For the last four Labor Day weekends, each visit to Darlington Raceway on “Throwback Weekend” has been a trip down memory lane for NASCAR.
Especially for the man who has helped oversee packaging and presenting some of the most indelible images in stock-car racing over the past four decades.
“During the (Southern 500) broadcasts, we play back historic races of Darlington, and I’m going, ‘Oh yup, I did that one, and yeah, I did that one,’” Mike Wells, who is in his 38th season of directing NASCAR races, said recently with a chuckle. “One of the most memorable races – and there’s a number of them – but Bill Elliott was the first one to get the Winston Million and I directed that one, and that was a pretty cool thing. There’s just so many different ones, quite frankly.”
Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway on NBC will mark the last chance for the 21-time Emmy Award winner to leave his stamp on creating NASCAR memories as he closes a run that began in 1981 at Rockingham Speedway.
Wells said he has lost precise count of how many hundreds of races he has directed since then, but he estimates snapping his fingers – his signature method of calling for a camera change – several hundred thousand times in production trucks at racetracks around the country.
That distinct rhythm will move to another racing circuit next year as NBC Sports takes over full coverage of the IndyCar Series, and Wells directs the Indianapolis 500 and other select races.
“Mike’s contributions to NBC Sports and NASCAR during the past 37 seasons have been immeasurable,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports. “His legacy as an Emmy Award-winning director and innovator in the sport is second only to his reputation as a tremendous teammate, leader and mentor to so many who have had the privilege of working with him.
“While it’s bittersweet for this to be Mike’s final NASCAR race for us, we can’t think of a better person to direct NBC’s inaugural Indy 500 in 2019.”
Fittingly, Talladega has been the site for much of Wells’ most memorable race direction in NASCAR.
He was selecting the camera angles for the May 4, 1986 race that began with a fan stealing the pace car. Wells was in the production truck a year later at Talladega when rookie Davey Allison scored his first Cup victory and was congratulated in victory lane by his father, Bobby, whose car had flown into the frontstretch catchfence earlier in the race and caused nearly a 3-hour delay (NASCAR instituted restrictor plates the following season).
Wells also was at Talladega to frame the Oct. 15, 2000 dash by Dale Earnhardt from 18th to first in the final five laps of the last victory of his career.
The Nov. 15, 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway – which marked Alan Kulwicki winning the championship in the final race of Richard Petty and the debut of Jeff Gordon – also was directed by Wells.
“Again, it was just really special to be a part of that whole thing,” said Wells, who also takes pride in directing the first Daytona 500 win, Brickyard 400 victory and championship for Jimmie Johnson during the ’06 season. He also worked Johnson’s seventh championship in the Nov. 20, 2016 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Wells said it’s tough to pick a favorite track, but he can recall many of their special moments, such as Tony Stewart’s July 2, 2005 win at Daytona International Speedway.
“He climbed up in the flagstand, and we had a camera there, and the fireworks were going off behind him,” Wells said. “My job is to capture the moments, and that was a moment.”
Raised in Milwaukee (where his house was a few miles from a speedway, and he could hear the cars on weekends), Wells’ introduction to race direction came at Eldora Speedway in 1980 when he spent time with track founder Earl Baltes during a camera survey.
“That’s kind of how I really got interested in racing, and a year later, I’m doing NASCAR,” said Wells, who was hired by NASCAR Hall of Famer Ken Squier to direct his first race. “It was pretty cool.”
Technology has changed markedly in the interim with Wells chuckling as he recalls team members once helping carry the cables on handheld cameras used to cover pit stops (they are now wireless).
“Back then, just the cable for a camera was four times the size, and quite frankly, you were limited by the length of the cable or you started losing picture,” Wells said. “So now you can go an indefinite amount of miles because of the fiber. That’s probably one of the biggest technical achievements. Certainly the in-car cameras and the robocams and the BatCams, those kind of things, really are huge. It was tough getting in and out of the pit area with them tied to a cable.”
In the past two seasons, Wells also has been pleased by the positive impact on race production by the addition of stages “because you’re guaranteed restarts and now you actually get less green-flag commercials because those commercials are built in during the caution. So the fan at home actually gets to see more green-flag racing than they would have in the past.”
While he largely is responsible for what fans see as a race director, Wells constantly credits his co-workers for the quality of the broadcasts that typically involve a crew of more than 100 people.
He recently was touched when a former longtime camera operator on his crew drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas last month just to visit for an evening with Wells before he directed his last playoff opener.
“You just can’t beat that,” Wells said. “It’s such a close-knit family anyway. I keep saying we’re like a traveling gypsy show, and we are. You just feel so proud that someone would take the time to do that.”
You can hear Wells recount his career during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast by listening below or via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.