NASCAR officially re-starts its engines this Sunday (May 17) with its first live race since the sport suspended its schedule in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fox Sports will air The Real Heroes 400 race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina -- part of an accelerated schedule that will feature May races at Darlington on May 20, Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24 and May 27, as well as Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31.
With no fans allowed at the race as well as other track changes implemented to enhance the health and well-being of the drivers and crews, Fox Sports executive producer and EVP head of production & operations Brad Zager recently spoke to me about the network’s production strategy for the race. Zager also talks about the significance of NASCAR’s return and Fox Sports’ audience expectations in the interview, an edited version of which appears below.
In your opinion, how important is NASCAR’s return to the TV sports category?
I think it's a big weekend. There will be a lot of eyes on live sports coming back, and it's not just to see what happens on the track and who gets the checkered flag, but about doing big, live sports in this world we live in now that has changed so drastically in the last two months. There are so many eyeballs on the safety and health of everyone, and that was priority number one for us. Now that we’re here and have a plan, everyone is so excited that there will be an extra sense of normalcy that there is live sports for them to turn to and not have to look for a substitute for live sports programming that they craved for on the weekends.
How has the pandemic changed how you prepare for a live NASCAR event?
When you do a sport for over 20 years, there are certain typical expectations that things will get done as before because we’ve all worked together for so long. In the planning for this weekend we’re not taking anything for granted; every small detail has been thought of and vetted as if we’re doing NASCAR for the first time ever. It’s such a different layout that we can’t just rest on our past experiences.
From a production standpoint are you making any major alterations to Sunday's NASCAR race?
I think that the number one thing for the viewer will be a more aggressive take with the drone -- without a crowd we’ll have a little more leniency on where we can fly. We’ve always dealt with not being able to fly over people in the grandstands; if everything goes as planned we’ll be more aggressive and hopefully give people a different perspective with drone coverage. A lot of the stuff we’re doing, much like everything we do on the production side of the business, you hope is almost blind to the viewer. You can change a lot of different things with regard to how a show is produced, but you hope it never impacts what the viewer sees on air or how they feel about the coverage. Even though we had to go about this in a different way and will have less people at the track, it shouldn’t impact the viewing experience on Sunday based on what’s happening behind the scenes.
What are your viewership expectations for the race?
I think everybody is ready to bring sports back and to make your Sundays feel a little more like it should this time of the year. We expect the audience to be really engaged this weekend and excited to bring NASCAR back. It’s bigger than just NASCAR fans and racing fans -- we think a larger group will gravitate toward knowing that they could watch live sports this weekend.
Is Fox Sports prepared for what is an aggressive slate of NASCAR events over the next couple of weeks and do you believe that viewer excitement and anticipation for the sport will be sustained?
Someone on our production call joked that if viewers are looking for something to binge watch, they can binge on NASCAR given the upcoming schedule. The good part is we weren’t blindsided with the schedule. During the time when the sport wasn’t happening we worked with NASCAR to make sure that we were comfortable with the schedule. We were all in lockstep knowing when the schedule was announced that we were ready to roll and put NASCAR back on TV.
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