Behind the Broadcast: Taking On NASCAR With FOX Sports

FOX Sports The FOX Sports production team works during a NASCAR race.

Nearly every weekend from mid-February until early November, NASCAR fans click on the TV to catch the next race on the schedule. They see the result of hard work in the garage. They also see the result of countless hours of hard work and a jaw-dropping amount of technology.

Located far away from the infield, the garages, and the fan experience sits a massive compound full of semi-truck trailers. This is where FOX Sports resides each week of its portion of the NASCAR season.

There are 11 trailers in total – three for production, one for SMT, two generator trucks, one NASCAR truck, and two Broadcast Sports International (BSI) trucks. The remaining two are focused on operations and catering.

Once the calendar turns to the NBC Sports portion of the schedule, the equipment in the compound changes, but a portion of FOX Sports personnel remains while continuing to cover the Craftsman Truck Series races. The two broadcast partners have a great relationship, and they are willing to share their equipment throughout the season.

During a normal race weekend, this compound is full of people moving at a brisk pace while taking care of business. On-air talent is doing research about prominent storylines while heading to a golf cart for their ride to the track or the booth. Members of the production and technical teams are moving briskly between trailers, beverages in hand, getting their game faces on before a long afternoon in front of millions of dollars worth of equipment.

This may look like chaos from the outside, but it’s actually nothing out of the ordinary for the men and women that dedicate the majority of their year to bringing racing to the public.

The Main Production Truck is the Eye of the Storm

FOX SportsThe director (left) & technical director (right) have to be in constant communication.

One thing that is clear about the FOX Sports team is that its members can work through distractions. There is nonstop noise in the main production truck that features video feeds on a massive wall of monitors and a large group of workers focusing on various tasks.

The center of this production truck is a massive video board featuring 55 screens. The majority are dedicated to cameras positioned around the track, each bearing a nickname. Examples are “lock off, pit road out, and choose.” Other cameras have the nicknames of the operators for the particular day, which makes it easier for the director and producer to work through various angles.

The massive screen also features onboard footage from drivers throughout the field. This provides a raw look at the action on the track, so the team can find specific angles for replays. For the Truck Series, one feed is dedicated to Daniel Dye, who has become the de facto replay angle for major incidents on the track. For the Cup Series, there will be multiple driver-eye cameras showing the amount of work taking place in the cockpit.

Along with the cameras, there are other screens that help the director and producer keep track of everything taking place. One shows a digital layout of the track with the exact position of every single driver at all times. Another shows the raw feed of the running order and intervals between cars.

The main people running the ship are the director and the producer. The director is constantly yelling things like, “Dissolve six’ or ‘Dissolve 22.” These are commands for the technical director, who runs a massive control board and switches between the feeds that correlate to the numbers or nicknames. This continues for hours on end as drivers battle for the all-important win.

The producer, for comparison, is in charge of storylines. They work with the director to get shots set up that will highlight prominent drivers. Meanwhile, the camera operators are in a different location listening to commands as they try to find the right angle or car.

“[The camera operators] are not necessarily following every car, right, because that’d be almost impossible,” said George Grill, Coordinating Technical Producer. “So they’re listening to the director, and they say, ‘Okay, give me Joey Logano. This is who we’re talking about.’

“So these guys are constantly looking for Joey Logano to come into frame in their screen so they can follow. The guys are listening, ‘Okay, I’ve got him on 13,’ and you pick him up.”

The producer also has a direct line to the booth talent, which they use to prep important conversations, and they can set up seamless transitions between topics.

An example was the intro for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway. The producer talked to Adam Alexander, Kevin Harvick, and Michael Waltrip as they prepared for their pace laps commentary.

The producer told Alexander to lead with a quick intro welcoming the fans and then he told Harvick to follow with details about the track layout and potential trouble spots for the young drivers.

Finally, the producer told Waltrip to jump in and discuss the strategy the drivers would use during the evening race. Once the broadcast came back from commercials, the three men in the booth were ready to hit their marks without hesitation.

Interestingly enough, the producer regularly jumps in when there is a lull in the conversation between the analysts and the play-by-play person. They will say something simple like, ‘The weather could be a factor tonight,” which will prompt a conversation between the former and active drivers in the booth.

The producer may also point out that a particular team has struggled on pit road for the past several weeks, which they learned while doing hours and hours of research each week. This little detail will serve as a cue for the group in the booth, as well as the pit reporters as they look for the important storylines.

Another key role filled by the producer is setting up replays. They will see something happen on one of the dozens of screens, such as a crash, and they will shout, “Roll it back!” This lets the video team on site and in the studios back in Pittsburgh or Los Angeles know that they need to find an angle of the big moment and get it ready for air.

Pit Stop Updates Are a Pivotal Part of the Broadcast

Jamie Little

GettyJamie Little prepares for a pit road update.

While the producer and the director are focusing on the storylines that will become a key part of the broadcast, there is another important person managing other FOX Sports talent. The pit producer has an open line to Regan Smith, Jamie Little, Jamie Howe, Josh Sims, and Amanda Busick during the various national series races. This pit producer is directly responsible for organizing the mid-race updates about pit stops, tire strategy, and other details that race fans want to know at all times.

The pit reporters have the ability to talk to the pit producer and explain what they are seeing down in the heart of the action while using their hours of research as a reference. The pit producer can also take the information provided by the producer and tell the reporters to chase down specific storylines. This then sets up Adam Alexander, Little, or Mike Joy to seamlessly break into the play-by-play.

“It’s kind of like air traffic control in a way because you’re looking at the monitors, you’re watching the comers and goers, you’re looking at the storylines,” said Pam Miller, Producer at FOX Sports. “You’re always on the alert for a pit stop, so you’re always trying to organize what order they’re going to be in, how they’re gonna do it.

“You’re keeping the pit reporters totally abreast of, ‘Your guy’s going up, your guy’s going down. Hey, this is happening. Why did this happen?’ And you’re running them around a little bit in the interim. But then when pit stops come, they know what order of what they’re going to do. And you’re directing them, helping already with the cameras, and then you’re talking them through how to do the sequence.”

Of course, getting the updates is only part of the process. Another is humanizing the pit stop. As Miller explains, no one cares about a simple four-tire stop with a dash of fuel. They want to know why one team gained multiple spots and why another had a slower stop.

This is where the hours of research about past races come into play. The pit reporters know about struggles at RFK Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, and other organizations, so they can provide updates about progress – or lack thereof – being made during each stop of the race.

The Constant Communication Creates Nonstop Noise

Adam Alexander

FOX SportsAdam Alexander (left) anchors FS1’s coverage of NASCAR Xfinity Series races.

There are multiple byproducts of the constant communication taking place inside the production truck. One is that every team member knows what is expected of them, whether they are in the trailer, the booth, on pit road, or working remotely in one of the FOX Sports studios spread across the country.

The other byproduct is that there are no silent moments. Everyone is talking while working. They are relaying information, trying to problem solve, and setting up shots for later in the broadcast.

This noise, while it may be distracting to outsiders, is critical for a good broadcast. It means that there is action taking place during the race. Lulls are terrible for the producer and director. They would much rather have a constant stream of communication that they must sift through in order to find the best possible storyline.

“You’re just assessing [the race] constantly, figuring out what goes to the top of the list,” Miller said. “You might have six different things come at you from different perspectives that are about different drivers.

“And you’re trying to figure out, ‘Okay, who’s at the top of that list, who’s racing at that moment, who’s relevant, [who’s] the number one relevant person on that list?’ and you usually get 30 seconds to decide it.”

A Cause for Caution

Every week of the NASCAR season, there are comments about cautions and how FOX Sports or NBC Sports missed showing the wreck live. Many wonder why the cameras weren’t able to automatically switch to a car spinning down on the apron or one hitting the wall and sparking a big incident.

The answer is straightforward, yet complex. It all comes down to timing, luck, experience, and the ability to function under an intense amount of pressure.

The producer and director have to see the early signs of the wreck as they watch the dozens of camera feeds in real-time. They then have to react immediately and call for the technical director to hit the right button to get the wreck on screen.

If there are multiple wrecks happening at once, something that is common in NASCAR, they have to determine which is more important at that exact moment. Oh, and they have to complete this process in one or two seconds at most. There is no time to dilly-dally or debate; the director, producer, and technical director have to be perfectly in sync.

This process unfolded several times during the race weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. The ARCA Menards Series race, in particular, had several incidents that forced the members of this trio to react with lightning speed.

Obviously, there are times when FOX Sports misses a pivotal wreck, and they have to go back and show it with a replay instead of in real time. This is inevitable in the world of fast-paced live sports. However, the fact that they can still quickly spot the majority of wrecks and get them in front of viewers at home is no small thing.

The Work Doesn’t Stop During Breaks

GettyThe work never stops for the FOX Sports team.

Obviously, FOX Sports can not show the entire race unfiltered. There have to be commercial breaks throughout the broadcast, whether they are full-screen or side-by-sides showing the action on the track and an Advance Auto Parts ad.

These breaks lead to strongly-worded tweets from viewers, but they are an essential part of the broadcast for multiple reasons. First off, they help pay the bills. This is crucial for the industry given the importance of the TV deal.

The commercial breaks also allow the figures in the booth to have an unfiltered conversation about potential topics. They can use the time to decide if it’s worth talking about one driver running around 25th place when he qualified inside of the top 15. They can also discuss how they thought certain stages would play out differently, which sets up storylines upon the return from commercials.

The intriguing part about these breaks in action is that those in the booth get a moment to just enjoy the race as a fan. When something exciting happens, they react. Waltrip, in particular, dropped an expletive during the break because he was so excited about something that happened on the track at Kansas Speedway. Fans didn’t get to see it, but for the people in the truck, it reinforced the fact that Waltrip still does this job because he just loves racing.

From Joy To Anger & Back Again

Broadcasting racing every week is a dream job for the people in the FOX Sports compound, but there is no denying that it is difficult. The hours are long, the work is hard, and the slightest mistake leads to angry comments on social media.

There are times when the tension is palpable inside the truck, especially if there is a miscommunication about a desired camera angle or live shot. However, there is no time for people to argue. They have to immediately push forward and focus on the next shot. The TV product is far more important than petty arguments.

What’s fascinating about this mindset is how quickly the atmosphere changes. Two people will be angry with each other in the truck in one moment and then they will be joking around and laughing within 30 seconds. It’s a jarring change for outsiders, but it is like a warm blanket for those that spent their formative years on a sports team.

“It’s as much a team sport in the truck as it is a team sport on the track,” Miller said. “And I think that if you just are open-minded and receive all the information and encourage people to contribute, it kind of all falls into place.

“…Laughter also helps because you have to [laugh]. You’ve seen how intense it is [in the truck], right? Your laughter can break the tension. And so you want to embrace those moments too.”

As Miller can attest, this is a circus that runs throughout the year as the broadcast teams work together in-person and remotely. Is it hectic at times? Yes. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Would the people at FOX Sports want it any other way? Not a chance.

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