CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Six ESPN on-air personalities and five producers from the network’s news and information group spent three days being immersed in NASCAR this past weekend around the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
All came away from the experience with a newfound respect for the sport and those who participate in it.
It was the third year that NASCAR and ESPN worked together to bring a group of ESPN personnel to Charlotte for the weekend to expose them to the sport.
SportsCenter anchors John Buccigross, Steve Levy, David Lloyd, Chris McKendry and Sara Walsh, and SportsNation co-host Charissa Thompson, attended as did Tim McHugh, Robert Abbott, Leslie Wymer, Tricia Rongstad and John Totten, who all work in various production roles for SportsCenter and other news platforms.
Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports, production, assembled the group and coordinated the weekend with NASCAR.
Among the activities: pit crew training at nearby Hendrick Motorsports and the opportunity for the visitors to get behind the wheel of actual NASCAR stock cars and make 155 mph laps on the 1.5-mile Charlotte track with tutoring by ESPN NASCAR analyst Dale Jarrett, a former champion.
“Unbelievable experience,” said Lloyd after his 10-lap drive.
“It’s more of a thrill ride than it is a scary kind of thing. You get out there and you start to get a little bit of a feel for the track and the turns and how powerful that engine is. It was just awesome.”
Each participant also was assigned to a race team and spent race day as honorary pit crew members, observing and in some cases participating as the teams prepared for and competed in the race.
Thompson worked with the team of race winner Clint Bowyer and could be seen on the ABC broadcast as she helped push the winning car into Victory Lane.
The immersion weekend also included dinner with NASCAR on ESPN announcers Rusty Wallace, Nicole Briscoe and Ray Evernham, along with officials from NASCAR, and brunch with officials from the speedway.
“It’s just really an exceptional experience to return people back to Bristol and their show groups as educated, smart well-informed NASCAR fans, to understand the nuance and really the intricacies of the team atmosphere, crew chief, the spotter, the driver, just how they all work together,” said McHugh, who spent race day with the team of Jeff Burton.
“It will certainly benefit our coverage and really just individually the big takeaway is just that these guys are athletes and the mental focus, the physical demands — really it doesn’t come home if you’re sitting in the stands,” McHugh said. “I’ve been to races before, watched them for sure, you don’t understand just all that goes into it, so I think the immersion is a great idea and something that I think you could apply to other sports and show groups as well.”