Fox reporters adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 era racing

Images courtesy of Fox Sports

Fox reporters adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 era racing

NASCAR

Fox reporters adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 era racing

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Success in a sport like auto racing requires many tools and talents. Adapting to challenges on the fly is one of them.

With NASCAR racing back underway, the NASCAR on Fox team is learning how to broadcast under restrictions. Teams, media and broadcast partners face limits to the number of personnel allowed access to the track. For Darlington, the broadcast booth from which all the action was called was located in the network’s Charlotte studios, just as it was for for the iRacing events.

On pit road, it is a one-person show. Regan Smith served as the lone pit reporter covering the Sunday Cup Series race and will do the same for the Xfinity Series race. He will pass the baton to Matt Yocum for Wednesday night’s Cup race.

“It’s amazing how quickly everyone adapted from top to bottom at the racetrack,” Smith told RACER about the unique work environment. “And it seemed to work.”

Even with restrictions, racing is still racing for Smith and Yocum. They still follow the same basic procedures in covering an event and trying to communicate developments to fans in the most informative way possible.

A Darlington race date usually falls in the second half of the NASCAR schedule, meaning Fox hasn’t covered a race there is some time. Sunday was the first Darlington race that Smith covered from pit road, and whereas he learned plenty to help his colleagues going forward, he also got plenty of advice from veteran Yocum – who calls Smith his “little brother” – going into the day.

Yocum explained to Smith how difficult the layout of Darlington’s pit road is. He also explained what the noise would be like from down there. The only thing Yocum didn’t tell Smith was where victory lane was – not because Smith wouldn’t be there for the winner’s interview, as it was at the start/finish line, but because Smith is a Darlington winner and plenty familiar with its location. (Fun fact: Yocum was the reporter who interviewed Smith in victory lane in 2011, and even gave Regan the Fox mic flag to save with his trophy and other keepsakes.)

“Since I was the only eyes we as a group at Fox had, I wanted to send group texts to Mike [Joy], Larry [McReynolds], Jeff [Gordon], and everybody who was in Charlotte,” said Smith. “Just so they had a little vibe of what was going on at the racetrack, and what the feel was.

“That was different. Normally, I would just go about seeing crew chiefs and drivers and talking to people. Once it got down to the race itself, it was business as usual, with the exception of not being able to go up to a crew member and ask a question face-to-face. I didn’t do any of that throughout the race. With drivers, I tried to tell them what was going to be asked ahead of time in case the motors were running and they couldn’t hear because you’re standing so far apart.”

Smith had to abide by social distancing guidelines when interviewing drivers. Wearing a face mask, he remained at least six feet from those he was speaking to, and Fox used a boom mic to capture the audio.

The part that was more challenging than expected was the length of pit road and trying to cover all 40 pit stalls. Smith admitted getting to the second past victory lane, which is near Turn 3, was difficult. Plus, as Yocum alluded to, pit road at Darlington is especially long due to the multiple islands above tunnels going into and out of the infield.

“We also had the scanner setup that I had to use in the garage area, and anytime they wanted (me) to talk to drivers (after the stages), I had to be somewhat central to that to get back there pretty quick,” explained Smith. “In terms of getting the information and finding out what was going on with the cars, it wasn’t any trickier than I thought.”

Information was passed along to Smith during the day through text messages. Other folks at the track who could lend a hand also helped, as well as those with Fox who were gathering information from afar.

“There wasn’t a lack of information,” he said.

Yocum watched Sunday’s race from his home office and said it still felt like any Darlington race. He and Smith have talked, with the best advice offered by Smith being on the logistics regarding protocols for covering the event. In an ironic twist, Smith credits Yocum and the other Fox pit reporters (Jamie Little and Vince Welch) with teaching him how to do the job, and now he’s going to guide Yocum in the right direction.

Smith and Yocum both shared a similar sentiment when approaching the job. Yes, racing looks different right now, but fans should not be able to tell the difference in the presentation of it.

“I’m already saying to myself, this is going to be like when I was doing the All-American 400 in 1997 and ’98 in Nashville, being by myself on pit road,” Yocum told RACER. “I know how to produce myself to get the product that’s most important for the viewer and get it on the air, and pass along information that I don’t necessarily have to say that my teammates in the booth can say.”

“My instinct going in is that I know what happened on Sunday and the protocols that everybody has to go through. I’m going to go ahead with Matt Yocum’s system for the past 25 years. But I’m going to do what every driver does when you go into a new situation – you go in with a clean mindset of, ‘OK, this is how I normally do it, but this is how we’re probably going to have to do it,’ and once we get rolling, just call audibles and roll with it. And that’s the best thing you can do.”

Adapt and go. Fox Sports is forging ahead, largely unfazed by the box they are in with COVID-19 restrictions affecting everyone.

Noted Yocum, “We’re rule followers, and we’re extremely resourceful.”

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