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Behind the scenes at the Indy 500

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Behind the scenes at the Indy 500
May 30, 2010, 4:00 AM

Behind the scenes at Indy in the ABC/ESPN television compound Imagine a giant organism, spanning a vast outdoor space large enough to accommodate thirteen Rose Bowls, teeming with people and run amuck with ear-splitting noise guided along by 59 ...


Behind the scenes at Indy in the ABC/ESPN television compound

Imagine a giant organism, spanning a vast outdoor space large enough to accommodate thirteen Rose Bowls, teeming with people and run amuck with ear-splitting noise guided along by 59 camera "eyes" and (just like you and me) twice that number of microphonic "ears"; and served by triplicated and quadruplicated arteries and veins of sinewy black cable miles in length, and you will appreciate in some rough measure the complex high-tech architecture that brings the Indianapolis 500 alive on the television screen in your living room or den.

ABC and ESPN team to bring race fans around the world the 2010 Indianapolis 500, for the conjoined networks a record 46th consecutive time. "This is always a dream," says Neil Goldberg, the man who runs the show from one of several trackside mobile studios that process audio, video and radio frequency signals to create the spectacular live images and sounds you see and hear at home on Memorial Day. As Senior Motorsports Producer, Goldberg and his Emmy nominated crew produce 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup events and 35 Nationwide series races in addition to the annual 500-mile race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On May 30 for the 94th Indianapolis 500, they are putting the signal into the air for over 252 million viewers in the U.S. and abroad, to homes and ships at sea, ultimately reaching 213 countries and territories around the globe.

The "sensors" the television team has placed around the 2.5 mile oval track run the gamut from heavy manually-operated studio cameras to robotic cameras on arms and mounted on a long cable sling that runs along the 5/8 mile main straightaway at Indy, over and above crowd and pit boxes during the racing; to in-car cameras, hand-held mini-cams and even a new and uniquely-positioned camera aboard participant racing crew members' headgear, called "helmet-cams". There are also new eye-level in-the-face cameras looking directly into the helmet face shield of Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Danica Patrick as they compete on the track on Sunday.

"It is a significant commitment," says Rich Feinberg, ESPN Vice President of Event and Studio Production, of the massive mobile television complex that lies within the Indy infield, "but the Indy 500 deserves that. In terms of facilities, effort and story telling this is a huge undertaking. This Speedway is a larger facility than any football stadium. How big? How fast? A car can travel the distance of a football field in less than a second here."

The Indianapolis 500 creates momentous opportunity for the broadcasters. Last year's production garnered an Emmy nomination, and even though the program was edged out of the award, it rewarded Feinberg and his crew with exceptional impact and privilege. "There are more people watching this race than any other race. A large percentage of those people are one-time viewers, the casual fans, who have a thirst and curiosity we must satisfy on this one day of the year. It's our obligation to tell the 33 stories here in the most compelling way possible."

The physical assets at Feinberg's disposal cover an area of crushed gravel real estate nearly as big as a city block. Within large mobile-home sized trailers that number into the teens are facilities for people, equipment, offices, studios, and high-tech systems that process the video, audio and radio frequency signals collected from all around the 2.5 mile oval race course.

The portable metal steps up to the video trailer lead to a single "On-Air Crew Only" door that opens into a control room dominated by a long wall of television monitors, each one about the size of a postcard, that give Senior Coordinating Producer Jill Fredrickson a look at a glance of the activity from every aspect of view around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Inside the narrow mobile-home size trailer, it is dark, and it is cold in deference to the two massive rows of electronics at workstations along the length of the space. Each small monitor on the long wall ahead is numbered, or given an alphabetical designation, to facilitate quick transitions from camera to camera. A massive soundboard for audio mixing occupies a full third of one row of controls. A producer and a director are in charge from the second of the rows as they scan the colorful, flickering screens.

Inside other trailers alongside the video trailer are crews monitoring and processing into surround-channel mixes the audio signals from two microphones assigned each of the 59 cameras, arrayed in a fashion fore and aft of the lens to catch the "Doppler shift" whine of racing engines as they approach and depart. Sixteen ancillary microphones placed at various points of the pit lane and around the track feed into the system as well, in effect creating a "bugged room" of scope and scale that would make the Central Intelligence Agency blush.

Another white trailer sends and receives global positioning satellite information, providing the information that allows a small pointer to follow on the home screen each car as it moves over the racing surface. More trailers pick up telemetry information and in-car camera signals sent from each car then route them to the central video production boards.

Radio replay lies within a cramped space at the butt end of a solitary trailer apart from the others. From within the tiny studio radio mixer Bill Fuchs and his editor Jeff Bratta listen as drivers and teams communicate over radio frequency channels that sometimes overlap one another. It is their job to craft the earthy language of men and women conducting themselves at speeds over 200 miles per hour into sound bites suitable for ears of all ages. Along the bottom of Fuchs' large mixing board are numbers and names that identify who is connected to the other end of the radio frequency he is monitoring.

Fuchs and Bratta drop their overheard conversations into the television broadcast twenty to thirty times during the 4-plus hour telecast of the Indy 500. "I'm always listening," says Fuchs, "asking myself 'Where's good radio?' we can put over the air waves." The skill lies in the knack of waiting for just the right moment in time to augment with a sound bite the natural flow of the conversation of three on-air announcers (Marty Reid, Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever) as they speak to the audience. Oftentimes the job demands ending a sentence short, or "dumping the audio", in the tiny one and a half second time delay interposed between the live feed and the actual broadcast.

The live action at Indianapolis requires a different approach to the broadcast of the race than might follow in other sporting events. There is literally no way to script the show as it unfolds, full of twists and turns at unexpected times. The storyboard from the green flag forward is a blank sheet of paper for the entire team from grip to host left to write spontaneously throughout the race day. Weather constitutes a huge challenge. Rain showers concluded the race in 2004 and again in 2007. Luck comes into play. The Ganassi Racing team looked like sure winners here in 2009 before a pit stop snafu moved eventual race winner and rival Helio Castroneves of Team Penske to the front. Circumstances intervene. Dan Wheldon led the race in 2006 for 148 of its 200 laps before a cut tire with 40 miles to go ended his attempt to claim a second victory here. "The racing gods have an amazing sense of humor," adds color analyst Cheever who won here in 1998. "Some days it's just a question of how all the cards fall."

The goals of the TV crew go beyond simple ratings and share calculations. "There's much more to this than a ratings bonanza," says Feinberg. "In terms of marketing, in terms of sponsorship, in terms of time spent watching by individual viewers the event transcends simple arithmetic. We strive to make the production compelling to the audience, interesting in terms of the story, and technically superior to anything else they will see. We want people to watch longer as a result. There are so many other influences that bear on our viewership, such as other events in their area at the same time and even the weather outside on the day of the race. All of these things impact on who watches and for how long. It is one of the great unknowns in our business."

Coverage on ABC begins on Sunday at Noon EDT. The race is one of five events hosted by the IndyCar Series that the network will carry this season. Appearances on ESPN's all-encompassing Sports Center programs and its radio outlets have aired in the last week and will continue before and after the conclusion of the Indianapolis 500, including the network's international and foreign language media platforms.

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