NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Behind the Scenes at Watkins Glen with ESPN

When I signed on to write my TV critiques back in January, I went into the season with what amounted to an idea of what I wanted to see out of the race telecasts. Nothing cut in stone, but just a couple of simple things that I wanted to see on the screen. Did I have any clue how they could get the broadcasts to that point? Heck no. I assumed that there was a large cast of characters behind the scenes, which there are, that helped to put the broadcasts together. There are roughly four to twelve people in front of the camera that are the face of these telecasts, and they simply represent everyone else and present the work of everyone else.

Now, I knew going in that I don’t have the technical know-how to work behind the scenes, but I figured that since I had the opportunity to represent Frontstretch at the track, I should take the opportunity to learn as much about the broadcasts, both technically, and from the on air angle. And that was the majority of what I did while I was at Watkins Glen, other than take pictures and write entries for the Newsletter.

Preparation for the races is extensive. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that working on NASCAR broadcasts is a part-time job for anybody. It is a full-time job in every sense of the word. Although, to me, for the on-air personalities, it really resembles college more than anything else. The race telecasts themselves are essentially the big tests, while the gathering of information is the research for papers (Allen likens this to studying for an oral quiz). The going over of race tape is essentially studying.

Getting ready for a race weekend starts days before ESPN shows up at the track. On Tuesdays, there is a “meeting” of all of the on air personalities and producers (Shannon Spake’s words, not mine). In reality, it’s more of a conference call; very similar to what FOX does for their coverage (Mike Joy has mentioned this on air in the past). It is here where the stories that ESPN will cover at the track are discussed. Using NASCAR Countdown from Michigan as an example, perhaps ESPN holds a little too firm to those stories planned out in the conference call.

From there, the race is on to research those stories and tape the features that need to be taped. Often times, the parts of the features with interviews are taped before the circus even arrives at the racetrack.

The non-feature research that has to be done is also quite substantial. Spake and Bestwick both mentioned that they read every press release that the teams issue, which is a herculean task by itself. Allen continued on to say that he reads through all of the statistical packages that are released weekly by NASCAR. In addition, he keeps detailed notes during the races (pages and pages). Larry MacReynolds has mentioned on FOX before that he has roughly 76 pages of notes at some races. Allen didn’t get into how much in the way of notes that he takes, but it’s probably close to that number, if not more. Also, note that you really only get one chance to get it right. Allen puts it best. “When words come out of your mouth, there’s no backspace and no spell check. There it is, world. Consume it [the information].”

Also, quite a few of the on-air personalities have other gigs. Allen does the Monday NASCAR Now Roundtable, which means he has to leave the track Sunday night, no matter if the race runs or not. Shannon does a radio show during the week in Charlotte. These are time consuming side jobs that take away from prep time.

The pit reporters have their own research to do for the race weekend. Today, NASCAR’s TV partners each have four pit reporters. In the past, this used to be two, or three. Each pit reporter is responsible for gaining information on teams. Do they get information on all of the teams? No. According to Shannon Spake, they get information on approximately 24 teams each week, each reporter being responsible for six. Are they the same 24 each week? No, although many of those 24 are researched every week, like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski (using the Nationwide Series as an example). A few may come and go each week. It may depend on the points standings or where the race was. What about the other teams? Do they get researched? No. The reasoning given to me by Shannon is that they [ESPN] didn’t plan on covering those other teams, unless something notable occurs (wrecks, blown engine, unusually good run, etc.). This explains why some teams are ignored during the races.

After each pit reporter gets their information from the teams, each member emails their information to the other three pit reporters (in this case, Shannon would email the information gained about Keselowski, Ryan Newman, etc) to Dave, Vince and Jamie).

As for pit assignments, it is done via a lottery process. ESPN splits the pit road into four sections. This split is a little more than just drawing three lines on a piece of paper and saying “Have at it.” At least in the Cup Series, consideration is given for the number of marquee names pitting in each section. The goal is to not have one section have five marquee names, while another only has one or two. Even with this manipulation of pit sections, they’re still basically sections in a row. Back in February, the four reporters drew straws and whoever won got first pick. Then whoever drew second would pick, and so on. The next week, the person who picked second at Daytona goes first, then the person who went third at Daytona would go second and so on. Also, the pit reporter assignments are the same for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races.

Even with relatively small pit stall assignments, pit reporters cannot be everywhere. Each reporter has a camera crew with them, including one man holding up a monitor on a pole. This allows the reporter to see what he/she has missed due to other responsibilities on pit road. The information that they relay on air is usually given to them by either crew chiefs or PR reps in off air conversations (they climb up on the pit box and ask a question).

Meanwhile, in the booth, it’s a whole different animal. At one point in the past, it may have been possible for booth commentators to actually look out the window of the press box and point out things that aren’t on screen. Those days are long over. Most of the time, the commentators are looking at multiple monitors that show different cameras outside so that they can stay on task.

In addition, there are several other things going on up there as well. There is a flat screen TV showing the running order at all times, along with other stats. Unlike the scrolls on the broadcast, this is not GPS-enabled, so it is not updated in real time. This is why it is often said on the broadcast that they have to wait for the scoring to “cycle around.” There is also a touch screen in the booth that the production staff can load promos into that Dr. Jerry Punch or Allen Bestwick can read during broadcasts.

The commentators have multiple people in their earpieces (which look a little bit like hearing aids) during the broadcast. When I sat down with Dr. Punch at Watkins Glen, he described this circus. A commentator might have up to five different voices in his ear at any time, including radio snippets, producers, the director, pit reporters, drivers, etc. It’s essentially organized chaos up there. As a result, some things may not be heard by the commentators that actually make the broadcast. Dr. Punch emphasized this during my interview with him. I brought up the example of the Nationwide race at Phoenix in April as an example of how this mess of communication via the ear can result in missed communication. Back then, the booth was buzzing about Edwards dominating the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200, while at the same time, Carl was talking on the radio about the engine starting to go. This wasn’t referenced on ESPN until after a commercial break.

Also, during my sit-down interview, I asked Jerry about the concerns that I’ve had (as well as others this season) about a perceived lack of enthusiasm. Jerry countered (respectfully) that he is very enthusiastic about NASCAR and the broadcasts. However, ESPN brass felt that he was too enthusiastic on air and basically told him to tone it down. The toning down has basically resulted in the de-emphasizing of Dr. Punch in favor of emphasizing Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. That has resulted in the Dr. Punch in the booth that we know of today. Now, many of you readers might not believe this, or might even accuse me of believing a blatant lie. Did I think this was true at the time? I thought he was truthful, but I was skeptical.

About a week later, after I got home from Watkins Glen, I put this to the test. I went through my collection of races on DVD and picked one out from ESPN’s 2007 slate, the UAW-Ford 500 from Talladega Superspeedway. I figured that Talladega would be as good a race as any to test Dr. Punch’s words. Do I believe what he said now? Yes, I do. There was a visible difference between Dr. Punch’s on-air demeanor back in October, 2007 and what we’re seeing on a weekly basis now. Do I think this move that ESPN’s brass decided to make was the right move? No, I honestly do not. However, both Dr. Punch and Allen Bestwick stated to me in their interviews that they had a lot of faith in the TV executives that basically control their jobs. Basically, they were told that changes in their roles would benefit the broadcast as a whole, and they agreed to those changes under those pretenses (with Bestwick, I’m referring to his switch to pit road in late 2004 in favor of Bill Weber moving to the booth).

Dr. Punch does not see himself as the best play-by-play man out there. Nor does he see himself as the worst. He’s just happy that he gets the chance to do it every week. “I’m living my dream,” he said multiple times. When ESPN lost the rights to NASCAR’s then-Winston Cup and Busch Series after the 2000 season, Dr. Punch chose to stay at ESPN because they were the ones that really gave him his start on national television (in this case, SETN, which also employed Dr. Punch in the early- to mid-1980s, was not exactly a nationwide channel). This was why he turned down opportunities to leave ESPN for FOX back in 2001. He took on sideline and booth work for college football and college basketball in an attempt to keep himself visible in the event that ESPN regained the rights to air the now-Sprint Cup Series. As a result, he was there and ready to take on the booth role when ESPN returned in 2007 (the on-air roles for the 2007 season, according to Allen Bestwick, were basically determined early in 2006).

Also, he seemed to be quite positive about the “Backseat Drivers” idea that was going to be done in the Nationwide Series’ Carfax 250 in Michigan, even though he was not playing a part in it. I actually didn’t bring this up, but he brought it up to Keselowski, who kind of interrupted our interview. I followed up, and Dr. Punch said that he found the concept interesting.

The TV Compound

If you were to walk past the TV Compound while at a race, you would see a collection of 53-foot trailers painted up with various logos on them and a number of cords and wires strewn about. The number of these trailers seen would dependent on what track you’re at, what time of year it is, and what series you’re seeing.

Inside of these trailers is the life blood of NASCAR’s TV broadcasts. My first stop in my tour was the Craftsman Tech Garage. This mobile studio is basically a marvel of onsite studio space. The trailer expands to allow extra room for Tim Brewer to show off his wares (believe me, the Craftsman Tech Garage is his baby). Also, the back of the trailer opens up so that equipment can be easily moved in and out of the trailer. On Friday, when I toured the trailer, there was a Nationwide Series car in the trailer, and a cart containing various pieces of ballast. Believe them when they say its heavy stuff. I tried picking up one piece of that ballast and almost pulled my arm out of its socket. OK, not really, but that tungsten is extremely dense. On Sunday, the Nationwide car had been swapped out in favor of a CoT and the ballast cart was gone in favor of an engine setup. After the race weekend ends, everything is taken out of the Tech Garage (parts, cars, cameras, the touch screen, etc.) and loaded into a nearby transporter. This equipment alone weighs approximately 40 tons.

The in-car cameras are supported by both the host broadcaster (in this case, ESPN), and a vendor, BSI. The equipment required to operate these cameras are housed in their own trailer. This is considered to be a Shared Resource Trailer (or SRT) because it is used by all of NASCAR’s TV partners. Each operator is in charge of the cameras in two cars, and has a joystick where he/she can pan the camera. Since I was in the trailer during Sprint Cup pole qualifying, I couldn’t get much of a demonstration of this mainly because of a little known (outside of inner circles) rule where NASCAR prohibits in-car cameras to be used during qualifying. Granted, I can actually remember a time when a roof cam was used on Darrell Waltrip’s car during qualifying (Brickyard 400, 1996), but I guess rules are rules.

The transition to HD in-car cameras in 2007 resulted in multiple headaches. For one, these cameras weighed approximately double what the old, standard definition cameras weighed. This is part of the reason why they’re more static now. The cars have also become more cluttered in recent years, cutting down on the amount that can be seen out of the car, hence the increase in roof cam usage and the mounting of cameras on the dashboard instead of next to the driver. Also, NASCAR has rules that allow for weight equalization for teams carrying the cameras and those that don’t. This is why all the cars have those oval shaped things on the roof.

Fridays in the TV compound are “calm” times. Yeah, they’re calmer than on race days, but it’s not like people are twiddling their thumbs and not doing anything. There’s plenty to be done. In one trailer, “tape” is being recorded by no less than six people for playback purposes. The quotation marks are used because tape isn’t actually used anymore, but it is still referred to as tape (Inside Reference: This trailer actually contains a picture of James “Shifty” Shiftan (one of ESPN’s producers who conducted my tour of the compound) on the wall with his arms crossed, which is referred to as the dartboard picture). These employees are also responsible for determining which cameras have footage of incidents on the track. With only six people in there, it’s a little difficult to catch everything at once. This is why sometimes (like at Bristol this past weekend), it might take a while to get a good replay of a wreck because it took a while for one of the tape workers to find a good replay to send to the booth. Each camera has either a number, color, or random animal to distinguish it. In another trailer, the graphics for pre-race features were being put together (In this case, one having to do with Australian slang and most likely, Marcos Ambrose as well).

To give fans a real idea of what a race production for ESPN entails, here’s some statistics. ESPN always has a minimum of 60 cameras on site at Sprint Cup races. I don’t have the exact number for Watkins Glen on hand, but it was at least 64. That number can vary, though. At Indianapolis, ESPN had 76 on the property. This number includes all of the in car cameras, handheld cameras, rooftop cameras, robotic cameras and unmanned still cameras. This is probably one of the explanations as to why more wide shots are not used on the broadcast. I asked Shifty why there seemed to be an emphasis on tight shots, and he replied that the tight shots helped to show off all of the HD goodies (All cameras are HD cameras).

The work does not end after the on-air personalities get home. ESPN arranges for DVDs of each race to be sent out to the on-air personalities. Dr. Punch says that he watches the race tapes while exercising at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. When he watches the DVD’s, he notices things that he never noticed when he was doing the actual race broadcasts. The radio snippets, which were first added to race telecasts in the mid-1990s, are one of the things that he doesn’t always notice. On air personalities basically use these DVDs to help themselves out, much like athletes do to help prepare for their next game. Really quite interesting, to be honest.

The experience of actually touring through ESPN’s compound and talking to a couple of their on-air personalities was a very interesting experience. An eye opener, if you will. I now have a much better idea of all the work that goes into these broadcasts. Could I actually perform any of the on-air tasks during the weekend? Probably. I came away from my interview with Shannon Spake thinking that if I put my mind to it, I could probably do her job. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but it would be doable. Of course, the main problem with that is that I have absolutely zero TV experience and probably wouldn’t have the best presence on television. Also, do not discount the heat factor. I sweated through most of my clothing at Watkins Glen while only spending half the race walking up and down the area behind the pits in somewhat normal clothing (a Polo shirt and khakis). Having to do that with a firesuit on, Nomex, and having to work constantly would be a very difficult task in the summer events.

Also, working as a pit reporter is basically hazardous work for multiple reasons. One of these reasons is simply because of the noise. Even when cars aren’t around, there is the constant buzz of generators going around. The cars themselves are very loud up close, on track and in the garage. As a result, ESPN arranges for mandatory hearing tests multiple times a year (usually three). This was a random tidbit I learned during the compound tour when someone showed up in the compound to perform the tests. Another reason is the simple fact that this is an active pit area at all times behind the wall. I had to sidestep around people running with gas cans multiple times. That can get dangerous at times.

Now, could I do a booth job, maybe not so much. This is mainly due to the mess that I mentioned above about multiple voices being in your ear at the same time, which makes it difficult to determine what needs to be said and what can just be discarded. Just too much going on, to be honest.

I want to thank Andy Hall, ESPN’s Manager of Media Relations Communications for helping to set up the interviews and the TV Compound tour for me. I also want to thank Dr. Jerry Punch, Allen Bestwick and Shannon Spake for agreeing to sit down and talk with me, and thanks to Watkins Glen International for granting me with the credentials necessary to, well, do both the interviews and the compound tour, in addition to accessing the property for free. I had a lot of fun and came out of there with a lot more knowledge of the whole operation. Does that mean that my critiques will be neutered for the rest of the season? I’d like to say no. But, it does mean that I’ll be more informed and more likely to have a clue what’s going on behind the scenes. I think that will benefit everybody in the long term.

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