Editor’s note: This is Part III of a five-part series detailing how NASCAR successfully ran its 2020 season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The roof cam on the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford carries the viewer to the white flag at Darlington Raceway before panning out to show the full car on its final lap around the 1.366-mile track. The moment Kevin Harvick takes the checkered flag, the in-car camera captures his celebratory fist pump and congratulatory radio shouts. The scene quickly cuts to teammates celebrating on pit road.
This isn’t any normal NASCAR race weekend, and the only giveaway in this moment is the lack of fans in the stands as the drone camera follows Harvick’s burnout on the frontstretch. Harvick was the NASCAR Cup Series’ first winner after a two-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. FOX Sports managed to make it look like business as usual.
For NASCAR’s broadcast partners, FOX took the brunt of the coronavirus impact. Its equipment was already set up at Atlanta Motor Speedway back in March when the sanctioning body postponed that race weekend and then eventually seven more, all of which were FOX’s to broadcast.
Normally, FOX and NBC split the season. FOX is responsible for the first 16 races, along with any additional events such as the Busch Clash, Bluegreen Vacation Duels, All-Star Open and All-Star Race. NBC then takes over for the remainder of the schedule – 20 races, including the playoffs.
It wasn’t a seamless handoff this year. NBC kept its events and FOX remained in charge of those rescheduled, leaving the two networks to switch off briefly in July.
FOX was affected first, though, and therefore the most.
“In those early days, I guess May when we restarted, there weren’t a lot of sports back,” Wanger said. “NASCAR was the first major sport back. So, we did have a lot of open windows. You didn’t get a lot of pushback from us in terms of, is May 20 open? Because pretty much it was.”
Conversations started with scheduling. FOX representatives were on the phone with NASCAR’s Ben Baker (managing director, domestic broadcasting) and Brian Herbst (senior vice president, media and productions) twice a week, figuring out which tracks would work when. Proximity to Charlotte, North Carolina, where a majority of the teams resided, was prioritized for safety reasons.
Even that was easier said than done.
“I didn’t even think about it,” said NASCAR’s vice president of racing development, Ben Kennedy, who worked heavily on the revamped 2020 schedule. “Some of these tracks, you look at a map and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s actually pretty close, you can do it within driving distance.’ But you don’t take into account the time it takes to tear down at the track and then the time it takes to build up at the track particularly on the TV side.”
According to a FOX Sports Media Relations spokesperson, setting up required more than twice the time it did under normal circumstances due to limited personnel numbers and social-distancing protocol. The road crew needed two full days to travel and unload.
That was important to consider when mid-week races preceded weekend events, especially in the event of a rain postponement.
“We adopted the PACE model of planning,” said Tom Bryant, NASCAR managing director of racing operations. “Here is our Primary plan, here is our Alternate plan, here is our Contingency plan and here is our Emergency plan for each one.”
These were things NASCAR and FOX needed to handle before even scheduling an event. The races themselves were then a learning curve all on their own.
FOX had about half its usual manpower and half its usual camera count at track. Only two people were allowed in the productions truck during the race. As Wanger noted, there was one pit-road reporter – Vince Welch, Jamie Little, Matt Yocum or Regan Smith – as opposed to the usual four for Cup Series events.
Booth personalities Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds, along with their support staff, worked remotely from FOX Sports’ Charlotte studio. Graphics and replay responsibilities moved to the Los Angeles headquarters.
All those unorthodox adjustments came on top of a busy return: three national series events at Darlington scheduled from May 17-21, bookended by a pair of Cup Series races.
“It allowed us, at that first particular race in Darlington, to get two races under our belt within a couple days without having to travel to a different track so that we can get our sea legs underneath us in terms of how we produced it,” Wanger said. “That was really important to us, and that was something that we really stressed with NASCAR that we needed another race right after the first race from the same location.”
FOX continued to include pre-race festivities – invocation, national anthem and command to fire engines – but did so remotely and virtually with the honorary guests. For example, numerous medical professionals gave the command for the Cup Series’ first race back – the Real Heroes 400. All of their videos were personally pre-recorded and sent into FOX for editing and broadcasting purposes.
From start to finish, FOX didn’t seem to miss a beat with on-air responsibilities, even if there were some kinks that needed to be worked out along the way. Then, when NBC’s broadcast duties began, the network continued the seamless operation through to the postseason and present day.
“If you’re a fan at home watching, this is the same great racing you expect to see, the same high-quality broadcasting you expect to see,” Bryant said. “We couldn’t have had any degradation of the product. But at the same time, we had to protect our people.”
PART 4: TEAMS