Preparing for the Unexpected

December 04, 2012

Making the difficult possible is a special talent JHE Production Group team members all possess, but it’s the culture that allows the company to exceed expectations when producing opening ceremonies for national sporting events.

Months of detailed planning coupled with a hard-working team that is always prepared for the unexpected is necessary when producing these extravaganzas. Senior Director of Events Matt Davis and Event Producer Brent Wilson work with track officials, NASCAR, television networks, local government agencies, the FAA and various vendors to make it all come together. It’s a task that begins rather simply with JHE and track officials exchanging ideas, and then grows to a magnificent race-day production.  

“It all goes back to our company slogan, ‘Your Vision, Our Passion,’” said Davis, who noted that every JHE employee takes tremendous pride in their work. “Whatever the client wants, we work with whomever we have to, to make it happen. The show is never final until it’s over.”

And once it’s completed, the evidence of the months of planning all gets removed in exactly five minutes, the amount of time JHE has to clear the grid before the command is given for the drivers to start their engines.   

A standard opening ceremony requires the event director, who runs the show from start to finish; the announcer manager, who coaches the announcer; two operations managers, who set and strike the stage before and after the show; two drivers, who are responsible for getting the stage to the location; two audio technicians, who manage all sound; and a JHE executive, who assists the event director and takes care of any day-of issues.   

To make the shows possible, the team must begin planning a year in advance to brainstorm unique feats, secure talent, and obtain flyover approval. Davis and Wilson must work with the Pentagon to receive consent to execute a flyover at the race. Once the government officials have signed off, the team then must work with local military units to secure pilots and planes. Finally, they must coordinate with the military unit and local FAA officials for flyby holding patterns and direction of travel to ensure the planes appear over the track at the exact moment “home of the brave” is sung by the anthem singer.

On-site, the JHE team is in constant communication with each other in addition to the racetrack officials, NASCAR tower and officials, flyby ground FAC and any other entities that may be involved in the show, such as military, skydivers and bands. One of the biggest challenges is often communicating with so many people at once.

“We wear two radios during each pre-race show so at times we are listening to a conversation in each ear while someone standing in front of us is talking to us as well,” says Wilson. “While all these conversations are happening, we are also trying to move the show forward.”

Each show is a unique challenge but the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the largest productions, requiring eight months of planning for two hours of execution. Fort Bragg and the Marines bring up to 5,000 people for the event, which means coordinating everything with the military bases as well as the skydivers, anthem singers, and anyone else who will participate in the production. It is also the longest invocation and national anthem package, a five-minute ceremony that includes a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps” to honor our troops.  

The weekend before Memorial Day’s Coca-Cola 600 presents a unique challenge for JHE as the Sprint All-Star Race opening ceremony is one of only two opening ceremonies to be broadcast live from start to finish. JHE’s team practices and rehearses a number of times leading up to the race to ensure the nationally televised show is produced on-time and, almost as importantly, the eight piece stage, live bands, and hundreds of fans, are off the track for the green flag. Adding in the element of live TV is always a challenge because things often happen out of JHE’s control, including drivers and dignitaries not showing up on time.

“Entertaining the fans, keeping everything on time and hitting your marks are definitely good measures of success,” Wilson said. “For a good opening ceremony, everything has to flow. The last thing you want is an uncomfortable silence. We also do some things to make the load out quicker at certain times. To us, if we’re under the radar, behind the scenes, it means everything went correctly.” 

Of course, JHE must always be ready for the unexpected. Such was the case at Daytona in July 2012.  JHE was scheduled to set up the stage for Saturday night’s Sprint Cup event on Friday evening after the Nationwide race’s conclusion. However, a multi-car wreck on the final lap required a three-hour cleanup. The 20 people needed for the JHE job were told to go home for a good night’s rest and report for duty at 8 a.m. the next day. Preparing for that night’s pre-race activities took an entire day, including hanging signage, inflatable set ups, sound checks and meetings with track officials.

“Sometimes when we get a new client they have the opinion that all we do is park a stage,” Wilson said. “They don’t realize everything else we do at a race to make it seem so seamless. When they realize how much we do and how our help makes their weekend easier, that’s when they say, “This is awesome!’”

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Matt Davis, Brent Wilson, NASCAR, opening ceremonies, flyover, Coca-Cola 600, Fort Bragg, Charlotte, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sprint All-Star Race, Daytona 500
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