This weekend, NBCSN’s Steve Matchett and Leigh Diffey plan to cover the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, then fly over to Pennsylvania to cover IndyCar at Pocono Raceway. How, exactly? We picked Diffey’s brain on how the television sausage is made to find out.
In case it’s not immediately obvious, commentators rarely fly across the world to cover two races in one day. In this case, the NBC pair will comment from a studio in the United States instead of going all the way to Spa thanks to F1’s world broadcast feed. Still, given all the work that goes into just one production, this makes the schedule incredibly tight.
“This is only the second time it’s happened to me in my career—doing specifically Formula One and IndyCar [in the same day],” explained Diffey. “When I used to cover sportscars, we’d do two races in one day quite often, with a Continental Tire Sports Car race and then a Grand-Am Rolex Series.”
Sportscars, though, often have those two series (CTSCC and what is now Tudor United SportsCar) running at the same venue, as part of the same weekend. This weekend, Matchett and Diffey will be pulling off a feat that could only be possible through the wonders of modern air travel.
“I think just because of the unique nature of it being Formula One and IndyCar, on the same network, on the same day—it’s pretty cool,” explained Diffey.
Matchett and Diffey are two of NBCSN’s motorsport commentators, and while they’re primarily associated with Formula One, they’re also available to commentate any number of race broadcasts. Diffey, for example, called the delightfully insane NASCAR Xfinity race at Mid-Ohio last weekend.
Diffey has gotten to call a dizzying array of races, including some of the most famous and challenging events in the world: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Bathurst 1000, the Dakar Rally, the Monaco Grand Prix, plus many MotoGP races. He’d love to call the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 someday, but those haven’t been on NBC.
“Everybody has their own individual deals with not just NBC Sports Group, but whatever the network might be,” explained Diffey. Each commentator has a brief as to what they primarily focus on, and within that brief, they do their role.
“Along the way, things can be added to your brief,” he added, explaining how his own brief has been expanded over the years to include all kinds of speed-related sports.
Diffey’s deal with NBCSN, for example, includes F1, IndyCar and the Olympics. F1 takes priority for him as that’s his primary series, but he tries to do every F1 and IndyCar race that he can. Additionally, he called anything with speed or racing for the Olympics that he could—things like bobsled, luge, and the track and field events.
His broadcast mates are chosen in much the same way. F1 broadcast mates Steve Matchett and David Hobbs both have a deal with the network to call certain races. Veteran driver Townsend Bell is often available to call IndyCar races, but sometimes has a conflict as a current driver in the United SportsCar series. Brian Till, for example, sometimes stands in for Diffey when he can’t make it to an IndyCar race.
There’s a small pool of capable commentators who have deals with NBCSN, so it’s not like they’re shorthanded. This weekend, Matchett and Diffey will be attempting the broadcast double-header with F1 and IndyCar. Joining them for F1 will be David Hobbs, and Paul Tracy will join the pair for IndyCar.
The best commentators to work with, according to Diffey, are the ones who bring a wealth of knowledge and anecdotes about the sport. One of the most recent personalities he enjoyed working with was NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett, who Diffey described as “a super human being” and “a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR knowledge and stories.”
Diffey said that his broadcast style doesn’t really change between F1 and IndyCar or whatever else he’s calling. Mostly, he has to be mindful of the technical differences between each series. IndyCar pit stops are much longer than F1’s because of refueling, for example. Terminology also varies from series to series. A good example there would be NASCAR’s preference for calling a car loose as opposed to oversteery. Knowing these nuances helps keep the broadcast on-point and easy to follow.
Diffey prefers to start his broadcast days “super early.” “I just like to take my time,” he said. “I’m always reading and writing, in terms of being prepared.” There’s no shortage of material to go through or write about before a broadcast, so he’d rather take it at his own pace: as relaxed as possible. Diffey prefers mornings where he has time to grab a cup of coffee before the morning’s production meetings.
F1 is tough in particular since there are often multiple locations in use. “Formula One mornings are pretty challenging since the mornings are so early,” explained Diffey. “I’m in the studio and not at the track.” Fortunately, he knows the routine well enough at this point that he can go in relaxed.
Believe it or not, there’s a rehearsal period for calling a live event. Diffey said that it’s primarily for the pre-race show, which is typically half an hour long for Formula One. Those shows are a bit more scripted, with set production pieces and features to go through.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an element of rehearsal for the live side, though. Television people refer to what they do before a race broadcast as a “rundown.” There’s a menu of items to walk through both for the commentators’ on-camera parts as well as in the control room and production truck. They may not be able to rehearse set lines for much of the broadcast, but they can at least ensure all their gear is working properly before going live and practice transitions between segments.
“It’s not hard and fast. It can be a relaxed session, but we kind of almost have a practice run,” explained Diffey.
The pre-race show can often be one of the most interesting parts of a broadcast. How? Sometimes it forces the broadcasters to roll with the unexpected, such as a rain delay, and manage to fill time without losing too many viewers.
“That’s where you really earn your money,” explained Diffey: when things don’t go as planned.
“When you do get thrown a curve ball, it’s kind of fun,” Diffey explained. “You’ve got to be ready for those curve balls in television, but to me, that is the beauty about live TV that makes it so much fun. Tapdancing, or you know, thinking quick on your feet—it’s a lot of fun. It’s probably the most intoxicating thing about television—live television.”
One of the first NBCSN F1 races, for example, had a rain delay which stretched the pre-race show from half an hour to a full hour. That’s wasn’t frustrating—it was a fun, challenging part of the job. Broadcasters often make plans for filling time just like they plan for anything else that might go wrong.
Diffey explained that his biggest bummer will be the lack of time to be in the IndyCar paddock this weekend. “I like to walk and talk,” explained Diffey. “I like to go down there, see the engineers and see the drivers. We have terrific relationships with all of the teams.”
Talking with drivers and engineers before a race is one way the commentary team gets many of the interesting side stories that fill out a broadcast. For Pocono, he’ll have to rely more on the drivers and the team PR people to catch him up to speed.
He also won’t be calling qualifying for IndyCar at Pocono. Instead, Paul Tracy will team up with frequent Indy Lights commentator Kevin Lee to cover that.
Diffey and Matchett will have a normal Formula One weekend, but an abridged IndyCar one. Here’s how the schedule for Sunday works out, as forwarded on from NBCSN:
4 a.m. ET – Production meeting at NBC Sports Group in Stamford
5:30 a.m. ET – F1 Rehearsal
7:30 a.m. ET – F1 Belgian Grand Prix On-Air
10:30 a.m. ET – F1 Telecast Concludes – Depart for Westchester Airport
12:30 p.m. ET – Approximate landing time in Pocono
1 p.m. ET – IndyCar Rehearsal
2 p.m. ET – IndyCar ABC Supply 500 On-Air
6 p.m. ET – Off-Air
This won’t be like Monaco, where the NBCSN team took over the lobby of their hotel to sit down and watch the Indy 500. The schedule is far too tight.
In case of a significant delay with the F1 broadcast this weekend, Diffey said that there’s a back-up plan to use talent on the ground to call the IndyCar race.
After 6:00 p.m.? Diffey plans to head back to New York, like, I don’t know, some kind of normal person with a normal person home or something.
“Hopefully, there will be a nice, cold bottle of wine on the table,” Diffey said.
It’s a rare opportunity to work on both F1 and IndyCar broadcasts in one day, though, and Diffey is looking forward to the challenge.
Photo credits: NBCSN (studio), Getty Images (F1), AP Images (IndyCar)
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