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

1 Comment

“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.”

Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Power tops final practice at Pocono

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Pagenaud ‘quite satisfied,’ if still agitated, with P2 on Pocono grid

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The close-but-no-cigar, always slightly overshadowed nature of defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud’s 2017 season came to the fore again in Saturday’s qualifying session for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Pagenaud was on the verge of securing his second pole this season, and first on an oval since Iowa Speedway in July 2016, after knocking Charlie Kimball off the top spot.

But the driver of the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet got eclipsed by Takuma Sato, the final qualifier, right at the end to lose the pole and perhaps more critically, an additional point that went with it.

“(There’s) the word going through my mind and I’m not going to say it,” Pagenaud laughed in the post-qualifying press conference.

“Disappointing, of course. You can taste the win, and that’s what we’re all about. We’re racers. We want to win. I’m here to win, to be first, not to be second.

“In the meantime it’s a really good starting position. At the time it’s like gambling. You’re in the game and you feel like you could win, so it’s very exciting. That’s the roller coaster of racing in your life as a racer. It’s up and down, up and down your whole career. These moments are why I race. It’s happiness, satisfaction of doing the job.”

Pagenaud’s job satisfaction this year has come with his unrivaled consistency, if not outright pace, in defense of his 2016 title.

He leads the field with 10 top-five finishes in 13 races – no one else has more than seven – and he is the only driver to have completed all 1,738 laps of competition so far this year.

That underscores his consistency but it also reflects how much better his 2016 title-winning season was. He won five races last year to one so far this year (Phoenix), had eight poles (seven outright, one where he moved up a spot) last year to one this year, and has led only 133 laps this year – 116 of them at Phoenix.

That leads nicely into the point that Pocono is a key race for Pagenaud if he is to defend his title. He enters tomorrow’s race fourth in points but only 17 behind championship leader Josef Newgarden, his new teammate at Team Penske who’ll look to go one better in terms of winning a title for Roger Penske in his first season rather than in his second, as Pagenaud did last year.

Pagenaud’s title aspirations nearly came unglued at this race last year following his only DNF of the year. He crashed in Turn 1 and finished 18th while Will Power won and cut the gap from 58 points leaving Mid-Ohio to 20 leaving Pocono.

Now Pagenaud is even fewer points back but with more drivers to climb over, as IndyCar heads towards a grandstand finish to this year’s title between himself, Newgarden, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon – and potentially Sato, Power and Graham Rahal if they can deliver a big points haul in Pocono.

“The championship is a lot more exciting for you guys this year,” he said. “I think it’s the beauty of IndyCar. We go on superspeedway, short oval next week, then completely different in two weeks, then Sonoma, which is a beautiful venue to finish the season.

“You know, that’s the beauty of this racing series, which I really love, because you have to show skills in every condition, every different aspect of track. So I’m very excited about it.

“If you can show strength in the last four, you deserve the championship, for sure.”

Pagenaud expects speeds to be slower in tonight’s final practice, a better preparation for Sunday’s race, as he estimated the rash of accidents today was owing to more drivers and teams chasing the temperatures for pole.

“This evening’s session is good so you can check your car in traffic, see how it behaves in the wake. But I think, you know, you’re still going to have to think about the race and the conditions being different, what to do on the race car to compensate for it,” he said.

“Tomorrow, we’re not going to be as fast as this because this is trim-out conditions, trying to go as fast as possible over two laps. Those are not the setups. The tires don’t last in those conditions.

“For the race, completely different story. You know, it’s a 500-mile race. There’s a lot of riding around, trying to balance your car for the end of the race. Trying to find the right level of downforce during the race is key as well. So you make a lot of adjustments, pit stops, get ready for the shootout, the last 60 laps really.

“For us, that’s going to be the plan. First goals were to be in the top five in qualifying. We were there. That’s checked. Now we need to run around in the front all day and be there to strike at the end.

“There’s also the fact that we’re playing for a championship here, so we have to be smart at the end.”

Pagenaud’s canny ability has kept him in the title fight as he looks to keep the No. 1 on his car for another season, which makes the frustration of losing a point today only slightly bittersweet as he looks at the bigger picture.

“Ben (Bretzman), my engineer, just nailed the gearing, the balance on the car. That was the best we could do,” he said.

“I’m quite satisfied. Front row start is really good, our best start here in Pocono. A 500-mile race, so a lot can happen.

“Today was pretty much ego day trying to get that pole position. For us it would have been nice to get another point. But overall I think we did our best and we’ll go to bed pretty satisfied with today.”

Hunter-Reay taken to local hospital after Pocono qualifying crash

Leave a comment

LONG POND, Pa. – Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay has been taken to a local hospital following a heavy crash in qualifying.

Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda broke loose exiting Turn 3, and though he tried to correct it, the back end swapped around and the car made hard contact with the wall on the left side. It then traveled back across the track and impacted the inside wall, again with the left side of car.

Although Hunter-Reay was seen moving in the cockpit, he immediately began complaining of pain in his hip and needed help from the Holmatro Safety Team to get out of the car. They helped him get into the ambulance, as Hunter-Reay was walking with a significant limp.

More to follow.

 

Follow Kyle Lavigne.