If you need proof of NASCAR's popularity, consider this: In addition to the 130,000 people who attend each race on average, NASCAR is broadcast in 150 countries around the globe and, in the United States, attracts more television viewers than any other sporting event besides NFL games.
This kind of reach means big money all around -- for the drivers, their teams, the team owners, NASCAR itself, sponsors of races and cars, and especially for the networks that pay dearly to broadcast the races to the masses. High ratings allow networks to secure top dollar from advertisers who wish to woo the brand-loyal NASCAR fan.
However, a leveling-off of NASCAR's explosive growth and more options for the viewer at home mean that broadcasters have to bring their A-game if they want to gain and keep viewers' attention.
They're up to the challenge. It's a logistical feat for network crews to move millions of dollars worth of gear and equipment from race to race each week and produce a top-of-the-line broadcast, but networks have turned the task into high art (if truckers speeding across the country in the dead of night is the foundation for your concept of high art, that is).
Even though several different networks broadcast the races, trading off the right to do so throughout the season (which we'll talk about later), rival networks still see the benefits in working with each other. Promotion of NASCAR -- no matter on which TV channel that promotion occurs -- benefits all of the broadcasters in both the short and long run.
In this article, we'll talk about how broadcasters prepare for each race weekend and how they produce an exciting television experience each week -- from the prerace show to the post-race report and everything in between. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a NASCAR broadcast, so we'll talk about the preparations that go into each broadcast in the next section.
NASCAR Broadcast Prep 101
NASCAR races -- often 400 or 500 miles (644 or 805 kilometers) long -- last several hours, and that makes for a lot of awkward dead air if networks aren't ready to fill that time with insightful commentary, interesting statistics and great camera shots. It takes a village to make a broadcast, and about 300 production, technical and support personnel from the different networks help put the Daytona 500 on the air. (Fox estimates that its crewmembers at NASCAR Speedweeks consume 13,000 bottles of water, 125 gallons (473 liters) of coffee and 5,000 soft drinks!)
Preparations begin long before the commentators arrive at the race. For a Saturday race, a flotilla of tractor trailers may arrive as early as Monday stuffed full of the broadcasting gear. (The six tractor trailers used by the SPEED network haul a total of 380,000 pounds (172,365 kilograms) of sets, cameras, generators and other equipment.) Each track provides an area for networks to park, empty their trailers and begin assembling equipment. The days leading up to the race are spent unloading gear, establishing computer and communications networks, running audio and video cables, setting up cameras and preparing the mobile studio center (which we'll discuss shortly), which can often be shipped in a single trailer. By Friday, everything should be ready for the big event the following day.
There are many standard camera locations at each track, such as on the fence line and around the upper deck. There's also one centralized tower cam. At the Daytona 500, Fox Sports uses 20 manned cameras, two slow-motion cams, more than a dozen robotic race cams, 12 in-car camera packages that offer three different camera angles, and four roving wireless pit/garage camera crews. In addition to these locations, networks often look for new and interesting places to put stationary cameras. Networks try to enhance the viewing experience and provide new points of view by drilling holes in the track and positioning lipstick-sized cameras to film cars as they approach and then roar over the subterranean camera lens. Cameras can also be placed inside the walls of the track. Upwards of 80 cameras may be used to film a single race.
While all of this is happening, things are hopping back at the main network studio and mobile editing units on site. Producers, writers and editors are creating pretaped features and segments to add spice to the prerace portion of the program. These clips must be conceived, written, arranged, taped and edited throughout the entire season. NBC commentator (and former driver) Wally Dallenbach Jr. tapes a prerace segment called "Wally's World," in which Dallenbach takes a celebrity (like director Quentin Tarantino) for a few high-speed spins around the track. The odds of Tarantino happening to wander by the track the day before the race are slim, so regular segments like this must be planned and executed well in advance.
Researchers and statisticians must also dig for interesting storylines and crunch numbers such as each driver's average speed at a particular track the previous year, so that commentators will have a deep well to drink from when it comes time to entertain and inform the audience.
The on-air personalities arrive on a Wednesday or Thursday to prepare for a Saturday race, and the SPEED network has 14 different commentators and analysts at any given race.
The on-site weeklong preparation fulfills another important purpose: maintaining contact and establishing rapport with the race teams that are also preparing for the event. This comes in handy when a pit reporter and cameraman need to solicit some real-time thoughts from a stressed-out crew chief in the middle of a tight race.
Now that the preparations are done, it's time for our next section -- the prerace show.
Live, From a Fancy Trailer, It's the NASCAR Prerace Show!
In the last section, we learned how networks prepare for a race broadcast. Now that everything is in place, cameras are rolling and microphones have been checked, it's time for the prerace show.
With weekend races one after another during the season, networks have to hustle to turn each event into a memorable broadcast. To do so, some networks have developed portable studios that can be packed up and shipped in containers around the country to each race.
These mobile studios add a lot to the preshow broadcast. Without them, analysts would either have to discuss the race from the network's main studio hundreds of miles away from the event, try to film in the tight confines of the press box, or stand around in the infield grass, none of which are suitable to providing a top-of-the-line viewing experience.
Portable studios aren't visually much different (for viewers at home) from the state-of-the-art network sets that we're used to seeing during football or baseball broadcasts. One exception may be windows placed behind the commentators to provide a view of the racetrack, pit road or infield. One drawback is that it requires the mobile studio to be placed in a position that offers a great view, which isn't always possible. To overcome this obstacle, mobile studios often use a variety of large and small digital screens behind the commentators, so that ever-changing race footage, visuals and statistics can accompany the subject being discussed. On the other hand, SPEED network uses an open-air stage to broadcast live in the middle of a throng of fans.
A number of reporters, analysts and racing legends make regular appearances in these prerace studios. The commentators discuss the season's standings, point out to the viewer at home certain things to look for in that day's race and analyze the likely strategies of different drivers. To keep the pace of the broadcast moving along, the commentary is regularly broken up with related pretaped segments that may feature the mechanics and crewmen of a certain team, features on previous races and race winners, and light-hearted interviews with drivers or a look at drivers' everyday lives. Graphics may be used to examine the turns and straight-aways of a given track, or producers may cut to live footage of teams getting prepared for the long day ahead. When the broadcast "cuts back" to the studio, one of the top drivers may be briefly interviewed, or commentators may talk racing with a reporter working the pit road, both being featured on a split screen.
When the prerace show goes to commercial, it can difficult to notice the difference. Most commercials in these coveted time slots will feature NASCAR drivers and racecars adorned with the products being advertised. You may have to wait until the din of the car engines dies down toward the end of the commercial to find out if you're supposed to buy Craftsman Tools, eat Juicy Fruit products or shop at The Home Depot.
Numbers that tell a statistical story about the season overall, or that are used to compare different drivers, will be put on the screen while the analysts debate among themselves (and several million viewers at home) what the figures may mean for the race ahead.
Finally, the national anthem will be sung, viewers will be treated to a 43-engine serenade, and the race (coverage) begins on the very next page.
Announcers, Start Your Motor-mouths: NASCAR Live Broadcast
The engines are roaring, viewers are digging into plates of hot wings and the pace car is leading 43 super-charged stock cars around the track. The green flag waves and the race -- and the broadcast -- is on.
Although the prerace show is often broadcast from a mobile studio, the commentary for the race itself is provided from a press box high above the action. In the booth will be a number of people -- usually around four -- who will recap, analyze, describe and otherwise inject excitement into every lap of the race.
One of the commentators will provide lap-by-lap coverage of the action as it occurs on the track. This is more of a nuts-and-bolts description of what's happening in real-time -- who's ahead, who's passing whom, which car is flaming out and pulling into the pit. Each network has their own team of commentators, but lap-by-lap commentary has been provided by Bill Weber on TNT, Dr. Jerry Punch on ESPN and Mike Joy on FOX.
The lap-by-lap commentator is joined by several analysts, also known as color analysts because they try to add flair to the proceedings. Many of them, such as ESPN's Dale Jarrett, are themselves former drivers, giving viewers and listeners of the broadcast insider's knowledge and added perspective to the race. Analysts tell racing anecdotes, share interesting statistics and often have signature phrases, such as "Boogity, boogity, boogity!" which is shouted by FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip (another former driver) at the beginning of races.
There is another team of reporters and camera operators down in the pit. These pit reporters (usually around four) offer insights into what's happening at eye level, what different pit crews are doing, and what information about mechanical developments the team members are relaying. If a problem with a car is discovered during a pit stop, the pit reporter will be the first to give the details. They also interview team members and engage in back-and-forth audio conversations with the crew in the broadcast booth.
At the end of the race, a pit reporter or analyst on the ground will interview the winner and several runners-up. Cameras will capture the celebration on the field as the driver, team owner and team members all savor the victory. If it's an especially important race, or the end of the season, the network may have more pretaped segments ready to highlight the winner's achievement or to take a look back on the ups-and-downs of the season. Finally, the broadcast will either continue showing visuals of the field with audio from the broadcast booth, or it may switch back to the mobile studio, where analysts will dissect the race, summarize the preceding events and chew on some final stats. Upcoming races will be promoted, and viewers may get one last look at the leader board and season standings before final credits roll.
In addition to the lap-by-lap reporting, color analysis and scoops from the pit reporters, NASCAR broadcasts feature a slew of high-tech features that will blow your wheels off, or maybe just annoy you. We'll take a look at some of them on the next page.
NASCAR TV Broadcast: Gimmicks, Gadgets and Graphics
As NASCAR has progressed from its roots of country boys racing on dirt roads, so too has the broadcasting of modern racing. In addition to announcers keeping viewers apprised of developments on and off the track, networks have developed a variety of high-tech enhancements to jazz up the viewing experience.
On-screen graphics, such as a running list of drivers in order from first to last that scrolls across the top of the screen, provide constant data on the status of the race. GPS units placed in each car allow for tracking of drivers and immediate updating of the leader board. This information includes placement in the race, lap number, car number and the amount of time each driver lags behind the leader. The leader's lap splits will also be updated each time he or she comes around the track. GPS units also allow producers to graphically highlight specific cars as they're being discussed.
Other graphics may include a faux-dashboard on the bottom of the screen, where viewers can monitor a particular driver's odometer and speedometer, as well as placement on the track itself, courtesy of an oval with a dot making its way around it.
Visually, producers make ample use of split screens, showing two different drivers at once, or a driver and a crew chief, or a pit reporter and the race. The screen can be split in many ways, so that the left side of the screen may show three boxes featuring three different cars in motion, while the right side shows statistics superimposed over an aerial view of the race track.
With the shrinking size and growing capabilities of cameras, networks place them everywhere: on the back of the pace car, on dashboards facing forward, in the back of the car facing backwards, and inside facing the driver. Producers can then use the split screen to simultaneously show a car's position on the track as well as the driver inside that car, and they can do it in high definition.
Producers can also patch in radio conversations between the driver and his team, giving the audience the chance to hear strategy changes, admonishments and reassurances as they occur. Fox can broadcast from any of 43 race team communications radios, one for each car on the track. Tiny microphones placed inside certain drivers' helmets also allow analysts to speak with drivers before or even during a race. Additionally, more than 150 microphones are placed around the track.
ESPN developed a simulation called "Draft Track," a digital visualization of the air as it passes over and around cars. Special GPS units allow tracking accuracy within 2 centimeters, and computer modeling of wind tunnel data allows viewers to understand how cars draft behind each other and benefit, or suffer, from changes in wind current as the cars inch ever closer.
FOX will at times cut out all commentary and let the roar of the motors do all the talking. This is a very simple and lo-fi way to give the viewer at home a more intense and visceral experience (but it can't compare to having your bones rattle when cars pass by the stands at the live events).
DIRECTV upped the ante by offering viewers the chance to choose their own driver (out of four choices) to follow during the race. Viewers can switch between cameras in different cars, change audio streams and listen to radio feeds of driver and crew chatter.
Some fans think networks get excessive with the use of graphics and gimmicks, and would rather just focus on good old, plain racing. However, others find it adds to the experience and makes for a more pleasurable broadcast.
In the next section, we'll look at which networks cover which races and more.
NASCAR Broadcast Schedule
The year 2007 marked the first year in a series of long-term contracts that NASCAR inked with several major networks: FOX, SPEED, TNT and ABC/ESPN (Both ABC and ESPN are owned by the Walt Disney Company; ESPN provides sports coverage for both networks).
The first 13 Nextel Cup Races, beginning with the Daytona 500, are carried by the FOX network. TNT provides coverage for the next six races, and the 17 remaining Nextel Cup Series points races are broadcast by either ABC (which broadcasted its first NASCAR race in 1970) or ESPN. The Chase for the Nextel Cup, a series of 10 races, is broadcast by ABC.
Speedweeks events, such as the Gatorade Duels, are broadcast by the SPEED network, as well as the Nextel Cup Series All-Star Challenge and the Nextel Cup Series Pit Crew Challenge.
Different networks may stream live video of races online, and all networks share certain rights to the races and access to race footage.
Why so many networks? Reasons include the sheer number of races and the ability to gain a larger audience from the carry-over from other networks' publicity efforts once networks pass the baton throughout the season. From NASCAR's point of view, having several different broadcasters amplifies the marketing and promotion, and also presents the event in a variety of voices and formats.
Fans are less thrilled, since the abundance of networks can make it tricky to find the race without flipping through all the channels. On the upside, if fans dislike the broadcast styles of any of the networks, they can grin and bear it until another network picks up coverage mid-season.
DIRECTV offers a multi-media package, and Sirius Satellite Radio paid $107 million for the five-years' rights to provide a dedicated channel that features all NASCAR all the time, including race coverage, interviews and feature stories.
For the first half of the year until the beginning of football season, NASCAR gets higher television ratings than any other sport, bringing in more viewers than even the NBA playoffs and more than doubling the viewership of regular season NBA games (NASCAR, on average, brought in a 5.7 rating for the FOX network in 2008, while NBA games on ABC had only a 2.2 average rating) [source: Mulhern].
No matter who is broadcasting on any given week, more and more fans are tuning in to watch their favorite cars and drivers compete for the championship. This means networks can negotiate high-dollar contracts with advertisers who want to put their brands before this captive audience. The commentators are genuinely excited about the races they're covering, but the network executives only get excited by ratings and revenue streams. Everyone, it seems, is happy.
For lots more articles on NASCAR, from safety to sponsorship, see the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
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