First things first: Netflix’s The Crew exists, like every NASCAR project made by Hollywood, in an alternate reality.
In this one, the winner of the 1994 Southern 500 was not Bill Elliott. It was an underdog driver named Kevin Gibson.
Fast-forwarding to modern times, Gibson (played by Kevin James) is the long-time crew chief of a family-owned Cup Series team that’s seen better days and is about to see some big changes with a new, younger owner.
That’s the jumping-off point for the 10-episode first season of the sitcom that debuted Monday on Netflix.
The show was announced in September 2019 to much … uh, skepticism? Especially from me, someone who views NASCAR’s representation in popular media following 1990’s Days of Thunder as being somewhere between embarrassing and “Not great, Bob!”
When the show’s trailer was unveiled, I looked for any sign the show would veer into the notoriously farcical area inhabited by 2006’s Talladega Nights. One red flag was the driver character Jake Martin (Freddie Stroma), who is missing some lug nuts, but is kind of a competent driver nonetheless?
That element panned out.
But, having seen the first three episodes of The Crew, I can report … it’s a capable comedy that exists in an alternate, yet passable reality to our own (albeit with awkward editing that depicts races taking place at multiple tracks: Martinsville Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, for example). For real nerds, see if you can spot the old Coke C2 firesuit in the set decoration of the team’s shop.
My viewing of the first three episodes informed a one-on-one interview I got to conduct with the show’s creator, Jeff Lowell. Lowell is a veteran of Netflix’s The Ranch, the underrated Jim Gaffigan Show, Spin City and The Drew Carey Show.
I had a fun time talking with Lowell and learned quite a bit about the process of making a sitcom like this one, especially given the ongoing state of the COVID-19 pandemic.
McFadin: So you’re the creator, you’re the showrunner, you’re (one of the writers). When did this idea for The Crew come into existence? How did it fall into your lap?
Lowell: I have to give credit to a producer called Todd Garner, who was one of our executive producers. He and and Matt Summers, who is one of the guys [in charge of] putting together Hollywood and NASCAR, had known each other forever and had always thought about doing it. And Todd has worked with Kevin James a lot. And so he sort of thought, Kevin James plus NASCAR feels good. And I’d worked with him in features before, just never in TV. I don’t think he’d done TV before this. But we were just having a feature meeting. He’s like, “what do you think of this idea?” And I’m like, “it sounds pretty great.” I’m sure he had a ton of those meetings. And my process was, “I like the first two pieces.” Kevin is hilarious. And NASCAR is a great sport.
So I dove in and just did a lot of reading about the shift that was happening in NASCAR where crew chiefs used to be guys who grew up, you know, driving cars and building cars and getting their hands dirty. And a shift has happened to now it’s guys with engineering degrees, who may or may not have ever been involved in the sport growing up, and to them it’s mathematical. It’s a lot of Moneyball, it’s a lot of what’s happening with NFL head coaches. And I thought, that’s a great sort of theme for this, the sort of generational changing of the guard that’s going on in this sport. And you see, the old guard is still out there. They’re still winning races, but all the hirings are from the new guard, who really haven’t proven themselves.
So to me, that’s a character. It’s a guy who has had a middling career, you know, a little success, a little failure along the way. But definitely, this is his last shot at holding on to it, because there are no more jobs for a guy without an engineering degree in this world. So he has to make this work. And as the guard is changing around him, how will he keep up? Then I went to Kevin and sort of walked him through who I thought this character was. … And I’m like, “I want you to play this guy. I want you to play the guy who has a team under him that he feels responsible for and yes, there’s always pressure from above and that we all have. But you know, you’re great at your job in this.” Which, again, I don’t think it’s something he played. And I think that sounded good to him, because he’s not just playing the guy he’s played a couple of times on TV. And that’s how it came together. …
I think one of the things that was important to NASCAR was, you know, everybody loves Talladega Nights. It’s a hilarious movie, but it kind of pokes some fun at the fans and some fun at the sport. And I think they didn’t want to have that approach. They wanted a more respectful approach that showed who the real fans are and what the sport is like. So I think that was sort of their key to signing off is seeing, you know, how [we were] going to handle that kind of stuff?
McFadin: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the main reason we’re even talking is because you caught one of my tweets a few months ago (September 2019, last year was really long, guys) where I was going after Talladega Nights. Which I find hilarious that’s how we wound up here. So how did you guys make sure to establish a tone for a show that’s true to the sport? Funny, but doesn’t throw anybody under the bus?
Lowell: When I went to the races before, and once I got involved, and you know, you’ve been to I’m sure many, many more races than I have. I find the fans there, they don’t really want to deal with politics and all the fights around the world, they’re there to enjoy a race. And they’re kind of awesome people who are incredibly loyal to this sport. So that was sort of one of the beginning places is Talladega Nights, it really took its shots with the Confederate flags, and all this kind of stuff, and sort of painting it a certain way. And it wasn’t the reality on the ground as far as I could tell. And then beyond that, we just did the work of, I went to Charlotte, and I went to three or four different shops and spent a lot of time there just literally walking through, what’s the next step? Taking me through every room, show me how you build that, just to sort of gather stories and get the reality of it. Just talking to all the people who were the characters that we were going to portray.
Look, it’s a comedy, people tell jokes, they’re funny. It’s heightened in that sense. But it’s much more of a hybrid in that we do some single camera stuff, everything doesn’t have to be just sort of jokes and setup. The goal was to make it feel like what these shops felt like to me, which is, it’s a family where the hours are so crazy and it’s so demanding. You’re working, you know, from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep, then you get on the road together, then you come back. There’s sort of no time for life outside of it. And it becomes your family and you can squabble with each other.
But at the end of the day, you have a really clear, common purpose. And I just sort of wanted to capture that, this feeling of even more than a lot of other workplaces. You know, this is where all of your life is spent. And these people are, I keep saying, family. But that’s what they all are, as far as I could tell, you know, just because of the way it worked.
McFadin: I watched the first three episodes last night and one thing that struck me is, typically most shows that involve a sports league or something, it’s usually a fake sports league with fake teams and stuff like that. But this is a real one. For example, you have a scene where Kevin talks to an executive from Stewart-Haas Racing … so it feels very real in that sense. How important was that, creating your story with real world stakes?
Lowell: If you’re in the NBA, most of your money comes through the deal with the networks. Maybe you make some ticket money and OK, maybe Nike throws you some bucks, but you’re not beholden to sponsors. But one of the things you learn very quickly walking into those shops is that anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of a team’s revenue comes from these sponsors, and they can make demands on you that other sports don’t. The sponsors get to go sit in in the pit box while they’re doing the race, they sort of have this unlimited access, and all this kind of stuff. And I just thought what a great opportunity that I haven’t seen, which is you know, these sponsors are part of it. Netflix has a great hands off attitude with you can use real brands, and you can use real things so it feels like the real world. And then again, we had gone in and talked to these teams. So it was a simple matter, to sort of call them up and go, “We want to have an executive who works for your team and we’re not going to make fun of it, and I’ll send you the pages so you can see what we’re doing. I get real nervous when everything feels fakey and heightened.” We had some fun with it.
You’ve seen that they switch sponsors to a fake brand, just because it was, you know, it was amusing to me that was kind of a total mismatch with the NASCAR world. It’s not crazy. There’s certainly been products that aren’t as great a fit with the teams, and the drivers get razzed for driving those cars and doing that kind of stuff. We’re talking about a possible second season right now, and one of the storylines that we’re doing is, I want to have them lose a sponsor and be without a hood sponsor for a few races, which is a reality for some of these teams. We were able to rent sponsor-a-car for a couple of races during last season and put our fake brand on it so we could get some film. And that just doesn’t exist in any other sport, where I can’t go to the 49ers and go put my fake team on your uniform and play a couple games for me. But that’s a unique thing to NASCAR that is real. And you can sort of have a little bit of a twist on it and have fun. All of those conversations and the things they’re worried about, hopefully are things that would happen on a real team.
McFadin: I know when we were able to talk to Kevin James the other day, he said Tony Gibson, former crew chief, was an advisor on the show. What is something … that’s in the show, because of Tony Gibson?
Lowell: He was definitely somebody, we would ask, “What would really happen?” We just flew him out to the set and sort of A) we walked him through the set and he’s like, “No, we would never do it this way, and put this here and get that,” and so he helped us with the reality of the world. It’s tough to point out something because he cleared everything. But one of the things that he was a big believer in, I can point to something, he said: “Look, some drivers, when they’re out there on the track, and they come around, you ask them what’s wrong, they tell you, ‘you need to make X, Y, and Z adjustment,’ and could literally just use the the technical terms of exactly they want, and some guy comes back and goes, ‘it felt a little funny when I did the thing and I felt a little like this,’ and part of the job of the crew chief is being able to translate the guys who who don’t get technical, knowing exactly what to do.”
And that’s the story of our two drivers that we have through the first season. One guy drives by feel and doesn’t really ever bother to learn the technical stuff because he can say it in his language, and his crew chief who’s been with him for five, 10 years knows exactly what to do. And the next generation nipping at his heels is someone who probably grew up on, you know, iRacing and knows exactly the technical behind it all. So those two characters really grew out of that conversation with Gibson.
McFadin: What’s one note that NASCAR had for you? “We don’t know about that. Could you change this?”
Lowell: They’ve been great. We have a storyline where one of the drivers gets injured and tries to hide the injury. They wanted to be careful. They wanted to say, “Look, we don’t want to say our drivers are doing something that is endangering someone else on the track.” And we’re like, “great,” so we just structured the story to make sure that, it was a driver who didn’t want to admit he had the injury. But we made sure that there was another character, who was watching out for him, and trying to let Kevin know the truth and he didn’t make it out of the truck.
It was more stuff like that. When we talked at the beginning, they’re like, “we don’t want our drivers driving drunk.” And I’m like, “neither do I.” It’s the kind of obvious stuff you wouldn’t want to do. I never ran into it, but I’m sure that if I tried to put tires on a car, and they weren’t Goodyears, I’m sure I would have heard something. But we did our homework so that hopefully they didn’t have to ride herd on us too much.
McFadin: So you mentioned when we first popped in (to our Zoom chat) the world blew up last year (with the COVID-19 pandemic). Where were you production wise when everything started shutting down in the middle of March?
Lowell: It got us two ways. We’d filmed seven out of 10 episodes when it shut down. So we knew the show, we had our rhythms, we had our everything, we were going great. And also I designed the show so that I had one or two scenes every episode that we were going to film at a race, and we were going to originally Charlotte and then we thought maybe Richmond. We were trying to pick the right thing. And we had it all planned out. So after episode 10, we were all getting in trailers and going down south. And we were just going to shoot it all out of the RVs and on the track and back in the garages and all that kind of stuff.
It wasn’t an option.
Well, you know, finally after six months, seven months, we got back and finished the last three episodes in a bubble with a lot of people in walk around spacesuits, but there was no way to get to a track. So we finished our episodes.
And then we cleared out our stage and built, we built garages, we built a pit road and they got multiple pit boxes. They were doing races. So we sent our camera crews out to really film the backgrounds and the racing so that there was some green screen stuff going on. But it was as great as we could make it. Next year, if we’re lucky enough to do them, we’re gonna do the same thing. And this time, we’re gonna get to that race and film all that stuff. Because you can’t replace that. We tried to be as good as we can, we mix real life footage and all this kind of stuff, but there’s no replacement. So next season will look even better.
McFadin: So speaking of the drivers, you have Ryan Blaney, Cole Custer and Austin Dillon. Was it just a matter of these were the drivers who were available? Or was it, we think these drivers are actually going to be really good for this project?
Lowell: It was Matt Summers, our NASCAR guy, who was sort of instrumental in this because his part of the job is being the liaison between Hollywood. So he has guys he’s worked with and know who are good actors and all that kind of stuff. And we had requests like, “Do you think Blaney would do it? Blaney’s great” and all this kind of stuff. So it was a mixture. It was definitely, he said, “This guy can act and might be fun doing it.” And we wrote towards it.
And I have to point this out … all three of them won races last year. So you know, there’s the Sports Illustrated cover curse. We are the opposite. Every driver who has ever appeared on our show won a race that season, so spread the word far and wide.