Going into another race weekend, rain is in the forecast. It threatens to affect the on-track activities. When rain delays NASCAR weekends, the broadcasting partners often switch over to team and driver feature pieces. While the NASCAR broadcast partners at Fox and NBC do an admirable job covering the sport, none of their pieces come close to the in-depth coverage and access that the recent documentary, Road to Race Day was able to capture.
Filmed during the 2016 Cup Season, by Markay Media, the Durham, NC company filmed a unique behind-the-scenes look at the four teams of Hendrick Motorsports — both at the HMS facility and at a handful of the tracks on the Cup circuit from Daytona to Sonoma.
Other Documentary Credits
We sat down in the second floor offices of Markay Media with Road to Race Day director and executive producer, Cynthia Hill to discuss the project. Hill is also the founder of Markay Media. The team’s other credits include, A Chef’s Life — a PBS docu-series based in eastern North Carolina that follows Chef Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, and their farm-to-table restaurant, Chef & the Farmer.
Hill and Markay Media have multiple other award-winning and prominent documentaries including the feature-length documentary, Private Violence, that explores the notion that the most dangerous place for a woman in America is her own home.
Road to Race Day builds on the experiences of those previous experiences in documentary film production, while also exposing the crew to new themes and experiences. The common thread though is the southern experience.
Growing Up Around Racing
Hill said that while she did not grow up a race fan, racing was always around.
“My grand dad was a huge Richard Petty fan. So we’d go there every Sunday and have dinner after church and we’d have to watch the race and so I knew that world,” Hill said.
“It was always on the background,” she said.
Choosing Tracks for Road to Race Day
The Markay Media team criss-crossed the U.S. during the 2016 season, filming at multiple tracks to capture the four teams of Hendrick Motorsports. They started with the most famous NASCAR track, Daytona International Speedway, following rookie driver, Chase Elliott, successor to the No. 24 car made famous by Jeff Gordon.
Hill said starting with Daytona and Elliott made sense on several levels.
“We felt like starting with Chase and his new journey also was a good way for us to start our journey and give the audience this feeling of a beginning,” she said.
“It just all felt right for a narrative beginning to start with [the 24] team. So because we had such a good experience with them, then that trickled down to the next team to the next team so that the longer we went on in the process, the more I think they trusted us and allowed even more and more and more access.”
The Road to Race Day director said the track time was set up for success.
“By the time we get there we’ve spent the week with the team,” she said
“We have a sense of what’s happening, what’s happening with the car, what’s happening with the pit crew. Is there any member new on the team? Are they having some issues with this thing or that thing with the car? Is is it a big media event? So are we going to try to tag along with the driver, or is there something he’s doing that to me that we can that would be more interesting.”
Hill said that each track and each episode had its own unique challenges.
“Each time we were going into the beginning of the shoot schedule for that particular episode featuring that particular track, we’re trying to figure out what’s the storyline, who are the characters who are going to carry the burden of the narrative,” Hill said.
Embedding Within Hendrick Motorsports
Hill said that as their time at HMS continued, the access they were given grew. By the end, the Markay Media film crew were given their own keycard to the Concord, NC-based HMS facility.
“I think it was because they ended up trusting us,” Hill said.
“They realized that we weren’t really in the way. Our presence was known. I won’t say that we were invisible, but I think that they realized that we weren’t invasive I guess is probably the best way to describe it. We’re not sitting there going, ‘Hey what’s going on here? What’s going on there?’ You’re asking them a lot of their time. We tried to just be there and capture things that are happening in the moment, so we don’t have to ask them for their time.”
Chad Knaus an the 48 Team
Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson of the 48 team are a renowned duo — both can be intense and in 2016, they had another championship in their sites. Hill said prior to working with and filming Knaus, their crew had been warned not to piss him off and risk getted kicked out.
Hill said for the 48 team, they settled on starting with the Charlotte All-Star race, thinking that going into the relationship there would be a good way to ease into the championship-focused 48 team and its crew chief.
“I was scared,” Hill said.
“When we first got in there, I was scared to mic him. He’s wearing his mic visibly on the back of his pants and I’m afraid to ask him to move it. I’m scared, which is not typically me — usually I’m bulldozing in.”
By the end of the time Hill said she thought the 48 Crew Chief and her created an interesting bond.
“I think we’re very similar,” she said.
“We’re both very focused and kind of hard on our teams in the sense that we want perfection. And so we saw that in each other. And then I think we gained a lot of mutual respect.”
She said there was a moment though when she new Knaus and her would be just fine.
“We’re sitting there filming in the [48 hauler], and he’s talking about some sort of engineering thing with one of his engineers, and I’ve got the boom pole over his head.” she said.
“He’s talking, talking, talking serious. He stops and looks up and plucks a single hair off the boom pole. Then keeps talking, talking, talking. I just burst out laughing because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was like that is so funny. He smiles, and knew we were going to be fine.”
Hill and crew captured on film several moments where Knaus focused on minute details around the shop — a smudge on the floor or on a door. Hill insisted that documenting human beings means keeping things like that in the final product.
“That’s the thing that I like to do with projects — especially like this one,” the director said.
“It’s about the people. It’s about their character,” she said.
Throughout the interview, it was obvious that while filming a documentary and running a motorsports team are very different, there are also a lot the two share in common. The largest parallel is the need for teams. While both HMS and Markay have individuals that stand out and get the spotlight, both rely on everyone doing their jobs, and doing those jobs well.
“The mesh of our team with their teams and how we saw a story about race teams coming together was very much aligned,” Hill said.
Hill said for her it was definitely all about the entire team’s collaboration.
“I’m the one that gets interviewed,” she said.
“I’m the one that has the director credit. But I can’t do any of this stuff by myself. I’ve got an amazing team with Rex [Miller] and Josh [Woll] to work with me on the Chef’s [Life] side.”
Hill said they were the ones scrambling across the race track infields, finding the stories.
“They were out there capturing those images and Mark [Barroso] and Blaire [Johnson] were out there in the field capturing those storylines. I couldn’t I couldn’t begin to even comprehend what was out there in this story lines and I just had to trust them and that was kind of a for me just kind of letting go and letting that happen.”
She also said her editor turned producer, David Mayer ended up being her right-hand and left-hand with assisting with the story and narrative.
“You try to decompress what happened and how how did we make sense of all that out in the field,” Hill said.
She said in the end they basically made eight cinema vérité films over the months of filming. Their editor, Tom Vickers started doing the editing all by himself, and they ended up bringing in more editors to assist. But Vickers finished every episode, Hill said.
“Tom Vickers is a machine. No lie,” she said.
The Road to Race Day director said she was immensely proud of the team and what they were able to accomplish in such a short period of time and still come out with quality storytelling.
Where to Watch
The documentary’s rights were bought by Hearst Meadia’s Complex Networks/Rated Red and can be watched online at Go90 or via Go90’s app. The online network broke the documentary up into 24 bite-sized episodes — perfect for binge watching episode after episode. Check out the NASCAR-themed documentary and leave your comments below on both the documentary and our interview with directory Cynthia Hill.
Hill gave us so many stories and so much content, that’s it’s just too much for a single story. Stay turned for a few more companion pieces about Road to Race Day and more about filming Hendrick Motorsports, including the stories of what’s unique about Junior’s hauler, and being in the right place at the right time to document Jeff Gordon returning to HMS to drive the No. 88.