I had never had any doubts that it would be anything other than an amazing experience, but it went even beyond what I expected –around every corner appeared another pleasant surprise. First was news on the studio guests; Tomas Scheckter and Andy Brown.
I had actually met Tomas previously, around 1999/2000 during my time as a marshal at my then-local track Oulton Park when he was competing in Formula 3. While I didn’t expect him to recall our previous encounter – which consisted of an approximately minute-long chat probably about the weather or his chances in the race that day – I had an idea of what to expect as I knew what a nice guy he was.
The approving nods and thumbs-up during and the comments made subsequently by other fans on that day (and that it was picked up by the TV cameras) showed how strongly he is still regarded by IndyCar fans. The chance to spend time in the company of someone who worked alongside him for so long was a real treat.
Upon arrival, and signing in and receiving the relevant visitor’s passes, the Security guard raised an eyebrow and said “There should be six of you”. Unless I had misread the terms of the auction rather badly, something was awry. As it transpired it was the other studio guests; Tomas Scheckter, Andy Brown and, to my surprise, Holly Wheldon and guest.
As it transpired, she had accepted a long-standing invitation from Keith to visit the studio for a race, which was offered during Keith’s visit to the Wheldon’s home in the build-up to the Indy 500 coverage.
While it would be a huge honour to meet Holly, I was also quite anxious about what I might say. Although I wanted to convey that I was a huge fan of her brother, I was also mindful that there would be some painful memories evoked by the final round of the season and that my glowing recollection of her brother’s successes may open some relatively fresh wounds.
There wasn’t long to dwell on that, however, as we were soon led through the huge complex, passing the Sky Sports F1 facility along the way to the main building. Upon navigating the revolving door, you are immediately greeted by the sight of a Force India F1 car in the reception area. As we were extremely early (I wasn’t risking being late!), we were led to the canteen area (although if that is a canteen, we need a new name for some of the canteens I’d been in in the past, as even that had an element of grandeur about it) where we waited and had a picture with the huge mural-like Sky logo that adorned the canteen wall.
The Sky complex is an incredible facility, home to eight studios, including five HD studios, forty-five edit suites, fourteen voice-over suites and four audio suites. The main building is state-of-the-art and houses content production, platform control and transmission services for all of Sky’s sport and Sky Sports News content. To give you an idea of the size, the building consists of five floors, each roughly the size of a football pitch, and is home to a staggering 1,300 members of staff.
Sky began broadcasting there in July 2011, expanding the portfolio of broadcasts from there ever since, but unlike my usual perception of a big corporation building such a facility, the thought that had gone into its inception from a sustainability point-of-view is astonishing. An integrated wind turbine provides 90% of the energy to power lighting throughout the building, while an on-site Combined Cooling and Heating Power plant supplies 20% of the energy needed for the building’s electricity and heating systems, to name just two of the innovations that led to it being named ‘Sustainable Project of the Year’ at the 2010 Sustainability Awards.
Shortly afterwards, we were joined by Holly and her friend Tim. After introducing each other, we got to talking about the various tracks she had been to this year and how she found them, while I added my experience at Iowa, before discussing who we thought might win the Championship.
Keith returned to lead us all back down towards the studios to give us the tour. We popped into the make-up room, where we first met Andy, and once a few good-natured jokes were exchanged regarding how long it might take to make him look presentable, we continued to the studios. First we were led to the Sky Sports News studio, as it was approaching midnight this was one of the few studios still occupied at this time, and watched Jim White in full flow from the background as he rounded-up the days football results.
Following this, we were led to the gallery and introduced to the rest of the Sky IndyCar team. As my knowledge of TV production is very limited and given that the room looked rather small, I was expecting a fairly small team of personnel. I’m not sure how it compares, but it was bigger than I expected, there being a team of around 12 people in the gallery with duties ranging from sound to graphics and some focussed on the American ‘feed’ (the live coverage direct from across the pond) and some on the studio in London. It was a mix of fascinating and overwhelming – not quite knowing where to look, with the array of monitors and buttons.
Once that was done, it was down to the serious business. A quick run-through of the intro, before Tomas and Andy took their seats and were wired for sound and the rest of us took our seats at the back of the studio. Before we knew it, Cliff was announcing “20 seconds to air” and a near-eerie silence swept across the studio, before Keith launched into his intro for real.
As expected, the on-camera coverage was flawless, as it usually is. As a viewer at home, they make it look easy. Having witnessed it first hand, I can assure you that is only down to the fact Keith and co make it look that way. Cliff would regularly sit near us as he marshalled the studio and we could hear from his radio the constant dialogue that was filling Keith’s ears from the gallery. The gallery are also kept on their toes, often ‘turning around’ segments and interviews literally within seconds of them having been shown in the US TV build-up.
This was particularly prevalent during a pre-race feature with Marty Sneider interviewing Championship contender Will Power. After they discussed Will’s toils in previous season finales, talk moved to the previous year and Las Vegas. This must have been difficult for Holly, but I suspect all of us were a little nervous when Will spoke about Holly in the interview. Thankfully it was all positive, him discussing a meeting between the two of them in the early season and his reaction to Dan’s crash.
Once the green flag dropped, the studio was quite relaxed as we all began to become glued to the coverage. As the in-race commercial breaks in the States are often covered by the team in the studio in sound only, the team could afford to be a bit more relaxed. However, rather than putting their feet up or undoing their belts to get comfortable, instead they were bringing out laptops with live timings and other race-related information. Every few laps they would discuss who was quickest or who was falling away and the various implications this would have for pit strategies.
Not only do twists in the race like that mean drama and excitement on the track, it also has a similar impact in the studio as incidents mean yellow flags and yellow flags mean ad breaks that the guys in the studio need to fill. As a viewer at home, it always comes across as seamless and well-planned, but again, having been in the studio as it happens, it shows how good they are at it – especially under pressure. Not only is the autocue dormant in the corner of the studio, but often the decision of whether to cover the break in the studio or go to adverts themselves is made at very short notice. At one point Keith and the team were given 20 seconds notice to cover a break – I very much doubt anyone watching at home would have had the slightest inclination.
Luckily, the race maintained its level of excitement throughout, however, due to the red flag and IndyCar’s traditional ‘why take 10 minutes when you can take 45’ approach to the post-race ceremonies, it meant that the Sky team were running very close to the scheduled end time of their broadcast.
The non-professionals such as myself had simply assumed‘it’s 05:30 in the morning, who will notice if it runs over?’, but of course that would have ramifications for the programmes that followed, which would have a domino-effect to those on at peak hours. The show was concluded somewhat hastily and it was only then it began to dawn on me that I had been sitting there for 5 hours!
Keith concluded his on-camera duties with the recording of the intro and closing to the highlights show which was to be aired on Sunday afternoon before a final trip to the gallery where everyone was thanked for a job well done, before we all began to disperse. We thanked Keith for what was truly one of the best experiences of my life (although, I shouldn’t say that as if it ever comes up again I may be encouraging rival bidders!) and were escorted back to the security point.
Keith had provided each of us with a running order of the show signed by all three of the team and Dave had given us a Sky Sports HD-branded bag with an array of Sky Sports HD goodies, and the nice surprises didn’t end
there. Not only did we bump into Chris Kamara in the lobby as he arrived for ‘Goals on Sunday’, but as we waited for a taxi we were given a DVD of the show.
From start-to-finish this was an incredible night on and off the track and I’m very grateful to Keith for having given me the opportunity. The fact that I was able to contribute to Riders for Health in the process is fantastic also – Keith was extremely passionate about the great work being done – and long may it continue!
Twitter Links - Dan Brown / Keith Huewen / Holly Wheldon / Tomas Scheckter / SkyIndyCar
Riders for Health manages and maintains the vehicles used in the delivery of health care and other vital services to rural communities in Africa. We manage them on a planned, preventive basis so that the vehicles do not break down however difficult the conditionsRiders, therefore, manages and maintains vehicles used in the delivery of health care and other vital services to rural communities. With proper maintenance, motorcycles, ambulances and outreach trekking vehicles can last for at least five years, covering a distance of 150,000 miles, and reaching 10.5 million people.
"It became clear in the early 80s that something had to be done to keep 'the wheels turning' on outreach efforts in Africa. I was made aware of the complexities and scale of the problem when I was racing in Grand Prix, and my friends and co founders of RfH invited me to join the board. The prospect of helping one of the most cost effective and efficient charity organisations achieve goals that make a real difference to millions of people is as exciting today as it was in the begining" Keith Huewen, Sky Sports Presenter & Riders for Health Board Member
More details from - http://www.riders.org/ & on Twitter