In a production truck designed specifically for race coverage, 10 people work at a calm, but frantic pace in the glow of 20 42-inch plasma screens. The 10, who chatter constantly with one another, also communicate incessantly with members of ESPN's 200-member crew. Their goal is basic: produce a race. So far this season, ESPN has done that for the Busch Series. Starting with today's Allstate 400, the network will use its arsenal of toys - including 13 mobile units, 90 microphones, and 80 high-definition cameras - to broadcast the final 17 Nextel Cup races, including the last 11 that will air on ABC. Senior motorsports producer Neil Goldberg is like the coach and lead director Richie Basile is like the quarterback for the ESPN production team. They take input from other members but ultimately put the plays into action. If they do it right, you won't be thinking about their jobs. So before you watch the race, here's an idea of what's going on while you're sitting there:
The easiest way to infuriate the NASCAR nation is to cut to a commercial before a restart or with 10 laps left to run. ESPN understands that; after all, viewership peaks at the end of the race. But advertisers pay the bills, so ESPN -specifically associate director Linda Scultz - has a checklist to make sure each ad gets aired. Braking for breaks sometimes is impossible with the ongoing action of NASCAR. But Scultz, stopwatch in hand, makes sure the list is complete by the end of the show.
Engines revving. Air wrenches loosening and tightening bolts. Cars whizzing around the racetrack, racing side-by-side; sometimes slamming and crashing into one another. Apart from being at the track and inhaling the actual fumes, sound is the most important connection to NASCAR. That's why ESPN lays out around 90 microphones for each race and has a room in one of the mobile units devoted purely to handling the sounds.
Twenty miles of video, audio and power cable are needed for a 1.5-mile track like Homestead. ESPN will need a bit more today at Indianapolis' 2.5-mile oval.
At the Brickyard today, there will be almost 80 cameras, which includes three onboard cameras for each onboard car. Generally, ESPN will use between 60 and 75 high-definition cameras. During the Busch series, the onboard drivers always finished high. If the drivers' points were rolled into one, that driver likely would be sitting second in points at least midway through the season. Kevin Harvick is a real fan of the $5,000 onboard experience. During the Busch race in July at Daytona Beach, both he and his crew chief were real pros in front of the camera - Harvick even used his hands to talk and tried to make eye contact with the camera while driving. "Look at these guys playing to the camera," Goldberg said with a chuckle during the race. "These guys are getting ridiculous." A happy Harvick finished second.
Every aspect of the track is monitored and recorded so ESPN doesn't miss a single pass or wreck. For starters, there are three cameras on the roof, one on the back straightaway, another on the frontstretch, and don't forget about the blimp.
In the production truck, some plasma screens are divided into as many as 12 frames, and all of them are named. There are names like Silver, Dog, Gopher and Popeye. But the one that took the most getting used to was Yellow. At first, when someone would shout "Yellow" as in, "Let's switch to the image on the yellow screen," the response was a collective groan, as in, "Not another caution."
Goldberg rattles off commands but responds to input from the nine other people, who also are plugged into headsets and therefore the chatter of pit reporters, graphic artists and so on. There is zero hesitation, and the tongue-tied moments are few. Goldberg and Basile react and analyze on the fly, but they also have to anticipate what could happen. For instance, is the ticker, which shows the running order, going to cover up the replay?
In the pits
Four pit reporters scurry about, gathering news, listening to radio chatter and relaying their findings to pit producer James Shiftan, who picks his reporters' voices out of the 40 or 50 clashing around in his headset. For four or more hours, Shiftan watches the screens and organizes the reporters' plan of attack before the race, during the race and after the race. He tells Basile and Goldberg what information he has and sometimes warns them if the radio chatter they are about to air gets ugly. Shiftan also has to tell the reporters how many questions they have time to ask. Sometimes he'll even tell them what to ask. That's standard. Even the neatly pressed broadcasters get fed a query time and again from an expert paid to keep up with the sport's current events so the viewer is informed.
Shiftan talks so much that he often loses his voice. But even if he doesn't, he still uses the day after a race to recover. That means he chills alone in his quiet New York apartment.
Time to roll
A quick cheer erupts once the credits roll. The production folks get a quick break, but other members of the crew stick around to pack up the trucks and head for the next location. ESPN predicts that its five core mobile units will log 167,340 miles during its Nextel Cup race coverage.
Kellie Dixon can be reached at (352) 848-1430.