Behind the Scenes of iRacing on FOX
The world continues to sit still, but images of dueling race car drivers have not.
A source of comfort and familiarity during the coronavirus shutdown travels by wire and satellite. It’s a signal that originates from the homes of several race car drivers you know, before passing through the offices of technicians you do not.
The finish line for the iRacing on FOX television broadcasts is your home — the final product going a long way towards evoking a sense of normalcy in a world that suddenly feels far less ordinary.
Shockingly, an average of a million viewers watched the first two eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational events from a digital Homestead-Miami Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway last month.
With sporting events across the globe on hiatus, there has been a real enthusiasm from NASCAR fans for anything that has allowed them to continue watching the likes of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson turn a steering wheel and step on the throttle, even if the result is merely pixelated speed.
The presentation is that of a typical NASCAR race with Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds providing commentary from the FOX Sports studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The 1.3 million that watched Texas represented 36 percent of the audience that consumed the real thing in 2019. FOX Sports claims the broadcast attracted 225,000 viewers who had not watched a single NASCAR Cup Series race during the first month of the 2020 season.
Some of that can surely be attributed to Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 15-time most popular driver whom retired after the 2017 season and left countless fans without a reason to keep watching over the past two years. Earnhardt is now a weekly competitor in the Pro Invitational Series, sharing his passion for sim racing with lapsed fans who have likely been drawn in by his participation.
The eNASCAR races have been such a hit for FOX Sports that it ordered a second iRacing weekly program on Wednesday nights with the World of Outlaws.
FOX Sports executive producer Brad Zager has been blown away by the experience.
“I don’t know if we ever got a chance to set expectations,” Zager told Autoweek. “Everything came together so quickly. I don’t think anyone expected a million viewers though. This started with the buy-in from the Cup Series drivers, who are the most accommodating and available in sports.
“But we’re presenting this as a real sport. It’s the right presentation at the right time. Having Dale Jr. and Denny Hamlin created a buzz. We went through the first week without sports and by the end of the weekend, we were able to talk about an actual race with an actual winner.”
THE MVP OF iRACING
The architect of this weekly gift to the motorsports starved masses is iRacing broadcast director and media producer Drew Adamson. The 27-year-old Ball State graduate is one of just three employees still allowed in the iRacing headquarters in Bedford, Massachusetts.
It has become a common refrain from those involved in the first two FOX Sports broadcasts that iRacing so quickly shuttered its office last month because it couldn’t afford to have Adamson get sick.
Steve Craddick, the senior vice president of NASCAR production says, “This all hinges on Drew Adamson.”
In addition to his work with FOX Sports over the past two weeks, Adamson is also the producer and director for the two iRacing world championships — the Porsche TAG Heuer eSports Supercup and eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.
By definition, Adamson is iRacing’s quality control filter. He designs and approves the graphics that appear on every broadcast. He develops contingency decals that appear on the cars. He assists the production of the recap videos that appear on social media.
During the officially hosted iRacing events, Adamson sits in the command room — two distinct voices in each ear — ordering the shots that appear on screen.
He described his meticulous scrutineering process as iRacing’s optical scanning station — a reference to NASCAR’s state of the art technical inspection machine.
He is the technical liaison between iRacing and FOX Sports, NBCSN, NASCAR, IndyCar and the World of Outlaws. Simply stated, he is the company’s most valuable player during the coronavirus shutdown.
“Every now and then, I stop myself and think about how cool it is that our work is being seen on FOX, but this is far bigger than myself, racing or television,” Adamson said. “This is about healing people and providing them a distraction. That’s what motivates me or gets me through the 12-15-hour workdays. For me, the satisfaction is the humility over what we’ve been able to provide people during a time of need.”
For the nationally televised events, Adamson is the director for everything that takes place on-track, but it takes a global effort. He occasionally has two ‘camera operators’ located in California and Australia.
For the past two weekends, his two ‘spotters’ are located in Canada.
Zager calls Adamson a ‘mad scientist.’
“I don’t want to call him that, but he is,” Zager said. “What he does on race days is incredible. The same can be said of (executive vice president) Steve Myers and (marketing director) Otto Szebeni. But Drew is so vital. This doesn’t work without him and their whole team.”
In his left ear, Adamson hears the iRacing team, and in his right, he hears the FOX Sports crew led by producer Mark Smith. The television broadcast itself plays low in both ears of Adamson’s headset.
“Both of my ears are used up, so a third input would literally make my brain explode,” Adamson said with a laugh. “The FOX producer will let me know if Mike and Jeff want us to key-up a certain visual. But honestly, I’ve learned that how we already cover races, completely fits in their dynamic. So, we’ve been on the same page the first two weeks.”
To produce the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, FOX Sports and iRacing employ a combined 20 workers physically distanced across all four corners of the globe. That’s in stark contrast to the 200 that produced the Daytona 500 in February.
Adamson was born for this role.
He is the son of longtime Turner Sports media executive, Michael Adamson. The elder Adamson oversaw NASCAR.com when it was operated by Turner Sports. The younger Adamson spent his childhood dissecting NASCAR broadcasts, including those with a
mustachioed Mike Joy at the helm.
So, it has become something of a full-circle moment for Adamson to team with Joy on the Pro Invitation broadcasts.
“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t think it was cool,” Adamson said. “But as someone who grew up around it, I can’t thank my dad enough for introducing me to this world.
“I’ve been watching Mike Joy and Larry Mac since I was a kid. I had a moment of giddiness when I realized that first broadcast was going to be on FOX. But it was kind of like when athletes play in the Super Bowl or World Series: You soak up the moment, but you have to treat it like any other game if you’re going to do it right.
“Psychologically, I can’t do anything different for one million viewers that I do for 100. It can’t faze me.”
JOY SETS THE TONE
Mike Joy is a first ballot broadcast hall of famer.
We already knew this, of course, but it takes him being asked to provide play-by-play for what is perceived by the general public as a video game to truly appreciate his greatness.
Joy has the voice, knows when to be excited and when to be measured.
Over the past two weeks, he has set the perfect tonal balance between acknowledging the real-world circumstances that led to the televised iRacing revolution, while recognizing the absurdity of calling a sim race as if it were real.
“Jeff and I have said from the start that this needs to be fun or we shouldn’t be doing it at all,” Joy told Autoweek. “Our view is that these are some of the greatest race car drivers in the world and they are utilizing some of their usual skill sets — the hand-eye coordination, brake points — and our job is to pull back the curtain a little bit and just take fans along for the ride.
“We’re weaving in real world commentary. We’re not making fun of it, but rather, we’re having fun with it.”
Joy compares the experience to calling Formula 1 on the FOX Sports Network with Derek Bell on color commentary from 1998-2001. Those broadcasts utilized the standard world feed disseminated across the globe with various broadcasters overlaying their own commentary.
“We were having to react to what we saw on the screen, and it’s not too dissimilar to that.”
But as Zager points out, the iRacing broadcasts are a little more dynamic than the Formula 1 world feed.
“With the world feed, you have no control,” Zager said. “But iRacing is doing this for us and that’s the difference. Even though we’re in Charlotte and they’re in Boston, they can pull up anything we ask for.”
But the visuals don’t work without a broadcast team setting the right tone, and Joy has very quickly found the right words to establish the balance between entertainment and eSporting authenticity.
“Steve Myers and the iRacing team have done a fabulous job of creating a platform that is as close to the real thing as any other sport,” Joy said. “No other sport can do this. The simulation mirrors the hand-eye of the real sport.
“It has provided everyone in motorsports a great opportunity to stay relevant. And it’s not just NASCAR. Look at what the World of Outlaws are doing. Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut has taken its weekly show to iRacing.”
THE SIDELINED REPORTER
A NASCAR on FOX broadcast feels incomplete without Vince Welch.
Since 2015, Welch has served as the lead pit reporter for Cup Series and Xfinity Series broadcasts, more recently becoming a more prominent fixture as the lead play-by-play voice for the Truck Series and occasional Xfinity Series events.
Sheltering in place at home in Indianapolis, Welch said he felt “useless” watching the Pro Invitational Series races take place without him. Welch has complete faith in the likes of Mike Joy, Mark Smith and Drew Adamson, but just felt left out without this name in the lineup card.
He took to Twitter last Sunday during the Texas broadcast, providing insider perspective over what goes into a successful iRacing broadcast. He was plugged into the production team’s audio channel using the Team Speak platform and was able to parlay that into several useful nuggets during the course of the race.
TV production and gaming tech are completely different. The @iRacing data is not @NASCARONFOX friendly so both parties continue working on an inter-face to make the two more compatible. Look for it to evolve each week.
For instance, if @JeffGordonWeb wants to see specific driver/battle, he tells Smith who then must communicate w/ Adamson who then directs 1 of the camera ops to get shot…while this can all happen in less than :10, it’s not w/ the immediacy we’re all used to in normal telecast
It wasn’t from his familiar spot on pit road, but it felt like it.
“I never planned to have people take to the tweets as well as they did,” Welch said. “I had some of the same questions they did, since this isn’t a normal broadcast. I really enjoy taking fans behind the scenes on pit road. I had hoped people would really enjoy that perspective.
“Being here in Indianapolis, I can’t be part of the broadcast. And watching that first one, I was very proud, because I’m part of the team, but I also wanted to contribute.”
Welch has a personal connection to the new-look production team as his son, fellow broadcaster and racer Dillon Welch, went to school with Adamson. He knew FOX Sports would be in good hands with Adamson in the iRacing control room.
“I was just blown away by the significance of one guy in making this work,” Welch said.
Adamson spent 11 hours on the phone one day earlier this week as he worked w/ FOX coordinating this telecast, working thru format changes, technical adjustments, etc. He also trouble shoots for drivers like @JimmieJohnson who was having a lot of tech challenges with his rig.
Welch also came away from the first two broadcasts with increased admiration for the versatility of Joy on the play-by-play.
“I said this in a tweet, but I bet Mike Joy could have never saw himself in a million years calling something like this,” Welch said. “He has proven why he’s a first ballot hall of famer over the past two weeks.
“I know it’s a simulation, but he is broadcasting what some people would say is a video game and treating it with the same respect as anything else he has covered. Last week, he struck the perfect balance between respecting what the world has gone through and treating iRacing with respect. He and Jeff have done such a good job with that.
“That’s not easy and it starts with Mike Joy. I have such an immense amount of respect for him as a broadcaster.”
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