The view from my couch

USAR - Behind the TV Cameras!

By Cheryl and Lou Lauer

Have you ever wondered how things go from the racetrack to the camera to your television set every Thursday night? Naturally the writers at SpeedCouch.com do! Recently we were offered a unique opportunity to see the magic while attending the USAR race at Ace Speedway on Easter weekend. We got to watch part of the race from the Speed Channel (or Crosscreek Productions) TV truck. Thanks to Executive Producer, Chris Larson (Hallbrook Productions), for giving us a wonderful experience. We don't know if this article can convey the intensity of what happens in a production trailer while producing a race broadcast, but we'll try.

We had corresponded with Richard Campbell (pit road cameraman) and met Gene Crane (USAR Announcer and TV commentator) over the last few months, due to Lou's participation in the Hooters Racing Message board and our reviews on Speedcouch. They were aware of our interest in racing broadcasts and passed it on to Chris, who produces the USAR broadcasts for the Speed Channel. Chris offered to let us visit the production truck when we came to Ace Speedway. It was great to finally meet Richard and Chris in person, and during the course of the weekend, they both generously answered all our questions about the production process. This ranged from our question as to when Speed Channel might start producing some high-definition race broadcasts, to why Speed and Fox use that annoying "ticker."

Because the race was rained out on Friday and postponed until Saturday night, we had a lot of time to ask even more questions and meet some other members of the production team. This included Donna, the technical director, who is in charge of switching camera views according the director's instructions, Jeff, the engineer-in-charge, who makes sure all the equipment and the truck are running smoothly, and Mark Magin, whose is chief cook and bottle washer for his company, Onboard Images, which provides the in-car cameras for the USAR races. We also met driver, Scott Sutherland, who works as a commentator on the USAR Northern Division races. This weekend, he and his crew were fielding a car in the Southern Division race. We already knew Gene Crane, who does double duty as track announcer for USAR and as a commentator on the Southern Division TV broadcasts.

On Saturday afternoon, the rest of the production team arrived at the track with the semi-truck that comprises the mobile production studio for the USAR broadcasts. Throughout the afternoon, the small, but energetic crew worked setting up camera platforms around the track and pulling miles and miles of cable to provide power/video/audio to everything. We were amazed at what the production crew accomplishes with the limited budget and small crew alloted to them. Trust me, it's a really small fraction of what Fox and NBC use for their race broadcasts, yet they make the most of their resources to provide a quality broadcast. As the crew set things up, Chris introduced us to their director, nicknamed Hippy. They generously told us to "make ourselves at home" in the production truck throughout the broadcast. We were very reluctant to do so because of the tight quarters in which they were working, but they seemed to think it would be just fine. We didn't want to get in their way or interfere with them getting their jobs done, but were very interested in seeing how the broadcast kicked off at the start of the race, so we decided to try and at least observe the first few laps from the truck.

Around 6:30 we made our way to the TV truck and Chris showed us around the various sections, the audio room, the tape room, and the main production room. He explained that their broadcast was considered "live to tape" since it was not broadcast live on Saturday night, but shown on Thursday nights on the Speed Channel. We asked how the editing process worked and Chris explained that they took the tape back to Speed studios in Charlotte and it took about two and half days to edit it. This included integrating the in-car camera shots from Mark and footage shot on pit road by Richard, including pit reports and pre-race interviews done by pit reporter, Doug Rice. During the editing process, the "voiceover" commentary would be inserted by Gene Crane and Brian Drebber. On Wednesday, the final tape would be shipped to the Speed studios in Los Angeles, where they would insert commercials in the final product to get it ready for broadcast on Thursday night. The production team is really on a tight schedule to get all this accomplished, so it's easy to understand why any glitch in the process can have a significant impact on the final product.

As the starting time for the race approached, Chris showed us into the main production area and where we could sit in the back "row" of three sets of consoles. He explained that because they were doing "live to tape", that area would not be occupied by anyone during the race. Hippy and Donna took their places at the front console in this area, with dozens of monitors in front of them. Monitors for each cameraman's view was labeled with his name as well as the unmanned "speed cam" mounted on the turn one wall of the track. This camera was labeled "Speedy" and was referred to by the director by that name throughout the broadcast just like it was one of the regular human cameramen. Several monitors displayed what was being taped as well as those showing replays and one showing the final "cut" of what the team would produce at the track. Luckily, a monitor right next to us also showed this final cut as well, so we could see what Hippy chose for the main tape of the broadcast. This was very interesting as we understand this is where the "live to tape" concept comes into play. Much of the editing is being done live by the director to minimize the amount that needs to be done at the Charlotte studios later in the week.

A few minutes before the start of the race, Chris left the trailer and headed up to the "tower" to oversee the broadcast from there. From the tower Chris is able to see the entire track and it enables him to do his job of Producer better. He relays the feel, the look of the race that he thinks will make the best product down to the trailer and the team takes if from there. Everyone was getting ready for the "show" to begin! As 7:00 approached, the activity in the production trailer intensified, yet Hippy and Donna worked together to keep things light by cracking a few jokes to relieve the tension. As they started rolling tape, Hippy called for some "beauty shots" and one of the cameramen zoomed out to show the countryside of Altamahaw, North Carolina surrounding Ace Speedway. They found a beautiful church steeple among the blossoming trees in the area. Next Chris or Hippy reminded the cameramen to keep their eyes on the middle of the pack where a lot of rookies had qualified. They felt sure there would be some action in this area. It was clear the production team had done their homework in getting a lot of good background material for the broadcast. It was also quite evident that these folks are first and foremost FANS of racing and not just doing a "job". As the race started, Hippy began directing Donna as to which cameras to switch to in covering the action, saying "dissolve to 3...", "go to Speedy," etc. Chris would add input about certain times when the fixed cameras may not have caught something, but that Richard and his mobile pit camera had it recorded for later use. You would not believe the amount of energy in that room! Over the intercom, Chris would give them a heads up on where there was action from his vantage point in the tower. Hippy would call out the numbers of the cars he wanted followed quickly so the cameraman could stay with the action. He called out those numbers so fast, Cheryl thought he sounded like an auctioneer. And he remarked the same thing himself, during a break. Caffeine is not something Hippy needs to find energy.

We had planned to just stay in the trailer for just a few laps, but were hooked by the dynamics going on between the director, technical director, producer, cameramen, and the tape room. During the first 50 laps of the race, there were two yellow flags and a red flag. During each break in the action, Hippy quickly queued up replays of the incidents, selected the best views and designated those for the final tape. All the time, directing the cameramen to follow the cars involved in the wrecks, pit stops, and the drivers involved as well. They got some very good shots of the frustration of one driver who was running well, only to be caught up in the wreck because of someone else's mechanical problem. During the early caution, Hippy was also quick to point out "HOOTERS GIRLS IN THE STANDS!" so the cameramen could get some shots of visiting Hooters girls handing out stickers and Hooters newspapers to the fans in the stands. When asked about this practice earlier, Chris explained that Mr. Brooks liked to make sure the Hooters girls were shown a lot during the broadcasts. Mr. Brooks is the owner of the Hooters restaurant chain and sponsor of the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series. So, you can't blame him for wanting some shots of pretty girls to help promote his restaurants and the racing series. And everybody likes to see pretty girls. But it was just so funny to hear Hippy alert everyone to their presence in the stands, like a soldier in a foxhole yelling "INCOMING!!!"

At the beginning of the race, someone on the production team down at the track also told everyone "We have moisture" since it started misting rain as soon as the cars got on the track. This continued throughout the entire race, but thankfully, there was never enough rain to stop the race. During the red flag, everyone in the booth, including us, got to relax for a bit. We couldn't help but be caught up in the excitement in the room. Hippy sent a couple of their "utility" workers out to the track to wipe the condensation off the cameras. (And, no, Chris, Cheryl was just kidding when she said she wanted that job). As the tension eased back just a bit during the red flag and everyone had a chance to catch their breath for a moment, Hippy told the technician in the tape room to stop the tape for a bit and everyone got a short reprieve from the intensity of covering the race. We cannot imagine how they stay focused and on their toes through the entire two hours of the race! It must take nerves of steel and obviously a strong ability to multi-task in such a dynamic environment. We could feel the tension and we were only observers! But Hippy and Donna did a great job mixing jokes in where they could to keep the atmosphere upbeat and cut down on the potential stress.

Here we were both sure we'd just stay a couple of minutes and then join some friends in the grandstands to watch the rest of the race. But we were so fascinated with the production process that we couldn't drag ourselves away until the third caution. It was a really hard choice because we'd have loved to stay and watch the production team at work for the entire race. Even though we had a great view of all the action from every angle, nothing replaces the smells, sounds and sights of watching the race from the grandstands. Reluctantly, we agreed it was time to go and quietly slipped out of the trailer so as not to disturb Hippy and Donna at work.

We may have gotten a few of the technical details wrong, but what we wanted to convey the most is what a challenging job the people behind the scenes have in producing a broadcast for the viewers at home, even one that is not being done live. You can't help but admire their talent in doing their jobs. They appear to love their jobs and to love racing. We had the opportunity to tour the NASCAR TV "compound" last fall at Richmond, but not during the actual broadcast. Even then, we could see how much equipment and people are packed into those trucks and how important it is to stay focused under less than optimum working conditions. But to be able to actually be in a production trailer during the race while the crew is working was a special experience and one we will not soon forget. Thanks again to Chris Larson, Richard Campbell, Hippy, Donna, Jeff and Mark for letting us take a peek into your world. We already knew that, although the "on-air talent" gets all the attention during TV broadcasts, it's the hard work and dedication of the production team behind the scenes that truly brings the broadcast to life for those of us at home. Thank you!