Its The Pits

It all seems so simple. Hang out in the pits, give play by play of a pit stop without forgetting to mention “Gooch,” Pop Tart,” and “Shaggy,” and stick a microphone in someone’s face after he blows and engine and ask him how he feels.

The reality, however, is that pit reporting is a total team effort that really takes three days to prepare for three hours of work. There are plenty of unsung heroes whose work goes unnoticed to 8 million viewers of NASCAR on Fox. But if it wasn’t for that behind-the-scenes hustle, the on-air product would look remarkably different.

For the Coca-Cola 600, Dick Berggren, Steve Byrnes, Matt Yocum and their teams gathered at the Broadcast Sports trailer to make final preparations for what they thought would be a grueling 600-mile marathon. Byrnes is relaxed 20 minutes before the pre-race show and his crew is ready to roll. Spotter Walter Cox is doing his final preparations, cameraman Jimmy Kimmons is set, Lorne Ottinger will hold the transmitter, and Heather Dyer is ready to assist.

Unlike most races, this pre-race show includes no live interviews for Byrnes, a casualty of an aggressive starting time due to rain. “Welcome to our 12-minute pre-race show,” jokes Mike Joy four minutes prior to air.

Byrnes’ one appearance on the pre-race show is a taped bit he did with race fans in the infield. But Steve is ready to go, spending much of the time fairly close to Robby Gordon in case producer Neil Goldberg wants a live interview.

Once the crew moves to pit road after the engines are fired, it’s still very casual. Steve waves to the #48 PR guy, talks with Robin Pemberton, gets the latest from #20 crew member Jason Shapiro, and #24 PR rep Jon Edwards hands Steve a card with summary information for Jeff Gordon.

Even the security guard has a few words for Steve, “We enjoy all your stuff; it’s just wonderful. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

Steve’s spotter, Walter Cox, tries to clarify his role on the team. “My job is to stand there and go, ‘Yes Steve,’” he jokes. In reality, the work of the spotter is crucial. All throughout the race, Cox, and fellow spotters Jeff Probst (Berggren) and Mike Siberini (Yocum) do much of the hustling in their assigned pit areas. They monitor radio conversations, talk to PR people, and observe all the action in the pits. When one of the reporters goes on-air with all that talk of wedge, bite, half-round, spring rubbers, and air pressure, it’s often the spotter who has gathered that information and writes it down for the reporter to use.

Just prior to the green flag, pit producer Pam Miller informs the guys that a “pit whip” is coming up. Steve goes on pit road to provide an on-air report on the #24 team’s success at Charlotte, whipping off a flurry of statistics without any notes.

There’s still a little more action before the drop of the green flag. The delayed start of the race due to a wet track leaves the TV broadcast with time to fill. Miller asks the reporters, “Got anything down there that might help us during this caution?” Byrnes responds by talking to Robbie Loomis about Jeff Gordon’s thoughts on the track condition and files an on-air report.

The final machinations are Walter Cox helping #99 crew member Brad Parrott program his scanner for the TV feed and Steve Byrnes popping in some Dubble Bubble. That piece of gum lasts all two minutes, as Sean Pragano hands Steve two new pieces of green gum. Cox says that lots of people on pit road know that Byrnes likes gum and are happy to provide him with “treats.”

Once that green flag drops, the intensity level on pit road ratchets up. Matt Yocum, who has the first one-third of pit road for the race, camps out in pole sitter Ryan Newman’s pit and starts filing many reports on Newman’s water temperature problems. 242 is the number, and the Penske team is worried. The culprit is a hot dog wrapper, which eventually dislodges.

As is the case throughout the entire race, spotter Mike Siberini is running all over the first 13 spots on pit road, providing Yocum with a steady flow of information. Clearly the most active PR person is from the #12 team. She is constantly providing Yocum and Siberini with verbal and written information.

For Dick Berggren, who has the final one-third of pit road, the on-air work is not as intense for much of the race, primarily because most of his assigned cars are not in contention. Mercifully for Berggren, Jimmie Johnson’s engine problem in qualifying that relegated him to the back of the field means that Dick has one solid story line to follow. Despite the lack of frontrunners, spotter Jeff Probst is constantly hustling and looking for anything that will help Berggren in his reporting.

Around 6:40 p.m., Probst shows Berggren a note in thick, black magic marker. “#48 car getting worse and worse, getting tight.” Soon thereafter, Berggren goes on-air with the news. With Sterling Marlin moving up to 9th place, Dick has yet another story he can follow too.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. begins to have his problems with lug nuts and brake rotors, the workload for Steve Byrnes gets more intense. Pam Miller and Byrnes wrestle with how to cover the miscue by the tire changer. They weigh the pros and cons of talking to Tony Eury Sr. or Tony Eury Jr., or simply having Steve file a report. Ultimately, Byrnes elects to file a report with no interviews.

At 8:04, Walter Cox hands Steve a complete summary of what the #17 team will be doing on its pit stop, complete with five items that the team is adjusting on the car.

During one commercial break, the team is reminded that Tuesday is Dick Berggren’s birthday. Chris Myers pounces on this information, quipping on-air that Dick was born “when the Dead Sea Scrolls were only sick.”

After the comedy break, it’s time to get back to racing. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. has his brake rotor come off, pit producer Miller is the first to report the news. As Earnhardt Jr. pulls into the garage, Byrnes and his crew run to get near the car. Dale is extremely upset, and the tension starts to build.

There’s a very strange dynamic building as Byrnes weighs how and when to approach Dale Jr. Steve knows how upset the driver is over the miscues and mechanical problems. Simply, there is no good way to ask what he knows needs to be asked. But Earnhardt Jr. is second in points and the biggest name in the sport, so Byrnes has to forge ahead.

Neil Goldberg tells Steve that they are taping the interview, and Steve asks the question, “Dale, what’s wrong with the brakes.” With 8 million people on TV waiting to see Junior’s reaction, he sticks with, “I don’t know. Broken, I guess.”

With that tough part over with, Steve gets a firm and encouraging pat on the back from cameraman Jimmy Kimmons. Race producer Neil Goldberg tells Byrnes, “Steve, if you want to, you can get back in there (to talk to Earnhardt Jr.). You can do it again.” Goldberg laughs quietly as he finishes his statement, knowing that Byrnes would probably opt for a root canal without Novocain over doing another interview with Junior before the night is out.

Darrell Waltrip also finds humor in the idea of Byrnes giving it another try. “This is your mission,” he says.

The final hour on the air is a filled with plenty of activity. At one point, as I’m watching Dick Berggren at the Broadcast Sports trailer getting his battery pack off to be changed, I hear Mike Joy throwing it to Dick Berggren for a report from the pits. Berggren hears this in his headphones and acts swiftly, but doesn’t quite reach the point of panic. He tries saying something in the microphone, only to no avail. Producer Goldberg comments that the race has seen attrition and now Dick Berggren has some attrition of his own.

Then, if this was a night like many other nights, the pit reporters and their crews were settling in for a long period of rainfall, where those “evergreen” stories might come in handy.

All of a sudden, however, Matt Yocum and his crew make a mad sprint for Jimmie Johnson. Mike Joy goes on-air with NASCAR's decision to call the race, and Yocum is set up for the winner's interview in the middle of a big open part of the garage area. Matt asks all of the relevant questions, and winner is swarmed by the rest of the media as the Fox crew moves away.

Matt Yocum is ready to go with Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus, and Dick Berggren files a report after waiting patiently at Bobby Labonte’s hauler.

Although Dick, Matt, and Steve get all of the recognition, it’s been a total team effort. Everyone from the spotters to the camera operators to the security guards are tired, soaked, soggy, and sore. But the end result is the complete lowdown on what’s happening with each team up and down pit road. For the television viewer, it’s a job well done.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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