News & Media

Showing race to the masses no small feat

August 07, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Months of planning goes into four-hour television race broadcast

It all seems so simple: You turn the television on, hit the remote button and like magic, there's the live broadcast from this weekend's NASCAR race.

Tom Sahara only wishes he had a magic wand. As Turner Sports vice president for operations and technology, it's his responsibility to make sure 180 employees, nearly 70 cameras, 45 miles of fiber-optic cable, nine tractor-trailer rigs filled with studio equipment and two massive generators powerful enough to light up a small city all show up at the track on time and in working order.

"The TNT race may not be until Sunday, but we're working with other productions from the time the cars get on the race track."


If getting NASCAR's television broadcast on the air each weekend is akin to putting on a three-ring circus, Sahara qualifies as the ringmaster.

He handles the logistics for TNT's six-race summer series -- a crazy portion of the schedule that requires all of that equipment to be transported safely and smoothly from East Coast to West Coast, then from Florida to New Hampshire. It's all about preparation -- and for Sahara, that means starting the planning process several months in advance.

"We start discussions and look at the schedules and try to stay on top of any changes that come up," Sahara said. "We just want to fit in with the entire race schedule. So we get all of the track schedules from NASCAR and we start planning out our setup times, testing times, when we can do rehearsals."

Once the haulers head out from Atlanta just after Memorial Day, they won't be home again until after the Fourth of July. So everything needs to be planned for -- not only as far as equipment, but credentials, accommodations and travel for the crew.

The Cup cars usually get on the track for the first time Friday, but the TV haulers will have had a two-day head start in most cases. That's because everything needs to be in place before the race haulers arrive.

"Wednesdays are our parking days," Sahara said. "We park the units, get them powered up, get everything sorted back out. Thursday is a setup day, connecting the cameras and testing all the systems. For a Sunday race, Friday is practice, so we'll test with cars on the track.

"We also support many of the SPEED productions, providing cameras and replay. So it's a busy week for us. The TNT race may not be until Sunday, but we're working with other productions from the time the cars get on the race track."

Sahara said four haulers serve as the main television production area: two are dedicated to the control rooms for video and audio, one handles production of the pre-race show and another is filled with machines that handle all of the replays shown, including digital files of past race highlights, saved and catalogued for instant recall.

The other five haulers carry extra gear, provide video editing capabilities, serve as a mobile office -- plus the TNT show rig and Larry McReynolds' infield studio and cutaway car.

It takes a day and a half for one crew just to spool out all of the cables needed for the 20 or so cameras located around the track and remote microphones. Then there's the installation of the in-car cameras -- some of which are used for the over-the-air broadcast and others are dedicated to RaceBuddy and TrackPass.

"Eight cars have the in-car system and there are as many as four cameras per car," Sahara said. "Of the 22 cameras around the track, about a third are robotic cameras. Because they're so close to the track -- on the pit wall, for example -- we can't have a person there.

"We also have a grass cam, which basically is a lipstick camera that is just below the yellow line and you can see the cars come whizzing by."

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A road course like Watkins Glen presents a particular challenge, but it also gives the broadcast team a chance to show a unique perspective. That may be in-car cameras focused on a driver's clutch and brake pedal, or one that shows what drivers see, giving the viewer a better feel for elevation changes and the narrowness of the racing groove.

"Any road course is totally different because you have the winding turns and the terrain," Sahara said. "So placement of the cameras becomes very important. We have to document every inch of the track -- as much as we can -- and there's a lot more driver interaction, so we want to capture those areas of the track that present particular problems to the drivers.

"It's not just following the car around but putting the cameras where we can show the driving differences between an oval and a road course."

With so many moving pieces that need to go from Point A to Point B in a short amount of time, weather is always the greatest concern for Sahara. And that's not just because it delays the race.

In the summer, there's a good chance it'll be raining somewhere between one track and the next. That could result in not only delays in getting the equipment from track to track, but making sure the crew gets there as well.

"If there's bad weather somewhere in the country, it's going to affect us somehow," he said.

It takes the right people and the right equipment to create a successful broadcast. And four hours after the race is over, all nine haulers are usually packed and ready to take the circus to the next show. And there's the real magic.