Rick Allen is not studying at his notes. He isn't mentally rehearsing what he'll say when he goes back on the air. He isn't doing anything you would expect the lead broadcaster of the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway -- much less the first race of this year for this entire NBC Sports team -- to do.
Nope. Only fifteen seconds away from going back on the air, he's teasing me. "You don't have to stand way back there," he says. "Come up here. Maybe we'll put you on the air."
I smile nervously and shake my head. Surely he's kidding. But what if he's not?
In my headphones I hear a producer counting down: "10, 9, 8..." as Rick says, "Don't worry. We'll give you a little time to think about what you want to say." He smiles as the producer says, "2, 1..." and, still looking at me, says, "Welcome back to NASCAR XFINITY Series racing from Daytona, presented by Subway..."
He finishes the read and without looking hands a sheet of paper back to Andy Jeffers, the stage manager for the NASCAR on NBC broadcast booth. Sponsors pay big money to get in front of the NASCAR audience, and those quick reads Andy coordinates are pretty much the only pre-planned things Rick will say.
Everything else, for Rick, color analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, for the pit reporters, and for the hundreds of people who work behind the scenes to create the broadcast, is an hours-long improv performance.
The premise of the "scene" is the race, but what they will say and do and show during the race is the result of thousands of split-second decisions, all intended to turn individual moments into something bigger. While a race broadcast obviously can't be scripted, the primary goal is still to tell a story. Otherwise a telecast would simply be an endless string of "this happened," then "this happened," then "that happened"...
The only way for the audience to care about what they experience is for the crew to provide a sense of meaning. Engaging the audience is like engaging employees: They need a sense of "why."
That's why great television is more than exciting images and smart words; great television happens when the audience cares -- which is why the entire broadcast team's goal is to help the audience understand why they should care.
"We take a great deal of pride in telling stories about these all-stars on the track," says Jeff Behnke, VP of NASCAR Production. "That starts with coordinating 235 people, two booths, two sets in the garage area, 20 mobile units... getting them all connected via cable and fiber... taking all those people and all that equipment and piecing it together so we can tell an incredible story."
Story matters, but exciting images pictures still play a role. This year NBC debuted a number of technical innovations. One is the Bat-Cam, a camera that travels along a nearly half-mile long cable suspended above the track and can reach speeds of almost 100 mph. Another is a helmet cam (think a Go-Pro camera strapped to a parachutist's head) that shows almost exactly what the driver sees.
A third is low-tech but high-emotion: the winning driver is interviewed at the start-finish line, just moments after the checkered flag flies.
"The goal is to get fans as close to the action as possible," Jeff says. "We're not interested in technology for the sake of technology. We're interested in technology that provides an even better experience for the fans and helps us tell the story of the race."
In the booth, Rick and Jeff and Steve are currently telling that story.
I'm surprised by how calm they are. I would be a quivering ball of nerves; they seem like three guys having a beer while they watch the race -- except these three guys are watching video and scoring and timing monitors, glancing at a small whiteboard that statisticians use to feed them interesting details, and listening to each other as well as the producers they can hear in their headphones. (Pushing a button allows each to cut off his broadcast mic and speak to a producer off-air.)
Of course three guys in a bar can talk over each other. For a broadcast team, that's a definite no-no. I expected to see hand signals and nonverbal cues; there are none. Partly that's due to their roles. Rick calls the race and serves as the glue. Jeff, a 22-year veteran driver, provides perspective from that viewpoint. Steve worked for Hendrick Motorsports for 20 years, including stints as crew chief for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.. He brings that engineering and technical experience to the broadcast. Each has put in their 10,000 hours, both in the sport and in broadcasting, which makes their interaction seem natural and almost instinctive.
One member of the broadcast team that has not put in significant time in the sport is Ato Boldon, a 4-time Olympic medalist and color analyst for NBC's track and field coverage. As a guy who didn't grow up around car racing, his job is to provide a fresh perspective.
Within minutes he's called on to do just that. Rain has started to fall so the race is temporarily halted. In my headphones I hear the producer tell Rick to go to Ato, who is with driver Joey Logano.
I'm curious as to how the guys in the booth will react. Ato is new to NASCAR, and "lifers" who worked their way up the ranks could easily see him as an interloper who has no business in the sport.
Ato asks Joey how he will mentally gear himself back up if and when the race re-starts. It's one thing to get ready for the start of the race; it's another to climb out of the car, wait for an unknown amount of time, and then climb back in with the same degree of focus.
"That's why Ato is going to be great at this," Steve says off air. "We've been around so long, we never would have thought to ask that."
Rick and Jeff nod, and it's easy to understand why the NBC team is so good. They don't care who shines. They just want the broadcast to shine.
Unfortunately, the stars aren't shining in the sky above the track. The rain continues to fall, so I head to the vast NBC compound located just outside the track. I climb the steps to the main control truck and step into -- well, I step into what, to me at least, appears to be chaos.
The monitor wall alone is dizzying. Dozens of large and small displays feed video from fixed- and hand-held cameras, robotic cameras, in-car cameras, pit reporters, replay machines, graphics... and of course one large monitor that displays what the viewers at home actually see. Fifteen to twenty people sit in front of banks of terminals and laptops. Each person has a specific function, and each seems to be speaking at the same time. Some sound calm, others more frantic. There's plenty of yelling -- not in anger, but to get attention and ensure the right people hear what they really need to hear.
The calmest people in the room seem to be the people with the greatest responsibility: Matt Marvin, the race producer, and Mike Wells, the race director. In simple terms, Matt is strategy and Mike is tactics. Mike makes second-by-second decisions on how to best use of all the storytelling tools that Matt and the assemble.
"One of our biggest challenges is the coordination of 235 people," Jeff Behnke says. "Everything from our engineers, to technical people, to audio, to replay, to announcers... it takes years for all that to come together and be a well-oiled machine."
Right now they need to be a well-oiled machine. Due to continued rainfall the race has been postponed until the following day, and the crew must shift gears and televise the four MMA fights that were scheduled to take place after the race in a ring located in the Daytona Fan Zone.
In every profession, there are moments when you truly earn your money. A CEO doesn't get paid the big bucks to deliver a performance review, even though that is part of her job. She earns her pay when she decides to discontinue a product line, to shift into new markets, to take the right steps in a crisis... she may do a lot of stuff that is relatively simple, but getting the hard things right is the real job.
In television, technical skills are just the ticket to entry -- adapting quickly and reacting instantly is the real job.
"We always have a blueprint of how a day and night will go," Jeff says, "but everything can change. During an event there's no time to think, no time to reflect... if you work in live television you have to be a person who can instinctively make decisions on the fly. And you need to have confidence in the people around you, because it's a lot easier to make the right decisions when you know the people around you will come through."
Unfortunately, one of the fighters isn't quite coming through -- caught unaware by the sudden shift in start time, he's still in the bathroom.
Rene Hatlelid, the pit road producer, takes advantage of the lull to let her pit reporters shine. Since their night is now over, some of the XFINITY drivers and their crews have taken seats in the grandstands to watch the fights.
As different pit reporters check in, Rene accepts or rejects their ideas, sends them to different locations, suggests questions they can ask (even while they're in mid-interview), lets them know when a replay is about to be shown, lets the producer and director know what she has coming up and adapts based on their feedback ... it's a high-energy circus act, like riding a unicycle on a high wire while juggling six balls.
I would be freaking out. Rene, fueled by the six cans of energy drink within easy reach, appears to be squarely in her element.
Earlier in the day I mentioned to Jeff that whenever I watch a race on television I never see anything go wrong. After spending time in the broadcast center that seems even more unlikely. Everyone involved has to perform under pressure, remained focused in an environment of constant sensory overload, do their individual jobs well while also functioning as a member of a huge team... they have to do all that, and from a journalistic standpoint, they have to get things right.
"We end every internal presentation with one slide," Jeff says. "It reads: 'Patience.' We remind everyone to be patient with each other, to be patient with the track officials, to be patient with NASCAR, to be patient with themselves... We're a great team. If you just take a deep breath and remind yourself to be patient, no matter how hard something seems... it will be fine."
And that's because, ultimately, a race is supposed to be fun: For the drivers, for the fans, for the viewers... and for the NBC broadcast team.
"For all of us," Jeff says, "it's always electrifying to come to a racetrack, and especially to the television compound. It's exhilarating every time you hear the '3, 2, 1' countdown to start the telecast. We've planned, we've prepared, we're ready... but once we go live, we don't get do-overs. We have to get it right the firs time. That's infectious. We live for that.
"We get to entertain the fans -- and have a lot of fun doing it. How could you not love that?"