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The story behind NASCAR’s new unscripted TV series ‘Race For The Championship’

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 9/1/2022 Alex Zietlow, The Charlotte Observer

NASCAR’s “most ambitious” documentary series is set to premiere this week.

“Race For The Championship,” a new unscripted series about the drivers and teams of the NASCAR Cup Series, will air on USA Network at 10 p.m. Thursday. The project gives fans get an unencumbered (and perhaps a new) look at what it’s like to be Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and other stars on and off the track. The project also opens the door for prospective fans to experience the sport’s thrills and drills, its generational rivalries and its week-to-week drama.

“When I think of gladiators,” one driver says in the documentary series’ trailer, “NASCAR drivers are in the same vein.”

So why now? And what inspired NASCAR to put this together? The Charlotte Observer’s Alex Zietlow spoke with Matt Summers, who is NASCAR’s managing director of entertainment marketing as well as an executive producer on the show, for more insight.

Here’s the interview, edited for clarity and brevity.

What to know about ‘Race For The Championship’

Zietlow:What was the most fun part about your experience producing this?

Summers:Well, I think that’s going to happen at 10 p.m. (Thursday).

Zietlow:(Laughs.) OK, so the entire endeavor has been miserable up until now, huh?

Summers:No, no, not at all. (Laughs.) It’s just that the most exciting thing is getting to see other people enjoying it, getting really close to it. And when you get to be a part of it, it’s really fulfilling. But no, it’s been a really enjoyable, roller-coaster-ride of a production schedule. And working so closely with our friends at NBC Universal, that’s given us a lot of opportunities to tell some amazing stories.

When you look at the season that NASCAR’s had, we literally couldn’t script it any better from a TV series perspective, considering all the different things that have happened. We’re just really really excited and fortunate to document this moment, this season in NASCAR history, and to really dive deep and tell the story in a meaningful way.

Zietlow:What inspired NASCAR to put on this production? Did the popularity of Formula 1’s “Drive to Survive” have anything to do with it?

Summers:Well, this isn’t the first documentary, all-access series that NASCAR has done. (The show about Austin Dillon and his family, “Austin Dillon’s Life in the Fast Lane,” debuted on USA Network earlier this year, for instance.) We’ve done a handful of them before, on different platforms. This is, by far, the most ambitious and, in some ways, most important documentary series that we’ve ever done. And doing it with our broadcast partner just makes it even more so.

But you know, we always want to be able to face our sport to new audiences as well as our core fans, and telling them the behind-the-scene stories is a really good way to do that.

Zietlow:When you say “most ambitious,” what do you mean?

Summers:So here’s the fun part: We started shooting this in January. And it premieres this Thursday. And over the next 10 weeks, the TV series “Race For The Championship” will catch up in real time to the Cup Series schedule. So the last episode will air right before our championship race, covering the race that had happened four days before, on Sunday, and it’ll be a literal cliffhanger that sets up the championship race on NBC. So that schedule, as it gets tighter and tighter and tighter from a production standpoint, is ambitious. But it just really increases the relevancy of the storytelling that we’re doing.

It starts with the Clash at the beginning of the season, but then it ends in real-time, just a few days beforehand, which is really exciting, but also a big challenge. It’s something we’re excited to do.

Zietlow:I didn’t realize that. That’s pretty awesome. Was that always the plan?

Summers:I mean, the format has changed, and creative things always can change, they’re fluid. But we have always prided ourselves at NASCAR Studios on being able to do quick-turn productions, and to get our brand’s content out pretty quickly. We always want to be as relevant as we can, in terms of what’s happening in the season.

Zietlow:What made airing this on USA Network ideal, as opposed to going on a streaming platform or another channel?

Summer:NBC and USA are the home for NASCAR throughout the summer and through the playoffs into the fall. And so it just made a lot of sense for us to be on such a massive platform on USA, but to be able to leverage the collective resources of NBC Universal across all of their platforms.

Zietlow:I don’t want to force you to give anything away, but are there any big surprises? Is there something that you learned throughout this? As someone who is intimately familiar with NASCAR, were you ever like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was a thing.”

Summers:That’s a good question. I think what we kind of all are learning is a lot more about the Next Gen car. It’s an unknown for everybody except those who work really closely with it, going into the season. And I think the success of how the Next Gen car has performed on the track and what that’s done to make the season so incredible is something really interesting to follow.

Zietlow:Who’s the best interview? Which driver?

Summers:Oh, I don’t know. That’s too hard to answer. (Laughs.) ... It’s like picking between my kids.

Zietlow: What do you want to communicate to your potential new audience in this docu-series?

Summers:I think what we want to showcase is the sport itself, right? How dynamic it is, how exciting it is, how challenging it is for the athletes who are out there driving, and how much of a team sport it is. So really the behind the scenes with the pit crew and the crew chief and all the different people it takes to get a car on the racetrack.

Then, also, we want to show the drivers off the track. And the people who support the drivers in their quote-unquote “regular lives.” I think it makes them very relatable, and accessible, and it’s really interesting to see. We have some really good guys who are in this sport. They’re good drivers, they’re good family men, and it’s really nice to see them away from their day jobs, if you will.

How to watch NASCAR documentary series ‘Race For The Championship’

When:10 p.m. Eastern

What channel?USA Network

More:Each of the 10 episodes will drop weekly on Thursdays. The final one will drop just days before the Cup Series’ championship race at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 6.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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