SVG Sit-Down: NHRA Producer Kymberly Booth Higgs on What Makes Drag Racing a One-of-a Kind Broadcast
Experienced producer believes drone coverage could be a boost to production
In January, when the NHRA named Kymberly Booth Higgs show producer for the 2017 Fox Sports television broadcasts of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, she may have been new to the front bench on this circuit, but she was far from new to the world of auto racing.
With two decades of NASCAR, Formula One, IndyCar, IMSA, and TORC: Off-Road production under her belt, Booth Higgs has drag racing in her blood. As a child in Kansas, Booth Higgs’s family was involved in the NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League from its inception. So the opportunity to return to the sport she has loved since she was a little girl was one she couldn’t pass up.
SVG caught up with Booth Higgs at the NHRA’s recent weekend of action in Brainerd, MN, to discuss her career, the state of drag racing on television, and what technology tools she believes could take production of the sport to the next level.
As a producer of NHRA, what do you find currently to be some of the biggest challenges you face?
I think the biggest challenge is the storytelling. Our cars are fascinating, they’re fast, they’re exciting, they’re earth-rumbling. The experience is something that you need to experience in real life to be able to appreciate what we’re doing. All the senses are united when you’re at a drag race. To communicate that to a television audience is a challenge. You don’t have smell in your television. You have audio, but you don’t have something that’s rumbling your chest. So that’s our challenge: to try to communicate what it’s like in person to the television audience.
At the same time, we have to make someone [watching] television care about the person who’s behind the visor. Otherwise, who are you going to root for? Why do you even care who wins this drag race?
In a weekend on Fox Sports, you do some days on tape delay, and some others are live. How different are those two, and how do you balance doing both in the same weekend?
The way we build drag racing is different than the way anyone’s doing sporting events right now. We start at 11 in the morning and come on the air live at 1:00, but, at that point, we’re playing back segments that we’ve already built. We didn’t just build those as complete segments. We paused, and we picked up, and we used an EVS for all these on-the-fly edits. Then, on Sundays, we catch ourselves live.
Our [Assistant Director] Melissa Armstrong is the best in the business to be able to make sure all this times out. We plan our segments to exactly hit ourselves live, and then we come on live for the finals and stay live for that final 20-25 minutes.
I’ve worked on a lot of sporting events and a lot of racing motorsports particularly, and nowhere else is it nearly this complicated. On every other type of racing, you come on when the green flag flies, and you stay until the checkered flag. That’s not how we’re doing it here. We’re building on-the-fly. So it’s a lot to keep track of in your head.
One key is having the same people in the same roles week after week to know that this is what works for us and this is how, over time, we’ve developed a routine of how we go through [the day]. It still gets pretty crazy, but we somehow make it work and somehow make it time out to hit live.
What are some of the current technological and production tools that excite you? Is there some new technological element that you think lends itself well to the sport?
I think we have tremendous growth potential [in] technology. Our [Game Creek Video production] trucks are completely equipped to handle anything.
I think we have to start using drone technology. There’s so many things that you can do with a drone on a drag strip now. There’s all the legal aspects [we have to consider], but we have to figure out a method.
Our sport is just completely centered around time and speed. We have to be able to communicate to an audience how incremental, how tiny these time measurements are. Margin of victory, reaction time, and how a tiny bit of difference from one driver to the next can win or lose a race: those are things that we have to keep figuring out [how to show with] the next graphic technology or the next 3D animations. All those things that I think are still coming can transform our sport to another level.
Where do you find the balance between catering to the hardcore fan and welcoming in new viewers? Is that the hardest part of the job?
That’s definitely the hardest part of the job.
I’m a drag-racing fan, and I’ve been around this for 40 years, so I always have to think about [whether] someone else [is] going to know what we mean — especially when we speak in vernacular or inside language or jargon. At the same time, you don’t want to insult your hardcore fan who’s followed you for all these years.
The goal would be for us — even when we’re doing something that we would consider elementary — to include information that even I didn’t know. And it takes a lot to find something that I didn’t know! But, when we can, I like that, because that means I didn’t insult the people who have been around forever.
I spend a ton of time in the pits just asking questions, because I love it and I love the terminology, and I love all the stuff that I could probably never explain on television but at least I have the information. The more that I listen to the people who are in there and able to explain it, I get a better idea of how we can explain it on the television show in a non-insulting way.
How much of a responsibility do you find not only to cover what’s going on in the track but to tell the story of what it’s like to be here as like a spectator? It seems a big part of the equation that you want people to be excited for when NHRA comes to their town.
That’s one of the initiatives that’s very important to the NHRA: explaining the fan experience, why you’re going to want to come out here. We also have a sport show to do, though, so there’s also a balance of how to tell the story of what’s happening on the race track and also include the fan experience.
I’ve worked in all sports across the board, and there is absolutely nowhere (I can say this unequivocally) that you will have more access to the athletes than NHRA drag racing. You can just go and talk to your favorite racer or they’ll hand you a tire or they’ll give you a broken piston and you’ll walk home and you’ll display it on your coffee table. It’s a totally different experience here than anywhere else you will go. Which we have to be able to continue to communicate to people because people should come out.
When you look ahead at the future, what do you see as the potential for NHRA in the future?
I think that, in a sport that is so dependent on incremental numbers, technology can only help us as we go forward. I think that there’s so much room for growth still in a category that, everywhere else across the board, is seeing decline. The NHRA is still growing: in attendance, in ratings, in car counts, in member tracks. So I’m super-excited to be a part of that growth potential.
I think that we still need to continue to embrace the technology that’s available to us to make our sport even more fascinating to watch. We’re doing things now that, when I was a kid, you couldn’t see on TV, [but] you can now see what’s really happening on the race track.