NBC readies for Olympic break in Daytona

For most people Daytona 500 signifies the beginning of the NASCAR season and the frantic chase for the Nextel Cup. But for Mike Wells, director of NASCAR telecasts for NBC and TNT, the Daytona 500 the beginning of a very busy week.

After the race I ll head down to my home in St. Petersburg, Fl., drop off my bag, pick up another, and head off to Torino to direct the closing ceremonies, he says of what is no doubt one of the busiest week s in the history of NBC Sports.

But that s next week. For now Wells is focused on Daytona, the Super Bowl of racing which takes place next Sunday afternoon. More than 198 miles of fiber cable has been laid to help keep camera signals from more than 76 cameras at the fingertips of Wells and the production team (another member, producer Sam Flood, actually returns from Torino to work on the telecast).
Six trucks will be used on the telecast, including two trucks from NEP Supershooters (those trucks will handle the main game production plus another truck with Avid editing and a Sony production switcher for instant replays), a graphics and robotics truck, a truck for the Sportvision graphics, and another two trucks for handling the in-car and wireless cameras.

Getting those trucks in place and ready to go is never a small undertaking, especially when one considers that the production is larger than the Super Bowl. In fact, the only thing faster than the freelancers and crews that put together the Daytona 500 broadcast compound would be the cars on the track.
The guys started last Tuesday and Wednesday and we could have been on air Friday, says Wells. That s amazing considering that a few weeks ago for the Super Bowl they had the same amount of equipment or less and they were working two weeks out.

The production itself will be centered around some old standbys: the Sony 8000 production switcher, Grass Valley cameras, the EVS replay system, 12 Sony MAV recorders, an two Avid editing systems. Sportvision will once again play a big role in the telecast, delivering the data-driven graphics that let viewers know which driver is where. Robotic cameras in dangerous locations along the backstretch will also be used.

The challenge with a NASCAR race is that auto races have literally dozens of teams competing on the track at once. That means keeping track of hundreds of possible storylines from simple rivalries to new cars, battles for positions, and battles for position that mean something. For example, a battle between 8th and 9th might not seem significant for the race as a one-off event but it could be important to the overall season standings.
It s huge and we try to cover it as best we can, says Wells. We definitely have a higher standard of performance for this telecast.

New this year will be 10 overhead pit cameras that will be placed above the front 10 pit positions. Every racing team has its own overhead camera that records the performance of its pit crews so it can dissect tire changes and fueling stops during the week. At Daytona, NBC will replace the first 10 pit crew cameras with NBC s cameras (for consistent quality) and then send the feeds back to the truck via wireless transmission. The crews will also be able to record the feeds for their own use.

Every week the crews will look at the tape to see what they did right and wrong and that s all part of the reason pit stops are now 13 seconds as opposed to 20, says Wells. It s unbelievable what they go through to make sure the pit stop is orchestrated.

NBC will also transmit HD signals from the chopper over the race track. We ve been doing it in 16:9 but it s such a big difference in HD, says Wells. The only thing I d still like to see are HD on-board cameras but the HD technology isn t there year. It s an RF hurdle and it will be great once we can clear it.

Lastly, look for a new crew cam lipstick camera to be worn by one of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. s crew providing extreme POV shots from the pits. It s really great when you see the tire being changed or the jack man working from that angle, says Wells.

As for audio, over the years the NASCAR crews have figured out how to deliver just enough low-end roar-of-the-engine punch without overwhelming the announcers. Early on people were struggling with 5.1 and we were able to compare notes and, as a result, not have any real problems.

Those involved in NASCAR will be the first to admit that it s odd to start the season with the biggest race of the year. But for the next 38 weeks Wells and hundreds of others will work to make sure that fans keep returning week after week. For 90% of the crew that means being on the road from one Tuesday to the following Sunday or Monday.

Those guys are the real superstars, says Wells. By the end of the season we ve been with each other more than our families.