An inside look at the monumental task of Champ Car TV production
by Mark Cipolloni

 October 10, 2006

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Part 1

Although you the viewer see
Derek Daly (L) and Rick Benjamin on TV, behind them is large staff of TV experts necessary to produce a TV-quality race broadcast

For many years now, Champ Car fans have been critical of the quality of the TV presentation of their favorite race series. I think it is safe to say that most fans have no idea of the complexities involved in actually presenting a Champ Car race LIVE on Network Television. This task is made much more difficult because the majority of the races are on road or street circuits, where the action is more difficult to follow.

Most sports, including baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and even NASCAR, are played in a confined stadium where all the action on the playing field is happening right down in front of you - you can see the entire playing field.

Not so for Champ Car's road and street circuits that wind through city streets or up and down hills in some remote location. You can't see the entire playing field from one vantage point, and neither can the TV production crew.  As such it takes an incredible amount of coordination, and real-time communication to do it right.

Champ Car's Mark Reilly (L) and TV Producer John Mullin
Mark Cipolloni/AutoRacing1.com

I had the opportunity to watch a live race production for a short period of time in Denver this year, and was bowled over by the high intensity, pressure cooker scene I witnessed.  While getting ready for race day takes many days of preparation, those 2.5 hours during the actual race itself certainly isn't for the faint of heart.

Just five minutes in the main command center where the Producer and race Director sit is enough for one to say, holy shit.  There are about 10 people in the command center and at any one given time there could be three or more people shouting over one another, one command or another.  At times it sounds like the Tower of Babel.

Last weekend, prior to race day at Road America, Champ Car TV Producer John Mullin, and Champ Car VP of Broadcast Sales and Distribution, Mark Reilly, took time out of their very busy day to take me through the TV compound and explain what it takes to produce and broadcast a race - from the main command center, to the video taping and playback room, to the international broadcast feed trailer, to the graphics room, to the mobile pit and car cameras. It's like a little city - they even have one trailer just for power alone.

In addition to the incredible amount of equipment it takes to produce each race, over 100 people are involved, far more than any race team, or even Champ Car, brings to an event.

To capture it all meant culling through a lot of audio tape, and it still ended up four pages (4 parts) long.  Like Champ Car, racing TV production is highly technical, and to do it justice required this lengthy article.

Primary TV Production Truck

Primary TV Production Truck wall of monitors includes a live feed from every stationary camera (manned or unmanned), every mobile camera, the video playback feeds as well as what the viewer is seeing on the TV at home. Gary Clem the Director is in the white shirt and to his right is the Pit Producer.  The Producer, John Mullin, sits to his right.
Mark Cipolloni/AutoRacing1.com

JOHN MULLIN: This is the main control room for what we call the domestic feed, understanding that we're producing two shows simultaneously when we're on the air. We're producing a show for the American and the Canadian audience out of this control room. This is the primary effort. This is where all the assets and the resources are, all here.

At the same time, we have a truck for the international distribution. Over 180 countries are taking the international feed.

Basically what this control room affords us is the ability to monitor virtually every visual source that we have throughout a racecourse. The coverage breaks down into several types of cameras -- for instance, we have 14 manned cameras at Road America, which is a four-mile course. In addition to that, we have four unmanned cameras, which are called points of view cameras within the industry. These are locked cameras which present interesting angles of the race. Some folks refer to them a speed shots.

We also have cameras on three cars. Each one of those in-car cameras shows you three different views.

Finally, we have two RF cameras which stay with our two Pit Reporters, Jon Beekhuis and Cameron Steele. Networks love to play the camera game, and if you want to start counting cameras at a Champ Car event, you’ll quickly close on the number thirty.

In just camera cable alone, we've got about 80,000 feet this weekend. The Units start rolling in on Monday and we usually have cameras by late Thursday.

Next to the camera monitors are the monitors for all of the tape machines What happens is, for instance, camera No. 1, in the way we do things, is always going to 81. If you hear somebody calling for 81, it's a videotape source.

Videotape Room
Mark Cipolloni/AutoRacing1.com

Then we have three digital recording devices called EVS’s. They are called Elvis. They are simply able to do more than a single tape machine. They can take four feeds in simultaneously and play two out simultaneously. We can actually edit while we're taking feeds in. Right now we're in preproduction, getting all of the various elements that we might call into the show ready.

This gentleman over here is called the Technical Director. His name is Mike Thompson, and he is responsible for all of the video that's going on the air. He has the ability to create all of the special effects that you see, everything that the Director calls and asks for.

Gary Clem is the Director. He is responsible for managing all of these various visual inputs.

What the viewer sees is a combination between Gary and myself as the Producer. I tell the story. Probably the best way to think of our partnership is that I tell the story, while Gary illustrates the pages. Gary is an Emmy-award winning race Director. He's done thousands of hours of racing. He's forgotten more about racing than most people ever learn.

I produce the show from the chair next to Gary.  I coordinate the announcers, all of the tape machines plus all of the graphics. We run a very intensive television show as we have many, many elements to get within each program, so, as you have witnessed, things are pretty busy in this truck.

Sitting beside me is a Pit Producer. He listens to what it is we're doing collectively and works with us in terms of getting the stories from the pits in.

The Associate Director, Bill Herbstman, is responsible for all of the timing and coordination. You'll note right now he’s timing everything we produce so that he knows how long it is and makes sure it doesn't run out on the air.

He also coordinates when we're live with the network, all of the commercial breaks. He gets them timed correctly so it's a seamless handoff with the network and also a seamless take back from the network.

This afternoon we'll do a qualifying show which is live to tape. He will be responsible for bringing us in on time.

Sitting right beside him is our Font Coordinator, Jeff Paris, one of the best in the business. He works with the Deko operator sitting over there, John DeGrandis. Think of the machine he is working, called a Deko, as a titling device that is turbocharged. It can do amazing things. CBS, for whom we produced three races this season, prefers the Deko to other machines, so we use it all season long for consistency.

In TV graphics departments, there are basically two graphics machines out there. One is called a Duet and one is called the Deko. Some networks like the Duet and some networks like the Deko (Deko and Duet are the company names).

In Champ Car, we do what's called a Champ Car centric look, meaning we have been able to get the various networks we work with to accept one look, which is rather unusual. When you see a Champ Car show, it's always the same graphics regardless of whether it's on CBS, NBC, or SPEED, as long as it's Champ Car.

There's a different story for Atlantics because it only airs on SPEED. For that series, because it airs only on SPEED, we use a Duet machine because that is what that network prefers.

Over here is our real-time scoring. Real-time is what we call the hat or the ribbon. The ribbon goes across the top of the screen. The viewer sees the ribbon a lot as it contains the live standings during the race.

We work very hard at trying to put a face to the helmet. That's why all these graphics in the upper left-hand screen are coming in. I know, for instance, a Champ Car devotee may get tired of looking at that shot of, say, Dan Clarke. But I'm not really putting it up there for the hard-core fan. I'm putting it up there to get somebody who is a casual fan to start to understand who that guy is, to begin to care about the competitors. That is a very important part of our responsibility to Champ Car. Story telling is what it is all about - making the new viewer care about the sport, while giving the committed fan what he or she wants as well.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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