CONCORD, N.C. – This must be how Alice felt when she fell down the hole.
From the outside, the FOX television compound looks like any other assortment of mobile trailers -- perhaps with just a few extra cables running through it. But step inside the production area and enter the hushed and multicolored tones of a wonderland -- a television broadcast in evolution.
A multitude of small video screens fill the front wall. Race producer Barry Landis and director Artie Kempner sit in dim lighting, constantly scouring the cameras for the best shot, the best view, the pass or crash in the making. Larger monitors sit row after row as the men and women who bring NASCAR to your television every week calmly and often in low-speaking tones monitor a series of driver radio conversations, talks with commentators and pit reporters and then one another.
To an outsider, it's a fascinating barrage of video and timing and confusion. To these men and women, it's a passion and a constant striving for perfection. To a race fan, it's just another week to watch the race and a chance to groan and cheer over the tight packs, the daring passes, the bumps and bangs and actual crashes.
This is the production side of a FOX race broadcast -- a world those entrenched in sometimes refer to as controlled chaos and the culmination of days and weeks of work and research dedicated to bringing the best race broadcast to the fans. While fans will see Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds in the booth, as they watch Jeff Hammond and Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel, they are seeing only a portion of what goes into making this broadcast live in their living rooms.
When did preparation for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 begin? Actually, in January. That's when the homework began in earnest, when the technical and production crews began the real work and research that is highlighted in the weekly race broadcast.
And then the traveling circus hit the road -- and parts of it have stayed there ever since.
Getting things started
It's Tuesday, days away from the actual broadcast, but the FOX crew is already busy getting ready for Sunday's race. There's no time to waste.
Mobile units pull into the track, laden with equipment they carry from track to track, week to week. There's just a skeleton crew working with technical producer/technical manager Marvin Kale today, but the area known as the television compound is in its beginning stages.
No one is idle. The production team is holding its weekly conference call to discuss both the previous week's race and the upcoming one. Some stories will continue into the next week and require more coverage and reporting. Others are already cropping up for the coming weekend and loom on the radar to be researched. Ideas will be tossed about, tentative plans made. They know that could all change in a moment, though.
For these men, the race week has begun in earnest.
It's Wednesday, and the technical crew is reaching more of a full-staff status at the track. On Thursday, everyone starts heading to whatever town is hosting the weekend's event.
A small village moves into the television compound. Approximately 120 people will be involved with the technical side of the broadcast before the race weekend is complete. A core group of 20 to 25 production people and nine announcers are involved.
Barnum and Bailey has nothing on this group.
Nomadically traveling race to race, within the sphere of the season and often beyond, they keep stock cars in the forefront of their thoughts and plans.
For fans, this may primarily be a Sunday show. For this group, it's a way of life.
In many ways, it has to be. After all, even in these planning stages, the group knows that anything can happen at any time -- there's no way to truly plan out a race broadcast. One can only be as prepared for as many things as possible. The group has a ton of prepared footage -- but they prefer not to have to use or rely on that.
"We rarely work off a script," Kempner says. "It's a little bit like being an acrobat in the circus and performing without a net and every once in a while we kind of hit the ground and hopefully we're not too high up, but that's what I think makes it interesting, challenging and always something I want to be involved with. The thing about this crew -- production, technical, the announcers -- is that everybody is very passionate about doing a great job. They really are.
"It's not a gig. It's more of 'I'm part of this crew every week. I want to bring my best, my A-game every week, I want to be better this week than I was last week,' but also this crew is very passionate about racing because when you make a decision to do this series, you're going to leave your family for a significant amount of time and most of the people on this crew are really good family people and they do this because they love it. They do make a living of it, but they're passionate about the sport and when you have people that are passionate about doing the sport and passionate about their profession, you end up able to put on a great telecast for the viewer, and that's always our goal. Our goal is to really entertain, enlighten and engage the viewer."
Everyone is focused on their jobs -- and everyone views potential setbacks differently. It could be chaotic and out of control, trying to plan for something where anything can happen at any moment.
Somehow, it's not.
Kale and his fellow technical producer/manager seamlessly organize setting up the multitude of almost 30 cameras that will be used in a race broadcast, both those manned and stationary. They work to make sure that the camera operators get breaks and meals, even in the 10- and 12-hour days that racing can produce. From their command center -- also a mobile trailer that goes track to track -- work a group that not only organizes the technical side of the broadcast, but also handles the crucial details like credentials for everyone and making sure that people are in the right place at the right time.
During the All-Star Race weekend, the group of technicians and producers handled eight shows on Friday. Normally, it's four to six leading up to race day, some of which appear on sister-station SPEED, an extreme scheduling assignment by any measure.
It's all leading to the main event. A calm but frantic pace appears stressful from the outside, but those entrenched in the process seem relaxed and at ease, focused but not tense in the hours leading up to the race.
Perhaps that's because they really do live and breathe this for the opening segment of the season each year. Ten years into their broadcast partnership with NASCAR, the team estimates that about 95 percent of the original crew is still in place.
By Sunday (or Saturday of some weeks), they are putting the final touches on the background work that will show in small segments and comments made throughout the race broadcast.
"When we get to the track, we pretty much hit the ground running interacting with drivers and owners and crew chiefs and team members and PR people so that by the time we go on the air, we've got a pretty good grasp of what the stories are," announcer Mike Joy says. "... During the broadcast, a lot of times during commercials, we're looking at what, if anything, we may have missed. Who's coming through the field and who's falling back ... so it's not just all about who's leading the race and who's getting to the lead and how exciting it is, we're trying to sort through how the race plays out for a lot of the drivers."
That can make things a little difficult.
First, through both the practice and qualifying sessions and other prerace shows, a lot of news is covered before the race begins. The question is, how much of that news has been seen by those watching the actual race. How far does one go in covering a story that happened during the week, but still has repercussions for the main event?
That's a difficult balancing act for the production crew and announcers.
It's one of the things that is both difficult and easy about bringing a broadcast to life -- those continual storylines flowing through NASCAR and the group's in-depth knowledge of those.
"For us, it's a continuation of weeks," Landis said. "It's not like the NFL, it's not like baseball where you're preparing for different teams every week because basically you have the same players. So it's a continuation of pretty much the same group of people that you're dealing with all 43 cars each week with the variation of one or two. So it's kind of interesting that you're preparation begins back in January getting ready for the season and then it truly is a 15-week carryover from week to week, so the storylines you actually see develop. ... The pluses there are that obviously you don't miss many things because you're there living it each week. The difficult part is not letting things fall by the wayside because you think you already talked about them back in week two. They may still be pertinent in week eight."
So the production crew makes sure that the background details are available and covered when something is casually mentioned. And the announcers work diligently to stay on top of the news -- and change with the way it is carried. This year, after the social media sphere took off in NASCAR, the booth made sure someone was monitoring outlets like Twitter and Facebook even during a race to keep abreast of storylines.
Then they just let their natural love of the sport come into play, find a way to take a week's worth of knowledge and put it into a coherent summary -- while the racing is underway.
"I think the key to why this works so well is even after 10 years, the passion of our announcers, I mean they live it," Landis says. "When Darrell's not doing races, Darrell's sitting home watching races, he doesn't miss a thing, he's watching practice shows. It's such a pleasure to do this with people that this is their life, it's not just their job -- it is their life. I lean on them tremendously for knowledge."
Ironically, it is all those things that make racing so exciting for these men that can also offer the headaches within a broadcast.
In racing, the unexpected happens. Rain causes delays that must be filled by hopefully live interviews with drivers waiting to race. Red flags for things like crashes -- or potholes, as in the case at the Daytona 500 this year -- cause lengthy delays that need to be filled.
Yet those aren't the only difficulties here. With 43 cars strung out around the track, the production team sits in that dimly lit trailer constantly scanning video for potential crashes or passes in the making. They scour radio chatter and watch for signs that a car may be in trouble.
They try to stay on top of 43 drivers and crew chiefs and spotters, and NASCAR -- all while in the midst of a live broadcast.
In that respect, NASCAR is unlike any other sport this veteran team handles.
"You never know what's going to happen next," Kempner says. "There's not one ball. There's not even one playing field, in a lot of ways. The track is so big that you're moving from area to area. You could have just left the leader and he seemed fine and you went to the battle for third and all the sudden the leader spins out ... Fortunately we have a camera on the leader all the time, but how about the third-place guy because we just moved to the battle for fifth which was really compelling and the third-place guy, he's just driving by himself and something happens. A right front goes down he's in the wall.
"So you just really never know what's going to happen next. It is the most challenging sport to produce and direct and I've done just about every sport."
The pace is hectic, the lifestyle challenging and the racing ever-changing.
Yet these men have dedicated their careers, and in many ways their lives, to capturing the intrigue and excitement, to bringing more than the road of the engines into televisions every week.
It's race day and calm temporarily lays over the area. And then it accelerates. The engines fire, the voices chatter incessantly over radios and scanners and into flow into the ears of the alert production team. Videos shift and move through the viewer's screen, but many more are ceaselessly studied. Everyone is talking, but listening to just the right people and somehow shutting out the rest. The announcers discuss and debate, call the action and manage to catch the crashes instantly without seeming to override anyone else in the booth.
Instructions fly, questions are asked and answered, observations are made. Sometimes all inside of a minute. It seems to last forever. It seems to be over instantly.
The telecast complete, they will prepare to move on to the next week, to the next race. Within hours, the cables will be pulled and the TV compound will be a shell of what it was.
"What took us two days to put in will take them three hours to take out," Kale says.
And then they move on, turn their thoughts to breaking down the individual elements of the most recent broadcast -- and finding a way to do it better next week.
"We try to make it interesting, entertaining and informative and if you leave the booth feeling like you did that, then that's a good show," Joy says.
This must be how Alice felt when she fell down the hole.