By JOE DONATELLI and CHRIS M.
FONTANA, Calif. _ Living in Los Angeles, we’ve spent a little time on the sets of television shows. You can always count on a few things at TV tapings, and one of them is the punishing heat of studio lights. Those lights are the reason why, when audience members attend their first taping of, say, The Late Show with David Letterman in New York, they are surprised at how cold the room is. The director keeps the temperature low because no one wants to watch actor Jonah Hill sweat his way through an eight-minute interview – at least not anyone normal.
Inside the ESPN Pit Studio, which has come to Fontana for the Pepsi Max 400, you can stand two feet beneath dozens of studio lights without breaking a sweat. That’s because the lights are LED. They emit no noticeable heat. This is important. The studio is a modified big rig trailer. Less heat in the studio means a smaller air conditioner, which means a lighter load, which is necessary when your truck weighs 78,000 pounds and there is an 80,000-pound legal road limit.
LED lighting is just one small detail, among many thousands, that someone deemed necessary in order to make possible the weekly production that is ESPN’s traveling NASCAR broadcast. This show is on the road 10 months a year, is comprised of 11 mobile units, lays out 20 miles of cable at each track, has enough portable power to run a small town, captures video and audio on 60 to 75 HD cameras and 100-plus microphones, rents 150 hotel rooms in every city and credentials 225 people for every Sprint Cup event. The Worldwide Leader granted All Left Turns a tour of the ESPN Pit Studio, its production compound and the ESPN Tech Garage. The setup, in a word, is impressive.
The ESPN Pit Studio
Situated at the entrance to pit road at Auto Club Speedway, the mobile ESPN Pit Studio is the weekend home for Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. The studio is the size of a big rig trailer and is raised on stilts. The interior is only about 12 feet wide and its close quarters hold five members of the production crew, three robot cameras and the on-air hosts of NASCAR Countdown, ESPN RaceDay and the post-race show.
Bestwick, Wallace and Daugherty have an excellent view of pit road, the start/finish line and have the ability to call up any of the more-than 50 in-race cameras as well as a live stat feed from NASCAR. As is usually the case in tight quarters, dark humor abounds. While the cameras only film the on-air talent from the waist up, the production staff noted that the studio has a strict "Pants-On" policy. We did not get the story on the inciting incident that caused the creation of this policy, but our guess is that Rusty Wallace is responsible for it.
The tour of the studio also left a much deeper appreciation for the work Bestwick does. Not only does he sit next to Daugherty, but Bestwick works without a teleprompter while anchoring ESPN’s studio coverage all weekend. Bestwick’s thorough research allows him to work without a net, referring only to his notes during NASCAR Countdown, the race coverage and the post-race show.
Driver Carl Edwards drops by the ESPN Pit Studio every week for the post-race show. The studio also has welcomed an array of celebrity guests. Brent Musburger once offered Stevie Wonder a chance to drive a Cup car. Wonder accepted, noting that it would be easy because he only had to turn left.
The Pit Studio also lands the occasional freelance gig. In 2008 the unit was used as home base for ABC News coverage of the New Hampshire presidential primary. The production crew worked 20-hours days playing host to Good Morning America and Primetime. We were told that the exterior of the studio was wrapped in white plastic, so as not to betray the truck’s real identity, but that whoever did the redecorating missed a logo and keen observers could see that ESPN’s NASCAR team – sans Bestwick, Wallace and Daugherty – was covering the primary.
To make the most of small space, there are no dressing rooms. Wallace, Bestwick and Daugherty do their own hair and makeup at a small mirror affixed to the wall just off camera. (Just let that image of Wallace putting on his own makeup settle into your head for a bit.) In an area the size of an office cubicle, a small team of professionals — statistician, lighting director, stage director, audio technician and robotic camera operator — run each broadcast. We spoke with Ryan Axemear, the team’s robotic camera operator, who manages three state-of-the-art cameras from a console that resembles NASA’s shuttle controls. Axemear pointed out that the one-of-a-kind mobile studio is equipped with top-notch technology and an experienced crew who travel from different parts of the country to put together the broadcast every week. Many in the crew are so talented that they could have their pick of sports assignments, he said, but they choose NASCAR, because they love it.
“The Compound” is the piece of real estate at every track where television networks such as ESPN, Fox, SPEED and TNT, the NASCAR Media Group and third-party companies park the trailers, haul in the portable offices and erect the tents where the television production, or production support, takes place. This is where you find the ESPN audio truck, its tape truck, its servers, the ESPN wardrobe tent, the Craftsman Tech Garage, ESPN’s operations center, a community mess hall, the in-car camera truck, power generators and an EMT helicopter, among other things.
Every track requires a different setup. ESPN public relations representative Andy Hall said that updated tracks have fiber-optics and hard-wired positions for the cameras while older tracks like Pocono require a team to run camera cabling all the way out through the wilderness to each turn. The crew has to battle the elements and, sometimes in Pocono, snakes, to make long cable runs.
Nestled in a cluster of big rig trailers is the ESPN control truck. From the outside, it looks like a hauler with ESPN branding on the side. Inside, it looks like CTU from the TV show “24.” The truck is arrayed with 19 flat-screen televisions that offer a variety of camera angles. In the center of the room director Rich Basile decides which camera angles the television viewer will see. The most popular angles are Camera 1, “the leader,” and Camera 2, “best battle.” Producer Jill Frederickson chooses where the broadcast’s attention is directed – the track, pit row, video replays, audio replays, the tech garage, the pit studio, the garage, commercial breaks, and so on. “Our producer makes more decisions in a three-hour broadcast than most people make in a month,” Hall said.
Are you among those fans frustrated with ESPN’s coverage of NASCAR? We have some news for you. The networks’ executives are aware of your frustration. Hall reads The Daly Planet
, too. We asked the ESPN broadcast PR honcho about a couple of common coverage complaints.
Q: Why doesn’t ESPN ever show the debris from debris cautions?
A: ESPN’s cameras actively scan the track for the debris during every debris caution, Hall said. Sometimes they can’t find it. In NASCAR’s defense, the spotters aren’t always sure whether something shiny on the track is a loose part or a liquid or what, Hall said, and the spotters tend to err on the side of caution. When they can find it, Hall said, they put it on the screen.
Q: Why does ESPN always take commercial breaks at the wrong time?
A: Hall said that ESPN tries to frontload races with commercial breaks so that it can show as much of the end of the race as possible. Go back and watch old races, Hall said, and you will see commercial breaks on lap 6 back then, too. (Our own Jay W. Pennell recently backed this up
.) Racing is different than stick-and-ball sports that have planned timeouts and quarter and inning breaks. Frederickson has to decide, on the fly, when to take a break. It’s a gamble. Sometimes she loses.
Q: How come ESPN misses restarts?
A: Rule of thumb: The smaller the track, the shorter the caution period, the easier it is to miss a restart. No one, Hall said, gets more upset at missing a restart than the personnel in the production truck.
Q: Can ESPN break into a commercial if something big happens?
A: Yes, it can, but only during national commercial breaks. ESPN can’t break into local commercial breaks.
Inside the truck, looking at 19 televisions, some of which offer multiple angles on one screen, makes you realize that the idea of covering 43 cars driving 200 mph for 11,000 laps a year with 75 cameras and 100 microphones and hundreds of personnel in any type of consistent fashion is as noble as it is absurd.
The Tech Garage
Contrary to what some people believe, the Craftsman Tech Garage is on the grounds at the track, and not in Bristol, Conn., ESPN’s headquarters. Tech garage guru Tim Brewer watches the race from inside the garage with a cameraman. He gets about 30 seconds of notice before he is live. Brewer supplies a lot of the gear in the garage himself thanks to his relationship with various race shops. The cutaway engine, for example, is from Richard Childress Racing.
There has only been one time in the history of the tech garage that Brewer failed to use the cutaway car to explain an incident. In Phoenix in 2007, the producer asked Brewer to show viewers what happened to David Gilliland’s front left fender. “The cutaway car doesn’t have a front left fender,” Brewer famously reported back.
The garage must be broken down and reassembled exactly the same way every week, so that Brewer knows the location of every piece of equipment, which he may have to grab rather quickly. Among the more interesting items in the garage is a Disney-built digital replication of an engine, which can be explored via touch screen. Next to it lies a block of tungsten, which the teams use to weight the rails on the cars. It was incredibly heavy. The tungsten block is one of those things you never see, but is part of every race, much like 99 percent of the television production that happens behind the scenes every week.
(Photos courtesy of ESPN.)