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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Sam Flood

Leigh Diffey

Townsend Bell

Paul Tracy

Marty Snider

Kelli Stavast

MODERATOR: “Thank you for joining our NBC Sports INDYCAR conference call as we look ahead to Saturday night’s 2020 NTT INDYCAR Series season opener at Texas Motor Speedway in primetime on NBC. The Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway is going to mark the first ever INDYCAR race to air live in primetime on the big network, NBC. In just a moment we’re going to be joined by our INDYCAR broadcast team of Leigh Diffey and analysts and former INDYCAR drivers Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. We’ll also be joined by our veteran reporters Marty Snider and Kelli Stavast who are going to be handling coverage in the pits this weekend.

We’ll begin the call with remarks from each member of the broadcast team as we look ahead to Saturday night on NBC and then we’ll open the call up to questions from the media.”

SAM FLOOD: “It’s obviously a unique time in the history of our country between COVID-19, the world being shut down and everyone sheltering in place and staying away from each other with social distancing, to the protests that have consumed our cities and a lot of our country right now for obvious reasons. It’s been an impactful time with a lot of people thinking about a lot of things in our society and where we are. So a race on a track is a different agenda and a different place to go in the midst of all that is happening right now, and the importance in our society of solving some major issues. This race will be a unique opportunity for our group to tell stories coming in the midst of COVID-19 and the protests and all that the country is facing.

The event started just dealing with COVID-19 and what we’re going to do differently and how the group originally was going to be calling the race from Stamford, Connecticut, and then the regulations changed in Texas where it’s allowed -- Leigh Diffey, who lives in the Tri-State area and Townsend Bell, who lives in California, both of whom would have to quarantine for 14 days if they went to Texas, until the rules changed. PT (Paul Tracy) is in Arizona so he’s got a little more flexibility, and Kelli and Marty Snider were not in parts of the country that were being isolated.

Just to begin with, looking at an event, to treat it differently, to do it differently, and we’re lucky that Mark Miles and the group at INDYCAR have been so strong under Roger Penske’s leadership to get the sport back up and running, and we look forward to the opportunity of covering the race, mindful of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and following the proper rules under the COVID-19 restrictions.

With that, I’ll send it over to the guy who’s got to lead this telecast for us, Leigh Diffey.”

LEIGH DIFFEY: “Thanks. Hello, good afternoon, everybody. I’d like to follow Sam’s comments by just saying I never thought I would be this excited to go to a race. Obviously we had the six-week INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, the virtual series, but to have this prolonged break and now for it to be a reality that we will broadcast the live INDYCAR race and to top it all off have it on primetime in NBC is a bonus. Everybody from outside of the fence, from the sport side of the fence, everybody is ready to get racing going again, and obviously we’ve been treated to NASCAR’s early rounds and Supercross last weekend, Supercross again tonight, so that’s kind of ignited things, but I think this is a wonderful opportunity for INDYCAR to shine, no pun intended, under the lights on primetime.

We’ve got an exciting season ahead. There’s some new drivers. There’s been some mix-ups within teams. There’s a lot to look forward to both with rookies and veterans, the new aeroscreen, and there’s a lot to get our teeth into. Yeah, it’s different circumstances, we’re all going to be in positions where we are socially and responsibly distanced, and it will be a different feeling, so to speak, but I think for the group who are on this call to remember, is that doing it in this semi-remote way with another group back at the NBC Sports headquarters back in Stamford, that’s nothing new for us because remember we how did Formula 1 for five years, when we would be in Monaco or Canada or what it might be, French Open, a variety of sports, the Olympics are done in part that way. So, while it is a leap in a different direction as far as the way we cover INDYCAR, it really isn’t for the NBC Sports family.

Couldn’t be more excited. Really ready for Saturday night, and really good to get the family back together.”

TOWNSEND BELL: “Thanks, Leigh. It’s going to be great to be back, as Leigh said, in Texas, but I think we have to remember as much as we are going with newfound freedom for everybody in terms of getting out and about, traveling again, we’re also going to see the furious speed that INDYCAR demonstrates on probably one of its most exciting tracks, at Texas, on a Saturday night. Sparks will literally fly, and we’re talking about drivers and teams and, in this case, broadcasters that haven’t seen that kind of intensity since the season ended at Laguna Seca last September. That coupled with the brand new aeroscreen and seeing how that plays out for the first time at night on an oval, that was never the original expectation as we were going to start the season in St. Pete on a street circuit in the daytime.

To me, it’s just incredibly exciting to get to the track, see the action, and see the pure speed and intensity of INDYCAR back up at full song. Really looking forward to getting out there and seeing it all play out.”

PAUL TRACY: “Yeah, super excited to finally get back to racing. From a driving perspective, this is going to be a huge challenge. These guys have been out of the car for a long period of time in terms of racing. They’ve only had a couple of tests through the off-season, so literally months out of the car. It’s going to provide a tremendous challenge for the teams, the drivers, not only from a mechanical standpoint of not being up and going. First race at Texas is extremely tough, even when we’re coming into the middle part of the season like you would regularly. This is going to be the first race right out of the box. The nervousness is going to be high. The jitters are going to be up. Drivers are going to want to finish well.

From a driving standpoint, I feel that this is a race where you’ve got to come out of this race and survive and get points because with the condensed schedule that we have, if you get off on the wrong foot starting off this weekend, you’re going to be in a massive hole in terms of the championship to climb out of.

And again, these guys haven’t raced. It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be slippery. The G-forces are going to be high. The inside cockpit temperatures are going to be high with the wind screen. It’s really going to test these guys’ fitness and their endurance over the course of this race.”

MARTY SNIDER: “Well, I’m very excited to get to the racetrack. I think INDYCAR and our health and safety group at NBC Sports have done a phenomenal job of setting forth some standards and some guidelines to properly do this, to properly socially distance. Talking to a few strategists and engineers, there’s a plan for how things are going to go. I think it’s going to be different for Kelli and I on pit road in terms of how we can operate. We’re not going to be able to normally -- like we’d usually go into transporters and just talk to drivers, we aren’t going to be able to do that. I think even the way teams are handling it is going to be different. Strategy meetings are now going to be done over Zoom for most teams versus in person. Just the nuances of the weekend are going to be a little bit different.

I think from a racing standpoint, Texas is always an action-packed race. It is one of the best races of the year. That’s what has me excited and fired up. You have the element of the rookies who are going to be jumping in. Their first race at Texas is just insane to think about. And even the veterans, and they haven’t been in the car, to Paul’s point, in eight months, and it’s just going to be unbelievable this weekend, and when it’s 96 (degrees) during the day at Texas, the track is going to be slick, and with the tire situation where there’s going to be shorter stints, you’re going to have more cars on the lead lap the entire race. I think it’s going to be an outstanding race to watch on NBC on Saturday night.”

KELLI STAVAST: “Just to echo the guys, obviously the excitement there, having been away from it so long, I’m eager to get back with my colleagues because these are some of my close friends and people I spend so many weeks with throughout the year. So, to have this break felt refreshing at first, but then I was as eager as anyone to get back to the action.

I feel like, we talk about the drivers being out of the car, well, I feel like I have some rust to probably knock off myself. It’s been -- I think my last live sports event I called was skiing back in February. It’s been a full calendar year since I actually covered an INDYCAR race. Obviously I’ve had 20 NASCAR races plus between now and then, but just getting back into the rhythm of being at the track, and it’s not even a rhythm that we’re used to, as Marty pointed out. We’re going to have to find new ways to communicate.

Marty and I are used to being in the thick of the action and tapping people on the shoulders and yelling into their ears to get answers and get information on the spot, and obviously to be responsible about things, we’re not going to be doing that this time around.

I’ve heard a lot of drivers this week say the word ‘unknown,’ and I think that carries through to us on our broadcast. There’s going to be a lot of kind of figuring things out as we get there and the best way to deliver the show. I have no doubt that the on-track action is going to be there and provided and full faith in everything that our NBC Sports Group is going to provide an awesome telecast to go along with it. I’m excited and I’m honored also to be a part of this group as we get back to live sporting events and live racing.”

Sam, you opened up talking about all the events that are going on in the world. I know that this is a sporting event that you’re about to broadcast, but is there a need to have a certain tone either in pre-race or before the race begins or any sort of acknowledgment or recognition of what’s going on in the world?

SAM FLOOD: “i think it has to be acknowledged for sure because it’s impacting so many lives, and starting with COVID-19, which anyone in the world knows about right now because it has been top of mind for 80-something days.

And in terms of what’s going on across our country in terms of race protests and the rightful dialogue that’s coming from that, we will appropriately react to it and make sense of it.

Leigh and I were talking before the call, we are going to get together Saturday morning and have a dialogue about where we are because this story continues to evolve. The events from two nights ago were far different in this country than the events from last night. We have to see the evolution of the story and also the evolution of the COVID-19 story and where we are when this begins, and that’s the job, and we’re fortunate to have Leigh who’s able to put things in proper perspective and words to handle a story and stories like this.”

Leigh, could you just comment on the responsibility you’ve got to handle that?

LEIGH DIFFEY: “It’s an enormous responsibility, and it’s certainly weighing heavily on me, but that’s what we’re paid to do, and when the time comes, I’ll deliver the right message on behalf of our group.

You know, for all of us on this call, we’re as disturbed as the rest of the country and alarmed as the rest of the country with what has transpired, so to Sam’s point, we will choose our words carefully and I will deliver those words in a responsible and sensitive manner, and like Sam said, it absolutely needs acknowledgment, and then when we have acknowledged and given it the attention that it deserves, then we can move on in an appropriate manner to enjoy what we enjoy, which is live sports.”

Sam, my second question for you was under social distancing and all the guidelines, what’s your booth going to look like? Is it a standard booth? Will it be a socially distanced booth? How will you go into this?

SAM FLOOD: “Well, to begin with, they don’t like each other very much, these three guys, so they try to keep apart, so it’s really the perfect trio to socially distance (laughing). They all try and stay at least six feet apart at all times, and we’re going to live up to that by keeping them more than six feet apart for the length of the telecast.”

Sam, a lot has been said about how this is INDYCAR’s first primetime network broadcast in seven years, I believe. How will you determine whether this broadcast is a success? Is it the numbers from the ratings? Is it how you feel coming off of the broadcast, no matter what the numbers might say? What’s going to be key for you in looking at this after we get past Saturday night?

SAM FLOOD: “We think of this as a success by the mere fact that we’ve made the decision to put this on NBC. That’s the success we need, that this platform merits this race and this race merits this platform.”

As you guys continue to progress and strengthen this relationship that you guys have with INDYCAR, how important do you believe this race is in building some momentum not only for the rest of the 2020 season for the series, but for years down the road and trying to increase the number of fans that tune into and are passionate about the sport in the country?

SAM FLOOD: “I think it’s a pretty difficult charge to say one race is going to determine a lot about a sport, particularly in light of all that’s going on in our country right now. It’s difficult to determine what this will mean, other than racing is back, we’re proud to have it at NBC, we’re proud to work with our friends at INDYCAR, and we’re proud that Roger Penske and his group is trusting us with this telecast at this important time.”

Leigh, obviously Sam kind of touched on it just now a little bit, but Eddie Gossage called this race one of the biggest, most important races in the sport’s history. From a broadcast perspective, from a world perspective and everything that’s kind of all-encompassing leading into Saturday night, what’s the magnitude that you feel this event presents?

LEIGH DIFFEY: “I’ve been asked similar questions in days leading up to our call here, and I would say that we’ve got a pretty energetic group, which is fairly evident from each and every broadcast, but I would like to say that we’re going to come at this broadcast with Indy 500-like energy and enthusiasm, and with that being said, that underscores how seriously we’re taking it, and like Sam said, this event merits being on NBC primetime, and that time slot on NBC works hand in hand with this race.

We know what kind of race and event Texas Motor Speedway provides, and therefore it’s a natural fit, and it’s going to be exciting.

I think, look, it’s very difficult to say as the world slowly returns to normal, when we are all confronted with what’s happening in the United States and around the rest of the world aside from COVID right now. With that being said, everybody is looking for any inkling, any step, any half a step back towards some form of ‘normalcy,’ and if we can provide that on Saturday night, well then, I’m not going to say mission accomplished, but I’m going to say it is a step in the right direction.

That’s the magnitude of the event, or that’s the significance of the event. If we can bring people some semblance of pleasure, some form of enjoyment and some break from what is going on and a step somewhat towards normalcy, then we will have achieved our objective.”

And just a follow-up to that for the two drivers, for Townsend and Paul, a lot has been made of how the rookies are going to have a very little amount of track time to adapt. There’s going to be a lot of different things thrown at them, but I kind of look at how Colton (Herta) handled last year at Texas because he didn’t get a lot of laps at Indy, as it were, in the race, so you look at how he handled the race and he was right there in the top three battling towards the end of that thing. Do we make too much about rookies getting laps of track time at a place like Texas or do you still feel like that’s a valid argument to be made that these guys are being thrown in the deep end?

TOWNSEND BELL: “No, I think it’s a very valid point. Normally, even with restricted testing these days, your rookies would have a chance to go settle themselves in on an oval like Texas, probably get a test or two in before the season starts or even after the season would have started on the road courses. So it is a big deal, and to do it at Texas and not have the benefit as a rookie, typically all rookies would have gone through the month of May at Indianapolis, and then shown up at Texas with a pretty good binder, if you will, of information on oval racing in general, and understanding how the cockpit controls are your friend with the anti-roll bar adjustments and the weight jacker.

The pivot or the counterpoint to that is that one thing we saw with the six races on NBC Sports with iRacing is just how beneficial the simulated racing world is for those rookies to understand the unique dynamics of oval racing and the benefits, and in some cases the penalties, of not respecting the space around you.

I think in a lot of ways, it’s been a huge benefit to have that virtual iRacing taking place a few months ago, but I don’t think there’s any replacement for showing up at Texas and just understanding how bumpy and how difficult it is to get around there, especially in a pack of 20- plus INDYCARs.”

PAUL TRACY: “Yeah, I agree with Townsend on all points, which I typically don’t agree with him, but again, this is not sim racing, this is real world. Sim racing you don’t really get a feel of the bumps, the G-forces, the G-loads, the load through the steering wheel is nowhere near as high, so the physicality aspect of it is much different real life versus sim life. But that being said, if I had any words of advice to any of these drivers, all drivers, including rookies and guys like Scott Dixon, is the first 85 percent of this race you’ve got to race the racetrack, and it’s going to be changing constantly, it’s going to be rubbering up, it’s going to be hot when it starts, and it’s going to be constantly cooling down to the end of the race, and this race typically changes dramatically from when we start when it’s hot and sunny to when it finishes in the dark and the temperature has dropped about 25 degrees.

You’ve really just got to go into this and race your own race, race the racetrack and get yourself in position to be able to capitalize on having a clean, fresh car for the last 20, 30 laps.”

Sam, you’re going to have a lot of people who are going to tune into this on NBC. How do you bring INDYCAR to those folks who may not be familiar with the sport, with the rules, in order to give them a great product Saturday night?

SAM FLOOD: “We’re fortunate to have an amazing announcing team that can tell stories, make you care and engage you from the very spark of the engines at the start of the race, and Leigh Diffey can make a tiddlywinks match sound like the most important thing that’s ever happened, and this is much, much more than a tiddlywinks match. It’s a big time race on a crazy fast track and he’s got Townsend and PT (Paul Tracy) who have raced at the highest level, have won at the highest level and can take you inside those cars, and for the human side, we’ve got Kelli Stavast who is a master storyteller down there with Marty Snider in the pits talking to and bringing you inside the world of INDYCAR and communicating with these amazing athletes who risk so much going out on the track each day. It should be dynamic, should be a lot of fun, and these are the right people to tell these stories.”

With the primetime hours usually set aside to the entertainment division, how difficult is it to pry those primehours away from them in order to be able to televise -- put a sporting event on TV?

SAM FLOOD: “Well, Jon Miller had a conversation with me about this, and we thought it was worth asking the West Coast, which oversees entertainment about this probability and the lack of live sports in our country right now and the opportunity to switch over to NBC for this race, and we all agreed it was the right decision and the right opportunity to showcase a big-time event on NBC.

Marty and Kelli, what’s going to be the biggest difference for you two in how you do your jobs reporting from the pits this weekend?

MARTY SNIDER: “Well, I think the biggest thing is just where we’re able to go and how we’re able to operate. Obviously, like I mentioned earlier, we’re used to going into transporters, being able to talk to drivers face to face, so we’re having to schedule some Zoom time with drivers, and when they’re doing their own strategy meetings via Zoom, you need to probably follow the same protocol. So we’ll be doing a lot of that, but in terms of being on pit road, we are allowed in the pit stalls, so we’ll be able to do that, and then it’s up to each strategist as to how we can communicate during the race. Obviously we’ll social distance. Obviously everybody will have a mask on the entire time, so we’ll be able to approach them, it’s just a question of how they’re going to be able to hear us, how we’re going to be able to communicate, so that’s something we’re going to have to honestly feel out throughout the night Saturday night, but everyone seems to be willing to allow us in their pits as far as what I’ve been able to determine, so we’re hoping it’ll be fairly normal, but Kelli, I’m not sure if that’s going to be 100 percent the case, but everybody seems more than willing to help in any way they can because everyone is so excited to get back to the racetrack.”

KELLI STAVAST: “INDYCAR is such a great group of people, and everyone is on board, and they want this to be the best product it can be, and part of that is helping us get the information that we need to tell the stories of what’s happening. As I mentioned at the top of the call, part of the difference is just purely getting that information, how do we do it when you can’t grab someone on the shoulder and yell into their ear? You can social distance at a golf match and still talk six feet apart, but when you have a green racetrack or a hot racetrack and all the noise that goes along with it, it kind of complicates things.

We’ve come up with some different ideas. We might be holding up note cards if we need to get a yes or no answer from something, texting the people that we can text. As Marty mentioned, we’re trying to set up Zoom calls, maybe Slack channels. So it’s definitely a learning process for us in what will be the most effective way, but like you said, we’ll still have the opportunities to at least be there and see things with our own eyes, so hopefully it hasn’t changed too drastically, but I’m sure it’s going to feel different. I know even just our interviews, instead of going to the drivers as we normally would, we’re going to be kind of stationed under tents where the drivers can come to us where we have the microphone and everything set up to continue that social distance and be smart and responsible about it, so there’s definitely going to be some nuances that will be unique to this situation, but nothing we can’t overcome.”

Sam, any impact on you guys’ production strategy with no fans in the stands? Will you guys be a little tighter on the action on the track? Any impact on audio? Obviously I know it’s a different kind of event than baseball or basketball, but are you guys making any adjustments for there being no fans in the stands from a production perspective?

SAM FLOOD: “We’re not going to necessarily come out of commercial with big sweeping shots of the racetrack. Tighter is better in this case. We’ve obviously watched the NASCAR races and they’ve done a nice job at FOX covering the event and staying in tighter shots of the track and of the racing. We’ve got Sean Owens directing this race, and he learned at the foot of the greatest motorsports director of all time, Mike Wells, so he’s got a good game plan in place for how to execute this race and make it feel as big as it’s going to be, and the audio side of it, it’s pretty clear that the fans are rarely heard in a motorsports race, and in this case we’ll be okay without it. The engine noises and the drama and the sparks and the lights will add incredible visuals to this thing, so that combined with the natural sounds that come from racing, we feel confident it’ll be a great listen.”

With this being essentially one of the highest profile INDYCAR races in a long time and it being on a broadcast network, have you guys boosted any of the production levels, added anything extra that wouldn’t necessarily be part of an average NBC INDYCAR production?

SAM FLOOD: “Nothing we do is ever average. Everything we do is best in class. So we have a great system in place with all kinds of equipment ready to go, no different than another race. There obviously are some logistical changes because of the current COVID situation in terms of what we can get in place and equipment that we can move around the country, but we’ll have all the assets necessary to put on a top-notch show.”