The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Finally Points The Camera Lens Beyond The Chasers by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday October 14, 2008

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The Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte did not produce many exciting storylines besides the weekly plight of the Chasers. ESPN reported on the state of these drivers well, however, and also made a move in the race’s first half that went above and beyond that coverage. As stated many times in this column and others like it, ESPN, TNT, and FOX each have struggled to cover both the racing action and those that exist outside the Top 10 in the running order — unless the driver is one of NASCAR’s biggest stars. Well, ESPN finally responded to those numerous complaints with a segment that addresses the problem.

During a special edition of Up To Speed, Allen Bestwick and the pit road crew led a rundown of drivers in the race by beginning with 11th place David Reutimann, continuing to fill out the balance of the Top 20 instead of starting the recap up front. This highlighted a number of drivers that wouldn’t have been shown otherwise, a critical step in the right direction for a network that has struggled to balance multiple variables through the different racecasts. The only thing ESPN could have done to make the full field rundown better is to go deeper into the running order — and do it more often.

The best place to cover these driver details is on pit road, and the pit reporting crew for ESPN has seen its share of ups and downs this year. Unfortunately, Saturday’s race coverage displayed more of the weaknesses of the team than the strengths. Among the errors during the pit road sequences this week was an abruptly short stop called by Shannon Spake when she seemed unsure of what was happening next. Dave Burns also had trouble catching up with which drivers the cameras were covering during a round of stops, and had to tell viewers he would update that driver’s pit stop after things settled down. Mistakes can and will happen easily when covering pit road — that’s part of the job — but ESPN’s team needs to work harder to correct certain mistakes that happen too often.

The biggest flaw of the team, however, was not on pit road but during a couple of interviews in the middle of the race. Shannon Spake was christened with the task of interviewing Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after the driver of the No. 88 saw his slim title chances fall to the same fate as the punctured tire that heavily damaged his Chevrolet. But what should have been a crucial few minutes for Spake quickly turned excruciating instead. Not only did she ask Junior shallow, unintelligent questions, Spake had a difficult time doing so as the noise from the line of race cars passing under caution kept him from hearing the last question. Junior’s answers made her interview worth seeing, but hearing Spake repeat a useless question three times was nearly unbearable. Mike Massaro also ran into the same trouble when interviewing Jack Roush.

Hearing what drivers, crew chiefs, owners, and others have to say during races is very important. The accessibility of NASCAR allows for updates from participants in the middle of the event, something hardly found in other sports. These updates, though, can be hard to watch when reporters’ questions are drowned out by car noise. ESPN should devise some way to assure that those being interviewed can hear the questions. Maybe they can wear headsets, like they do when interviewed at the track by someone in a studio. The reporter also could have a single headphone that he or she could hold to the drivers’ ears as they ask the question. As corny and cumbersome as these two solutions would be, pursuing one of them is better than allowing what happened Saturday night to continue.

Carl Edwards’ car may have stopped on the track, but the ESPN crew was running on all cylinders in describing how this mechanical problem but a kink in his bid to win this year’s title.

One portion of the race broadcast that stood out as a high point was the coverage of Carl Edwards’ ignition problems in the No. 99 Ford. When Edwards questionably lost a lap before the equipment failure, Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett in the booth immediately began deciphering the decision as the yellow flag left Edwards trapped behind the pace car. Then, as the story changed while his car abruptly came to a stop on the track, ensuing replays from the in-car camera on the No. 99 captured Edwards frantically trying switch after switch to try to get the car started. ESPN also aired some of the radio transmissions between Edwards, crew chief Bob Osborne, and the crew itself to capture the true drama of a championship bid unfolding before our eyes. As a final touch, ESPN allowed Tim Brewer in the Dish Tech Center to explain the ignition woes, something he did with ease. Clearly, the network did a great job in covering this major development from all angles.

But their main issue in the booth still remains. Once again, play-by-play announcer Dr. Jerry Punch struggled to help provide or lead Jarrett and Petree in any substantive analysis during the race. The two analysts both had to step up and did a great job of going above and beyond — although there sometimes were even holes in their takes on situations as well. There is one phrase in particular that Dale Jarrett needs to lay off of: “It will be interesting to see…” That phrase is becoming a big crutch for the 1999 Sprint Cup champ, who repeats it a little too often.

Here are some other observations noticed on NASCAR television this past week:

  • NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED Channel is one of the best NASCAR shows on television. This week’s broadcast contained a large segment centered on the Regan Smith/yellow line call by NASCAR. In a courtroom parody, Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace each weighed in on the issue before Kyle Petty “set them straight.” Though all three parties looked quite ridiculous in their wigs and judge’s robes, they still managed to make solid and entertaining statements on the controversial call.
  • The NASCAR Nationwide Series really cannot catch a break. Not only are the fields in many of the races stacked with non-competitive, start and park teams, but television coverage is somewhat limited during the college football season. ESPN announced last week that the Memphis Nationwide Series race is going to air simultaneously on SPEED Channel and ESPN Classic due to other programming commitments. Adding insult to injury for the NNS is that SPEED will be in hurry-up mode with their coverage, because it has to air the Truck Series race that day from Atlanta Motor Speedway as well. The Nationwide Series is supposed to be the number two stock car division in America, but instead gets reduced to rubbish when running a standalone event during college football games. Viewers will also have to deal with ESPN’s “B” team all weekend long, since much of the regular crew will be with the Sprint Cup Series in Atlanta.
  • Speaking of NASCAR feeder series… the ARCA RE/MAX and NASCAR Camping World East Series are gaining credibility as breeding grounds for drivers, with the Nationwide Series’ current struggles and the open wheel invasion flop. Unfortunately, both divisions get very little television mentions on mainstream broadcasts, and the coverage of their events is minimally publicized if at all. SPEED Channel does air races from both series, but usually does so during weekdays or late at night — so few notice the sometimes intense racing they provide. Up and coming drivers who should be getting coverage, despite the network snubs, include ARCA drivers Scott Speed (who makes his Cup debut this weekend), Justin Allgaier (just picked up by Roger Penske for a Nationwide Series ride), Joey Logano (the Camping World East champ from last year), Marc Davis (the leading Drive for Diversity candidate, who has started in the Truck Series this year), Jeffrey Earnhardt and Trevor Bayne (DEI development drivers in the East Series who will race in Nationwide next year), Ricky Carmichael (races in the East Series, will run some Truck races for KHI next year), and Austin Dillon (Richard Childress’ grandson in the East Series who is being groomed to one day return the legendary No. 3 number to Cup). Hardcore fans know these names, but their races should air at better times so more can track their development.
  • Matt McLaughlin wrote an excellent column last Thursday on the weakening journalistic credibility of some race analysts because of their involvement with other race teams. Among those mentioned specifically in the article were ESPN analysts Brad Daugherty (who recently partnered with JTG Racing, a team that will field a Cup car next year) and Rusty Wallace (owner of Rusty Wallace, Inc. and father of Steven in the Nationwide Series), as well as FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip (who tirelessly cheers on and promotes brother Michael’s team). Though NASCAR is a sport, not hard news, journalistic coverage should be conducted objectively, just as the officiating of the race should be handled by NASCAR. The increasing number of analysts affiliated with race teams lessens the impact of their job on viewers and dilutes the accuracy of any statement they make. Ray Evernham said this week that he may consider giving up his share in his race team, and part of his reasoning behind considering the move is because he wants to remain an objective broadcaster. Beside him in the studio, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty both share vestigial roles on ESPN. Maybe the best move for both parties would be for them to step onto the pit boxes of their teams and out of the booth, so less-subjective journalists can fill their spots.

Here are links to either emails or websites you can use to give the various networks your feedback. Please be respectful if you choose to use them, so yours and everyone’s comments are taken seriously.

Contact ESPN
Contact SPEED
Contact FOX
Contact TNT

Contact Doug Turnbull

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