The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Mistakes Mar ESPN's Middling Martinsville Coverage by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday October 21, 2008

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The television coverage of Chase Race Number Six at Martinsville achieved approximately the same quality level as the other five Chase races. Unfortunately, the network team in front of and behind the camera has not made much progress in correcting ongoing mistakes and heeding to repeated suggestions. At the same time, the things throughout NASCAR on ABC/ESPN broadcasts that are done well continue to show impressively to viewers, giving the production some building blocks upon which to grow. However, the negatives always seem to be remembered more boldly than the positives as the season winds down.

The weakest link during this latest NASCAR on ABC installment easily was the pit road reporting team. Covering the pits at short tracks is a challenge, especially under green flag conditions, because the noise level can easily drown out a reporter’s voice and make it hard to interview crew chiefs or other people of note during the race. To their credit, noise did not prove to be a damning factor for these reporters during Sunday’s event; but in the end, that advancement was canceled out due to other blunders. Shannon Spake continues to struggle during pit sequences, often stumbling over her words and leaving out important details during the fast-paced stops. Mike Massaro, who has done well on pit road during most ESPN races this year, also found himself tongue-tied in a few instances. There also were several pit stops that occurred on camera without the aid of any reporter. Dave Burns began one Kyle Busch stop three quarters of the way through it, which meant that there was an awkward transition from the booth to the pits when the stop began.

Sunday’s racing action did not lend itself to very much unpredictable strategy toward the end of the race, so the pit road reporters did not spend much time yelling in the ears of crew chiefs and trying to learn their strategies. Instead, interviews of interest took place after the event. Drivers took the checkered flag just prior to 5:30, meaning that (gasp) ABC actually had to remain on the air for over thirty minutes to do post-race coverage. This expanded time slot should have allowed for every driver in the Top 10 plus the remaining Chase drivers sprinkled through the field to be interviewed; but ABC disappointed.

Of course, Jimmie Johnson got some camera time in Victory Lane, as did Rick Hendrick, who lost his son and others in a plane crash near the track four years ago during the same weekend. ESPN went further and interviewed Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus to put a final stamp on the story. However, this all took place before they conducted interviews of Carl Edwards or anyone else in the Top 5 or 10. It was notable that Scott Speed, who had just concluded his Sprint Cup debut in the No. 84, was interviewed briefly about his day despite a 30th place finish. But Allen Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, and Brad Daugherty each had brief remarks afterwards regarding Speed’s innocuous presence in the race, wasting valuable time.

More driver interviews, instead of analysis and filler, would have been nice instead. ESPN could have tracked down Reed Sorenson and seen why his car could not get to pit road after he wrecked during such a good run (the car’s not getting to pit road and trip to the garage took place off camera). ESPN also could have put fellow Georgian David Ragan in front of the camera or his teammate Matt Kenseth to explain what it felt like getting accidentally punted by a teammate (Kenseth did the same to Edwards a year ago, sparking the infamous shove and fake punch after that race). Instead, with the exception of Speed and Jamie McMurray (who dropped out while running in the Top 5), only Chase drivers got interviews on this day.

Reed Sorenson deserved some airtime after a late-race incident, but instead walked away without an ABC reporter in sight.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s post-race interview, though, was particularly intriguing amongst the Chasers. After being asked by Shannon Spake if he was frustrated by the late-race caution flags ruining his chances to catch leader Johnson, Junior said that there was no way that the race could go caution-free for that long at Martinsville, and that NASCAR would throw caution flags intentionally to bunch up the field if it did. Earnhardt, Jr. has not been known to make remarks of that variety very often, so Spake should be praised for garnering a rare Tony Stewart-esque response from Junior. With or without the controversial remark, this was one of Junior’s best post-race interviews of the year, because he seemed fairly alert and talked for more than a few dejected sentences.

But the analysis of that exchange fell short of the mark. ESPN cut to the Pit Studio after the interview, and Daugherty was beside himself that Junior would accuse NASCAR of throwing the race. Though some may disagree with Junior’s remarks, they have been echoed by others in the sport and by fans over the past couple of years. Daugherty’s reaction to them is yet another example of the pro-NASCAR cheerleading that every network partakes in. Almost every week, networks try to angle the camera shots to avoid showing the empty sections of the grandstands (which was hard to do at Martinsville, and it showed). Commentary on the CoT, NASCAR decisions, and other controversial topics almost always fall on the side of NASCAR during network broadcasts. Networks pay hundreds of millions of dollars to show these races and should not be shy to allow their commentators to show alternative points of view – or maybe they should. When Bob Dillner interviewed Earnhardt Jr. for NASCAR Victory Lane on SPEED, Junior appeared to be headed toward the Big Yellow Truck, either for a slap on the wrist or maybe a free invitation to race control for the Truck race in Atlanta next weekend. If Junior was indeed going into the trailer for that reason, that gives the networks even more leeway to continue siding with the sport’s sanctioning body.

The boys in the booth — Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree — each performed at their same output levels for this race. Jarrett and Petree offered great in-race analysis (especially on the conditions of the CoT’s brakes and the right front tires blowing as a result) while adequately calling the play-by-play action. Punch, meanwhile, continued to offer very little from his important lead announcer role. He especially struggled during this race, as he has all season ad libbing commentary or play-by-play. During one of the race’s Up To Speed segments, the pit reporters did not report on one of the race cars being featured. So Punch attempted to take the responsibility of updating the racer’s progress himself, but did an atrocious job. He struggled to come up with any relevant information on the car, and made the whole moment awkward and forgettable. As stated often in this column, the pit road team and/or the Pit Road Studio could really use his help, while the booth could use Bestwick’s instead.

The aforementioned Up To Speed segment still does not find its way into ESPN NASCAR broadcasts often enough. The network only made two attempts at it during the entire 500-lap race, never advancing past drivers in the Top 15. Centering the coverage around a small fraction of the 43-car field makes it hard for viewers to keep track of other drivers. Ironically, NASCAR’s current sponsorship void may be lessened if other teams simply got a little more television coverage. It is harder than ever now to sell a $15-30 million dollar sponsorship of a race team in a corporate boardroom, so any bit of exposure helps. ESPN’s star-centered coverage was summed up when Allen Bestwick decided to throw in a quick summary of a couple of drivers not in the Top 15. He began the update by saying he was updating a couple of more “headline drivers;” of course, those two he covered were in the Chase, but out of title contention. Several drivers had impressive days, considering their experience and luck at Martinsville, including Reed Sorenson (before he wrecked in the late laps), David Ragan, Casey Mears, and A.J. Allmendinger… but they received little mention in the broadcast. Now we know the reason why; they are not of headline status.

Another weak spot of the race was the amount of crashes and other activity that took place off camera. There was more than one crash that either occurred off camera or was very late making the air. At a small track like Martinsville, this is not excusable. Besides missing a couple of the crashes, though, the camera crew did a wonderful job.

There were also several strong spots in ESPN’s Martinsville coverage. The network has done a great job at capturing audio from team radios during races. A conversation between Earnhardt, Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. about the conditions of the tires was great, simply because of the fact that Andy Petree corrected Eury on air about what the failing tires of other drivers were doing. But the best piece of radio audio during the race showcased Kurt Busch’s frustration with his wounded race car that kept cooking tires. He asked his crew at least twice on the radio if he could park his Dodge, and then asked for Penske Racing part-owner Walt Czarnecki to get on the radio. After asking him if he could park the car, Czaernecki said, “No sir.” This conversation could have meant several things: Kurt Busch was simply frustrated and wanted to go home; he is a wimp and was throwing a fit; or he may be so frustrated with how his team is running that his relationship with personnel, including Czarnecki, could be wearing thin. Thank goodness that ESPN aired this audio and gave the rest of the media something to ask Busch this coming weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Another improving portion of the coverage is the ESPN Dish Tech Center with Tim Brewer. Brewer’s delivery has gotten better through the season, though it still is not great. Nevertheless, the value of the ESPN Cut-Away Car is high, and Brewer knows the ins and outs of the car quite well. As often as Brewer is used during pre-race coverage, practices, NASCAR Now, and other ESPN NASCAR content, he really should have a greater presence during the race itself. His value has more than doubled since ESPN began its Cup coverage at Indy in July.

Here are a few more observations noticed on NASCAR TV this week:

  • I received an email last week about the lack of fanfare that has surrounded Bill Elliott’s recent announcement that he will stop racing after this season. Yes, Elliott has said the “R” word before and come back, but he may have given up the ghost for good this time around. His run at Martinsville was one of his best of the season for the Wood Brothers, but it was still outside the Top 15. The 53-year-old has struggled this season, despising the grind the NASCAR schedule brings while hoping to focus on his son Chase’s race career.

Whether Awesome Bill ends up retiring or not, his announcement should be taken seriously. He is a NASCAR champion and one of the greatest drivers of our time, especially on superspeedways. ESPN, SPEED, and any other outlet covering the sport should give Elliott some airtime, especially to educate some newer, younger fans to the sport. He may not be a “headliner” anymore, but was the sport’s most popular driver for years (winning the Most Popular Driver Award over a dozen times) and is a NASCAR champion. At least he received one or two mentions during the Martinsville broadcast.

  • NASCAR Victory Lane remains a useful, viable post-race show, even though it normally airs a couple of hours after the race. Unfortunately, it is the best post-race option, unless ESPN has enough time and space to air NASCAR Now on ESPN2 or ESPNEWS or has enough time to do a decent post-race show on ABC — which rarely happens. Bob Dillner interviews many drivers after they dismount from their vehicles, and Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer offer their analysis of the day’s events with a patient host in John Roberts. Wallace and Spencer have sometimes shallow, not-thought out opinions, and they do seem to make statements of emotion rather than logic a little too often — but they still do a great show. Unlike the ESPN commentators, Spencer and Wallace sometimes speak from drivers’ standpoints and will speak out against NASCAR if they see something out of line. Neither Spencer or Wallace own a team, and Wallace drives for a non-contending Nationwide Series car (the No. 28 Jay Robinson Racing Chevrolet) every week. This means that they are less likely to show the bias that Wallace and Daugherty on ESPN and Darrell Waltrip on FOX can, do, and will show.

For the record, Wallace did use his position on the SPEED shows to posture himself for the All-Star Race fan vote last year, and constantly promoted his Furniture Row race team when he drove for them. It was a small team, however, that needed the exposure, and Wallace never hesitated to cover or talk about other organizations the rest of the time. Kudos to SPEED and its team for keeping its broadcasts fresh, informative, and without bias – at least until D.W. gets on the SPEED stage or in the booth.

  • Marty Smith is a great contributor to ESPN broadcasts, but he needs to stop doing scripted pieces when asked to do news or analysis — especially when he is not on SportsCenter. As spiky as his hair is, his persona does not lend itself to the Bestwick or Massaro-like anchor/field reporter mold. On NASCAR Now, for example, when Nicole Manske asks Smith to provide feedback on a story, he needs to engage her in a conversational manner, instead of in a scripted, pseudo-dramatic, journalistic tone. Anyone who has read Smith’s columns knows that he views himself and is viewed by others as a down-to-Earth NASCAR fan who happens to be a respected insider of the sport. He seems less like this when he plays the part of average TV reporter. (By the way, ESPN, do not give up on the idea of placing Smith in the garage to get audio from crews and teams that have fallen out of contention for races. He is more useful there than he is drinking soda and eating cookies in the Media Center during the event).

The Chase continues next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where racing lends itself to long green flag runs. Turn here next week to see if ESPN struggles to keep the play-by-play exciting and informative.

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

Editor’s Note: You can hear Doug Turnbull talk racing on the Bellamy Strickland 120 on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. The show airs live from Atlanta Motor Speedway this Sunday from 9-10:30 a.m. and from 12-2 p.m. Podcasts of the show are available on captainherb.net. Also, look forward to some inside coverage of the garage this weekend as he works the race for Frontstretch.com!

Contact Doug Turnbull

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Frank
10/21/2008 01:32 PM
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Regarding Bill Elliott, he never retired outright. When he handed the 9 over to Kahne he said he would like to race part time over the next several years, which he has. Now he said he will retire after the 2008 season. Where did you come up with stating that Bill has said the ‘R’ before? Prior to Junior, Mr. Elliott won the MPD award 16 times. I looked it up so you don’t have to.

KT
10/21/2008 02:59 PM
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Right on..Great article..
I’ve worked in television and know when the director and assistant director are not doing their job… As you said crashes occurred and there was no camera shot. In my day we would have been fired!!!!!!

Paul F.
10/22/2008 10:11 PM
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All I want are these two things. A play-by-play announcer who does play-by-play, and keep the camera on racing.

Jerry Punch/Bill Weber never raise their voices much or call on track action “as it happens” as say the MRN guys. I know on the radio you have to “paint” the action with words, but I think it would add excitement even if I could see it anyway.

The other thing, show racing! “Through the field” is awfully tiresome, the recorded interviews shown midrace are always pointless and kinda fruity, and Shannon Spake is always screaming. The close CLOSE shots of the cars don’t show racing either. I hate watching a battle from the side of someone’s rear bumper. You need to see two cars to see racing. The excitement is in the change of position between two or more cars. And the significance of the change of position is based on where they are on what kind of track. Hell, just put three cameras on the spotter’s stand, I’m happy. I just want to see the track and cars. It’s hard sometimes to get a feel for the track when you never get a good look at it during racing.