LAS VEGAS On a given day, race fans can watch on TV the NASCAR series brought to them by ... a staff of roughly 225, assisted by 75 high-definition cameras, 150 microphones, 11 of the most technologically advanced work stations in the world, all linked together by more than 20 miles of video, audio and power cables and, of course, the 43 cars and drivers with cameras and microphones on board.
All coming together to give the viewing audience all the sights, sounds and action of a weekend race, said James Shistan, ESPN producer, "minus the smells of the jumbo hot dogs and polish sausage ... and to deliver, as close as possible, what fans see and hear when they come here and sit in the grandstands."
In truth, viewers get more, not the least of which is an experienced crew bringing what is considered the most difficult sporting event there is to televise, as well as a team of instructional experts to explain and visually update fans.
One of the most challenging aspects of race coverage, Shistan pointed out, is that over the three hours of the race, "we've got to squeeze in 22 commercials. It would be nice if we could call up NASCAR and ask them to throw out 22 caution flags when we need to go to a commercial. If I hear complaints, it's always too many commercials.
Commercials make all this possible.
"In kick and ball sports, it's three players up, three players down and you can go to a commercial. Or, it's four downs and switch sides or a 60-second timeout. We've got to go to a commercial without jeopardizing an important lead change or a crash or a crucial pit stop, all of the important stuff that goes on in a race."
He does it while sitting in the most sophisticated mobile production units ever built for TV motorsports, which includes a wall of TV screens, roughly 50 in all, showing all that's going on at any given time, and while listening to several dozen voices all pitching story ideas and happenings, and while trying to blend in the sounds of roughly 150 microphones.
"I describe it as being on a conference call with 100 people and they're all talking at the same time. How productive can that be? You have to be able to pick up voices in the midst of all this chaos. You have to be able to focus on all the monitors at the same time, listen to all the voices and make sure you're telling the story."
Race fans at home not only got the benefit of remote cameras strategically placed around the 1 1/2-mile track, in the pits and elsewhere, but also three different on-board cameras in 11 of the race cars. One camera was focused on the driver, the second shooting from the back and the third showing views looking ahead.
And, of course, there's on-board audio. ESPN is linked to all 43 cars allowing for radio communications between drivers and crews. Fans in the stands can own or rent monitors. The most popular package includes a receiver, frequency chart for all the drivers and two headsets for around $200.
For ESPN's part, communications between driver and crew cannot only be aired live but important segments can be recorded and edited, said Kevin Cleary, and aired sometime during the race.
One of the more innovative additions to the TV production is its Tech Center or, more fitting, educational center. Here, Tim Brewer, a two-time NASCAR champion, crew chief and analyst, has created a virtual college of NASCAR technology.
Every part of the car has either been modified to display its inner workings or has been recreated in 3-D animation that can be shown on TV.
"In those situations where they can't explain things in words, we can bring viewers here and show them visually what's happening. If we say they changed clicks on a shock absorber to change compression, we can show them a (glass encased) shock absorber. We can show the oil chamber, open the valve and they can actually see the fluid move and the piston. Seeing is believing," he explained.
Inside the center is a race car and a drive train that have been cut away to show all of the working parts, which allows Brewer to visually show viewers any situation that might occur with a car during the race. There are also individual parts that have been modified for visual purposes.
With all this technology, Shistan said the key is to make sure there isn't too much technology put on screen that would take away from the race itself, "which is what we try to do in order to deliver a product as close to seeing it live as we can."
The NASCAR Nationwide series will be shown on ESPN2, with select races on ESPN and ABC. The networks will also select for viewing practice and qualifying sessions and all 35 races.Starting July 27 from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ESPN and ESPN on ABC will carry the final 17 races in the Sprint Cup series, along with select practice and qualifying sessions.
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