The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Terrible Tires Overshadow ESPN's 2008 Debut by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday July 29, 2008

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The big story following the Brickyard this week was the excessive tire wear that forced competition cautions and prompted drivers to play it safe. But lost in the crossfire between the fans (and media) versus NASCAR was ESPN’s debut covering the Sprint Cup Series in 2008. Unlike the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, the network’s coverage had many expected and some unexpected bright spots; but as the race wore on, there were also several flaws that kept the broadcast from being considered a total success.

Let’s start with the good, though — and there was plenty of it. The beginning of the Brickyard coverage, including the pre-race show, went off with few mistakes. ESPN showed it was not shy to flex its monetary muscles right off the bat, having top talent cover the sport from almost every corner. The at-the-track studio featured host Allen Bestwick, 1989 Cup Champ Rusty Wallace, as well as analyst and owners Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham. Informative and engaging, the pre-race show not only provided highlight packages of past Brickyard 400s, but also great coverage of the developments surrounding the pending tire disaster. It was a topic the network could have ignored; instead, they embraced it.

Leading the discussion throughout that hour was Allen Bestwick, who has proven that he may be almost the perfect combination of “anchor guy,” “veteran guy,” and “racing guy.” Bestwick is a seasoned sports veteran, having covered other sports for other networks but having been involved with racing for years. This combination has made him not only a crisp talking head in front of the camera, but also a pre-race studio host that actually knows a lot about the sport. Bestwick is more of a racing guy than his counterpart at FOX, Chris Myers, and has been in broadcasting and NASCAR far longer than his equivalent at TNT, Marc Fein. Before, after, and during Sunday’s broadcast, Bestwick proved that he is the best person for his job, though he did show that he was not reluctant to tow NASCAR’s line after the race.

In the booth, Dr. Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, and Dale Jarrett also brought their “A” game to NASCAR’s second biggest race. Punch is no Mike Joy, though, and seems to make more mistakes than Bill Weber — however, despite being ranked third on the totem pole, he did do a good job calling the race. It seems that having a “racing guy,” like Mike Joy as the play-by-play announcer in the booth is a good thing, and that’s what separates him from the other two. Indeed, Punch did make some nervous mistakes, such as calling Brian Vickers “Brian Viers” at one point during the event.

Surrounding Punch were Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree, who both blended well in the booth. Neither one stepped on each other very much, and each showcased their years of experience and used it to call the race in an easy-to-understand manner. Jarrett spoke clearly — though he sometimes did stutter — and proved that ESPN’s move to replace Wallace with him was not a bad one.

As it unfolded, the gravity of the tire situation was easily conveyed to viewers when veteran former crew chiefs Andy Petree and Tim Brewer both said that they had never seen anything like that before. Brewer himself had an amazing sequence at one point in which he illustrated the tire wear by holding up an aluminum pan full of tire dust collected at the track. This jolting reality of the seriousness of the problem was as good, if not better, than any that could have been fabricated with ESPN’s show car. Brewer, by the way, obviously has been coached some in the last few weeks. Though he still is one of the weaker links on the broadcast team, he did a good job explaining mechanical issues during the race, such as what Kasey Kahne’s cracked header looks like on an engine and the effect that it has on the performance of the race car.

The third and final element of ESPN’s on-air talent is the pit reporters, and their performance was one less likely to write home about. Though that crew of Dave Burns, Mike Massaro, Jamie Little, and Shannon Spake has worked together all year during the Nationwide Series races, they seemed inexperienced on Sunday. Spake especially seemed to crack under the fast-paced pressure of pit road, at times messing up tosses and not having her thoughts together. Just like a Cup team pit crew’s importance to their driver on Sunday because of all of the cautions, the ESPN pit crew was just as critical in a race won and lost on strategy. However, despite a few shortcomings, these men and women were on the air enough that they managed to deliver accurate information to viewers when they needed it.

But all of ESPN’s good vibes Sunday were overshadowed by a series of major technical failures. Around the race’s 60-lap mark, the network’s satellite feed began cutting in and out, and there were also severe audio interruptions. While the broadcast went on like nothing happened, this problem was not totally fixed until around an hour later, and the extent and duration of the problem left the entire broadcast with a huge black eye. No question about it, someone at ESPN should lose their job over a particular failure of this magnitude.

Usually when a problem like this happens, the network acknowledges its mistake and apologizes to its viewers. Much like NASCAR handled the tires, however, ESPN never once did say they made any mistakes, and an apology seemed a bit far-fetched for them. It is a shame that this problem ruined what had been a very good broadcast up to that point. It’s clear that for the upcoming Cup Series broadcasts to be a success, ESPN needs to avoid those major technical mistakes; otherwise, fans won’t remember the high points of the rest of the show they put on.

Overall, though, ESPN did a great job covering all angles of the day’s main story, the Goodyear tire debacle — before, during, and after the race. The network even interrupted normal programming on ESPNEWS to air Robin Pemberton’s pathetic post-race excuse session. The issues also caused extra coverage of the sport during SportsCenter, which probably sent the stick and ball fans madly into the streets but also gave NASCAR NFL-like exposure on the network — although when you consider the negativity of the topics discussed, you wonder if that face time really was in the sport’s best interest.

Here are some of other observations I noticed on both ESPN and SPEED:

  • SPEED Channel proved that the sometimes ad nauseam NASCAR coverage on the network does serve a purpose, as its reporters were on top of the impending tire issues from the first laps of the first practice. Two thumbs up go to the whole team of reporters that stayed on that story.

Martin Truex, Jr. is none too happy when swarmed by a horde of media; so, you can imagine his displeasure once an incorrect report surfaced he had already signed a contract with DEI to drive there for the next two years.

  • ESPN is known for being a leader in breaking sports news, but NASCAR reporter David Newton may have jumped the gun. On Friday, he reported that Martin Truex, Jr. and DEI had agreed on a two-year extension that would keep the pending free agent driving the No. 1 car through 2010. This report did not scroll across ESPN’s ticker as a rumor — but as a done deal. However, just one day later, Truex not only bluntly denied the report, but said that Newton was, “full of [expletive].”

This inaccuracy not only damages ESPN’s reputation, but also could have been detrimental to Martin Truex, Jr.’s chances at another ride. If Truex is indeed vying for the open rides at Penske and RCR, officials at the organizations could have seen the report and made a decision on Truex before he could correct them. For example, if David Stremme is number two on Penske’s list to drive the No. 12 and Truex is number one, then Penske could have signed Stremme after reading the report and before Truex could have refuted it.

When the report about the possible sale of DEI surfaced, DEI’s drivers demanded to get the real story from the organization’s officials — and it turned out that the reports of a possible sale were a bit premature. Editor’s Note: Frontstretch.com’s Tom Bowles maintains the organization is, indeed, up for grabs to the highest bidder. It is OK to for the media to publish rumors as what they are, but once rumors are published as facts, things can get ugly. ESPN does a good job at breaking news, but needs to elevate journalism ethics and standards before being labeled the best in show.

  • ESPN seems to have followed FOX’s lead during its race coverage, focusing too much of its time on the lack of racing at the front of the pack and not on some of the better racing in the middle of it. However, Dr. Punch and the boys did do a good job of following up on drivers that had been running in the front but had since fallen toward the back — and that’s something FOX was not very good at. Fans, though, would enjoy the race more if only good racing were shown.
  • Besides the audio interruptions during the broadcast, there were also a couple of extra sounds picked up that did not need to be heard. Just as TNT did, ESPN came back from breaks before the boys in the booth knew they were on the air, meaning some of their conversation made its way onto the airwaves. Fortunately, no one was caught saying anything inappropriate…though that may have wound up more entertaining than the race itself.

Unfortunately, the network couldn’t dodge that bullet during the moment of silence for late NASCAR Technical Director Steve Peterson. As the crowd was quieting down, a fan yelled, “shut the [expletive] up.” Though it was not extremely noticeable, it did get broadcast. There is not much that ESPN can do about that, but it is a shame that curse word was heard — especially during such a somber moment.

  • ESPN’s graphics package is superior to that of the other networks. The way that the team has started lining up the driver’s thumbnail pictures and numbers with the finishing order at the top of the screen gives the viewers an easier chance at seeing where drivers finished in the race as they cross the line.

On the running order ticker, there was one small mistake though. The numbers next to the drivers’ names on the ticker are synonymous with the drivers’ particular paint schemes for the race. During this event, Reed Sorenson’s No. 41 Target Dodge had its primary red paint scheme. Its color on the ticker, however, was pink, which is the scheme the team runs when it runs the breast cancer awareness car. This is a small mistake… but an easily avoidable one.

  • Finally, with ESPN’s A-team following the Cup Series, the network has to use fill-in talent for the standalone Nationwide Series races. There is not enough time, space, or energy left in this column to break that race down, but here is one observation: Didn’t the coverage of that race look and sound a lot like SPEED’s low-budget coverage of the NASCAR Camping World East Series? That’s a shame.

Round two of ESPN’s Cup coverage takes place at Pocono Raceway next week. Hopefully for ESPN and the sport itself, the racing at Pocono will prove much better than both the racing at Indy and at June’s Pocono event. Tune in here next week for a wrap-up of all of the week’s NASCAR TV coverage.

Contact Doug Turnbull

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Mike In NH
07/29/2008 07:28 AM
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I’m not totally surprised ESPN did well out of the gate with Cup coverage, since they’ve been doing Nationwide coverage all year and have had time to work out the kinks there. So really ESPN’s coverage SHOULD have been better than, say, TNT (who had no warmup) or even FOX (again, no warmups). Perhaps because I’ve been watching NW all year ESPN’s coverage didn’t really leave much of an impression on me except when they goofed on occasion, which I guess is a good thing, you want to remember the race (well, maybe not this particular race) not the coverage.

Cheryl
07/29/2008 08:08 AM
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I only saw one time when the picture on ESPN went blank for a couple of seconds. Not sure what you are talking about (unless it was during the prerace show which I didn’t watch). Perhaps it was a problem with your cable or satellite signal.

John
07/29/2008 10:10 AM
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ESPN in CT got hit by lightning during a thunderstorm and took a power hit. Nothing to do with the race. The problem was fixed within minutes. You probably needed to reboot your cable box.

Annie Mack
07/29/2008 02:15 PM
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Well, we had a blank screen for all except the last 35 laps. Talk about confused! Can you imagine coming in at lap 35 and seeing the chaos that was The Brickyard 400? Oh, and the blank screen was due to an electrical failure, not ESPN. I was just saying….ya know.

alan4s
07/29/2008 08:46 PM
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With nearly two thirds of the race run under yellow, and the cautions (for the most part) scheduled and announced by NASCAR in advance, doesn’t it seem like ESPN could have avoided showing commercials during ANY green flag laps? Nope, couldn’t do it, could they? Can’t show 7 to 13 laps without a commercial.