BRISTOL, Tenn. — With a slick video package and an overhead shot of Bristol Motor Speedway, ESPN’s coverage of the Sharpie 500 was up and running.
Allen Bestwick was up next with an opening monologue that he had spent the afternoon rehearsing. Now, on live television, Bestwick was reciting it from memory, knowing down to the second how long he had to deliver it.
Moments later, ESPN producers cued the invocation with the touch of a button in the production truck. The national anthem followed with ESPN’s cameras seamlessly gliding through the action.
While a camera on the roof between turns 3 and 4 panned out to catch the pyro, which went off right on schedule, another camera panned the skies over turn 3.
That’s where the “Fighting Bengals,” a group of F-18s out of South Carolina, followed their predetermined path through the sky, buzzing low over turn 3 and disappearing behind the grandstands in turn 1.
From a compound behind the front straightaway, ESPN’s team of producers and directors threw it down to their pit reporters, who took turns setting the stage.
Finally, the lights went out on the pace car, and the green flag was ready to fall. As the crowd rose to its feet, the field rolled out of turn 4, and Dr. Jerry Punch got the race underway.
“Pull those seatbelts tight on the sofas at home, they are two-by-two in Bristol, Tenn.,” Punch said. “They call it the colosseum of collision and we’re going to turn them loose.”
With that, the script came to an end, and a three-hour game of high-speed improv began.
“I think Don Ohlmeyer said recently that there are more decisions made on the fly in a TV truck in a three-hour period than most people make in a year,” said Rich Feinberg, ESPN’s vice president of motorsports.
“Because these people are so intuitive and have been doing it for so long, it all kind of comes together.”
Every week, 13 ESPN semis roll into town to begin setting up for the race. By Thursday, around 225 credentialed ESPN employees are in place along with 60 to 75 cameras that are positioned to capture all the action.
The production truck is the heart and soul of the operation. It serves as command central as producers and directors pick and choose the individual camera shots off dozens of monitors, putting together a cohesive story of each race.
“At every single track, we have a very similar system of how we deploy the cameras,” Feinberg said. “Normally we put four on the roof — one in turn 3, one outside turn 2, one inside the backstretch and one outside turn 4.”
The remainder of the cameras are spread around in key locations. In-car cameras offer a unique vantage point as do the robotic cameras that sit close to the walls to capture sweeping shots of each car coming by at a high rate of speed.
Meanwhile, handheld cameras provide mobility in the infield as the race unfolds.
“They have no cables on them and their signals are microwaved back to receivers and then come back (to the truck),” Feinberg said. “They can go to the medical center, to the garage area, they basically have the ability to cover any story they want.”
In addition to the team in the booth and the reporters in the pits, ESPN also has a Pit Studio where coverage is anchored by Bestwick.
“It’s on the infield, three cameras all robotically controlled because we don’t have enough room in there for engineers with cameras,” Feinberg said. “The goal for that is to have a consistent studio-type presentation but also put them in a controlled environment.”
The emmy-winning Craftsman Tech Garage was an idea Feinberg had to improve on the cutaway cars other networks use.
Tim Brewer mans a roving studio with a fully-functional racecar, allowing him to weigh in on technical issues that race teams are wrestling with.
“I’ve been there for quite a number of years and have been through a lot of different situations,” Brewer said. “Here, what we do is for the fans. We try to provide technology and common sense with any perspective and give the fans an observation.”
Last Saturday, all these elements came together in a relatively smooth manner.
When Greg Biffle grabbed the lead early, the robotic camera caught a great shot of his No. 16 Ford sweeping out of turn 4.
Later on, Jeff Gordon got his right rear quarter panel caved in after making contact with Denny Hamlin.
As Gordon fell a lap down, the producers cued up Brewer in the Tech Garage on lap 334 where he explained why the damage was slowing down the No. 24 Chevy.
“Think about it when you go into the corner, it’s actually holding the air away,” Brewer said while motioning toward the quarter panel on the cutaway car. “But when you bend the quarter panel up, you’re giving that much away.”
With around 100 laps to go, the producers threw it down to Bestwick in the Pit Studio where he narrated a highlight package of Mark Martin’s night at BMS, which included a ceremony before the race honoring his 1,000th NASCAR start.
When rain forced a caution with 78 laps left, producers sent one of the handheld cameras scrambling to Jimmie Johnson’s pits.
Johnson had been leading the race when he came in for his pit stop, but a botched tire change led to Johnson having to pit for a second time to replace his right rear tire.
While ESPN’s camera caught the reaction of crew chief Chad Knaus as well as the tire changer pleading his case, audio of Johnson’s radio documented Knaus calmly telling Johnson to come back in for the second stop.
When the red flag came out with eight laps to go, the producers scrambled their pit reporters to interview the crew chiefs with cars within striking distance of the lead. Moments later, Dale Jarrett asked Jeff Burton, the in-race reporter, what the track conditions were like.
Once the green flag came back out, the cameras around the track captured the four-lap sprint to the finish as Kyle Busch held off Martin for the win.
Shortly after Busch’s interview in Victory Lane, the coverage went off the air. Moments after that, employees were already loading up for a trip to Canada for this week’s Nationwide race.
Once they arrived on Tuesday, the process began all over again.
Saturday’s telecast wasn’t perfect, but then again, Feinberg said it never is.
“I don’t think we’ve ever walked out of here and said, ‘That was perfect,’” Feinberg said. “There’s always room for improvement and we’re always trying to improve. It’s the same for us as it is for all these race teams.”