When I took on the TV Critique column 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, per se – just a couple of simple things that I wanted to see on the screen. But it’s easy for a critic to play armchair quarterback when so much goes into putting together an on-air broadcast in the first place. It’s something everyone should understand to the fullest before passing judgment, and the folks at ESPN were happy to give me a firsthand look at Watkins Glen into the effort, planning, and coordination that turns into a full-fledged weekend of NASCAR programming.
Prepping For Races: The On-Air Perspective
Getting ready for a race weekend starts days before ESPN shows up at the track. On Tuesdays, there is a “meeting” for all of the on-air personalities and producers. In reality, it’s more of a conference call, very similar to what FOX and TNT do for their coverage. It is here where the stories that ESPN will cover at the track are discussed, debated and outlined into what will become the pre-race show for the following weekend. From there, the race is on to research those stories and schedule the features that need to be made. Often times, the parts of the features with interviews are taped before the circus even arrives at the racetrack.
Using NASCAR Countdown from Michigan as an example, perhaps the network holds a little too firm to those stories planned out in the conference call… but as I learned, pre-produced features are not something you put together in two minutes, requiring days’ worth of coordinating schedules, actual filming and post-production. While it’s easy to at least mention a breaking news story that occurs at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, it’s far more difficult to put together a multi-source story, pre-produced when you’re going on the air in less than 60 minutes.
Speaking of those breaking news items, weekly statistics, and other talking points that ESPN uses in its broadcasts, you can imagine the non-feature research that has to be done is also quite substantial. In interviewing Shannon Spake and Allen Bestwick, the network’s pit reporter and in-studio host for NASCAR shows, respectively, both mentioned that they read every press release that the teams issue each week. Considering there’s about 100 total cars attempting the Cup and Nationwide series each week, that’s a herculean task in itself.
But PR just presents the tip of the iceberg. Bestwick 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 that help him remember a fact right when he needs it. Larry McReynolds has mentioned on FOX before that he has roughly 76 pages of notes at some races; Bestwick didn’t get into an exact number, but it’s certainly within that same range. Why such a detailed effort to keep track of information? It’s simple; you really only get one chance to get it right. Roughly 4-12 people in front of the camera each week represent the efforts of hundreds in the compound; one faulty word, and suddenly, hours’ worth of dedicated effort from behind the scenes gets flushed down the drain of a public “Oops!”
“When words come out of your mouth, there’s no backspace, and no spell check,” Bestwick says. “There it is, world [whether it’s right or not].”
Clearly, preparation for the races is extensive, a time-consuming affair taking up more hours in a day then fans may spend focusing on racing over the course of a week. 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. In my opinion, it all works out similar to taking a high-level course in college. The race telecasts themselves are essentially the big tests, while the gathering of information is the research for papers (Bestwick likens this to studying for an oral quiz). The going over of race tape can often serve as a critical aid, allowing the talent to make note of their mistakes and ensuring the same one doesn’t happen again the next week.
Also, quite a few of the on-air personalities have other gigs. Bestwick does the Monday NASCAR Now Roundtable, which means he has to leave the track Sunday night no matter if the race runs or not. Spake also has other commitments, taping a radio show during the week in Charlotte. These are time-consuming side jobs that take away from prep time, but somehow, they’re able to strike a balance and give it their all come race weekend.
As for Spake and the pit reporters, they have their own unique research to do heading into the weekend. Today, NASCAR’s TV partners each have four pit reporters, all of whom are responsible for collecting information on teams. Do they get assigned to collect information on all of them? No. According to Spake, they get data on approximately 24 teams each week, with each reporter being responsible for six. The teams assigned may vary, although many of the same 24 are researched every week, like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski (using the Nationwide Series as an example). Changes to the list depend on a variety of factors: the points standings, a driver’s historical performance at a racetrack, or if the team cracked the breaking news cycle for any number of reasons.
Of course, I know what you’re thinking… what about the other cars that make up a 43-car field? Do they get researched? Not to the degree of the top-24 teams, but yes. Why is this so? Spake explains why better than I can. “There are a lot of teams that we know, based on experience that we’re not going to talk about [on the broadcast],” Spake said. “So, we’ll talk about car conditions, but we don’t need to know the whole backstory.” This can help partially explain why some teams are ignored during the races.
Writer’s Note: Originally, the previous paragraph read that ESPN does not get information on all the teams. This is not true. I’ll admit right here that I screwed up while originally writing this piece and I am very sorry for unintentionally misrepresenting what Shannon said to me.
Editor’s Note: After the story, ESPN has contacted us to correct this portion of the interview, claiming even all the start-and-park teams are spoken to before each race and they go into each one prepared on all 43 cars as you never know “which direction the race is going to go.”
After each pit reporter gets their information, each member emails what they’ve learned to the other three pit reporters (in this case, Shannon would email the information gained about Keselowski, Ryan Newman, etc.) to Dave Burns, Vince Welch and Jamie Little on the ESPN staff). With the knowledge in hand, the four-member team is now well-prepped and ready to handle the weekend’s events.
As for the pit assignments themselves, it is done via a lottery process. ESPN splits the pit road into four sections, but it’s 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 balance things out, making sure you don’t have one section with five marquee names while another only has one or two. Even with this manipulation of pit sections, though, the drivers covered are usually all in a row. As for who covers who, 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 went first, the person who went third at Daytona would go second, and so on. This pattern for pit reporter assignments has continued ever since, remaining the same for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series races.
Even with relatively small pit-stall assignments (about 10 stalls apiece), pit reporters cannot be everywhere, though. That’s why 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. While traversing their end of pit road, reporters will often climb up on the pit box and ask a question, then either keep that information under their hat or use it immediately in an on-air hit if it’s breaking news.
Because of their constant presence in a NASCAR work zone, working as a pit reporter can actually be physically hazardous for multiple reasons, one of which is simply the noise. Even when cars aren’t around, there is the constant buzz of generators going around which can give even the most seasoned veteran an earache. 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) to make sure all their talent remains in good health. This was a random tidbit I learned during the compound tour, as someone actually showed up in the compound to perform the tests. Add that to the simple fact an active pit area at all times presents the myriad collection of dangers facing 43 sets of crew members on race day, and you can see why these reporters are wearing protective firesuits just like the guys on pit road. As an example, I had to sidestep around people running with gas cans multiple times during the Nationwide race on Saturday. That can get dangerous when the track is hot during a 500-mile event all 43 crews are jockeying to win; but thankfully, none of NASCAR’s pit reporters have ever suffered serious injury.
Calling The Race From Above
Meanwhile, in the play-by-play production booth, covering the Cup race proves a whole different animal altogether. 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 just so that they can stay on task with production.
In addition, there are several other statistical aids that can help them. There is a flat-screen TV showing the running order at all times, along with other basic information that’s critical to relate to viewers. Unlike the scrolls on the broadcast, however, the timing and scoring information 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 play-by-play man 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 “headset 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 point during my interview with him, as I brought up the example of the Nationwide race at Phoenix in April as an example of how the necessity of “vocal multitasking” can result in missed communication. Back then, the booth was buzzing about Carl 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, however, because the booth wasn’t able to sort through all the voices and hear what was happening on-air.
Also, during my sitdown interview I asked Dr. Punch 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, during a routine production evaluation of his work, ESPN brass felt that he was too enthusiastic on-air and basically told him to tone it down. That toning down, in my opinion, has now basically resulted in the de-emphasizing of Dr. Punch in favor of emphasizing Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree, leaving the less emotional 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.
So, about a week later, after I got home from Watkins Glen, I put Punch’s claims 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? Absolutely. 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. But do I think this move that ESPN’s brass decided to make was the right one? 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 throughout their careers (and with Bestwick, I’m referring to his switch to pit road in late 2004 in favor of Bill Weber moving to the booth). It’s clearly a production team that supports itself in all facets both on the air and off the track.
Meanwhile, Dr. Punch does not see himself as the best play-by-play man out there. But he certainly doesn’t see himself as the worst; and instead of worrying about comparing himself to others, he’s just happy that he gets the chance to do it every week. “I’m living my dream,” was a running theme he told me multiple times over the course of the interview, thankful for the opportunity after years of missing out on the sport. You see, when ESPN lost the rights to NASCAR’s then-Winston Cup and Busch series after the 2000 season, Dr. Punch chose to stay at the network 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). Turning down opportunities to leave ESPN for FOX back in 2001, he took on sideline and booth work for college football and college basketball instead, keeping himself visible while hoping ESPN regained the rights to air the now-Sprint Cup Series later on in his career. 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 Bestwick, were basically determined early in 2006 – and with fan favorite Punch already a part of the network, it seems he was rewarded for his loyalty, service, and dedication).
Just like with the pit reporters, working in the booth is a seven-day-a-week affair, where calling the race is only part of the puzzle. In fact, the work for the next week begins as soon as the on-air personalities get home. ESPN arranges for DVD’s of each race to be sent out to the on-air personalities, as a way they can self-critique and learn from both mistakes and exceptional moments in the broadcast. Dr. Punch says that he watches the race tapes while exercising at his home in Knoxville, Tenn. And proofing his work often leads to new discoveries, he told me, an awareness of things that he never noticed when doing the actual race broadcasts live. The radio snippets, which were first added to race telecasts in the mid-1990s, are one of the things that he doesn’t always pick up on.
It’s certainly an interesting type of film study, isn’t it? Think of it as if on-air personalities are basically using these DVDs much like athletes do to help prepare for their next game. And you think NASCAR teams are the only ones constantly looking to improve….
How It All Gets On The Air: The TV Compound
If you were to walk past the NASCAR 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. Believe it or not, during the ESPN time of year the compound, which houses hundreds of workers each weekend, actually is smaller than at most other times of year because both the Nationwide and Cup series broadcasts are consolidated under one network. Two years ago, it was not unusual to see upwards of two dozen trucks enclosed inside the compound for the Daytona 500; and while budget cuts have reduced that number slightly, a throng of television people come together to make the broadcasts happen each weekend. Inside each one of these trailers are the lifeblood of NASCAR TV.
My first stop in a compound-wide tour was the Craftsman Tech Garage. This mobile studio is basically a marvel of on-site studio space for ESPN, with a Cup Series chassis and a collection of tools that would make any crew chief jealous. The trailer expands to allow extra room for Tim Brewer to show off his wares (believe me, the Tech Garage is his baby); in fact, it even opens up so that equipment can be easily moved in and out. On Friday, when I toured the trailer, there was a Nationwide Series car there with a cart containing various pieces of ballast. Believe those crews when they say it’s heavy stuff to move around! In total, this equipment weighs approximately 40 tons; as it is, 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, a showcase of how diverse the equipment inside this place can be. But 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.
My next stop is where the in-car cameras are supported, by both the host broadcaster 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.
However, regardless of past usage 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 ones 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.
From there, it was on to the ESPN-specific trucks that pump out any and all video and information you see on a weekend’s worth of shows. Now, Fridays in the TV compound (the day I had my tour) are known as “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 nonetheless.
In this trailer, which 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.
Believe me, though, there’s a good reason for that. 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. 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 variety is probably one of the explanations as to why more wide shots are not used on the broadcast. I asked Mr. Shiftan 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). Additionally, in the past it’s important to note these options didn’t exist, forcing natural usage of wide shots from roof cams wherever there was action on the racetrack because it was pretty much all the network had to work with.
The large selection of cameras and tape to choose from is why sometimes (like at Bristol this past weekend) it might take awhile to get a good replay of a wreck – simply because it took awhile 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, but it can be sometimes difficult to find the best shot right off the bat.
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). With an editing machine and producers on-site, it can still take hours or sometimes days for those polished, five minute features to get their final approval and appear during a pre-race show. But one thing’s for sure; no piece goes through without several sets of eyes looking over the final product. During a pre-production meeting on Saturday, sometimes footage will actually be previewed in front of the whole production team as a way to not only prepare for Sunday but to receive any feedback, support, and final tweaks heading into the main event.
In all, the experience of actually touring through ESPN’s compound and talking to a couple of their on-air personalities was an eye-opening experience. I now have a much better idea of all the work that goes into these broadcasts. It’s certainly easy to point out what’s right and wrong each Sunday; but even in a production that leads to plenty of criticism, never forget the blood, sweat and tears from dozens of dedicated personnel that give 110% to bring the race to your TV screen. Things may not always go their way… but it’s never for a lack of trying.
Writer’s Note: I want to thank Andy Hall, ESPN’s Manager of Media Relations for helping to set up the interviews and the TV compound tour for me, as well as Dr. Jerry Punch, Allen Bestwick, James Shiftan, and Shannon Spake for agreeing to sit down and talk. To our dedicated fans… does this mean that my critiques will be neutered for the rest of the season? No. But it does mean I’m more informed than ever before, and I certainly thank them for their insight and inside information as to why they do what they do each week.