CONCORD, N.C. – Two thirds of the way into the Dollar General 300, wrecked race cars are being dragged off from all around the Lowe’s Motor Speedway track.
ESPN has covered the multicar wreck six ways to Sunday. Replays, interviews and analysis all been done, and now the network needs a break. As in a commercial break.
“One to go,” someone yells.
“What?” coordinating producer Rich Feinberg says. “There are wrecked cars all over the track!”
Just to Feinberg’s right, producer Neil Goldberg scans a dizzying array of video monitors. Embedded into the table in front of him is a computerized monitor, customized to keep up with vital information about the race that’s going on and about the television show being done to cover it.
A clock is ticking on that screen. As it reaches 14 minutes for the current race segment, Feinberg and Goldberg exchange a glance. There’s a story to be told. There’s also business to be done. Every tick of that clock puts these two tasks further into conflict.
Welcome to the production truck, the nerve center for ESPN’s coverage. After I criticized some of what the network did at a race at Richmond in September, Feinberg invited me to come watch the inner workings of a telecast firsthand.
It’s been said that if you like eating sausage, the last thing you want to do is to see it being made. I am not sure that’s so for live sports television, however. Those who constantly complain about NASCAR broadcasts might develop more appreciation for the task if they could see what I saw Friday night.
I’ve tried hard to come up with a good analogy. The best I can do is to ask you to imagine sitting on stage during an orchestra’s performance. You’re so close that all you’re really hearing is sound, but it still makes you appreciate how amazing it is that all of the elements come out as anything even resembling music.
The main production truck, one of several semi trailers parked in the compound just behind the frontstretch grandstands at the Charlotte track, is linked by dozens of cables to other trucks containing equipment to marry sound, pictures, replays, computer graphics and I don’t know what all.
The conductors sit in the main truck, which has more television screens than your average Best Buy and enough computer equipment to land the space shuttle. When the race begins, it turns into sensory overload, a complete audio and video cacophony.
If you could hear everything booth announcers Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree are being told while they’re trying to talk on the air, you’d be impressed that they can get a word OUT edgewise.
Before the green flag flies, Feinberg settles into his chair and slides over a piece of paper. It’s the “budget” for the night’s race, which has an 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. broadcast window on ESPN2. The commercial load is 44 minutes, 14 seconds, separated into 18 breaks. That works out to about three minutes of coverage for every minute of commercials, broken into segments averaging a little over seven minutes each.
“Some nights, it all works out just like it’s supposed to,” Feinberg says. “Some nights, it doesn’t.”
Just as the team is preparing for a break, the first caution flies. The leaders are coming to pit road, so the commercial must wait. By the time pit stops have been covered, it’s going to be tight as to whether the broadcast will be back in time for the green flag.
The previous segment was over 9 minutes, too, so now the breaks are behind schedule. But the break ends in time for a restart, and within a few laps there’s another yellow. The pit reporters find out the leaders won’t stop this time, so it’s off to another break after barely more than three minutes. That helps.
By halfway, 10 breaks are in. “So far, so good,” Feinberg says.
Seconds later, there’s a crash.
“CRASH 10,” three people yell at once, referring to the camera number that has the action in focus. That also happens to be the camera shot going out live at that moment.
“We’re on it!” Goldberg says.
That begins a wild, wreck-filled stretch in the race. At one point, early when there had been few cautions, the computer was projecting the race would be over as early as 10:12. But things change. At 10:14, there are 50 laps – and three breaks – to go.
Feinberg is already thinking about how the race will end, both on the track and on the air. If the race ends early, that leaves more time for the top finishers to be interviewed. But viewership typically peaks as the race ends, then falls off dramatically. The more time there is after the checkered flag, the more that drop in viewership can pull down the overall average rating.
“Then the headline in the paper is about the rating being down,” Feinberg says. “You try to do what’s best for the fans, but there is a balance you have to strike.”
A shot of two cars catches Feinberg’s eye. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is closing rapidly on leader Jeff Burton’s rear bumper. As he opens his mouth to say something, voices erupt. There’s a car wrecking, and the caution is coming out. Earnhardt Jr.’s aborted charge becomes a quick replay, just before the final break.
The race ends just after 10:47. Pit reporter Dave Burns trots to find a driver to interview, bracing the battery pack he wears around his waist as it bangs against his backside. Post-race results and points standings graphics are generated.
Nothing you see on the screen – no picture, no camera change, no graphic – appears without somebody calling for it and deciding to put it on the air. People yell, a lot. They talk over the top of each other and across each other.
“Twenty seconds to roll out!” someone yells. A large digital clock ticks toward 11:00:00. Credits role and Goldberg calls a few final shots, showing sights around the track.
And then it’s over.
“Good show, everybody,” Feinberg says.
Good grief, I think. I thought my job was hard.