Imagine an expanse of asphalt over a mile long and half a mile wide, filled with 40 race cars and thousands of fans jostling for positions to see their favorite drivers.

Take car engines that sound like jet airplanes and the sweltering heat of a summer day, then add heavy camera gear, a small documentary crew (that knows nothing about NASCAR)… and then stir. What could possibly go wrong?

Welcome to the backdrop for Road to Race Day, an eight-episode insider look at the world of NASCAR, where we followed four Hendrick Motorsports teams through half of the 2016 race season.

Tackling the races proved to be one of the biggest challenges in shooting this series. The race tracks were enormous. Our crew was not. Basically, six people gathered all the footage (with the exception of the footage licensed from NASCAR). There were four of us on camera and two on audio. What we lacked in personnel, we made up for in determination and productivity. Rex Miller and Josh Woll, two exceptionally talented DPs on the project, almost always had two cameras running each. Josh managed the GoPros, and Rex set up the time-lapses. So while each of them shot on their Easyrigs with their Sony FS7s, somewhere nearby always lurked a time-lapse and GoPro.

Cinematographer Josh Woll shooting Road to Race Day

During race day shoots, a few places lacked enough room for a cameraperson (i.e. on top of the pit box where the crew chief sits). There were also places where we could not get to because we were filming somewhere else on the track (at some racetracks, the tractor trailer that serves as the racing team’s mobile office was half a mile away). For these, Josh would sneak in and place GoPros. Meanwhile, Rex talked his way onto any tall structure he could find (equipped with his Easyrig) and placed a time-lapse. This strategy meant that on most days, Josh and Rex produced way more hours of footage than they actually spent in the field.  

We also knew early in the process that we wanted to capture the fans and their point of view of the races. So we strategically placed our second crewaudio, field producer Mark Barroso and camerawoman Blaire Johnson—on fan duty. They would wade through campgrounds in search of storylines that would enhance, and sometimes complicate, the foreground narrative of the race team. In one instance, they found the perfect “fan” for NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson’s second episode. They stumbled on a cute kid who disliked Jimmie and had nicknamed him “Jimmie Johnson Stinker Pants” because he won so much. Our immediate reaction was, “You can’t build an episode on a kid just because he tells a funny joke.” But Mark and Blaire’s instincts were right: This kid was the perfect foil, and he ended up narrating most of the race. There’s a lesson there: Trust your team.

Road to Race Day cinematographer Rex Miller

If the sheer size of the tracks wasn’t enough of a challenge, the noise certainly was. When the engines of the cars revved up, it was impossible to hear. Hand signals and headsets became commonplace as we all settled in for the three relentless hours of NASCAR racing. Cynthia had five people mic’d at any given time, and she boomed everything. If we ever doubted where we were supposed to be, we only had to follow a line of sight of the boom pole.

Following the storylines became a labyrinthine nightmare. There were multiple storylines unfolding simultaneously, which kept Cynthia listening all the time for key conversations that would help build on existing stories. By the end of production on the series, it had become so complicated that we had actually devised a way for David to listen in on all audio channels with a headset so he could follow and respond to storylines unfolding in the field. Lap after lap, the roar of engines lulled us into an almost hypnotic state, but our crew kept the cameras rolling. Our motto: Keep shooting, figure it out later.

Director Cynthia Hill’s previous credits include the award-winning A Chef’s Life and Private Violence

We knew we were not creating a post-race recap show, so we did not prioritize filming the action on the track itself. (It would have been almost impossible to cover the race track with our tiny crew.) Fortunately, we had a great working relationship with the folks at NASCAR Productions, whose television crews do an amazing job of capturing the race. They allowed us to license their footage, which freed us up to focus on our characters and storylines. We spent the races around the pit boxes where members of the race teams were positioned during the race. In this way, the race became less about the sporting event and more about the people. We knew that’s what would make this series appealing to a larger audience beyond the built-in fanbase.

Which segues nicely into the question of editing: How the hell did we do it?

A small shrine should be built in honor of our series editor, Tom Vickers. But first, let’s talk about Eli. Organizing the races was a huge undertaking, a job left entirely to lead assistant editor Eli Van Noppen. In addition to the two mixers (each with six to eight audio tracks) rolling throughout the race, there was spotter audio (recording the headset dialogue between driver, crew chief and the spotter), the announcers’ feed from the broadcast and each camera’s audio. So at any given time, we managed upward of 20 audio tracks. When this is played back in a timeline on Avid, it sounds like 40 race cars driving in circles at 200 mph blasting into your headphones; any dialogue is indecipherable. Eli’s job was first to sync all of this (we won’t go into how challenging this is when everything couldn’t be jam synced), then to comb through the race time and time again, isolating audio tracks and muting sections where no relevant dialogue existed. It was meticulous work. Each race took nearly three weeks to finish, and what was left was nothing short of a work of art: a timeline with hacked-up audio in a seemingly random fashion, but when played back in real time, an editor could simply sit back and hear the race play out from all perspectives.

Producer David Mayer on set

That’s when Tom took over. What Tom accomplished on this project is nothing short of miraculous. In the year he worked on the series, he edited four episodes by himself (think four feature, verité-style documentaries), and he co-edited the remaining four. Tom’s understanding of the rhythm and timing to draw out the complexities in the footage took each episode to the next level. On the four episodes that Tom co-edited, scenes and rough edits were first prepared by other editors and then sent to Tom, who applied his magic. This last part is a process that, to this day, we still do not completely understand. It was a marvel to watch.  

One of the biggest challenges of editing the races was managing a lot of audio that did not have synced visuals. With five or more individuals mic’d, it was impossible for our small team to film all of them at all times. This presented the edit team with a massive task: editing a race using a ton of disembodied audio clips. Because of the verité nature of our project, we did not have interviews to help give context, so making the scene work often hinged on finding that one perfect moment to drive the narrative. This is where David would come in. Being immersed in the footage, he saw the potential in weaving together the subtle interactions. He guided the editing team to soundbites and moments between characters that would tie the narrative together. David also encouraged us to embrace the unfamiliar technical jargon spoken by the race teams and to use it as an asset.  

When trying to make our race sequences distinctive, the music was crucial. The series composer, Chuck Johnson, did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating emotional resonance. We were looking for something more cinematic, as opposed to the obvious, quick cues that are often used in televised recaps. As a result, the score has a very unexpected quality and instrumentation. It suggests a different kind of emotion that’s not always relevant to what is happening on the track, but instead reflects what our characters are going through behind the scenes.  

Hill and field producer Mark Barroso on location sound duties

While filming during the 2016 season, none of the drivers we followed ever actually won, so each episode is an exploration of loss. The sense of catastrophic disappointment after a loss is intertwined with the racing team’s ability to shrug things off and gear up for the next week.

For our production team, it was a huge undertaking. Each member of the team poured themselves into the process. In the end, we filmed eight races that chewed us up and spit us out. But we learned from them. Like crew chief Chad Knaus says after losing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, “I hate losing more than I like winning. But that’s the great thing about our sport; there’s another race.” That’s the great thing about production too: There always another shoot. MM

Road to Race Day premiered July 19, 2017 on Complex Networks. Top image: Blaire Johnson on camera.