The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Punch, Pit Road, And Post-Race Are Where ESPN Needs To Improve by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday August 12, 2008

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ESPN’s road racing coverage Sunday at Watkins Glen was not great — but it could have been much worse. The first two thirds of the race, with the exception of a couple of caution periods and varying fuel strategies, provided little excitement. Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree, and Dr. Jerry Punch did a wonderful job in the booth of keeping track of the leaders’ and other possible contenders’ pit strategies to keep fan’s curiosity piqued, instead of giving them a chance to fall asleep.

However, the latter of the booth-dwelling trio, Dr. Punch, has had a rough three weeks covering the Sprint Cup Series. In particular, he seems to use excessive pauses to search for catchy ways to word otherwise mundane details of the race. Pointing out interesting facts amongst a spread of data is one way to jazz up NASCAR coverage, but Punch seems to spend too much time connecting those dots, sometimes leading to inaccurate miscues and awkward, unpolished sentences. Fortunately for Punch and ESPN, the Doc is not seen as a talking head, but as a respected reporter and personality in the sport; so fans are likely to be forgiving of these broadcasting foibles.

Another aspect of ESPN’s broadcast that has been littered with mistakes this season is its coverage on pit road. Though the network’s pit road reporters managed to follow the major storylines of the race at Watkins Glen, the dissemination of these reports was shaky at best.

In particular, Shannon Spake repeatedly spoke nervously while covering pit stops and chiming in with updates throughout the broadcast. That’s a problem, as the network had Spake covering the stalls of some of the series’ top teams — including the No. 88 of Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. But as a critical mistake of the race unfolded, Spake ran out of words to say during Junior’s ill-fated, final pit stop, making the whole situation seem far less important and confusing than it actually was. I do not think that Spake should not be a part of the pit road team, but at the very least, maybe ESPN should reassign her to some lower impact race teams over the course of the weekend — at least until she polishes her Sprint Cup delivery up to the quality level she displays on other ESPN NASCAR broadcasts.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Eury, Jr. were hardly shooting the breeze during a race at the Glen where pit strategy cost them a win. But did ESPN’s Shannon Spake convey that angst of defeat to the viewers?

But while Spake’s mistakes were the most noticeable, ESPN’s other reporters — Jamie Little, Dave Burns, and Mike Massaro — were not without their own problems. Each one botched tosses to each other and stated some inaccurate stats throughout the show. Considering their years of experience covering the sport, they should be far better than they are at this point in ESPN’s Cup coverage.

The lack of racing excitement through most of the race provided ESPN with another opportunity to cover the storylines for drivers throughout the field. But once again, they didn’t capitalize; instead, most of the racing coverage centered on the drivers at or near the Chase cutoff (though little to nothing was said about David Ragan and Brian Vickers, who are still within shouting distance of making the playoffs). Coverage of the race for the Top 35 in owner’s points, which is good filler for a race as boring as most of this one was, did not appear prominently until the over half-hour red flag at the end of the race.

ESPN did do two Up To Speeds throughout the 90-lap race, but neither one appeared to go deep enough to make a difference. Through the field coverage, which used to be done frequently on NBC/TNT and was done some — but not enough — on TNT this season, meant that most fans’ drivers get covered during the race. But nowadays, fans of drivers who struggle every week have to go beyond the TV coverage to even have a chance at knowing what caused their driver’s plight.

Scanner radio traffic is a great way to track a team through a race, and I will say that ESPN does well at finding good chatter and broadcasting it. But as expected, the network only broadcasts scanner chatter amongst contending teams, meaning that subscribing to TrackPass on, watching DirecTV NASCAR HotPass, getting a Sprint phone, or obtaining a scanner at or near a race track are the only ways that one can hear how, for example, Scott Riggs is running.

Fortunately, the ESPN cameras did capture the major wrecks of the day, including the ‘Dega-like melee at the end of the race. The extended red flag allowed the broadcast team to interview some of the drivers involved, and the Max Papis interview proved to be one of the jewels of their race coverage. Papis was emphatic and heartbroken at his finish, yet displayed a grateful and persevering attitude at being given the chance to compete with stock car’s best. ESPN cameras also caught the zealous efforts of a No. 78 crew member literally jumping on the hood of Joe Nemechek’s race car involved in the same wreck … that was also fun to watch!

But as the race finished up following that nine-car incident, fans’ smiles quickly turned to frowns. Despite compelling post-race stories, such as: Kyle Busch’s astronomical season, the race to qualify for the Chase, Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger’s underdog runs near the front of the field, the turnover above and below the Top 35 cutoff, Bobby Labonte’s trip to the hospital after the nasty red flag-causing wreck, and Michael McDowell and David Gilliland’s trip to the NASCAR trailer for a post-race chastising, we got almost none of these during the network’s post-race coverage. ESPN could only afford to interview the top three finishers (including Ambrose) and race-winning crew chief Steve Addington before they had to quickly cut to an episode of SportsCenter. That left hungry race fans, who had finally seen a few laps of excitement, with no television post-race rundown until NASCAR Victory Lane at 8 PM on SPEED Channel and NASCAR Now a couple of hours after that on ESPN.

This is not acceptable.

The amount of ad nauseam pre-race coverage easily could be replaced with some quality post-race answers to the questions that hundreds of miles of fender-banging racing can spark, and the scheduling conflicts that do arise from NASCAR coverage can easily be worked around. The bottom line is that race fans deserve more than 15 minutes of post-race analysis, and it’s amazing when they’re not able to get it. ESPN has tried to integrate race coverage into SportsCenter following races, but, as stated in this column before, NASCAR and SportsCenter have run about as well together as Kevin Harvick and Jeff Green did with RCR five years ago.

If ESPN makes improvements to its three P’s listed above — Punch, Pit Road, and Post-Race — its coverage will soar to the levels it should be.

Here are some other things I noticed from this week’s NASCAR TV coverage:

  • The in-studio NASCAR reporters for ESPN have to be feeling little a bit lonely during races. Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, and Brad Daugherty rarely are heard from after the pre-race show; and though Wallace and Daugherty have struggled on-air at times, it seems that having that many personalities doing the equivalent of pinch-hitting is a bit of a waste — even for ESPN. Though this trio does have a lot to offer (I disagree with what Phil said last week while filling in for me), they seem to be a forgotten piece of ESPN’s coverage.

Maybe ESPN would be better off using Bestwick in the booth and Punch as the lead pit road reporter, leaving Wallace and Daugherty in the studio by themselves. In that scenario, Bestwick would just toss to them, as he does during the Monday roundtable discussions on NASCAR Now.

  • In-race reporters never seem to work as well as they could for any network. On Sunday, ESPN tabbed Juan Pablo Montoya to fill this job; it was a smart pick, considering his likelihood to contend for the win. Just before the cars rolled off of pit road, the network’s Dale Jarrett tried to raise Montoya on the radio to start their conversation; but instead of getting a prompt response from Montoya, viewers heard the driver chatting to his crew. The interview with him then went without a hitch after Jarrett contacted him a second time; that one mistake, fans could live with. But after that, a second one was made; Andy Petree tried to contact No. 42 crew chief Brian Pattie, but all Petree and fans heard was Pattie complaining on the radio about the network interrupting the radio traffic. At least Punch had one of his few bright moments of the day, explaining why there was numerous chattering on the channel that prevented the interview for confused fans at home.
  • As our own Tom Bowles wrote in his Monday column, ESPN’s Sunday morning sports magazine, Outside the Lines, had a report on diversity in NASCAR and the recent discrimination accusations against the sport. Reporter Kelly Naqi voiced the report and led all of the interviews within it, as she and the network did a wonderful job of digging up and exposing other instances of discrimination in the NASCAR workplace. The report featured interviews with minority crewmembers; a white female, who accused some in the sport of sexual harassment; two other female race team employees, who had less caustic views of the sport; and DEI president of Global Operations Max Siegel. ESPN managed to find numerous and seemingly credible accounts to support discrimination claims against NASCAR, while also displaying both sides of the issue.

ESPN and others in the media, like Bowles, deserve commending for not letting this developing story not die. Fortunately, fanatics on both sides of the issue have failed to hijack media outlets and interrupt a serious discussion on a serious issue.

  • Speaking of post-race shows, one that always gets overlooked on the NASCAR side of the fence is SPEED Channel’s WindTunnel with Dave Despain. Despain injects enough opinion into the show to make it entertaining, without clouding over the facts about each racing series. Though many NASCAR fans shy away from the show, because of its coverage of other motorsports, WindTunnel deserves credit for being a professional and intriguing racing analysis broadcast. Let’s just say not as much could be said for the NASCAR-only shows always on SPEED Channel…
  • ESPN’s “A” team re-emerged for Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, since the Cup Series was also in town. And alhough this was a welcome relief, the broadcast suffered from some of the same problems as the Cup show.

That more than covers everything from the Glen; next week, we’ll check in from Motor City as NASCAR makes its return trip in Michigan. A big “thank you” goes to Phil Allaway, who did an awesome job covering for me while I was slacking away in St. Augustine. Thanks for tuning in then, now, and next week!

Contact Doug Turnbull

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
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Voices from the Cheap Seats: Advertising for Dummies
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Off Week-Richmond Edition
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08/12/2008 06:08 AM

The fact that some announcers have been involved with the race broadcasts for years doesn’t mean they are any good . It only means that they have become fixtures .It almost seems as if Jerry Punch would rather be anywhere else than a NASCAR broadcast . He feels his real position should be with important, respected sports like football . Bestwick would be a good replacement for Punch . If anyone can explain the need for the in studio idea , i’d sure like to hear it . All they do is re-hash what the at- track announcers have already said . Ex racers who love the sport and can use the English language are always the best race announcers . And right now that group would be Dallenbach , Jarrett , Petree , Schroeder , and Petty .
NASCAR is setting new lows even for them with the slimey attack on a former female employee . Please Bruton Smith , start a stock car series . You will be amazed at the support you’ll receive from competitors and fans alike .

08/12/2008 07:12 AM

Will someone find out how much the announcers are paid to say the word sunoco at every possible second . And do they get paid a lump sum , or per mention . My guess is per mention , they only refer to “ four tires “ so that they can always have time to get in a plug for Snoko . How could the fans , the sponsors , the teams , or for that matter NASCAR take these clowns seriously . They are for sale . No objectivity , no truth in reporting , only advertising for which ever company buys their services . They obviously get paid enough from Snoko that they don’t mind being laughed at by the fans and real media .

08/12/2008 09:32 AM

Doug: Great recap! I agree that Punch has got to go and be replaced by Alan Bestwick who is absolutely as good as it gets! Punch’s ‘exhaustion’ (for a better word) comes across loud and clear and it makes the viewers ‘exhausted’ just listening to his chatter. Spake needs way more time on pit road covering less pithy matters – she needs alot of help and to foist her ‘learning curve’ on us is not a good thing. One would have thought ESPN would have learned a few lessons after last year’s debacle – they’ve learned some but not enough!

08/12/2008 10:27 AM

SPIKE THE PUNCH!! Its time to do something different with ESPN’s Play by Play guy!! I AGREE!
I can’t believe NO ONE has pointed out that Jerry Punch consistently pointed out that Busch was undefeated in road races in 08 when he had JUST FINISHED second in the Saturday race!!! I know its a little thing, but it just bugged the hell out of me. It seems as if someone finally got to him later in the race. It makes me wonder what Paul Page is doing. I miss that guy calling the Indy 500. I think he would be great for NASCAR.

08/12/2008 01:03 PM

I fully agree about the lack of coverage of anything but the frontrunners, I am a 07 Bowyer fan and it is almost impossible to find out how he is doing in any race from just TV coverage. While he isn’t having the best of seasons this year he is also Not a back marker but yet you hear or see almost nothing about him during the entire race. The same can be said for many other good drivers out there that just aren’t driving for the “right” team or have the right last name. All the networks need to do a Much better job of covering the top 20 – 25 and not just the Favored Ones.

08/12/2008 02:16 PM
  • Punch back to Pit Road, Bestwick to the P by P. Leave Rusty and Brad in the studio if you must.
  • Just as with football (Favre), ESPN beats us to death with the same names and “talking Points”. They beat it to death. They are celebrity focused — not sport focused. True sports fans of all sports are becoming fed-up with ESPN’s catering to fringe fans. Their current stable of directors and producers are not up to the task.
08/12/2008 03:00 PM

At least ESPN coverage in 08 is better than 07. Glad Rusty is out of the booth—great driver great champion good businessman lousy play-by-play. Bestwick is still gonna be better than Punch in the booth. I am saddened by Punch’s punch because I do respect his years in the bidness and him as a person, but he just lacks the right stuff to click yet still the chemistry in the booth with Punch Petree and Jarrett is far and away better than 07. What a friggin disaster that was.

I like Little and Spake and don’t see as many downs there as I do with Massaro and Burns. Burns to me just has never measured up and Massaro’s deliver seems awfuly contrived and contorted.

Punch’s Man on a Mission thing has seemed to cool off. Geezuz, all these guys —or Men on Missions — we should have a cure for cancer now. And Punch’s constant voice inflection ploys just seems so fake. Enough already! If you watched the Nationwide race from Montreal, the lead anchor, forget his name, did such a great job. No artificial use of BS or voice inflection or any “tools” of the modern era. Just plain ole good coverage.

That’s what we need. The last 2 years I have failed to get why we don’t have a Bob Jenkins Benny Parsons Ned Jarrett kinda show. It worked and worked so well back then. I don’t think the world, nor communication techniques, nor the advancement of varied means of communication the last 10 years should alter the basics. And if ESPN needs anything it’s just back to basics…

And by the way Tim Brewer has improved mightily but he has a ways to go yet before I would employ him. But at least he is light years from last year’s debut.

08/12/2008 06:02 PM

For the life of me, I do not understand why Alan Bestwick is not doing the play by play. Alan came from MRN where the reporters have to stay on their toes throughout the entire race. His low key delivery and attention to detail are what I appreciate so much. Alan provides a great sense of seamlessness that the current broadcasts are lacking.

Dr. Jerry Punch was always a great pit road reporter and should be back there as the lead guy on pit road.

I like both Andy Petree and DJ in the booth and would not change a thing there.

Kevin in SoCal
08/13/2008 12:51 PM

The play-by-play man for the Nationwide race in Montreal was Marty Reid.

I think Paul Page is doing ESPN’s NHRA broadcast.

The reason why there is very little post-race show is explained by the poor ratings time and time again. The ratings for the race drop drastically the minute the checkered flag is shown. The longer the broadcast stays on, the worse it gets. This affects the overall ratings for the entire broadcast. They want to get off the air as soon as they can to “stop the bleeding.” If you want more post-race coverage, you need to find people with Neilson boxes and encourage them to keep watching!

08/13/2008 08:27 PM

Dave Despain is the only sports show I have on permanent record. If only we could have live race coverage as good as his reporting. Very little of this article would be relevant.