Mike Joy doesn’t deny that broadcasting NASCAR Cup Series races last season from the Fox Sports studios in Charlotte, North Carolina, was effective and efficient. And doing so kept everyone safe and following COVID-19 protocols.
In Joy’s words, Fox did a tremendous job of spending a lot of money to make him and Jeff Gordon comfortable while trying to replicate what they would see if they were in the broadcast booth at each track. But try as they might, the remote view is limited, and nothing beats being at the track with the ability to look out the window at the action.
“It was like trying to broadcast with one eye closed, one hand tied behind your back,” Joy (pictured at left, above, with Gordon and Clint Bowyer) told RACER. “(Fox) went way overboard, and that was really appreciated, but yeah, just like for the fans — nothing like being there.”
NASCAR ran the first four races of the 2020 season as scheduled and under normal circumstances. But when the coronavirus pandemic forced a change in operation, it forced everyone to adapt to working under different circumstances. For Fox, it meant not sending its broadcast team to the racetrack for the remainder of its portion of the schedule.
Joy and Gordon made the most of it. Gordon told RACER he was blown away by how seamless and smooth things went while in the studio, but he soon realized how much he missed being at the track and watching live racing.
“There’s no doubt it brings your own energy level up and your excitement level,” Gordon said.
If the first five weeks of the 2021 season have felt different or if the broadcast has seemed a little more fun and enthusiastic, it’s because Joy, Gordon, and new TV member Clint Bowyer are back at the track and in the booth where they feel most comfortable.
“I hope it shows (that) we are thrilled to be back at the track,” said Joy.
Gordon agreed and added, “I was down on pit road on the pre-race (show) and just the smells and everything, I kept saying to Chris Myers and to Clint, and every time I see Mike, I say the same thing, ‘Man, I am so happy to be back at the racetrack. It feels great.’”
It also feels just a tad bit different. Joy, Gordon, and Bowyer are separated by glass partitions so that when they are seated during the broadcast, they are keeping their distance and breathing space. The only time it looks odd is when they are standing for on-camera shots and are taller than the dividers.
Visitors are not allowed in the booth, and those who are operating all the technical equipment are wearing masks and face shields. Fox also does regular COVID testing. All production meetings are virtual or socially distanced — which Gordon struggles with because he’s big on face-to-face interaction. On the other hand, having fans in the grandstands has helped them feed off the energy.
“I think if we’re missing anything, it is the interaction that we are used to having with our colleagues at Fox and in and out of the garage area, in the pits where we don’t get to go because of the bubble that we are in,” said Joy. “That’s the hardest part. By the time each of us gets to the booth, we’ve only had a chance maybe to email or text a small fraction of the people that we would otherwise interact with on race weekend. So, I think that’s the biggest challenge right now.”
Joy and Gordon both agree that regardless of the restrictions, everything has been seamless and natural. When the race begins, it’s just another broadcast. One minor issue was Gordon dealing with a glare on the dividers a few weekends ago in Homestead that affected what monitors he was trying to see.
“I’m looking at Mike, and I want to look at his monitor and glance off his monitor every once in a while, maybe look at his time and scoring,” Gordon said. “I sometimes run a different timing and scoring in front of me to look at some long run speeds, so we had some challenges there. But otherwise, it doesn’t matter.
“We’re so happy to be at the track that I’m willing to make any adjustments and changes and get around some of those things that are necessary.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, many sports broadcasters could probably attest to having developed an unseen routine that comes with working so close in a space with a colleague. Maybe it’s tapping on their shoulder or hand signals. Joy and Gordon are no different. When it was just the two of them in the booth, the two developed a rapport with their body language and natural eye contact that helped the broadcast flow.
Today, even though they are not shoulder-to-shoulder, the broadcast is just as natural, but they are more aware of their positions. Joy is to the left with Gordon in the middle and Bowyer on the right when they are on camera.
“I think now Mike and I have worked together for enough years that we naturally gravitate towards eye contact,” Gordon said. “I talk with my hands a lot, so anything that’s going to get in the way of the chords or the dividers or whatever is a slight change.
“But this year, I’m in the middle, so now I’m trying to keep my eye contact with Mike because he navigates this, he has things he has to get in during the broadcast as well as having these conversations that we’re having. But now I’ve got to make sure I look to the right, and depending on where I’m at on camera … I’m looking (where I need to) to make eye contact with Bowyer.”
The goal of the Fox broadcast is to include the viewer in the conversation. Joy looks at each broadcast as a three-legged stool: inform, educate, and entertain.
“When you get comfortable working closely with someone, you can say a lot with just a look or a shrug of the shoulder or just body language,” Joy said. “And maybe we’re not natural entertainers, that doesn’t come first to mind to me, telling the story of the race does, but I think the feedback we got was the fans were well pleased with the information and the detail and the history and the passion that we both have for the sport.”
The addition of Bowyer hasn’t interrupted the flow of things. Even under unique circumstances and restrictions, Bowyer has brought a new burst of energy to the booth with how he fits into the conversation and calls attention to things or even contradicts Joy and Gordon.
As Joy explained, “it’s been a long time, 21 years since I worked with Buddy Baker at CBS where I had somebody in the booth going, ‘wait a minute, that’s not quite right! That’s not what happened. We got to pay attention to this.’ That’s different, and it’s great.
“I think Clint settled right in. Other than having to learn the terminology of television, he’s pretty well set in.”
The NASCAR on Fox broadcast does have a more booth-centered feel to it because of the at-track restrictions. There are fewer people at the track, including pit reporters, and the loss of being able to approach people for interviews. Joy admitted they’d like to talk to more people after the race but acknowledged network time constraints and how those interviewers are banked for the Race Hub program that airs during the week.
However, Fox has been delivering content differently. In addition to Gordon or Bowyer talking to drivers during stage break cautions, the network has started interviewing team officials on the pit box during the race. Gordon said current events have pushed Fox to be creative and bring something new to the sport and new ways to bring stories to viewers.
“It feels very natural now that we’re at the track; it’s just everything feels like it’s falling really good,” said Gordon. “I’ll tell you what, we’ve had some amazing racing that always helps a lot too, but between the racing and the chemistry that’s there right now, I do feel like we’re putting some of the best broadcasts together that I’ve seen in a long time.”
Things still aren’t perfect given the ongoing pandemic, and Gordon and Joy are constantly pushing to be better. Still, between Bowyer’s addition to the team and the ability to broadcast from the racetrack, they are not complaining.
“Our folks at Fox deserve a huge amount of credit for trying to keep us as safe as possible during the pandemic, and Fox’s reluctance to go back to the track was born of safety and concern for us, and we’re very appreciative of that,” Joy said. “And the number of people from Barry Landis, our producer, on down that not only to make us look good but support us on the way we want to tell the stories and the way we want to lay out the flow of the race is terrific.
“They certainly deserve their Emmys, and we’re just very proud and very happy to be part of a great team and always looking to make it better. Here we are in 2021, and the comments we see on social media are, well, sometimes it’s overwhelming. Just people were having fun watching the telecast, and I’m happy. It means we must be doing something right and doing it as well as we can.”