ESPNers schooled in NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Eleven ESPN executives and personalities spent the past weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway for a “NASCAR Immersion.”

It’s a cooperative effort between ESPN and NASCAR to help key network personnel become closer to the sport.

While ESPN televises NASCAR races all season, and covers the sport deeply on multiple platforms, many not directly involved in the coverage have had limited in-person exposure. That included Don Skwar, senior news editor for weekend SportsCenter, who traveled to Charlotte for the immersion.

“It’s good because you get to see from the other perspective,” said Skwar.

“Not that we’re on different sides, but they’re an organization, we’re an organization. They have a job to do, we have a job to do.

“When the paths cross and you can understand a little more about what they are doing, it’s got to help. When you know people, and can see people for the second time, and say ‘Hey, how are you doing, I remember the last time I saw you,’ that’s what relationships are all about.”

In addition to Skwar, participants included SportsCenter anchor John Anderson; SportsNation co-host Michelle Beadle; SportsCenter senior coordinating producer Craig Bengston; First Take co-host Jay Crawford; and First Take coordinating producer Galen Gordon. Others participating included senior vice president, marketing, Carol Kruse; Craig Lazarus, vice president, cross platform news gathering; Fran Rotella, SportsCenter coordinating producer; and SportsCenter anchors Sage Steele and Stan Verrett.

NASCAR, along with Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports, who oversees all of ESPN’s motorsports production, and Julie Sobieski, vice president, programming & acquisitions, who manages ESPN’s business relationship with NASCAR, hosted the group for three days.

Activities included driving race cars, a tour of the headquarters of one of NASCAR’s top teams, tours of the NASCAR garage area and ESPN’s mobile production facilities, brunch with the speedway chief officer and being embedded with race teams for the Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

The group had a welcome dinner Thursday night with several NASCAR officials as well as ESPN NASCAR analysts Tim Brewer, Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace. During the dinner, the participants each received a wrapped gift box containing a miniature NASCAR Sprint Cup car that indicated which driver/team the member would be assigned to for Saturday night’s race.

Michelle Beadle changes a tire on NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson’s car as John Anderson waits to roll the new tire to her.

Richard Petty Driving Experience

The ESPN crew spent Friday morning driving actual NASCAR race cars with the Richard Petty Driving Experience, a NASCAR-themed organization that operates at multiple racetracks around the country and provides novices with the experience of high-speed driving under controlled conditions. After some classroom instruction, firesuits and helmets were donned and each participant got to drive eight laps around the 1.5-mile, high-banked Charlotte Motor Speedway while closely following an instructor.

Of course, smack talk and challenges of who would be fastest had been going on for several days, with some of the participants taking to Twitter.

Beadle, Crawford and Steele were especially vocal, and, as it turned out, Crawford was the fastest with a top speed of 147 mph. Although the speeds were 40 mph slower than Tony Stewart’s pole-winning speed for the race, the group was able to get a feel for what driving NASCAR race cars is all about.

“The second I got going, I was totally focused like tunnel vision. I’ve never done anything like this in my life and I probably never will again,” Steele said.

Steele previously covered racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when she worked in local TV there.

“I’ve been in the pits and have an appreciation for what these guys do,” she said.

Sage Steele gets her helmet buckled.

Hendrick Motorsports Tour

After lunch at NASCAR’s Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C., the group moved to Hendrick Motorsports for a Friday afternoon tour. Hendrick, which fields cars for five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, as well as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, is one of NASCAR’s largest and most successful racing teams.

The tour included a walk-and-talk human performance overview of the field and gym where Hendrick pit crew members work out to stay in top physical condition for the 12-second pit stops needed to win in NASCAR. The tour also included a look at the team’s chassis and engine shops.

And more competition — teams were selected and a pit stop contest was held, with the team members jacking a race car and changing tires. Crawford won again, with Kruse, Steele and Verrett as teammates.

Friday Night

The group returned to the speedway for a NASCAR garage tour and to watch that night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race. After watching the start of the race on pit road, the group moved to the ESPN Pit Studio with Wallace and Daugherty for several laps, then went to NASCAR Race Control before returning inside to join race winner Carl Edwards in victory lane.

Race Day

Since the Bank of America 500 was a night race, the NASCAR garage didn’t open until 1 p.m.

The group had brunch at the luxurious Speedway Club high above the track with executives of Speedway Motorsports, the owner of the Charlotte track as well as six other tracks that host NASCAR Sprint Cup events.

Once the garage opened, the members of the group joined their race teams and participated in preparations for that night’s race.

Anderson worked with Kevin Harvick, Beadle with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bengston with Brad Keselowski, Crawford with Juan Pablo Montoya, Gordon with David Reutimann, Kruse with Matt Kenseth (who won the race), Lazarus with A.J. Almendinger, Rotella with Jamie McMurray, Skwar with Mark Martin, Steele with Kyle Busch and Verett with Clint Bowyer.

During the afternoon, Anderson and Skwar attended a “Tweet Up” outside the track and met some NASCAR fans who are active Twitter users.

Before the race, the group attended the NASCAR drivers meeting, where ESPN President George Bodenheimer was among the dignitaries introduced, and then all rode around the track with their drivers on the backs of pickup trucks following driver introductions. Once the race started, they remained in the pit area of their teams, then all met in victory lane afterward.

“The weekend has been awesome, eye opening and enlightening in many ways,” said Gordon.

“I was kind of a NASCAR fan from a distance, but I got a true appreciation for what goes into it. The perception of the sport for me has just been enhanced.”