All of Fox's on-air talent for Xfinity Series at Pocono will be active NASCAR drivers
Pam Miller has produced NASCAR races for Fox Sports for the past 17 years but on Saturday, she’ll be in charge of a race unlike any other she’s worked on. For the network’s live broadcast of the Nascar Xfinity Series race from Pocono Raceway (1 p.m. ET on Fox), Fox will use a crew of current NASCAR Cup Series drivers for its broadcast team. Kevin Harvick will serve as the play-by-play announcer alongside analysts Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin will host the race coverage from the Hollywood Hotel mobile studio while Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will serve as the cover pit road reporters.
Fox Sports said it believes it is the first time a nationally televised live sporting event will feature an on-air team consisting of the athletes actively competing in that sport. As a sports broadcasting experiment, it’s certainly interesting, and one that has already paid off given how much favorable pre-race attention the network has received.
The idea has been long in the making. Since regaining the Xfinity Series in 2015, Fox Sports executives had been thinking about ways in which they could get drivers involved in their broadcast. Last February, in an effort to really blow out the concept, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks met with Harvick to discuss getting a group of drivers to call a singular race. Miller and Fox Sports senior vice president Jacob Ullman then took over with Harvick from there. Pocono turned out to be the best for the schedule of the drivers selected. “Amazingly, it all came together because getting eight drivers on one schedule is pretty tough,” Miller said.
Miller said that Harvick was a natural fit for the play-by-play position given he has the most Fox booth experience among the drivers. Harvick suggested Logano and Bowyer as analysts because he thought they would make for good on-air foils. Both Miller and Ullman thought Patrick would be a great host given she has hosted award shows and country music awards, among other things. For the pit road broadcasters, Miller said Fox wanted “three interesting and up-and-coming drivers that are on the verge of big things.”
"We know we're going to screw up. They [Fox] know we're going to screw up,” Harvick told reporters last Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “From a booth standpoint, the three of us are not going to be a traditional booth, where it's me leading the show. It's going to be all three of us taking charge, saying what we see and doing what we think is right during that particular time."
The biggest challenge of the broadcast, Miller said, will be the mechanics of television for the drivers. As a safety valve, Miller said that the regular Fox Sports broadcasters for the Xfinity Series will shadow each of the drivers. For example, Adam Alexander and Michael Waltrip will be in the booth with Harvick, Logano and Bowyer should they need anything. Miller said Shannon Spake will occasionally appear on-air in and out of breaks from the studio to let viewers know this is a drivers-only broadcast.
“I consider my role to be one of an advisor to Danica,” said Spake. “I will spend some time with her the night before to prepare and will be on set the entire day if she has any questions. Larry McReynolds and I will be in the Hollywood Hotel for the entire race and will actually host the majority of the pre-race show because Denny and Danica both have Cup practice leading up to our show. Once they arrive on set, I will handle sponsor related items (to avoid conflicts with existing driver sponsorship) and the entire Fox Sports NASCAR broadcast team is prepared to step in if there are any unexpected on-track emergency situations . Basically, we will ‘shadow’ the drivers.”
Spake, who has covered college football and the NFL, said she did not believe such a concept would work in another sport.
“Unlike other professional sports, all of the NASCAR drivers are in one location throughout the entire weekend,” she said. “It would be difficult to get ‘current’ athletes to travel to a location to broadcast a game in the middle of their season. I also agree that NASCAR drivers have a ton of television experience, from ‘guest driver analyst’ during the Xfinity races to regular contributors on daily shows like Racehub. NASCAR drivers have much more experience handling the specifics that come with making television and covering a race.”
The toughest thing for Miller’s group will be the mechanics of the broadcast, from getting in and out of commercial to the drivers not stepping on each other when they want to get a comment in.
“Getting in a rhythm with them, when they want to get into the broadcast and how they get in, will be the challenge,” Miller said. “I would actually consider it a success if it doesn’t sound like what you usually hear on Saturday. It’s going to be interesting and fun to watch them learn on the job and I think this can take things to another level of immersion for fans. It will be compelling no matter what happens.”
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. An easy rule of thumb for sports television: Viewers love super teams. Through two games, the 2017 NBA Finals on ABC has averaged 19,602,000 viewers (TV and streaming numbers), up 5% from 18,641,000 viewers in 2016. The TV-only audience is 19.2 million viewers. ESPN said it is the most-watched since 1998, through two games.
Game Two drew an audience of 20,117,000 average viewers, up 13% from 17,756,000 average viewers in 2016. The broadcast peaked with 23,094,000 viewers from 10-10:30 p.m. ET.
2. Game 1 of the Women’s College World Series between Oklahoma drew a 1.2 overnight, the best Game 1 rating ever for the Finals. Oklahoma won in 17 innings.
3. Episode 122 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a tribute to the life and work of Frank Deford, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer who died on May 28 at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 78.
Writers Alex Wolff (Sports Illustrated), Wright Thompson (ESPN), Jack McCallum (SI), Sally Jenkins (Washington Post), Tim Layden (SI) and Michael Farber (SI and TSN) joined the podcast (separate segments) to offer thoughts on their favorite Deford pieces, his impact on sports journalism, personal stories of interacting with Deford, how he approached stories, why he matters in 2017 and much more.
“His best stuff was for the ages,” said Wolff. “It was a privilege to be his colleague.”
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
• Alex Wolff, on writing the Deford obit for Sports Illustrated. – 1:30
• Wolff, on who Deford was as a writer – 3:50
• Wolff on his personal relationship with Deford – 7:40
• Wolff, on the Deford piece that stays with him the most – 10:30
• Wolff, on Deford as a writing stylist – 14:00
• Wolff, on why Deford was matched perfectly for his time – 18:20
• Thompson, on why a great profile is true forever – 22:00
• Thompson, on Deford as a writing influence –24:00
• Thompson, on Deford’s literary devices – 26:30
• Thompson, on the quintessential Deford piece, in his opinion – 29:00
• McCallum, on Deford’s journalism legacy –36:00
• McCallum, on his interactions with Deford –38:00
• McCallum, on the Deford pieces that stood out for him – 40:30
• Jenkins, on her Post column memorializing Deford – 47:00
• Layden, on Deford’s impact on his career – 52:50
• Layden, on Deford’s ability to do multiple subjects – 55:15
• Layden, on Deford’s ability to transport a read to a time or place – 1:01:40
• Farber, on first meeting Deford in 1974 – 1:03.30
• Farber, on Deford’s hockey work – 1:08.00
• Farber, on Deford offering him a job to work at The National – 1:10.00
• Farber, on Deford’s enduring legacy – 1:11.30