NBC at NASCAR: The ‘New First Year’
In what would have been a perfect handoff of a baton in a relay race, Fox Sports and NBC Sports shared the latter’s technical infrastructure over the weekend as for the beginning of NBC’s new decade-long agreement for the exclusive rights to the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and the final 19 Nationwide Series events through 2024. The agreement calls for multiple network broadcasts, including the season-ending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship event. At Phoenix International Raceway last weekend, NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1 showed how the technical nuts and bolts of this would work.
Instead of two complete remote-production facilities to cover the Camping World Truck Race Series and its qualifying and practice runs on Thursday and Friday (FS1) and the Xfinity Series and Sprint Cup races and runs (Friday and Saturday) on NBC Sports and NBCSN, Fox’s production, graphics, and on-air talent teams worked from NBC’s Game Creek Peacock suite of production trucks, making the broadcast compound feel spacious and uncluttered. Technical teams, however, remained in place from event to event, network to network.
NASCAR races have had multiple broadcasters in the past, but this one, which also marked the beginning of NBC’s tenure as the main distributor of the races, looked more like the model used by Olympics broadcasts. NBC acted as the host broadcaster, providing infrastructure for Fox Sports and NASCAR.
The key point was the 2.5-minute “terminal break” for commercials between the FS1’s broadcast of the Camping World Truck Series events and NBCSN’s coverage of the Xfinity events.
“One network’s production staff” — producers, EPs, directors, graphics personnel, and on-air talent — “get up and leave the room and the other’s walk in and take those same seats,” says NBC Sports Technical Manager Eric Thomas. NBC’s infrastructure covered the entire the 1.51-mile track and its environs, making the entire production “much less complicated,” he said. “There’s not as many broadcasters in the sandbox.”
Thomas and others noted that the streamlined infrastructure added considerable efficiency, not least in the form of a smaller complement of trucks and fewer personnel. The audio crew in particular remained consistent throughout, including A1 Denis Ryan, submixer Steve Urick, and comms manager Shawn Peacock. Ryan says the hours were long but that the cost savings allowed them to deploy additional effects microphones. “We’re trying some different locations relative to the camera positions,” he says. “We’re going for an overall more aggressive sound.”
Both Ryan and Peacock mixed audio for Fox Sports’ coverage of NASCAR, so in many ways what the Phoenix race sounded like was an extension of that, muscled up with the added microphones. Peacock noted that NBC is configured for a 3.0 playback — stereo effects and a center announce channel — that is then upmixed to 5.1 on site. Pre-recorded audio for packages is brought up on its own faders and mixed live with the rest of the sound. He says that the intercom and IFB system played a major role in making the network transitions swift and sure by allowing them to build presets for each scene, allowing them to reconfigure the comms matrix instantly.
“As one production team takes off its headsets and the next one puts its on, we bit a button and it’s done,” he says. “They’d never even notice the transition.”
But what also stood out on this show was that a lot of the technology to do this wasn’t around the last time NBC Sports did a NASCAR show. Calling it the “new first year” for NBC and NASCAR, Thomas noted that broadcast technology had changed considerably in the eight years since the network broadcast the sport. “We’ve got the Sony 4300 cameras now and they’re doing a great job, under the direction of [director] Mike Wells,” Thomas said. Many of the cameras deployed were robotic cams placed on the walls around the track. “Racing is about speed, and the closer you are to the track, the better you can see the speed,” he said. He also noted the arrival of super slo-mo cameras, four of which were deployed in Phoenix. “Those really tell the story,” he added.
All of the broadcast signal was transported by fiber around the track and to and from the broadcast compound, something that wasn’t as available nearly a decade ago. And there’s more signal to move. Thomas pointed to the portable stage that was used for several segments, including NASCAR America and Countdown To Green. He said it was part of a strategy to move the production deeper into the fan areas. “We invested in that in order to bring it to the fans, to park it at the corner of Main Street, so to speak,” he said. “We parked it out in the grid before the race. We got a number of great backgrounds for it.”
Finally, NBC Sports did a substantial amount of package production on site, using a pair of Avid video editors, and there was more integration of venue PA sound with broadcast audio, with the PA mixers having their own node on the comms matrix so that cues for key moments such as the national anthem and the iconic “Start your engines!” call are perfectly synchronized with the rest of the show’s narrative.
So, in some ways, a lot has changed; in other ways, very little. “There’s lot of new technology and it keeps growing by leaps and bounds,” commented Roger Vincent, race director for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series under both the Fox Sports and NBC Sports regimes. “But we still have many of the same people working the shows.”