time African-American announcer which, along with the female pit reporters, emphasizes ESPN’s embracing of diversity, which is well aligned with NASCAR’s focus on diversifying its sport.
The pit studio that ESPN created is the only one of its kind in sports. It has a full glass wall that runs the length of the structure to allow an unobstructed view of the track for those people and cameras inside. The lighting for the entire studio is LED lighting, which is so cool that you can touch it with your hands without risk of injury. The lighting is much lighter than traditional lighting and is also much cooler. The combination makes it cheaper to transport the studio from race to race and requires less cooling, both items that help reduce the impact on the environment of having the state of the art facility. The cameras utilized in the studio are all robotic and have technology that allows them to adjust for lighting automatically, so there is no need to change the lighting in the studio as conditions change outside of the studio.
The tech center, where Tim Brewer gives fans detailed explanations of what is going on with cars and part and pieces on cars, is the first of its kind. It has never been done in motorsports. The other broadcast networks had done cut away cars and graphics, but ESPN moved it indoors, to a studio, with an interactive computer that allows Brewer to call up any images he wants and manipulate them however he wants to. The advantages of having it indoors are obvious: weather is taken out of the equation, lighting can be controlled and noise if virtually eliminated. All of these benefits are designed to make the viewing experience more enjoyable for the fans at home.
Every person that works on the ESPN broadcast is encouraged to think outside the box and change the way things are done. When ESPN won the rights to broadcast the Cup Series again, they didn’t go out and sign an agreement to lease broadcast facilities to do the races. They designed the trucks from the ground up. They went over every detail, from having the monitors on a concave wall to reduce the amount of picture distortion, to the location of phones and buttons that are used by the personnel putting on the race broadcast. The trucks were then painted like the car haulers that take the competitors race cars to the tracks so that they became a part of the environment and were obviously incorporated into the sport.
When it comes to the playback of the action, it is remarkable what ESPN goes through. There are 66 sources of playback for replays during races. Monday Night Football has 17. There are 19 servers in the radio truck that record all 43 channels of radio communication, along with all of the video output from the cameras, for the entire race. Race teams often contact ESPN to have playback from their radios to confirm what was discussed as the race progressed. The statistical information that is provided about drivers is updated in real time. The entire media guide for all of NASCAR is in a computer database that is stored in a production truck. The information is updated every lap as the race progresses, so that the information that is displayed in graphics on the screen is a current and accurate as possible. When a driver leads laps during a race, they are added to their cumulative totals for the year and their career at the instant they cross the start-finish line. It is rather amazing that the data can be updated so quickly.
The power that runs this whole conglomeration comes from a Caterpillar generator that is taken to every race right along with the production trucks. It allows the television crew the added security that, even if there is a power failure at the track, they are plugged into an uninterrupted power supply, with the appropriate redundancy, to allow them to keep the show going even if the track doesn’t have power.
The final thing that stuck out very prominently about the people that put on these race broadcasts: every one of them is a passionate race fan. No one was a production major who was doing racing just because it was the assignment they drew when they were given a job at ESPN. Every single person, from the producer, to the director, to the pit producer, to the graphics people, to the guys who run the cables from the generator to the trucks, is a truly passionate, dedicated race fan. These people put their hearts and souls into making the race broadcast as good as it can possibly be, and hopefully better each and every week. They definitely embody the mission statement of ESPN: To serve the fans.
Bashing the broadcasters is something that NASCAR fans do as religiously as bashing the drivers they don’t like. And there are certainly things that happen during productions that will drive fans nuts. But there is no doubt that ESPN does not spare any expense in trying to bring the very best production they possibly can to the fans each and every week of the 38 weeks that they are on the air during the race season. Can they do some things better? Sure they can. But do they do a pretty darn good job when you get right down to it, you bet they do.
ESPN Facts and Figures
- 10 – Number of months ESPN’s NASCAR fleet will be on the road (February-November)
- 13 – Mobile units at each race (including pit studio, mobile office, in-car camera trailer, uplink trucks, ESPN Deportes)
- 19 – EVS servers for race and studio production (high-speed digital recording)
- 20 – Miles of video, audio and power cable needed for 1.5-mile track
- 26 – Tracks ESPN’s mobile fleet will visit in 2007
- 38 – NASCAR events ESPN’s mobile fleet will attend in 2007
- 52 – NASCAR races to be televised live by ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN on ABC in 2007 (full 35-race NASCAR Busch Series season, final 17 NASCAR Nextel Cup events)
- 60-75 – HD Cameras used by ESPN to televise a NASCAR race (including in-car cameras)
- 150 – Hotel rooms needed each event for ESPN personnel
- 250 – Credentialed ESPN personnel working on NASCAR each week
- 78,000 – Weight in pounds of ESPN traveling studio for NASCAR Countdown shows
- 167,340 – Projected combined miles ESPN’s core of five mobile units will log in 2007