IndyCar’s Return to the Track Draws Primetime Slot on NBC, Safety-Focused Production Strategy
Extra mobile units are among the ways to allow social distancing
Another major motorsports property will return to the track this weekend when Genesys 300 kicks off the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series at Texas Motor Speedway. With live sports content at a premium due to the coronavirus pandemic, NBC Sports has shifted the race to primetime on NBC Saturday night, marking the first IndyCar race to appear on the Peacock’s broadcast network in primetime and the first on any broadcast TV network in primetime since 2013.
With more eyeballs expected on the race, NBC Sports has rolled out a robust production complement, while also ensuring health and safety of the crew in the compound and on the track.
“We think of this as a success by the mere fact that we’ve made the decision to put this on NBC,” says Sam Flood, executive producer/president, production, NBC and NBCSN. “This platform merits this race, and this race merits this platform. We look forward to the opportunity of covering the race, mindful of what’s going on in the rest of the world and following the proper rules under the COVID-19 restrictions.”
Inside the Compound: Safety Is Top Priority
NBC Sports has developed a comprehensive plan to ensure safety and social distancing for the entire crew onsite and inside the compound. With that in mind, NBC has revamped the layout of the truck compound and positions inside the mobile units to follow social-distancing protocols. Additional mobile units have been brought in to achieve social distancing with IMS Productions providing HD-5, HD-1, IMS B-1, and C-1. All doors between work areas must remain closed, and access to mobile units and trailers will be limited to essential personnel. In addition, the names of staffers allowed to enter are posted on the specific truck. Camera operators and other crew members who work inside the venue are allowed to enter the compound but not the mobile units.
The size of the staff in a truck has been reduced roughly in half. There are close to 25 people on the NBC crew for this race, slightly under a typical crew numbering 30. All employees have been advised to practice social distancing, wipe down all high-touch surfaces, and follow local-government guidelines and regulations. They are also required to wear masks in and around the compound. Extra portable johns and hand-washing stations have been added and spaced. Safety signage will be posted as reminders of proper PPE etiquette and protocols.
All employees will have daily pre-arrival health screening and an in-person screening with non-contact temperature checks every time they arrive at the track. IndyCar has a medical team onsite, and Medcor is providing a self-check questionnaire for the crew to complete via app before they arrive at the track.
Should cases of COVID-19 surface, the Comcast NBCU Health Services team, in conjunction with NBCUniversal safety personnel, has developed rigorous protocols for investigating and responding to them.
As for the production complement, Flood says the new safety regulations have not impacted NBC Sports’ equipment levels, which are similar to those for the inaugural IndyCar productions last year. NBC has rolled out nearly 30 cameras in total for the broadcast, including hard cameras, handhelds, jibs, robos, POVs, and in-car systems.
“We have a great system in place with all kinds of equipment ready to go, no different than another race,” he explains. “There obviously are some logistical changes because of the current COVID situation in terms of what we can get in place and equipment that we can move around the country, but we’ll have all the assets necessary to put on a top-notch show.”
In a Fan-Free Production, the Race Is the Focus
With no fans in the stands due to health and safety precautions, NBC Sports director Sean Owens, who learned his trade from legendary motorsports director Mike Wells, will likely focus on the action on the track and forgo wide beauty shots of the venue.
“We’re not going to necessarily come out of commercial with big sweeping shots of the racetrack; tighter is better in this case,” says Flood. “We’ve obviously watched the NASCAR races, and they’ve done a nice job at Fox covering the event and staying in tighter shots of the track and of the racing. [Owens has] a good game plan in place for how to execute this race and make it feel as big as it’s going to be.”
Meanwhile, the audio side of the production remains largely unaffected without a crowd since the roaring engines typically dominate the soundscape of IndyCar races anyway.
“The engine noises and the drama and the sparks and the lights will add incredible visuals to this thing,” says Flood. “[Combining that] with the natural sounds that come from racing, we feel confident it’ll be a great listen.”
Impact on Talent: Booth Will Be Onsite; Pit Coverage Poses Challenges
Although there won’t be fans at the track in Fort Worth, NBC Sports’ IndyCar broadcast team of Leigh Diffey (play-by-play), Townsend Bell (analyst), and Paul Tracy (analyst) will be onsite to call the action.
After initially planning to have the trio call the event remotely from NBC Sports’ broadcast center in Stamford, CT, NBC pivoted its plans when Texas rescinded the requirement for all visitors to quarantine for 14 days after entering the state. This allowed Diffey (who lives in the Tri-State area), Bell (in California), and Tracy (in Arizona) to travel to Fort Worth to call the action from a socially distanced booth at the track.
Pit reporters Marty Snider and Kelli Stavast will be onsite and will be allowed to enter the pits, but social distancing and masks will make it difficult to communicate with the teams in the ultra-loud environment. In addition, neither will be able to take transporters to talk to drivers directly as they typically do.
“Marty and I are used to being in the thick of the action, tapping people on the shoulders and yelling into their ears to get answers and get information on the spot,” notes Stavast. “Obviously, to be responsible about things, we’re not going to be doing that this time around.”
She says several alternative communication methods are planned for pit coverage, including holding up flashcards for yes/no answers, texting team members when possible, and setting up Zoom meetings and Slack channels in advance.
“We’ll be able to approach them,” says Snyder. “It’s just a question of how they’re going to be able to hear us, how we’re going to be able to communicate. That’s something we’re going to have to feel out throughout the night Saturday.”
As for on-camera interviews, instead of directly approaching the drivers as they normally would, Snyder and Stavast will be stationed under tents and socially distanced from the drivers.
“We have the microphone and everything set up to continue that social distance and be smart and responsible about it,” says Stavast. “There’s definitely going to be some nuances that will be unique to this situation, but nothing we can’t overcome.”
NBC’s coverage of the Genesys 300 begins on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, marking the first race of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series campaign as the series gets #BackOnTrack. This kicks off NBC Sports’ second season as the exclusive home of the NTT IndyCar Series, including the Indianapolis 500, which will now take place on Sunday, Aug. 23 on NBC. The remainder of the 2020 television schedule will be announced in the coming weeks.