A look behind ESPN's NASCAR curtain at Dover
With the advent of flat screen and HD technology, the in-home NASCAR experience has never been better. Between slow motion replays, dozens of different camera angles and the surround sound audio, there's every reason for fans to catch the race from the best seat in the house- their own house, that is. Yet few know just how much effort and how many people go into making that three hour television experience what it has become today. Thanks to the good people at ESPN, I caught a glimpse behind the curtain this past weekend and the show was eye-opening to say the least.
First, you'd never suspect that this is a network that plans on leaving the sport a little over 12 months from now. They've invested a staggering amount in both equipment and personnel that follows NASCAR's schedule on a weekly basis. Between Nationwide and Cup races, the production teams are on the road from February to November. Those teams include 11 separate mobile units that do everything from monitor in-car audio to produce on-the-spot video pieces as the race moves along. Up to 75 cameras and 100 microphones capture the action from every conceivable perspective while a crew of 225 set up and tear down this roving circus on a weekly basis. Indeed, the rights fees paid by networks such as ESPN and Fox are merely the starting point when it comes down to the costs involved in putting on a first-class racing program.
Yet it's never enough. Whether it's a near-miss on a green flag, a verbal gaffe by an announcer or the ever-present commercials interrupting the race, fans are rarely satisfied by the race coverage. Full disclosure, I've been one of those fans on more than one occasion. After all, how hard is it to keep things straight- we do it at home, right? A look into one of the major ESPN broadcast trucks might convince you otherwise.
Each of the trucks ESPN brings to the track has a very specific purpose in aiding the race coverage. The vehicles themselves are hard-wired back in February with dozens of screens and computer stations to speed up the process once they arrive at the track. Wiring the trucks, however, is just one step in the process. Crew members lay out mile after mile of cable linking the vehicles together and to the facilities inside the track itself. Wireless technology isn't the sole option here; cables guarantee a steady flow of data from point to point and aren't vulnerable to the kinds of interference that would cause a backlash from viewers at home. Even a handful of minor interruptions of the race would bring a storm of criticism from race fans- a storm no broadcaster is willing to endure.
Stepping inside each trailer is like finding an individual piece of the broadcast puzzle. One truck houses a video uplink from virtually every camera on the track. Producers can instantly see the action in dozens of angles and select the best one to broadcast to viewers at home. Each video station houses a production tech responsible for monitoring multiple cameras in different parts of the track. The net result is that multiple operators are watching different angles of the same piece of track, ensuring that no one tech is overwhelmed by action or accident in their sector.
17 seconds show the clip team in action with Dale Jr's costly pit road error
Another houses video mixing facilities, a little-thought-of but critically important cog late in the race. Did one driver race another aggressively early in the race? Or did a crew member's mistake cost someone several spots on pit road 200 laps ago? These are the guys who have the critical clips ready to go from virtually the moment they occur. Since there's no way to know which clips will matter at the end of the race, everything is cataloged for when the time comes. The operators responsible will feed the director with various clips they have at the ready as the race progresses.
Digital technology has made doing so far easier than was the case in years past. While ESPN maintains physical tape running as a backup measure, the digital video editors ensure that the “tape” is always running. In a sport with no scheduled breaks in the action, the handful of seconds needed to change a tape can be the difference between catching the source of a caution and seeing only the end results. This sort of all-encompassing coverage was nearly impossible 20 years ago, when it was common to miss the start of at least one caution over the course of the race. Now it's a rare event when a spin-out isn't on record somewhere, ready to be cut and broadcast to millions.
Yet another portion of the broadcast enclave holds a small room where its sound techs do nothing but monitor the various team and NASCAR frequencies at the track. As with the video, everything that takes place is digitally recorded and ready at a moment's notice. One scans the various frequencies in near-real time, looking for nuggets of conversation to feed to the producer. The other cuts and tags items of interest both anticipating and meeting producer requests. The area proved just how important it was within the past month. It was in this very room that NASCAR's playoff race began to unravel after the Richmond race, where a simple request to check out late race audio turned into the biggest NASCAR scandal in decades.
Race audio comes in other forms as well, resulting in a mobile audio mixing studio that warmed the heart of this former DJ. Consumer technology rears its head here as well; thanks to the wide release of surround-sound entertainment centers, fans demand an audio experience worthy of the equipment. Gone are the days where a microphone attached to a camera could adequately convey the thunder and fury of raceday. Over a hundred microphones, placed strategically around the track, all feed back to this mixing board. The audio technicians work hand-in-hand with the video team to ensure that the sound in your speakers matches the camera on your screen. For example, accurately broadcasting the sound of the camera following a car through the corner requires just the right mix and fade from several different microphones. At Dover, they had to manage that balance for 43 cars for 400 laps.
Any major network production involves a host of different graphic features and the race coverage is no different. One area focuses on nothing but ESPN's graphical production on a weekly basis. The stats and graphics team puts together a variety of different visual representations of relevant information. Some of the work can be done leading into the race but much of it must be done at the track itself as the race plays out. Moreover, with so many drivers changing sponsors on a regular basis, the network has a photographer whose job is to go up and down pit road snapping pictures of both the drivers and their car that week. Is Dale Jr. growing out his beard? Does Jeff Gordon have a special paint scheme? The photographer captures them all and sends the pictures to the graphics team for digitizing. Those photos are also a part of the ticker that runs at the top of the screen- a ticker that is different in appearance every week.
Another work station manages ESPN's on-camera talent at the track. Four separate reporters roam pit road with a camera crew in tow. Each reporter is assigned set drivers before the race begins. While they sometimes respond to requests from the truck, they are largely responsible for finding stories involving their drivers as the race moves along. Precious on-camera time is the reward for the best stories and getting on-air is the name of the game in this business. As a result, these reporters are constantly calling back to the truck about an interview or a radio snippet they have involving their drivers.
The immense flow of information all ultimately must go through one place and it's in the producer's seat that it comes together for ESPN. He or she sifts through the reams of story options coming from the field and determines which ones merit time on-air. They also feed the broadcast booth with a steady stream of useful information to splice into the race broadcast- stories that the announce team would never have the time to notice on their own.
The producer's team is also responsible for the fan-despised (but critically important) task of clock management. Managing the clock for NASCAR is unlike any other major American sport. For example, a football game has planned stoppages of play in addition to timeouts and regular changes in possession. Producers in those sports can plan their commercial schedule around those breaks then make minor adjustments as the event rolls along.
With no such planned breaks (and an unknown number of caution flags), the producer must balance the needs of the office with continuity of race coverage. Does he call for relatively short segments and more commercials early to enable long stretches near the end of the race? That seems like a good idea. But what if there are several late race cautions? Fans at home are then treated to the ever-so-exciting scene of watching race cars make parade laps, having missed the real action thanks to commercials early on. The time management also applies to the various segments themselves. When is the right time to plug a local feature? Is it worth cutting away from the action to interview a driver who just left the race- and if so, for how long?
Every decision needs to be made in a split-second and every decision is scrutinized by millions. The right decision goes unnoticed and indeed is expected by the fans. Yet a poor one might have thousands of people on Twitter instantly pointing out the error. It takes a certain kind of person not only to take this job but to do it week in and week out. After all, it takes a day and a half to set up the roving village and another two to three days to cover the events themselves. By the time the show's over Sunday night and the equipment packed up, they're only a couple days away from doing it again several hundred miles down the road. NASCAR likes to say that everything else is just a game. The same could easily be said for covering the sport as well.