Staying on top of 43 race cars during a Nextel Cup race is a no simple task. But making sure viewers get as much inside information as possible on all the cars during a race has been drastically improved this season when ESPN-ABC began utilizing a multi-track recording device informally called "ultimate TiVo."
The custom-made digital device allows the network to monitor and record the team communications for all 43 cars while also offering playback capability on any number of radios without having to stop recording on any of the teams.
Access to team radio communications is not new to NASCAR broadcasts, but this twist has lessened the possibility of missing anything important or interesting.
"Typically what can happen is if there's a wreck and a bunch of cars are in it. You open the radios and obviously try to see what cars are in it. And then ... what led up to that wreck," said ESPN remote operations audio project manager Ron Scalise, who created the ultimate TiVo system. "Well, you kind of back up. Who was in it? What was going on? So you want to back up and listen to that.
"Then we'll even edit out maybe a few seconds so you don't have dead space between all the comments made, so we even have some on-screen editing with it so it kind of condenses it for playback. But then again while you're doing that they could be talking about the aftermath or what they're going to do or what their strategy is or what they think is wrong with the car, or they're coming in [to pit]."
It's all about delivering the whole story of the race, or more accurately expanded information about the dozens of stories at each race.
Besides the pit reporters listening to 10 to 12 specific team radios to which they are assigned, three more audio people are monitoring all 43 radios and retrieving and cutting relevant audio clips from team radio communications in a radio room.
"They basically divide it in half, one guy will be listening to the top 10, one guy will listen to the middle 10 and then they'll scatter the rest, recording them all," ESPN producer James Shiftan said. "And basically what's happened now -- and I go back to comparing it the way it used to be -- the way it used to be is if you heard Dale Jr. say something good and you wanted to play it back, you had to stop recording on everybody because you'd basically have to shut the machines down to be able to play it back. And now what you have is the ultimate TiVo. You can keep recording Dale Jr. even and play back something you just heard from him from a minute ago."
Before ESPN came up with this system, the majority of viewers didn't really know what they were missing because less overall radio communication was being recorded, and even less made it onto air.
"So you would have to make a pick in the middle of the race, 'OK I'll take the top five running and maybe two or three, if Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running 10th we'll get him, too,' " Shiftan said.
"You had to do a lot of patching and unpatching in deciding who you were going to use. And the shot of getting the good dynamic sound that you want to hear out of a driver, be it a Kevin Harvick calling Juan Pablo [Montoya] an idiot or Jeff Gordon saying 'I think I have a tire going down,' so that we actually know this before it actually happens would actually kind of pop up in the past."
Shiftan offered an example from the August race at Bristol, Tenn., where Kyle Busch was overheard complaining about another driver.
" 'That's the third time he's done that to me.' And this and that," Shiftan explains. "And [pit reporter] Allen Bestwick, who's monitoring his radio calls up to the truck and says to one of our radio producers, 'Hey, Kyle Busch is complaining about somebody, it's the third time he did it, it just happened a lap ago.'
"Then I can then call the tape room and say, 'Look back a lap ago and find out who Kyle Busch is running against and who was giving him a hard time on the race track.' And then we match up that audio with that video and can say, 'Kyle Busch not happy with Clint Bowyer, this has happened a few times,' roll the replay back with the audio."
ESPN's return this year to broadcasting NASCAR races pushed it to come up with new ways of presenting the sport it helped popularize from the network's early days in the 1980s through the 1990s. The ultimate TiVo is one of those innovations that Scalise said adds some spice to the telecasts by bringing the fans inside the car via radio communications.
Scalise said as people are influenced by video games and Hollywood special effects in films, he believes viewers are coming to expect bigger and better sports broadcasts. This is one attempt to match those expectations.
"The reality of it is when you're at the track you can never really be inside the car. you can sort of hear some conversations on the radios but not the choice ones," Scalise said. "It's taken it above and beyond the reality of what's there and it's given you a little bit more. And I believe this is what people expect."
And fans want to hear their drivers, whether they invest in the radio scanners or watch the race on TV. Instead of having an announcer repeat the details of radio communication, Scalise said fans want to hear their favorite driver's voice in those conversations with a crew chief or spotter.
"You can't have it all at the right time, but these playbacks sometimes just happened moments ago," Scalise said. "And obviously you can't be everywhere all the time and you can't be a magician and sort of predict what's going to happen in the next segment exactly -- what camera to be on, or who's going to wreck or what's going to happen. So going back and taking a look and listen is a big part of our show."