Turner Sports Revs Up the Audio for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Racing
Turner Sports nearly doubled the number of microphones it deployed for the Kentucky Speedway’s first-ever Sprint Cup Series race last Saturday. As part of a long-considered strategy of more deeply engaging the viewer and letting the race create more of its own narrative, 40 microphones were added to the 50 or so that Turner usually uses for a NASCAR event on a 1.5-mile track like this, for a total of about 90 microphones.
About half of those mics were positioned along the safety-wall barriers coming out of the turns. These contact microphones were intended to more comprehensively pick up the sound of cars colliding with the walls. The rest of the additional microphones were used to add audio coverage of the pits, where a combination of fixed and movable Sennheiser 816 and 416 shotgun mics were used.
“One of the things we noticed on looking back at previous broadcasts of NASCAR is that, when there are crashes into the walls, you kind of hear it, but you don’t really hear it. You’re not hearing the impact with the same intensity that you’re seeing it with,” says Tom Sahara, VP of operations and technology for Turner Sports. “The additional microphones added significantly to the ability to capture that sound, he says.
The other half of the increased microphone complement beefed up coverage of the pit-stop areas, where Sahara says a lot of the race’s narrative is formed.
“There are a lot of resources applied to the pit compared to the amount of time the cars spend in them, but it’s such a critical part of the race that being able to hear everything that goes on is important,” he notes. “That’s been a weak spot in the past. We’ve had coverage of the pits, but we had to be lucky to have a camera near one when it was being used. This time, we covered them all.”
In one instance, Sahara says, the audio was so compelling that the production team was able to keep the picture focused on the pits for several pit stops in a row.
The additional microphones picked up key sounds like air wrenches, tire squeals, and the occasional tool hitting the ground. More-intense coverage could lead to an epithet or two, which, Sahara says, would be muffle sufficiently by the crew’s helmets.
The Kentucky Speedway race included TNT’s Inside Trax segment, with crew chiefs wired for sound. The course’s 1.5-mile length, which positioned the crew chief and observer farther away from the race action than at smaller tracks, helped reduce the ambient noise that Sahara says can plague the segment. Inside Trax uses a lavaliere microphone attached to the crew chief’s own headset-microphone boom.
TNT has changed little for in-car audio. Sahara says that they used the practice runs to try new positioning of microphones within the cars to complement the driver-crew radio-communications audio.
The enhanced audio coverage goes beyond adding equipment, personnel, and placements. Sahara says it extends to a larger strategy, including more-extended periods during which the announcers would lay out and the race audio would take center stage.
“The idea is to let the viewers listen in and hear the sounds of the race, the crews and drivers discussing pit strategy and problems with the cars,” he says. “We wanted to let the video and the sound do the explaining. In the past, you’d get bits of that, but this time, we wanted to let viewers have the whole conversations.”
According to Sahara, that strategy got good reviews on Twitter and Facebook, which he uses to monitor feedback on the broadcasts.
“NASCAR fans liked hearing the chatter between driver and spotter,” he says. “The announcers were also able to explain what was said that added a deeper insight into the race team’s strategy. The sonic impact was clearly there in 5.1 surround, especially the pit action. It brought the viewer closer to the action.
“It worked great on the weekend,” he adds. “This is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time, [and] it’s great to get to try it out.”