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An explosive sport, live from Concord on ESPN

Drivers compete in a Funny Car qualifying race at zMax Dragway in Concord in 2013. ESPN launches its first of three live eliminations this year with the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals on Sunday.
Drivers compete in a Funny Car qualifying race at zMax Dragway in Concord in 2013. ESPN launches its first of three live eliminations this year with the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals on Sunday. 2013 CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

If you’re a sports producer, you probably don’t want the opportunity Stephen Reintjes has this Sunday.

Reintjes gets to figure out how to produce live coverage of a sport that doesn’t lend itself to real-time broadcasting as ESPN launches its first of five live eliminations this year with the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord.

Nothing on the circuit is quite like the adventures at zMAX, where four cars roar down the track together rather than the normal two racing side-by-side.

“It’s the ultimate sensory experience,” says Reintjes, who is based at ESPN’s Charlotte hub. “No one understands how powerful these cars are until you see it in person.”

Four drag racers together pack about 40,000 horsepower. Putting that in perspective: “If you were to combine the entire Daytona 500 field, you probably wouldn’t have 40,000 horsepower,” Reintjes says.

So it’s a spectacle, but a challenge to televise.

Long lags in the action are not uncommon, as the cars can undergo a full rebuild between races, with engine swap-outs taking an hour or more. And because they depend upon friction for power, they do not run when nature wets the strip. That’s why drag racing is usually packaged and shown after races are finished.

Reintjes, who has been with ESPN for 15 years and came as a producer to its Charlotte outpost in 2006, says his team will be working on stories before the 2 p.m. Sunday air time for the three-hour show. Pit reporters Gary Gerould, Bruno Massel and John Kernan join host Dave Rieff and analyst Mike Dunn, who is a former Top Fuel and Funny Car driver with 22 career NHRA victories and 14 years on the circuit for ESPN.

By midday, Reintjes plans to go live when the action demands it and rely on his team and packaged reports between races. Switching between taped segments and live ones and making it look seamless is where the challenge lies.

Reintjes, 40, grew up in San Diego and in the late 1990s played minor league baseball, as an outfielder and first baseman, after getting a communications degree from Baylor University. He was passionate about sports broadcasting and got to know some ESPN people while playing in Waterbury, Conn., near ESPN’s headquarters.

After his team lost the 2000 league playoffs in Elmira, N.Y., he walked into ESPN at 9 a.m. the next morning for a job interview. He got hired as a production assistant for major league baseball telecasts and moved up through the ranks. For the last four years, Reintjes has been producing college football, including the Belk Bowls, for ESPN.

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Twitter: @WashburnChObs.

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