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‘Controlled chaos’ the norm for ESPN production crew

  • Dave Burns of ESPN interviews driver Joey Logano in the pit area as members of the ESPN pit coverage crew, from left, Rocky Peacock, Seth Orenstein and Gus Sims, work to tell the story visually. The video is sent live to the ESPN production truck where a director and producer coordinate coverage before CNBC Prime's "The Profit" 200, part of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, on Saturday, July 13, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Dave Burns of ESPN interviews driver Joey Logano in the pit area as members of the ESPN pit coverage crew, from left, Rocky Peacock, Seth Orenstein and Gus Sims, work to tell the story visually. The video is sent live to the ESPN production truck where a director and producer coordinate coverage before CNBC Prime's "The Profit" 200, part of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, on Saturday, July 13, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Live video from around New Hampshire Motor Speedway is coordinated from inside the ESPN production truck during morning coverage before  CNBC Prime's "The Profit" 200, part of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, on Saturday, July 13, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Live video from around New Hampshire Motor Speedway is coordinated from inside the ESPN production truck during morning coverage before CNBC Prime's "The Profit" 200, part of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, on Saturday, July 13, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Dave Burns of ESPN interviews driver Joey Logano in the pit area as members of the ESPN pit coverage crew, from left, Rocky Peacock, Seth Orenstein and Gus Sims, work to tell the story visually. The video is sent live to the ESPN production truck where a director and producer coordinate coverage before CNBC Prime's "The Profit" 200, part of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, on Saturday, July 13, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Live video from around New Hampshire Motor Speedway is coordinated from inside the ESPN production truck during morning coverage before  CNBC Prime's "The Profit" 200, part of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, on Saturday, July 13, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

LOUDON – A quick look at the numbers paints the picture of a boring Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway yesterday, one in which winner Kyle Busch led 141 laps, including the last 91 of the competition.

Don’t tell that to the fans, who saw touch-and-go fuel situations make the last of the 213 laps a guessing game. And definitely don’t tell that to the production crew at ESPN, who work through each minute of the telecast in an environment in which urgency is unrelenting, commotion is the norm and a moment’s peace of mind simply doesn’t exist from starting the engines to the checkered flag.

“It’s controlled chaos throughout the race,” producer Jim Gaiero said.

That’s one way to put it. Madness is another. I had a chance to see it. I saw the entire race, which luckily for the broadcast crew went an extra 13 hectic laps, in ESPN’s production trailer, in front of a wall of screens showing shots from the channel’s 60-plus cameras, at arm’s length from a console with hundreds of buttons and beside people who seemed to carry on conversations with a half-dozen people at once.

All moments of the race, from the thrilling to the mundane, were wild, crazy and intense. But for the workers in the trailer, that’s just the weekend.

“There are never scheduled breaks,” Gaiero said. “There are so many things that happen, nothing’s scripted. You have to be ready for anything and everything.”

That’s not just from the racing standpoint. There are commercials to fit in, 17 of them, that associate director Chris Gray keeps track of. There are pit reporters to include in the mix, who share their stories with pit producer Rene Hatlelid. There are the cameras to monitor throughout the mile-long track, commanded by director Richie Basile and technical director Bob Gooselin.

And at the center of it all is Gaiero, who determines when to break for commercial, what to show and which story to tell.

“Our job is to document the event,” he said. “Tell stories of the race, and explain how somebody won, and why they won.”

The workers carry themselves in a way you’d expect of people who do this every week. They were loose. Before the race, they joked around. They sang along with parts of the Canadian national anthem.

Then the green flag wove, the race began, and all hell broke loose.

I had a headset and was allowed to listen in to what Gaiero could hear, which meant I also had a symphony of urgent voices talking over each other in my ear. Hatlelid sold a report from reporter Mike Massaro on Sam Hornish Jr., at about the time information specialist Patrick Perrin mentioned a useful radio clip they could play, Basile laid out three different camera cuts and Gray counted down from commercial. Meanwhile, Marty Reid’s call of the race played over all of it.

I took the headset off.

Through it all, Gaiero conducted the show, but there were moments that highlighted the fragile nature of making so many split-second decisions. Early in the race, Matt Kenseth passed Elliott Sadler while the broadcast was on a camera looking elsewhere.

“Take 2! Take 2!” Gaiero and Basile shouted, calling for a cut to what they call the “best battle” camera.

They missed the pass, but they made up for it later. On lap 36, the leaders pitted during a caution and after they returned to the track, Gaiero called for commercial. During the break, he okayed a replay and radio call revealing what caused a holdup during the stop by Busch. The video played, followed by the call, all before cutting to the live camera in time for the green flag.

The unpredictability that’s part of auto racing was also on display. Hatlelid was in the middle of a series of pit road updates at lap 78 when Busch began to test leader Brian Vickers.

“Stand by booth! We’ve got a battle for the lead!” Gaiero interrupted.

“What do you want to do?” Hatlelid asked.

“Lead! Lead! We’ll go back.”

“All right, guys,” Hatlelid said to the reporters, “we’ll resume at Mike (Massaro, reporting on) 12 (Hornish Jr.).”

There were several highlights. There was a switch back to a camera in time to show a replay of Busch slowing down on lap 98, prompting a fist pump from Gaiero and congratulations from booth analyst Dale Jarrett. There was also a good spontaneous feed when Perrin alerted Gaiero to a radio call from Sadler.

“He’s upset with the 6 (Trevor Bayne),” Perrin said.

Gaiero’s response was quick. “Play it.”

The call played, allowing viewers to hear Sadler calling Bayne a “moron” after a restart.

“That was a good combination,” Gaiero said.

There were tougher moments, as well. The crew went to commercial right before leader Matt Kenseth went to the pits at lap 122. Gaiero also faced a late crunch when he had a final break to fit in, but the caution-marred finish and tight fuel situation left no clear time to take it.

Still, the coverage came through, and featured a moment that showed the strength of teamwork within the crew. Perrin offered a call of Hornish describing his fuel situation and race with Sadler, and Gaiero, wanting to focus on the leaders, turned it down. Perrin pushed the clip, however, defending its relevance to the points standings, and Gaiero changed his mind.

“Go 12 radio,” he said.

The clip had crew chief Travis Geisler making a fuel suggestion to Hornish based on helping his points position, and Gaiero thanked Perrin for his insistence on shedding light on the bigger-picture topic.

The crew documents the story. That’s always the goal. And in a high-pressure setting where everyone’s talking and trying to be heard, being able to listen to all of them makes that goal reachable.

“That’s my trust with my team and every single person in this compound,” he said, “they’re going to do the right thing, as well. They’re fans. They know what the right thing to do at the right time is.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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