It won a Sports Emmy Award 20 years ago and remains one of the most popular elements of NASCAR coverage on ESPN. But few people realize that “Crew Cam” was inspired by a bit on the old David Letterman program on NBC.
Crew Cam, which gives viewers the perspective of a NASCAR pit crew member as he goes over the wall, was an idea hatched by Neil Goldberg, ESPN senior motorsports producer, during the winter prior to the 1989 NASCAR season.
Goldberg was at home watching Letterman and the program brought out “Monkey Cam,” a comedy bit in which a chimpanzee walked and climbed around the studio with a small camera on a headset. “We had talked about pit stops, and how we could get cameras closer to show what these teams do,” Goldberg said. “I started looking at it and thought if they can have a monkey carry a camera, surely we can put one on a crew guy that’s going over the wall.”
Goldberg worked with ESPN’s onboard camera vendor and Crew Cam made its debut March 5, 1989, in a race at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. Jimmy Makar, the front tire changer on Rusty Wallace’s team, carried the first Crew Cam. Wallace, now a NASCAR analyst for ESPN, won the race, and Makar provided ESPN’s viewers with an array of dramatic shots as he went about his duties. The tiny lipstick camera, mounted to his radio headset, even showed the team’s gas man falling to the ground after one of the refueling cans became stuck on a pit stop.
“It kind of launched us into a new ear of coverage,” said Goldberg. “After that, it opened the eyes in a lot of other sports. You saw a camera on a jockey, a catcher cam, cameras on hats of back judges in football.
“That’s why the technology for NASCAR has always been a breeding ground for other sports. NASCAR and the technology behind the coverage has really been the leader in the industry to opening the door to what people have tried in other sports.
“We’ve had it on every type of crew guy, we’ve had it on the NASCAR officials on pit road, the NASCAR paddle man, we’ve watched wheels come off of cars on pit stops and literally bounce over the official at the end of pit road. And we’ve had it on the NASCAR flag man,” he said. “It’s just really been a neat element that’s never gotten old.”