Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday June 28, 2013
Last weekend’s race at Sonoma left race fans with plenty to talk about: an unexpected face in victory lane; crashes, some intentional, others just crazy (how often do you get mashed-up cares on pit road…before the field even rolls off?); strategy; road course ringers. It was, all in all, an enjoyable race. But perhaps of equal significance, it was an enjoyable race broadcast, something which, judging by recent ratings, is not something you see every week.
And here’s the kicker…it was a great broadcast, maybe the best of the year, simply because there were fewer gimmicks, fewer of the camera shots that fans have been forced to become accustomed to..and more of the race. That’s all. TNT didn’t alter the number of commercials (and sure, that area needs some work. They’re a smaller network than FOX and have to pay for the races somehow, so that’s just a tough call) or the voices in the booth (a category in which they already beat FOX by a country mile). But because road courses don’t lend themselves to tight angle cameras that follow one or two cars, the network had stationary cameras at many points.
And because of that, fans saw a race.
They didn’t see one car running by itself. They didn’t see Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Danica Patrick or any other driver all day long, no matter what they were doing (or not doing) on the track. Instead, fans were treated to battles for position among cars throughout the field. And there were some good ones. Fans also saw some drivers not always featured in race broadcasts, and they were racing—and sometimes beating—better known drivers. But they were also racing other drivers generally ignored by the cameras and the voices and therefore, by many fans.
And if NASCAR is to grow and gain popularity, fans need to see all the drivers, to know there are some good ones running midpack every week, sometimes due to equipment, sometimes due to their own limitations, or both. Either way, they’re marketable, likeable drivers that fans aren’t seeing, and that hurts the entire sport. Not to mention, it makes the fans those drivers already have discouraged and unhappy.
And it’s not just about the drivers, it’s about the racing. Even for fans who don’t have a favorite driver, the sport has to highlight the on-track product. A camera chasing a single car lap after lap doesn’t do the sport justice. So many weeks, the fans at home lament the lack of racing during an event when there was, in fact, lots of it. Unfortunately for the fans, they never got to see it because someone in a TV broadcast truck somewhere decided that they don’t need to.
Think about that for a second: the networks don’t think showing a huge piece of the action taking place on the race track is important.
That astounds me. Somewhere along the line, the networks (all of them, to some degree) have forgotten that the sport is made up of little battles throughout the field, throughout a race. Somewhere, someone decided that what was most important was to show the leader ad nauseum, or maybe a few particular drivers. Forget whether there is racing going on elsewhere during the event—they have decided what really matters are those few cars.
This weekend, without doing anything else special, TNT simply showed the race. Even in the closing laps, as Truex pulled away from the field headed towards his first victory in recent memory, the cameras showed what was going on behind him. And what was going on behind him was a race, in every sense of the word. There were Chase contenders mixing it up for every single point they could steal…and you saw it. There were small teams fighting the big ones for some of their best finishes of the year…and you saw it. There was side-by-side competition, beating and banging, door-to-door battling, drivers using their bumpers the old-fashioned way…and you saw it.
The really amazing part here is that that’s a surprise. It should be the norm, it should be what fans see every time they turn on their TV’s. But it’s not. No wonder casual fans are turning to other sports for their action fix. No wonder people who don’t like NASCAR think it’s just a bunch of guys driving in circles. No wonder the diehards lament the racing that took place in the good old days. If nobody bothers to show the action, the conclusion of many, and rightfully so, is that there was no action at all. And that’s such a shame.
The even bigger shame is that the fix is so glaringly simple: use the corner cameras more as the entire field races past and use the tight-angle cameras only rarely, such as when talking about that driver. And then move on and talk about some of the other drivers who are doing something noteworthy, whether that’s falling back on a track where they normally thrive, having the best finish of their season or their careers, or simply making daring passes…you know, those things race fans think don’t happen during races? Tell the fans what’s going on through the entire race…a NASCAR race isn’t just about the race for the win…there are storylines, and compelling ones, for nearly every car and driver in the race, each and every week.
In a sport where fans are already oversaturated with gimmicks and overdone “enhancements” to the racing, the last thing fans need or, for the most part, want to see is even more gimmicks, even more overdone blather. What fans have been craving is simply racing. So why not give that to them every week, not just twice a year?
And Another Thing
There’s been a lot of talk this week about Richard Childress bringing back the No. 3 for Austin Dillon in the Sprint Cup Series next year. Of course, fans are divided on the issue. The number was last used on the RCR Cup car of Hall of Fame driver Dale Earnhardt, and was changed to the no. 29 following Earnhardt’s death in a racing accident. Many fans would like to see the number retired completely, the way all of Major League Baseball has retired Jackie Robinson’s number because of his contributions to the sport as a whole. Others don’t care one way or the other.
SPEED TV put a poll on Facebook about the issue, with the following three choices to vote on: The number should never be used in the Cup Series again, it’s Childress’ number and he can do what he wants with it, or the only driver who should use the number in Sprint Cup is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
To me, none of those covers the answer correctly. I think many old-school fans aren’t thinking of why Dillon really wants the number, and many new fans don’t understand the impact of Dale Earnhardt and his death on the sport.
I think the compromise would be to run the number, but a far different version of it, not the same style Earnhardt ran (and the one Childress one said he would not return to the Cup Series). I understand why Dillon wants the number; it was Childress’ number when he ran the car, and he is a hero to his grandson, who wants to run “Pop-pop’s” old car number. Fair enough. But I also think that Dillon doesn’t understand the depth of Earnhardt fans’ feelings toward the number and his comments have been a bit flippant.
In the end, Childress owns the rights to both the number and the design and can do what he wants. He’ll need to carefully weigh his feelings about his dear friend Earnhardt as well as his grandson’s wish to honor him and the weight of the fans’ memories. Personally, I hope if he does decide to run the number again, that it will look different than it did on Earnhardt’s famous black car. Somehow, Dillon just hasn’t proven himself worthy of all that that No. 3 was, at least not yet.
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