While covering the first ever Charlotte ROVAL event, I moved from behind the couch to beside the camera. During the weekend, I got a great opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at NBC Sports’ NASCAR telecasts. Rather than come up with a massive tome that will drive the Frontstretch editing staff up the wall, the plan is to split it up into a couple of shorter articles. It’s easier for me as well since I have well over an hour’s worth of audio to go through.
First up this week is Jeff Burton, analyst for NBC Sports’ Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY Series broadcasts. As most of you know, Burton drove 20 full-time seasons in Cup before transitioning to television in 2014. However, that was not necessarily the original plan.
The original plan was for Burton to drive the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing full-time through the end of the 2014 season. Once that was over, Burton would transition to TV. Things changed, though.
According to Burton, he was approached by a friend of his very early on at the Daytona 500 (he doesn’t recall which year), before the bids were submitted for the current TV deals. NBC had apparently expressed interest in getting NASCAR back and Burton had previously worked with with Sam Flood, the Executive Producer of Production for NBC and NBCSN.
Burton had already informed RCR that he intended to retire from driving after the 2014 season. RCR ultimately were able to lock in Ryan Newman to a long-term deal to drive the No. 31, which allowed Burton to retire a year early (he did do a couple of races for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2014). At the time he was lukewarm at best on the move, but has definitely warmed up to it since.
“What I thought was the worst timing turned out to be the best timing,” Burton explained. “Rick [Allen] and I were able to work together for a year [before we did any race broadcasts]. We did the very first NASCAR America show together. From an announcer standpoint, we were the start of it.”
Allen more or less served as a mentor for Burton, showing him the ropes of TV. Before calling Cup races, Allen and Burton, along with Steve Letarte, got plenty of practice. That included a series of mock broadcasts during the spring of 2015. It also included one K&N Pro Series East broadcast that was done in a studio. K&N Pro Series telecasts are not done in that fashion today.
For what’s it worth, Burton actually finds the idea of doing races from a studio to be far more difficult than being on-site. There’s a disconnect that just isn’t present when you’re on-site.
Talk to anyone in an on-air capacity on a broadcast and they’ll tell you that there’s a lot going on. There’s the actual action on track. Then, there’s communication with the producers. Communication with your colleagues. Burton thrives on that atmosphere.
“[Having so much going on once] is what makes it fun,” Burton explained. “People never understand what I mean when I say this, but I enjoyed the chaos of racing. I enjoyed that there was three minutes left in practice and I wanted to get one more change done and get back out on the track. The chaos of all that makes it exhilarating; it makes it fun.
“In the booth, not only are people talking to you, you’re also talking to other people off-air,” Burton continued. “There’s a lot of communication going both ways. You can literally be talking about a different subject off-air with somebody in the truck, but you also have to be listening to what’s going on the air. At any moment, Rick could say, ‘Hey Jeff, how about _____?’ I enjoy that.”
While the environment doesn’t necessarily need to be chaotic, it’s a lot more fun for Burton if it is. Calmness bores him to a degree.
That said, it’s an ongoing process. It’s very difficult to get used to a setup where multiple people are communicating with you at once and you’re expected to be perfect. Burton admits that even in his fourth year in the broadcast booth, he’s still adjusting. That said, he is definitely more used to the current setup now, given his experience.
In the broadcast booth this year, NBC Sports has used a number of different booth configurations. For Charlotte, they used the split booth setup with Allen and Letarte in one booth while Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were in the other. While it’s often advertised as a special booth setup, it’s really more a setup of convenience. Know that the commentators are not the only people in there. There’s a cameraman, a stage manager, perhaps a stat guy. Also, there’s the massive amount of equipment. It gets full. Quickly.
Naturally, there is a whole bunch of preparation that goes into every race broadcast that you watch on television (and I write about). The commentators get large batches of information from Racing Insights and the NBC Sports Group that can be used in their pre-race preparation. During the time I spent with Burton on Saturday, he showed me some of that information. We’re talking about a stack of papers here.
For someone like Allen, having that information down pat can be quite important. For Burton, not so much. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he comes into a race broadcast unprepared.
Burton says that he doesn’t read 90 percent of the stats that are given to him each week. That said, if there’s something that piques his interest, he’s definitely going to dive in.
“For example, we’re at a road course. I know who runs well on road courses, but sometimes, I have a perception that is wrong,” Burton explained. “Matt Tifft in the XFINITY race, I think he’s a pretty good road racer. I wanted to go back and check to make sure. I want to have something that shows that he’s a good road racer and here’s why.”
Other than circumstances similar to the example above, Burton says that he’s “not a stats guy.” He just uses stats in order to make a case for something. He also doesn’t believe that race fans want to hear the broadcasters roll out stats all day. It’s all about a balance.
All four of NBC Sports’ primary commentators are close friends and part of their mantra was to call the race as if it’s four friends talking about the race. There is chop busting at times. Burton says that they would do the same thing if they were hanging out together somewhere watching the race and not working. That’s believable. They spend a lot of time together away from the track as friends, something that Allen insisted upon from the start.
Even though being an analyst on a broadcast can be tough work, it’s a whole lot of fun for Burton. He excels in high pressure environments and being an analyst in NASCAR is definitely such an environment. He feels that it is the perfect way to keep himself involved in the sport going forward, but also allow him to have a life away from the sport as well.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY Series teams will be back in action at Dover International Speedway for 600 miles of action. Formula 1 teams will return to Suzuka Circuit for the Grand Prix of Japan. Finally, the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship has their biggest race of the year, the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000. Listings are in the Television tab above.
We will provide critiques of the Cup and XFINITY races from Dover for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. Just because I spent part of my weekend interviewing NBC Sports’ on-air personalities (who are excellent people to interview and answered all my questions without issue) doesn’t mean they get a free pass. We’re going to talk about NBC’s broadcast of the Bank of America ROVAL 400 Thursday in the Annex. Some of the knowledge that I gained Saturday will be used for the column.
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About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.
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So even with all those years of “experience”, Rick Allen is still the worst race announcer ever. He treats the viewers as novices, dragging out the most basic fundamentals every week as if we’ve never seen a race. It’s the playoffs! Would we even be watching if we didn’t know something about NASCAR? The rest of the time he’s repeating what was just said. “Once again.” “and again”. He can’t start a sentence with the word “again”.
Why is viewership declining? Take a listen to the TV crew.
Would be nice to hear something except “green flag in the air” with each start athey ought to put these guys in a room and make them listen to themselves all week.
I had some time with Rick Allen just prior to talking to Burton. Some of these topics did come up. We’ll have that on the site very soon.
Stating upfront, I can’t stand either Waltrip, and need to utilize the mute button at the green flag of each FOX telecast, but with Jeff Burton, it’s constant mute or watch anything else. Never thought I would ever say I would prefer listening to his brother Ward.
Burton and Letarte have to be the worst announcers in the history of nascar.
For those who do not understand, listen to some of the announcing with Benny Parsons, both of the Jarrets and others.
NBC must be ignorant as to quality announcing.
It was so bad Sunday with the screaming from letarte and burton that I turned the audio off.
Certainly agree with you. Too bad these are the only people available. Lots of mute on my TV
The women working the race have Lowe voices than Jeff and Steve.. Sounds like mickey and Minn mouse screaming at each other.. The volume is always down.. Hurts my ears. No joke…
The road course races and plate races are where the Dick Vitale element creeps in. Vitale would proclaim 22 All-Americans, 12 Coaches of the Year, and 15 Number One picks by the end of the first half. Sunday, I think 30 of the drivers were great road course racers by the end of the second stage, according to the booth.
Rutledge Wood is a buffoon and must go.