Back in September, I had the great pleasure to sit down with some of NBC Sports’ on-air personalities. We’ve already covered the point of view of play-by-play commentator Rick Allen and booth analyst Jeff Burton. Today, we’re going down to pit road with the help of Kelli Stavast.
For me, personally, the first time I saw Stavast working on race broadcasts was back prior to the unification of Grand-AM and the American Le Mans Series into the current form of IMSA. Stavast worked as a pit reporter on both SPEED and ESPN broadcasts at that time. In addition, Stavast has worked on broadcasts for SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks, the Red Bull Air Race and the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series.
Later on, Stavast moved to NBC Sports to serve as a pit reporter for IndyCar races. When NBC Sports obtained rights to the second half of the NASCAR season starting in 2015, Stavast made the move to NASCAR.
Unlike the booth commentators, the vast majority of the work for the pit reporters is in the infield. To supplement that work, NBC Sports provides the pit reporters with a work space inside of the garage. This is essentially a plain white mobile office, that from the outside, looks like any other team’s transporter.
Here, the pit reporters collaborate and put together the notes that they gather from the different teams. In addition, it’s also a changing space as well. By no means is it a place to relax, but it’s comfortable enough that you could do that in a pinch. There is also a feed of the on-track action in the room.
For the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, NBC Sports’ pit reporters generally get their assignments post-qualifying. According to Stavast, the teams pick their stalls after qualifying. NBC’s Pit Producer gets a printout with the assignments and divides it up among the three or four reporters. Situations such as an impound race like at Richmond a couple of weeks ago could throw a wrench into the proceedings. This is why the information sharing is so important.
The Pit Producer’s goal is to create reporting assignments that are as equitable as possible. This is not unique among the TV partners as FOX Sports does something similar. When ESPN still aired races, they did the same as well.
How do the pit reporters get their information? In Stavast’s case, this is done by talking with individual drivers and crew chiefs. She simply goes into the haulers and finds the principals from the teams that she needs to talk with. They’re generally an understanding bunch.
“When I started here [in 2015], I was a little bit more shy [about] just walking into someone’s hauler,” Stavast explained to Frontstretch. “That’s their office, while this is mine. Now, the teams all know me and they’ll open the door before I can get there half the time since they know what I’m there for.”
For Xfinity Series races, the principle is the same. However, it’s a little easier to get with the drivers because they don’t have as many responsibilities as Cup drivers. Also, most of the Xfinity regulars don’t have motorcoaches on-site that they can spirit away to.
For the notes, Stavast will focus primarily on the teams with the biggest stories, but she will get to everyone that she is assigned. When we interviewed her, it was the middle of the playoffs, so she gives emphasis to the playoff drivers that she was assigned. In addition, there are also non-playoff drivers that could contend for wins that get priority. In the Xfinity race that weekend, Stavast was assigned Justin Marks. She gave his team extra emphasis since it was likely his final start in the series. Sure enough, Marks finished second.
Many of the Xfinity races have pit lane assignments set based on qualifying from the previous week. In those situations, the pit reporters would do their research ahead of time, then pool their notes so that everyone will have the information they need for the race just in case the assignments are made late.
The reporters also share any information that they hear in order to benefit the whole. It doesn’t benefit anyone to keep that information close to the vest.
Questions for crew chiefs would concern how the car is handling, the car’s overall speed and more. Maybe not so much at the ROVAL weekend when this interview was conducted since there were so many unknowns. Stavast also asks a series of big picture questions as well. These questions may not necessarily have to do with the race itself, but could pertain to things going on away from the track. This is where you get the information about certain team members being on pins and needles because of a potential new addition to the family, or some other kind of situation going on.
Preparation for pit reporting IndyCar or IMSA races is actually quite similar. Stavast says that the driver access is better is IndyCar, but the terminology in general is different. That goes way beyond oversteer=loose or understeer=push. It can take some getting used to.
Immediately prior to the race, Stavast has a variety of tasks that she can do. If possible, she’ll do some pre-race interviews for Countdown to Green. If not, she’ll be talking to crew chiefs and/or drivers off-air to gather last-minute notes for the race broadcast. She’ll often get information from the drivers that she’s assigned to around the Driver Introductions stage. From there, she’ll take one more look at her notes to prepare for her pre-race on-air segment during the pace laps.
Victory Lane for NBC pit reporters as of last year could work one of two ways. Oftentimes, the reporter that does the Victory Lane interview is the reporter assigned to the winning team. Sometimes, the slot is pre-assigned.
Calling pit stops is a bit of a mixed bag. In Stavast’s case, she has multiple approaches to how she does it.
“I do a little of both [calling stops live and using my monitor],” Stavast explained. “Sometimes, the picture is almost too small on the monitor. I like to keep an eye on what is right in front of me, so I will always position myself as such. Sometimes, you’re calling more than one stop at once. You obviously can’t be in two places at once, so I always pick my highest running car and position myself there. I’ll try to keep one eye on that and one eye on the monitor.”
As compared to when I first started writing Couch Potato Tuesday in 2009, the monitors have grown. Back then, pit reporters had small screens not all that much bigger than a Portable DVD Player to use as their monitor. Today, the monitors are well over 20 inches and can be had inexpensively. That said, it’s not like they’re toting around one of the TVs that the teams have on their pit box for the reporter’s pleasure.
Working the pits can actually be a somewhat confusing task. In Stavast’s case, she can have multiple voices in her ear at any time.
“I have my producer in one ear, and the program (broadcast) and scanner in the other,” Stavast explained. “So, if my producer is talking to me, I can’t hear the program, so I’ll lose the guys in the booth. I don’t want to turn off the scanner because I could miss something important there. It’s definitely a balancing act.”
On paper, that sounds quite difficult to get a grasp on. For Stavast, it was easier than you’d think.
“It actually came pretty easy for me,” Stavast said. “I think it’s just something that you either have a knack for and are comfortable with right away.”
Marty Snider, who came into the room when this question was being posed, agreed with Stavast. He did mention that it did take some getting used to.
In regards to the scanner, Stavast will only turn it off so that she doesn’t miss her cue from the broadcast booth (typically from Allen, but sometimes Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Steve Letarte could throw the broadcast to her). There are obvious reasons for that move, but if there is a lot of talk over the headset from the producer, Stavast (or any other pit reporter) could miss their cue.
With so much going on, being a pit reporter can be chaotic at times. And that’s when shenanigans aren’t going down. Most of you reading this article can remember at least one situation where reporters got wrapped into some craziness. Stavast wasn’t on-air for this one, but ESPN’s Jamie Little, Marty Smith and Bob Pockrass were right there in the midst of it, along with PRN Radio’s Jim Noble.
For her part, Stavast says that she thrives on this chaos pertaining to breaking news. Anything can happen in NASCAR at any time.
When Stavast was pit reporting for Grand-AM and ALMS, she would be on the hot side of the pit wall. When we did this interview, Stavast stated that it sounded crazy to be working around cars that were pitting and that “…I genuinely don’t know if I could go back to that after having been behind the wall for as long as I have now.” Cut to four months later and Stavast was back over the wall, pit reporting for NBC Sports’ coverage of the Rolex 24 at Daytona (the featured picture is from before the race started).
In-race communication between Stavast and the teams can differ as well, depending on a number of factors. Some crew chiefs will text Stavast information. However, she prefers running through the pits and gathering information on her own, face-to-face. Stavast says that she and her colleagues generally do depend on the radio communications from the teams quite a bit, so in practice, the face-to-face communication is often simply a check on what she’s heard on the radio.
Fire suit usage in the pits is a mixed bag. For example, ESPN permanently mandated fire suits for pit reporters after a fire in Richard Petty’s pit at Atlanta in 1989.
For NBC Sports, it’s a mixed bag. The pit reporters wear the fire suits for IMSA coverage (mandated since they’re over the wall) and sometimes for IndyCar, but don’t in NASCAR. Stavast is actually somewhat confused as to why that is the case, but she did note that some of the races were so hot in the fire suits on pit road that it could be detrimental to the pit reporters’ health.
NASCAR officially recommends fire suits in the pits for everyone, including photographers, but does not require them. The decision was ultimately made to ditch them and everyone seems to be happier for it.
Overall, pit reporting can be a very rewarding part of a broadcast. You have to be observant and quick on your feet. It is not a job for the weak of heart. A lot goes on at the track and you have to be ready for everything.
That’s all for this week. Next week, racing returns with plenty of action in Talladega. Formula 1 will be in Azerbaijan, while Monster Energy AMA Supercross returns to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. TV Listings are in the Television tab.
We will provide critique of the GEICO 500 and MoneyLion 300 in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. The Critic’s Annex will be back on Thursday in the Frontstretch Newsletter, but the topic is currently undecided.
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