Directing a NASCAR race would seems to be a snap: 43 cars going in the
same direction making hundreds of left turns. Could it be any simpler? The
answer, surprisingly, is yes, it could be a lot simpler.
“Directing a NASCAR race is in the top three sports in terms of
difficulty,” says Mike Wells, director for NBC and TNT NASCAR telecasts.
NASCAR, track and field, and gymnastics share the complexity mantle, he
says, because each has a multitude of storylines to be covered at the same
time. Unlike in football, baseball and other major team sports, there is no
real break in the action.
The increased burden isn't only on the director. Each NASCAR race is a
massive production involving no less than 10 production vehicles (provided by
NEP Supershooters) and more than 150 people.
“It's like doing the Super Bowl every week for 18 weeks,” says
Jerry Steinberg, Fox Sports VP, field operations. “Besides the technology, we
have to house, feed, and transport equipment and people to get this on the air
weekly. So the logistics are huge.”
Because the personnel are always on the go, Wells refers to the move
from one race to the next as the equivalent of a gypsy show. Most of the staff
will come in on the Tuesday before a race, get everything in place by Friday
for coverage of qualifying and practices, and then return home on Monday before
turning right around again on Tuesday.
“The same guys that do the races for us also do them for NBC and
TNT,” says Steinberg.
Having the same team from race to race is a huge advantage to Wells and
the rest of the crew. “Directing a race is controlled chaos,” he says.
“There are so many different things going on throughout the whole
Lead changes, battles for position, crashes and pit stops are just some
of the things Wells and the team have to keep on top of. And now that the Chase
for the Nextel Cup is under way, even if a driver is finishing in 10th or 15th
place, it could be a story worth tracking. “We'll usually have one camera
focused on the leader, another focused on the best battle, and another covering
the next-best battle,” says Wells.
The rest of the cameras follow a plan laid out by Wells and producer Sam
Flood. “It's very similar to a pit crew where we'll watch each other's
backs,” Wells says.
The big technology advance this year is that all of the races, for the
first time ever, were shot in HD. “The detail of an HD shot, even if it is
just shooting a wide shot, is breathtaking,” says Wells.
The improved image quality has also been complemented with 5.1 Surround
Sound, giving viewers with enough speakers (typically six) a true sense of
being at the race, as extra microphones have been placed around the track to
capture the roar of cars hurtling down it. “Early in the race, we do an
animation of a car doing doughnuts, and the sound effect of the car going
around the room is great,” says Wells.
While typical race coverage can involve upwards of 25 HD cameras, there
are still some HD gaps—most notably, the in-car cameras that need advances in
transmission technology to send HD signals from the cars to the production
truck. “The technology just isn't ready yet,” says Steinberg.
That doesn't mean it won't be soon; radio frequency (RF)
transmission-gear makers are working hard to solve the HD-over-RF puzzle. When
they do, expect NASCAR telecasts to take another leap forward and for viewers
at home to really see, hear and feel what it's like to
sit next to NASCAR's top drivers.