The Race For Ratings Points : Critiquing NASCAR TV · Doug Turnbull · Tuesday May 6, 2008
If you’re a television executive on FOX or ESPN, the last two weeks of NASCAR racing have bound to have left you drooling. At Talladega, the pack of cars did not get strung out or single file, like it did in the Fall race there; that caused the close racing and crazy wrecks fans expect at that facility. In fact, there were two “Big Ones” in the Cup race to go along with one “really Big One” in the Nationwide Series race. Plus, the ratings golden boy, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., stayed in contention until the end of the Cup event, coming close to the win at his best track.
Richmond International Raceway wasn’t lacking for drama, either. Viewers of the Nationwide Series race on ESPN Classic or SPEED Channel (more on that later) saw hometown hero Denny Hamlin make a late pass on Kevin Harvick to win, then saw Kyle Busch and Steve Wallace have a sandbox showdown after an on-track bump and run.
During the Sprint Cup race, there was a short track “Big One” that took out several good cars just past the halfway point. Denny Hamlin was on pace to set a record, leading almost every lap in a scintillating performance before cutting a tire. Then, to top it all off, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was about to break his two-year-old winless streak at the track where he last won, passing Denny Hamlin’s wounded car only to get taken out by Kyle Busch — who, in turn, got immediately passed by race winner Clint Bowyer. There is a reason that this race used to be called the Pontiac Excitement 400; I am out of breath.
Drama is something that the media outlets try to play up and sometimes have to contrive, but this weekend’s batch of Richmond races clearly wrote their own stories. Here is how the networks fared in covering them…
- FOX made fewer mistakes in its telecast of the Crown Royal presents the Dan Lowry 400 than it did during last week’s Talladega race. However, the one glaring error that I saw came after the red flag. NASCAR officials had stopped the race for nearly a half an hour to clean up debris from the 13-car wreck. During that half hour, FOX had plenty of time to play its commercials and get whatever business or promos it needed to take care of. Instead, they came back from a commercial break right as the cars were coming up to speed. I would understand more if there was a brief debris caution and this happened, but a reputable broadcasting team like FOX’s has no excuse for missing the restart after the biggest wreck of the night AND a red flag.
- One thing that FOX covered well was the explanation of what happens to a race car’s brakes during a short track race. Jeff Hammond, who always explains things clearly with the cutaway car, laid out all of the components involved in building and adjusting these brakes. There also were great pictures in the broadcast of glowing brake rotors on the cars. It’s clear that when FOX focuses on a technical story, they make sure to cover all the bases.
- During the red flag, Mike Joy said that the pit road reporters could actually take time to interview the crew chiefs, because the noisy conditions and close quarters during the race prevented them from doing so. I had never noticed them not doing this before at Richmond; well, I guess you learn something new every day.
- In contrast, ESPN lost more of my respect after the Richmond race weekend. First, the Nationwide Series race got moved from ESPN2 to ESPN Classic and SPEED Channel, all because of a conflict with the NBA Playoffs. True, this is not NASCAR’s top series; but one would think that they would anticipate the chances of a long NBA playoff before the week it actually happens. The last minute change had viewers scrambling, but at least a simulcast gave them multiple options in case their cable system didn’t have one of the two channels.
- During SportsCenter’s Sunday highlights of the race, the show’s writers made a huge story out of the Busch vs. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. crash at the end of it; however, they failed to even show the huge wreck that took out 13 cars beforehand, a crash which included two former Cup champions as well as fan and network favorite (sort of, at least) Juan Pablo Montoya. That surprised me, as usually, most of the race footage shown on SportsCenter is of wrecks.
I said this two weeks ago: ESPN broadcasts the majority of the NASCAR schedule, yet fails to compose quality scripts and highlights of them to the non-racing savvy anchors on SportsCenter. When will they connect the dots?
- Another major mistake ESPN made involved the coverage of two breaking stories. Early in the week, they reported that DEI picked up the option on driver Martin Truex, Jr. for the 2009 season, implying that his status at the company was a done deal. The “non-ESPN” media found out toward the end of the week, however, that Truex has to accept that offer to remain at DEI.
Reports also surfaced on Saturday from the Associated Press that Bobby Labonte had re-signed with Petty Enterprises. Larry McReynolds on FOX quickly addressed that point, saying he spoke to Labonte about that and that Labonte said nothing was true until it came from his own mouth. Other media took note of this and made sure to say in their stories on issue that there were unconfirmed reports of it. ESPN did not, however; the SportsCenter sports ticker Sunday morning, after Labonte had said there was nothing to announce yet, read that Bobby Labonte had signed an extension with Petty Enterprises.
- On a brighter note, ESPN and the NASCAR Now crew did a wonderful job at Dale Earnhardt Day. They had many notable figures in the sport reminisce about the Intimidator, and even managed an interview with Max Siegel on Truex’s situation at DEI. There was lots of great footage of Earnhardt throughout the show, and host Nicole Manske did a fine job with the big interviews.
- SPEED Channel broadcasts NASCAR Race Day before each race, with John Roberts, Kenny Wallace, and Jimmy Spencer as the hosts. Wallace and Spencer are great for quotes, but, despite having had careers as drivers, their racing knowledge and analysis is oftentimes lacking. Here is a Race Day numbers game from Saturday:
0 – Percent chance Kenny Wallace would ever have of my voting for him to be in the All-Star race. He had an unfair advantage on the rest of the eligible drivers last year because of his being able to campaign on the show every week, and currently is without a full-time ride in the Cup Series. On Saturday, they interviewed A.J. Allmendinger, who was campaigning for the same spot.
2 – Number of drivers that Jimmy Spencer said to watch out for that have neither the skill nor the equipment under them to truly compete in the Sprint Cup Series: Allmendinger and Patrick Carpentier. Spencer said Carpentier was the best qualifier he had ever seen. Has he ever met or heard of Ryan Newman? Spencer makes many brazen statements like this that make me want to change the channel.
4 – Number of times that Jimmy Spencer called the Sprint Cup the “Nextel Cup.” I know this name change is tough to get used to, but he did it FOUR times in one broadcast. He should keep the cigar in his mouth at all times.
There is the breakdown for this past week’s NASCAR television coverage. Next week, tune in to see if the networks got as many Darlington stripes as the rookie drivers.
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