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Vroom! Ingalls driven by NASCAR

ESPN producer has to move fast to keep up with racing show, family


by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF ESPN IMAGES - The high speed thrills of NASCAR Sprint Cup features the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Labonte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya at Daytona in February. Portland resident Jeff Ingalls sees it all up close as producer of ESPN programs and races.Being an ex-hockey player from Chicago who now lives in Portland, Jeff Ingalls doesn’t fit the profile of somebody who should be rubbing elbows with the good ol’ boys of NASCAR.

But, he does, just about every week from February to November, and he loves it.

Count Ingalls among the legions of fans of

NASCAR. Except, come race day, Ingalls has one of the best seats at the track, as a producer at ESPN.

“The appeal still is the diabolical speed,” he says. “The speed, the danger that exists — these guys and gals have serious guts to get into the car and do it every week. Every single race there’s a chance one of these drivers might not walk away from the track.

“Because of what I’ve done in the past 6 1/2 years, my appreciation has soared. One of the things we do each week (for ESPN) is show fans how hard it is to drive these cars around these tracks. The average fan thinks they floor it and turn the wheel. They’d be astounded about what it takes to make these cars go.”

It’s astounding what makes Ingalls go. The

NASCAR Sprint Cup season starts with the Daytona 500 in February and ends with the final race in mid-November. Each weekend — save for four of them off — Ingalls leaves his home in suburban Portland to travel to sites of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series events, the closest one being Sonoma, Calif., or as he puts it, “it doesn’t take Magellan to figure out that NASCAR stops are quite a ways from Portland.”

He says: “I’ve got quite the status on Delta Airlines.”

Ingalls landed in Portland, because he and his wife wanted to live here. Simple as that. His wife, Amy Coe-Ingalls, attended Aloha High School and Linfield College — a top-notch swimmer in her day — and she still has family in the area and works for Columbia Sportswear. Ingalls took one for the team, electing to make the arduous commute every week.

“I’m the only child of divorced parents,” says Ingalls, 46. So, a tight family means something to him.

As does his work, which can only be described as extensive.

He’s the producer of ESPN’s live pre-race “NASCAR Countdown” program, which airs before each event on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. Three networks — ESPN, Fox and TNT — hold NASCAR contracts; ESPN handles Nationwide Series events throughout the season, and Sprint Cup races the final 17 weeks (starting with the Brickyard 400), a time when Ingalls produces two “Countdown” shows each week and fans intently follow the Sprint Cup “Chase.”

He’s responsible for developing content for the one-hour shows, and generally oversees selection and usage of video, script writing and overall look and feel of the telecast.

He’s also a pit producer during races, which includes managing four pit reporters — if you’ve ever watched a NASCAR event, you know it’s a fast-paced, detail-oriented deal.

This year, he has added Nationwide Series races to his producing resume. Each year he also works on ESPN/ABC’s Indianapolis 500 coverage.

In short, his work consumes his weeks from February to November — 34 of 38 NASCAR weeks this year.

It can be grueling, but Ingalls says he enjoys it, the weekly storylines and drama of the high-speed drivers and their American stock cars. As he says, ESPN aims to “prepare, inform and entertain,” and NASCAR’s following certainly rivals anything played with sticks and balls in this country, whether they like the old guard of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson or new-wave drivers Danica Patrick and Travis Pastrana.

He says that each week’s NASCAR event utilizes as much personnel and equipment as the Super Bowl — 65 cameras, five or six production trucks, up to 250 people. For “NASCAR Countdown,” Ingalls works with as many as 11 on-air talent.

“It’s an unbelievable operation,” he says. ESPN won back its NASCAR contract seven years ago and “this is the biggest package we’ve had both in front of and behind the camera.”

Ingalls has always watched racing, dating back to the 1979 Daytona 500, generally regarded as the start of the rise of NASCAR popularity. Living in Chicago, he was one of the millions trapped in their homes by snow on that February day, and he tuned in as Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed and then fought on the track, joined by Allison’s brother Bobby, and Richard Petty raced to his sixth Daytona 500 win.

But racing wasn’t his passion. That was hockey, and he attended Bowling Green University and played, until a shoulder injury derailed his career. He went into broadcasting, working for CNN-SI, KCAL in Los Angeles when it held broadcast rights for all the big L.A. sports teams, a Chicago production company that “imploded” and ESPN two other times. He’s been back with the “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” for about 10 years.

Ingalls and his wife met in Chicago about 20 years ago when she worked for Nike and he served as an ESPN bureau producer alongside Andrea Kremer, the start of a journey that led him to Portland.

“Her entire family lives in the Portland area, and she has the extended family of Linfield,” Ingalls says. “We said, ‘Hey, we should consider moving to

Portland.’

“The only thing is — I had to be close to an airport.”