A behind-the-scenes look at NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA

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“Gotta go fast now…We can’t delay this.”

An urgent voice rings through the production control room inside NBC Sports Group’s International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn., and there’s a reason why it’s urgent.

The man of the hour has arrived. Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off claiming his second Daytona 500 victory the night before at Daytona International Speedway, is working through a whirlwind media blitz in New York City.

As part of that, he’s making time for a quick interview on the debut episode for NBCSN’s new studio show, NASCAR AMERICA. It only takes a few moments to mike up Earnhardt before host Rick Allen and analyst/part-time Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton begin to ask him question about his big win.

And even though it’s clear that Earnhardt’s running on seven cylinders after a late night inside his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the happiness over his accomplishment is there.

“I’m gonna enjoy it,” he says. “It’s not every day you get to go through this experience…I didn’t expect to do this once, let alone twice, so I’ll let it sink in and enjoy it.”

It’s a fact everyone connected with NASCAR acknowledges: As Junior goes, so goes the sport. It certainly didn’t hurt for NASCAR AMERICA to have the son of the Intimidator as the centerpiece for its debut episode – not to mention that the race was actually able to get done following a six hour, 22-minute rain delay.

But NASCAR AMERICA, which debuts 18 months before the start of NBC’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series race coverage, doesn’t aim to thrive solely on star power alone.

At over six decades old, NASCAR can boast of having an exciting tapestry of stories that continues to evolve. And it’s compelled NBC to go for it and not wait until their races begin in the summer of 2015.

“NASCAR is an incredibly valuable property and once we realized we had the resources and the ability to launch a show, it was a no-brainer,” Vice President of NASCAR production Jeff Behnke told MotorSportsTalk on Thursday.

“We are partners with NASCAR, first and foremost. Having this opportunity to be part of this, to re-energize NASCAR, and to get into it from a programming standpoint immediately was a tremendous opportunity for us.”

NBC re-enters a sport that is much different from when they left it at the close of the 2006 season.

TV ratings and live attendance have dropped, and there’s been renewed talk of having to regain the attention of younger fans in order to help bolster the sport’s older core.

However, that core is still very loyal and it’s a group that Behnke says will be served well by NASCAR AMERICA.

“Our first responsibility is to those core fans,” he said. “Our immediate goal is to do things in our show that are going to cater to the core fans. From there, yes, obviously the younger demographic is a key demo and as time progresses, we’ll do stuff for them.

“But the immediate goal is to go to the core fans and get them…When fans watch on TV, and see the fans are filling up the stands again, they think it is an important event and they’ll want to stay and watch it. It’s a progression – you have to start somewhere and that starting point is NASCAR AMERICA.”

For many of those core fans, racing is not just a three or four-hour affair in front of the television but a way of life itself. Every weekend, they haul their battered but unbroken race cars to the local short track to compete or to help their sons and daughters compete.

A brief but neat segment on the show, the Heart of Racing, acknowledges those grass-roots racers and their families who are, collectively, the lifeblood of American motorsport.

“Racing goes on at tracks all over the country, every weekend, every region,” Behnke explains. “It’s just one little way to let the fans know that racing is a big part of their life. We’re going to do the Heart of Racing all year long, and that small segment will continue to grow.

“That’s directly for core fans, but it’s also for other people to know about that world of racing, one that a lot of people may not know.”

There are other worlds that even the biggest fans don’t know about, and Behnke and his team are ready to reveal them as part of NASCAR AMERICA.

To help their efforts, NBC has set up a second studio for the show in Charlotte, N.C., the hub of the stock car racing industry.

“Some of the key points with our show is trying to take fans and viewers to places they can’t go,” Behnke said. “We have a LiveVue cam and we’re going to different race shops and doing different interviews. Just this week, we were at Tommy Baldwin Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, as well as one other shop.

“This week alone, we were at five different shops in our first four days. We have the ability to go to two different shops, do reports from inside the shops, and try to give those fans a view of a place they can’t normally go. It’ll be a key part of our show all year.”

All of that effort is necessary. As mentioned before, NASCAR constantly evolves and this year will be no different as elements such as a knockout-style qualifying format and a revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup (which sets up a four-driver, winner-take-all battle in the season finale) make their debut.

It’ll be an adventure staying on top of all the twists and turns of what should be a dramatic season. But Behnke and the team at NASCAR AMERICA are ready.

“We didn’t want to wait [for 2015],” he said. “It was time.”

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”

British GP expands to four-day schedule, F2/GP3 practice set for Thursday

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The British Grand Prix weekend will expand to a four-day schedule next month as Formula 2 and GP3 practice running gets shifted to Thursday.

On-track running for all Formula 1 events traditionally takes place across three days – Friday to Sunday, bar Monaco, where practice is on Thursday – with support events following a similar format.

Silverstone has confirmed its schedule of events for the British Grand Prix weekend, with F2 and GP3 practice slated for Thursday July 13.

F2 practice will run from 15:30 to 16:15 local time at Silverstone on the Thursday, followed by GP3 running from 16:45 to 17:30.

Both support series will hit the track again on Friday for their respective qualifying sessions, taking place after F1’s second practice in the afternoon.

The remainder of the race weekend will go ahead as usual for F2 and GP3, having one race each on both Saturday and Sunday.

The F1 schedule for the weekend remains unchanged, with FP1 and FP2 on Friday, FP3 and qualifying on Saturday, and the race on Sunday.

Both Renault and Williams will take part in special show-runs during the grand prix weekend as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations.

You can see the full British Grand Prix schedule here.