SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Media

Backstage for NBC’s race against time

The familiar black Chevrolet, embossed with the late Dale Earnhardt's signature and piloted by his former boss, Richard Childress, seems to be crawling around the racetrack at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

It is 7:25 p.m., and the UAW-GM Quality 500 still isn't under way. Childress is driving the Earnhardt car in a prerace tribute, leading the warm-up laps in low gear.

The need for speed among executives at broadcaster NBC Sports is revved a bit higher. The network has been assured that the race will go green by 7:20. And, really, what's five minutes when 140,000 fans in the grandstands are saluting their beloved, fallen champion yet again?

Lights and cameras surround lead pit reporter Bill Weber as he starts the pre-race show.

It's an eternity, that's what it is. This being Saturday night, there are fears that tonight's prime-time race might infringe on the late local news, thus infringing on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which all week has touted host Justin Timberlake.

Tommy Roy, the executive producer at NBC Sports, can't watch. Of course, he can't not watch, either.

Roy is standing in a cramped trailer where tonight's race is being sorted and beamed nationwide.

Mike Wells, the director, and Sam Flood, the producer, are among a half-dozen top crew members in the main trailer.

Wells is already snapping his fingers and speaking to crew members through his headset. He barks out numbers like a waifish quarterback. At his command, the main television monitor — the one labeled "program," signifying what the viewers at home are seeing — switches angles and perspectives every few seconds.

Banks of monitors show where all 59 of tonight's cameras are positioned and what perspective each offers at the moment.

Roy sits down, just behind Flood. Then he's up again.

Lead announcer Allen Bestwick studies his notes before the race.

"We've got to get this going," Roy says, shaking his head in disgust. "They're killing us."

The race finally roars to life. It's 7:28 p.m.

Thus begins a race in pursuit of two things: A 500-mile champion, sure, but also a crisp race that will fit neatly into a time block that leads viewers smoothly into their local news and, finally, Justin Timberlake.

Packing up and moving on

Six days earlier, on an early October afternoon at Kansas Speedway, Flood, the producer, and Bill Weber, the lead pit reporter, hop in a car heading for the airport several minutes after Ryan Newman takes the checkered flag at the Banquet 400. The two men beat the postrace traffic and begin figuring out what the Charlotte production should emphasize.

As Flood and Weber make their way through the Kansas airport, the rest of the on-air crew — play-by-play man Allen Bestwick, analysts Benny Parsons and Wally Dallenbach, and pit reporters Marty Snider, Dave Burns and Matt Yocum — is catching flights home that Sunday evening.

Tim Dekime, NBC's production manager, remains at the speedway in Kansas. It takes five hours to tear down the various trackside sets, rewind miles of cables and refill seven 18-wheelers with all the gear required to put a NASCAR race on the air.

Bestwick and Benny Parsons open the telecast.

NBC and cable network TNT are equal partners during the second half of the NASCAR season, sharing the final 20 weeks of races. The networks paid a combined $1.2 billion for six years of NASCAR coverage, beginning with the 2001 season.

The arrangement is convenient beyond finances, since the crew members and broadcasters work together no matter which network is airing a particular event.

After Dekime makes sure the Kansas production center is packed away, he goes over the Charlotte race schedule with the 18-wheeler drivers. With a Saturday night race, as opposed to the typical Sunday afternoon schedule, the entire week will be compressed.

Compressed is a nice word for what amounts to a hell of a hurry. The seven 18-wheelers leave Kansas on Monday morning, about the same time Flood sits down in his New Jersey home to review the previous day's broadcast.

Later Monday, Flood discusses potential plot elements for the Charlotte race with other television crew members by telephone. All the while, the NBC equipment caravan heads toward the Carolinas, arriving at Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte on Tuesday, at 3 p.m.

The crew, which numbers 150 week to week, begins arriving later the same day. With the NBC team providing ancillary pole night coverage for cable network Speed Channel on Thursday night, less than two days remain to get everything set up, working and ready for national broadcasts.

"We're ready," Dekime says.

Night-time magic

On Wednesday, Weber is still helping his wife with new furniture while settling into a new house in Tarpon Springs, Fla. The domestic duties have delayed his departure by a day, which is why he arrives at Tampa International Airport hours early for his Charlotte flight.

Images from 59 cameras are sorted in the production truck.

Weber is part of a teleconference, with NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer, Bestwick, Parsons, Flood and Dallenbach, to promote the network's NASCAR coverage.

From Tampa, Weber leads the way, declaring that the UAW-GM Quality 500, running for the first time at night, is "a new NASCAR fall classic."

Television sports critics pepper the NBC crew with questions, including many on the oft-stated desire of NBC and TNT to have more prime-time races in the fall, when NASCAR must contend with the NFL.

Schanzer is at once enthusiastic and diplomatic. He acknowledges the difficulties of moving races to Saturday nights from Sunday afternoons: some speedways lack lighting, Busch Series races that precede top series Winston Cup must be reshuffled, and so on.

"NASCAR is as exciting as any sport in America," he adds. "It's even more exciting at night. There is something about the impact of lights on these race cars that makes it all the more dramatic."

There were five night races last year, and the number increased to seven this season. Another will be added in 2004, further proof that NASCAR and the networks see room for audience growth with a heavier night schedule.

Schanzer, after not-so-subtly noting a 59 percent ratings gain since 2000 for NASCAR's top circuit, seizes the opportunity do a little posturing for the next round of television contract negotiations.

"We're getting closer, but we're not there," he says, responding to a question on whether the NASCAR contract has turned a profit for NBC. "We've got a ways to go."

Schanzer then says a profit won't happen during the current deal, which expires in 2006. And after that? "We love the product," he says. "We'd love to be in it."

Translation: It will be tough to increase rights fees. We're not making money, but don't think we're not interested in staying on.

Weathering delays

On a rainy Friday morning, Yocum yuks it up with the nationally syndicated morning-radio program "John Boy & Billy" as part of a weekly feature. Weber, too, hits the airwaves, with radio chats on 15 stations.

At 2 p.m., two dozen staffers, including the on-air broadcasters, gather in a trailer for Flood's production meeting.

Dressed in a polo shirt, khakis, loafers and a Williams Hockey cap, Flood begins hitting on a familiar theme: Justin Timberlake and "Saturday Night Live." "We're trying to hit as close to 11 o'clock as we can because they're right behind us," he says.

The Saturday competition with the baseball playoffs is mentioned again. Flood says such appointment television swells the entire audience, increasing every event's ratings. Should matters get out of hand in the baseball game, adds another staffer, we're only a button away.

Weber turns serious at that, noting, "We're only a button away from losing them, too."

The Friday night Busch race will be a TNT production, though some staffers are a bit dismayed because the telecast won't air until Saturday afternoon, the only tape-delayed broadcast of the season.

But the weather causes a change in plans, as the race is called off and rescheduled for Saturday morning.

Flood is both frustrated and happy. He doesn't relish the prospect of 800 miles of live television coverage in one day, but he's glad the rain has forced a live broadcast.

Getting ready to roll

Less than 12 hours after they returned to the hotel, the crew is back at the track. The weather remains more than a little iffy. By 11:20 a.m., though, the Little Trees 300, a Busch race of 200 laps, is under way.

Perhaps the drivers have the tight television schedule in mind. The race zips by, and by 1:30, it's over.

The crew now has time to kill.

Inside the track, NASCAR and Lowe's Motor Speedway have brought in the rock group 3 Doors Down for a prerace concert. As NASCAR moves into the mainstream, it increasingly aligns the sport with rock acts at the expense of, say, country music's Brooks & Dunn. To get 3 Doors Down, NASCAR offered a prime-time appearance on NBC's broadcast.

At 3:30 p.m., Flood and Wells want a sound check. With only a few thousand people at the speedway, 3 Doors Down appears on a makeshift stage, while Flood and Wells stand a few feet away determining the best camera angles for the performance, which will air just before the cars take the track.

Next, the two men inspect pit road and survey the grandstands before returning to the production truck.

A Featherlite trailer in the speedway infield serves as a fortress for Weber and the rest of the pit reporters.

Weber writes out several introductory vignettes on note cards. Up a small set of stairs and around the corner from Weber, the rest of the pit crew — Yocum, Snider and Burns — sit in front of their laptops making final preparations.

Bringing it home

With prime-time coverage comes prime-time responsibility. This explains the arrival of Schanzer, a gruff presence flying in from New York. A couple of staffers joke about Schanzer flying commercial rather than on the corporate jet.

Not surprisingly, these jokes disappear about the time Schanzer walks in. Schanzer keeps close tabs on the Red Sox-Yankees playoff game and mills around the television compound. Less than an hour before the broadcast, he spots Paul Brooks, NASCAR's top broadcasting executive.

TV trailers form their encampment in a different town each week.

"How are you, my friend?" Schanzer asks, shaking Brooks' hand and corralling him with a bear hug. Brooks and Schanzer are concerned that the baseball playoffs might chip away at the NASCAR telecast. Brooks remains steadfast: NBC, he says, has done a great job of promoting the broadcast all week, including mentions during its Thursday night "Must See TV" lineup.

"You've done everything you can do," Brooks says.

At 6 p.m., Weber leads a rehearsal of the "Discover Card Countdown To Green," the prerace show.

By 6:59, the intensity level has peaked. Unlike the Busch race, this is prime-time, and it's on NBC. The jokes still fly, but the slightest glitch prompts much more creative language than during the earlier race.

Thirty seconds before going on the air, Flood offers a final piece of advice: Kick ass."

Weber begins with a "Saturday Night Live" riff. "Live from Charlotte," he tells the audience, "it's Saturday night!" On cue, 3 Doors Down appears, with camera shots of the band performing trackside interspersed with race footage.

Within 10 minutes of air time, Weber has established the story lines and worked in 3 Doors Down, a military flyover, R&B artist Monica's rendering of the national anthem and a quick "Gentlemen, start your engines," from Carmen Electra.

Then the blur of camera angles, audio cues and pit reports begins anew.

Tony Stewart takes the checkered flag at 10:58 p.m.; Weber scores a quick interview with winning team owner Joe Gibbs seconds later. By 11:01 p.m. the broadcast is finished. Justin won't be delayed.

The race generates a 4.5 rating, behind Fox and CBS for prime-time shows that evening and lower than the Sunday afternoon race a year earlier. But it's still judged to be a respectable number based on the heavy sports competition on Saturday.

The racing crew rolls on. Even before Timberlake finishes "Saturday Night Live," the crew at Lowe's Motor Speedway is striking the set, preparing for a trip to Martinsville, Va., and another week of NASCAR coverage.

Erik Spanberg writes for The Business Journal in Charlotte.

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