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Mike Wells set to direct final NASCAR race for NBC Sports

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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.

Podcast: Justin Allgaier’s health scare and ‘best thing I’ve ever done’

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DOVER, Del. – After a career season, Justin Allgaier is facing potential elimination today at Dover International Speedway just three races into the Xfinity Series playoffs.

The JR Motorsports driver undoubtedly would be supremely disappointed by such a stunning turn of events, but he also has already experienced adversity that would help put that in perspective.

During a trip to Spain for a sponsor event at the Formula One race in Barcelona, Allgaier lost nearly 20 pounds in a few days, falling so ill he wondered if he’d be well enough to fly home.

Doctors recommended a colonoscopy, a test usually done on men older than 50. Allgaier, 32, was fortunate it turned up negative for cancer but also glad that it eliminated lingering doubts.

“Getting a colonoscopy at 32 years old is really weird,” he said on the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “You walk in and almost feel out of place. I’m going to tell you right now it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Because it took every bit of question out of my mind.

“And I tell people all the time, between family and friends, I’ve had a lot of people that have had different types of cancers, different types of diseases, things that have ultimately been life-threatening. We see Sherry Pollex every weekend and what she promotes and has gone through, but I don’t think people sometimes … they’ll talk about something whenever it doesn’t affect them. But when it affects you, you’re always a lot of times like I’m not saying a word. I’m just going to keep to myself and do my thing, it’ll go away eventually. Nothing’s wrong. I’ve lost too many people in my life to worry about how weird it’s going to be or what it looks like from the outside.”

“My thing has been if I can go and get a test, and I can get an answer, why wouldn’t you? It was weird. I felt a little out of place, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Allgaier, who is 11 points ahead of the current cutoff after winning the regular-season championship with five victories, said he hasn’t had any lingering effects since returning from Spain, and that doctors have ruled out “anything that I have to be worried about.

“There’s still some question marks, but ultimately we’ve checked off 98% of the stuff that is big-item stuff that could have been a lot worse than what it is, so I’m feeling pretty good about where I am at the moment,” he said.

During the podcast, Allgaier also discusses:

–The special helmet designed for the playoffs by his 5-year-old daughter;

–The influence of his grandfather, a D-Day veteran;

–Being miserable during his two-season stint in the Cup Series.

To listen to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, click on the embed above, or you can download the episodes at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Podcast: Marcus Smith on the moment the Roval idea was born

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Marcus Smith was brainstorming in his seventh-floor corner office at Charlotte Motor Speedway nearly two years ago, contemplating the future for the track’s second annual Cup race.

Held a few months after the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600, the Bank of America 500 was lacking some luster.

“I thought, ‘You know this race needs something special,’ ” the Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO and president said on the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It was really overshadowed by the other two races.”

From his overhead view, Smith’s gaze fell on the road course running through the infield of the 1.5-mile track, and inspiration struck.

“Hey, I got an idea … this is ridiculous,” Smith said. “Why don’t we revive the old road course and race NASCAR on the Roval? We need a road course in the playoffs, and I thought this would kill two birds with one stone. Take out an intermediate 1.5-mile track and add in a road course, so mission accomplished. That’s how it happened.”

His first pitch was to NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell.

“I called Steve and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’” Smith said. “He said, ‘Man, that’s a crazy idea, but I kind of like it.’ Just kept pushing from there.”

The original plan was to bring NASCAR to the road course last year, but “there was a lot of resistance” from drivers, owners and manufacturers. Sunday’s debut as the cutoff race in the first round of the playoffs will happen 20 months after the first test on the layout.

Though it’ll mark the first road course added to NASCAR’s premier series since Sonoma Raceway in 1989, the Roval is a throwback for Smith. It uses 90 percent of the layout that once played host to IMSA sports cars 30 years ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track was in the process of renovating the road course for amateur driving and manufacturer testing before accelerating it into a multimillion-dollar project to lure NASCAR.

“When I was a kid I loved coming to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Camel GT race,” Smith said. “We haven’t had that back since the ‘80s. We had Porsches, Jaguars and all these great 24 Hours of Lemans-type cars. So we started working on just improving and modernizing the infield road course. If nothing else, it would be a place to drive fast cars and enjoy it.”

During the podcast, Smith also discusses:

–his reaction to Cup drivers feeling daunted by the layout;

–Mario Andretti’s advice on the track and how a Porsche 918 put the racing legend behind the wheel there;

–why he believes road courses are the new short tracks.

To listen to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, click on the embed above, or you can download the episodes at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

Podcast: Ross Chastain on the ‘evil business’ of competing for sponsors

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In his 2011 debut in a NASCAR national series, Ross Chastain earned a 10th in the Camping World Truck Series race at O’Reilly Raceway Park and a business lesson.

The most recent winner in the Xfinity Series said he received an unusual email shortly afterward from his new sponsor.

“The National Watermelon Association and Promotional Board got a nice little letter from NASCAR offering them to sponsor the Bristol truck race,” Chastain said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “They could have Ross in the 66 truck. And they could have the sponsorship of the race.”

Chastain’s sponsorship was unaffected – the board was on his truck for five more races – but the driver said it was an eye-opening experience on the competitive economics of NASCAR.

“That letter didn’t come to me,” he said. “It was never run by me or the team. None of us knew about it. They forwarded to me and said, ‘Hey, what’s this about? We don’t have sponsorship for this. We barely put this program together with you.’

“We never brought it up to NASCAR. It was just probably that somebody in their business development side. It never happened again. It opened my eyes to, ‘OK. I can play ball. I can play ball real well.’ And we know that now. I’m glad it happened so early because it really taught us a lot.”

Chastain’s three-race stint in the No. 42 Chevrolet of Chip Ganassi Racing, which is scheduled to conclude with tonight at Richmond Raceway, also has a layer on the state of driver economics.

After winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Chastain disclosed that he wasn’t being paid for driving the car. During the podcast, he compared it with “an internship. When you’re young, you’ll do anything to get the job you want.”

Is he worried about devaluing his worth to the point at which it might destabilize the pay structure for younger drivers, though?

“Times are changing, man,” Chastain said. “You’re not going to make the money you used to. Granted, it’s a business. Everyone wants to make money in life, and you have to live. It’s just tough luck.

“It’s tough facts of life. I hate to talk about it because people don’t want me to. I didn’t say, ‘All right (sponsor DC Solar), you’re going to pay all this money, Chip Ganassi, you’re going to put in all this effort and these man hours, but hey I need to get paid.’ That’s crazy. Are you kidding me? I’m not going to say that. When they said there’s not money to get paid. I said, ‘Great. I just want a trophy. And I want to get you a trophy. And that’s all there is to it.’ ”

Even though he isn’t getting paid by Ganassi, Chastain said he feels fortunate that he isn’t paying to drive the car as he believes many other drivers are (by bringing sponsorship to a team and the receiving a percentage in return).

“A lot of people think I am, and I don’t correct them a lot of times because it honestly keeps other drivers with sponsorship away,” he said. “Because this is a very evil business. There’s people all the time that will reach out to my sponsors (and say), ‘Oh we can do a better job.’”

In the podcast, Chastain also discussed:

–What it was like addressing the Ganassi shop after his win;

–Why his driving style seems to make so many other drivers angry (“I have no friends on the track. Partly because the way I race, and I know that.”);

–The essence of watermelon farming, where he hopes to return after his driving career is over.

–Whether he has talked with Kevin Harvick since their skirmish at Darlington Raceway;

–If he can win the Xfinity championship with JD Motorsports, his primary team.

To listen to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, click on the embed above, or you can download the episodes at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

Chase Elliott hopes to follow Dale Earnhardt Jr. in another way

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Chase Elliott soon will inherit Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s official mantle as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, and he hopes to eventually acquire an ancillary skill of that immense sway, too.

As the first national commercial campaign to solely feature the No. 9 Chevrolet driver for Mountain Dew rolls out during tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Elliott is hoping he can channel the comfort that Earnhardt developed in front of the camera during more than two decades as a high-profile endorser and spokesman who was voted Most Popular Driver from 2003-17.

“I think that’s one thing that Dale has gotten really good at it is his acting in commercials,” Elliott said Friday during the taping of a NASCAR on NBC Podcast that will air next week. “He has done a really good job of just going into those situations and just not caring as much.

“That’s how you have to be. If you go in there, and you’re really timid, it’s going to show on camera, and I’m certainly not to the level that he’s at. I’m not an actor. Acting is not my favorite thing to do by any means. I think it’s something I certainly would love to get better at, shooting these 30-second, 60-second commercials can help.”

Though Elliott is the only driver in the new spot, he has no speaking lines, which is probably how he prefers it because he hasn’t translated his low-key personality into carrying a scene.

“The best thing they can do is not have me act a whole lot,” Elliott, 22, said with a laugh. “So maybe one day I’ll get better at it. For now, that’s what it’s going to have to be.

“I really didn’t have to do a whole lot of acting in this spot, which is great. Those are the kind that typically turn out the best when you don’t have to put on a fake face or whatever to do it. From my end, it’s very laid back, and I think people will see that.”

Though his personality also can be reserved and introspective, Earnhardt has grown at ease with comedic delivery and seeming natural in off-kilter situations.

“He’s done such a good job with that, it’s been fun to watch,” said Elliott, who worked with Earnhardt in a few commercials while driving for JR Motorsports from 2014-15. “Luckily, I’ve had a chance to do a couple of productions with him and kind of see how he goes about it, and I think there’s something to be learned there.”

The main takeaway is that being true to one’s self is the easiest way to come across well because “if you go into those situations being uncomfortable, it’s not going to look good on camera,” Elliott said.

In the second half of his Cup career before joining NBC Sports Group as an analyst, Earnhardt took ownership of his likeness and became more assertive and selective as a brand endorser.

With an election as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver seeming a virtual lock starting this season, Elliott also would like to “have a little more say-so” in how his popularity is leveraged by sponsors in the future.

“Hopefully and that’s something you can earn over time, but you can’t come in demanding, ‘Hey, I’m doing this, I’m not doing this,’” Elliott said. “You have to be respectful of that and understand what they want vs. what I want and try to balance the two out.

“Yeah, I think our partners have been receptive and listened, and they see the person that I am, and I’m not a real loud individual in general. So I think they see that. That does make it difficult to do commercials and things, just because it’s hard to express that on camera. We’ve kind of found ways to do that.”

During the rest of the podcast, Elliott also discussed:

–The wisdom of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart and the varying styles of sports leadership;

–The email with tips for racing Road America that he sent his father, Bill, as he prepares for his first NASCAR race in six years next weekend;

–The importance of finding another gear with the No. 9 when the playoffs begin next month.

The episode will be available Wednesday wherever you download podcasts.