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December 22, 2014

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NASCAR in Las Vegas: A day in the life of an ESPN pit reporter

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Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Sun editorial cartoonist Mike Smith hangs out in the pits with ESPN’s Jamie Little and her team during the Sam’s Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday. Smith followed the pit reporter as she covered the race, interviewed drivers and crews and kept track of action on the track.

Mike Smith with ESPN’s Jamie Little

Las Vegas Sun political cartoonist Mike Smith hangs out in the pits with ESPN's Jamie Little and her team during the Sam's Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Saturday, March 5, 2011. Launch slideshow »

2011 Sam's Town 300

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (6) and Mark Martin (32) race during the Sam's Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Saturday, March 5, 2011. STEVE MARCUS / LAS VEGAS SUN Launch slideshow »

Danica Patrick Takes Fourth

Danica Patrick waves during driver introductions at the Sam's Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Saturday, March 5, 2011. Patrick finished fourth becoming the highest-finishing woman ever in a national series race and the first to post a top-five finish in a Nationwide Series event. Launch slideshow »

The Racing Busch Brothers of Las Vegas

Mike Smith presents a brief history of the Busch brothers in anticipation of the 2011 NASCAR weekend.

Sam's Town 300

KSNV coverage of Sam's Town 300, March 5, 2011.

NASCAR traffic

KSNV coverage of NASCAR Weekend traffic, March 5, 2011.

I’ve sometimes thought that if my editorial cartooning gig didn’t work out, I could maybe try a new career as NASCAR pit reporter.

NOT!

What put a damper on my fantasy career? Well, spending a day in the pits with a professional pit reporter quickly brought me into reality.

ESPN invited me to spend Saturday’s Nationwide Series race with pit reporter Jamie Little. And it didn’t take long for me to realize how immensely difficult it is to cover a race from the pits.

People who are good at what they do often make their jobs seem easy to those of us who observe them. And Little, who grew up in Las Vegas, is the type of person who makes her work seem effortless. But trust me, it’s anything but easy.

Not only is it difficult to keep up with the action on the track, but you have to be talented, knowledgeable about the sport and in near Olympic physical condition to run up and down the pit road for three hours. I was told by ESPN to bring a good pair of running shoes for this assignment. I should have brought roller skates.

One of the reasons Little is good at her job is her interest in racing, both as a fan and as a competitor. She had her first experience with racing as 13-year-old riding dirt bikes. She became an avid follower of Supercross dirt-bike racing, and it fueled her desire to pursue a career that involved motor sports.

By 20, Little had her first experience in broadcasting by contributing to the coverage of rock crawling for ESPN. By age 21 she was covering live events, and by the time she turned 24, she was covering the X Games for the ESPN. Her tenacity and talent led to an assignment covering the IndyCar Series in 2004, and from there she went on to cover NASCAR.

I’m always amazed at how journalists who cover racing are able to keep up with the constant flood of news that comes out of a racing season. I asked Little how she is able keep up with the news and how she prepares herself for covering a race.

“To cover it well, you have to live it,” Little said. She is constantly reading racing websites, talking with her sources in the sport and meeting with her ESPN colleagues to discuss the latest headlines. This mental library of knowledge is what Little relies on to sound knowledgeable and articulate during the broadcast. No one in the broadcast booth or the production truck is feeding her constant stats. What a reporter says during the race is mostly a product of his or her own knowledge.

Her day starts at the track in an office located in a trailer parked with the race teams’ haulers. Little and the other pit reporters, who wear fire suits while working the pits, prepare for the race by going over stats, reviewing assignments from the pit producer and checking any notes they have on the major headlines of the day. Frankly, I found the process a little overwhelming. I just wouldn’t have the memory to use this information properly during the pressure-filled environment of live television.

After the drivers’ pit-stall locations are determined, the pit road is broken down into four sections, and each reporter is assigned a section shortly before the race begins. Little was assigned 16 drivers, one of whom was Kyle Busch. From Busch’s pit stall, Little and her crew of four would set up their base camp. From this location, in the center of pit road, Little did much of her reporting about the pit stops. Each reporter covers a different group of drivers at each race.

But before we could get to Busch’s pit stall, Little and her crew headed to the infield grass to conduct some driver interviews. The crew members operate the camera, handle the stats from the race, operate a transmitter for Little’s broadcasts and control the Jerk Cam. This is a small television monitor mounted on a short aluminum pole that provides live race feed to Little wherever she is. It allows her to see the race in real time instead of relying on the televisions in the pit stalls that are on a five-second delay.

From this point on, things began to move even more quickly. There wasn’t much time left before the race was about to begin, but Little had to quickly ask a few drivers about what they expected from the race and how their cars had been prepared. She had barely finished her last interview when she got instructions to jump on a parade-lap truck and conduct another interview with Kevin Harvick. By this point my head was spinning as I was trying to keep up with the fast-changing events. But Little and her crew handled it with ease.

After the Harvick interview ended, we all ran down pit road to Busch’s pit stall to get prepared for the race start. As soon as we reached the stall, Little had to conduct what’s called a Pit Whip. It’s a 20-second report on what can be expected from particular drivers. This was done as the cars completed their final parade laps before the green flag dropped.

By now you would have thought that there was no way to squeeze in another interview before race starts, but that was exactly what happened. Little had to climb up the pit box, with her camera crew in tow, to do another rapid interview with Busch’s crew chief.

As she conducted her interview, a producer told her, though her earpiece, which pit reporter will be speaking next. Little then worked that reporter’s name into the end of her interview. This required a lot of quick thinking on Little’s part as she moved from location to location, conducted interviews, reviewed notes and received instructions in her headset.

By this point, I wasn’t sure what was moving faster, the cars on the track or Little and her crew. But little did I know things were about to move even faster.

After running to another pit stall for a report on a car that had hit the wall, it came to Little’s attention that Drag Racing Champion John Force was in the pit area and that Little needed to do another quick interview. We scrambled to make our way back to Busch’s pit where Force was located. Just as the interview was about to begin, Little had to make a quick transition and report on a pit stop by Busch. The interview was put on hold again as the caution flag came out and Little had to conduct another pit report.

While all of this was unfolding, fans in the pits were wanting to have their pictures taken with Little and were asking Force for autographs.

Later in the race, Busch spun in the infield grass and hit the inside wall. As his car limped to the garage area, Little began a mad dash to the garage to get some quotes from Busch about the accident. As she waited for Busch to exit his hauler, she watched the TV feed on the Jerk Cam and collected her thoughts for the Busch interview. But before the interview could begin, word came from a producer that the broadcast would switch to the announcers in the booth. But Little made a decision to conduct the Busch interview anyway, and the boys in the booth had to wait.

With Busch out of the race, Little headed to the pit stall of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but when Brad Keselowski spun with only a handful of laps remaining, Little and Co. had to start positioning themselves for the post-race interviews. So there was another mad dash to the entrance of pit road. As we were running, word came through the headsets to locate Danica Patrick and get some comments from her regarding her fourth-place finish. Patrick, who Little has known from her days covering open-wheel racing, finished in the highest position ever for a female NASCAR driver.

Broadcasting a race is like conducting a symphony. There are many people working together to produce something that’s seamless and looks effortless. And none of this would work without top top-notch reporters such as Little.

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