The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Pit Reporters Bring Their A-Game To Texas by Doug Turnbull -- Tuesday November 4, 2008

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There were two major storylines Sunday in the Dickies 500: Jimmie Johnson coughing up some of the points lead to Carl Edwards and Edwards’ unbelievable stretching of fuel to win the race. Johnson’s problems became entrenched before the midpoint of the race when the No. 48 team fell back to 25th in the running order and was not only lapped by Edwards, but never in a good position to get the Lucky Dog and drive back into contention. The latter of the two was a storyline that no one expected to ever be possible.

Carl Edwards commanded the race, leading the most laps and putting good cars multiple laps down early. The sheer dominance of Edwards and the No. 99 car made the fact of him relying on fuel mileage to win the race surprising. Soon after, crew chief Bob Osborne had Edwards take four tires on his last pit stop and he fell from first to sixth place. It was then that ESPN pit reporter Dave Burns mentioned that the No. 99 team may try to run the rest of the race on the remaining tank of fuel. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the broadcasting booth could not believe this was happening, and the entire broadcasting crew marveled and chronicled Edwards’ plight as the laps ticked down. They showed the telemetry graphics of Edwards’ throttle response, RPM, and mph reading, displaying how he was working to save the two-tenths of a lap of fuel he needed to win. The crew also collectively spelled out the consequences of Edwards and Osborne making this gamble.

In the end, the excitement in the voices of the boys in the booth made the race seem as if Edwards were nose to nose with another driver approaching the checkered flag. This was similar to last week’s end-of-the-race drama, as Jimmie Johnson passed almost the entire Top 10 in the waning laps. Dave Burns’ heads up monitoring of and reporting of the No. 99 team’s radio communication was the key in breaking the improbable fuel gamble story during Sunday’s race. Kudos go to Burns, the producers, and the person in charge of archiving the radio traffic for bringing this incredible development to light.

The rest of the pit road team may have turned in one of their best performances of the season. Jamie Little had a funny moment during pre-race ceremonies while interviewing Carl Edwards in a pickup truck circling the race track. She almost fell down and made mention of it, but recovered well and continued that interview — and was more than adequate for the rest of her day on pit road. Mike Massaro and Shannon Spake made few errors, while Spake managed to score a couple of big interviews and conducted them at the level that the viewer wants to see. Pit road has been a struggle at times for the ESPN team, and this turnaround in the home stretch of the season bodes well the for their coming NASCAR coverage in 2009.

The boys in the booth — Punch, Petree, and Jarrett — really did not waver in terms of quality for Sunday’s race. The continuing problem in the booth has been Dr. Jerry Punch’s reluctance to call more of the race in his lead announcer role. He still seems to stick to the scripted lines he has either written or been given, and recites a shallow bank of facts about each driver. Even though he works hard at what he does, has a deep knowledge of the sport, and visits with drivers and crew chiefs to garner more information for the race, Punch still fails to reflect that as he calls the action on the track. In fact, Jarrett and Petree still call most of the shots in the booth, without Punch giving much direction as to what to talk about. Punch still needs to improve if he wants to mature to the viability level of Mike Joy on FOX or Bill Weber on TNT. Jarrett and Petree, on the other hand, analyzed the race well, despite being wrong about Edwards not being able to make the end of the race on fuel.

ESPN continues to use lots of driver-team radio traffic during races, in trying to keep pace with other racing media outlets like NASCAR.com’s Trackpass and DirecTV’s NASCAR HotPass. Playing these transmissions directly lets fans see the frustration or elations of their drivers, and ESPN played into the frustration part of this aspect late in the race’s first run, as many drivers complained about the handling of their race cars. Though there was plenty of radio being played during the race, there were a few transmissions that should have made the air.

When David Gilliland hooked Juan Pablo Montoya’s car (and his own) into the wall, an array of driver’s comments on their radios, and Gilliland’s and Montoya’s radio traffic, would have been nice to hear. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who had already gotten on his soapbox earlier in the weekend about some moves NASCAR should make, said that the S.O.B.’s should be banned from racing for life (though he did not know the whole story). Other drivers also probably had some opinions on what happened on the track, but none aired on ESPN. Fortunately, neither Montoya nor Gilliland turned down ESPN interviews and each said approximately what viewers expected them to say.

Another lacking part of the ESPN broadcast, as always, was the Up to Speed segment. An update of the cars in the field, in their running order, only happened twice. The first time that the pit reporters started running down the field was on Lap 85, when they updated the Top 10. The next Up to Speed was used to cover cars running 11th through 20th on lap 172. This was just past the midpoint of the race. After that, there were no more Up to Speed segments; some could have been used to update comers and goers from the Top 10 and 20.

Possibly as a result from some of the disorganization in the booth, viewers lost track of the progress of a couple of drivers that made big swings in their running positions. Brian Vickers used tire strategy to get to second position in the middle of the race, but suddenly was running off the lead lap. After one of the Up to Speed segments, Allen Bestwick chirped in to mention that Vickers had to make an unscheduled pit stop and lost lots of track position. ESPN also never mentioned Kurt Busch having engine trouble and going to the garage until the blue No. 2 was already being worked on. Another Dodge driver, Kasey Kahne was having a modestly consistent day, running in the Top 15, before suddenly being two laps down. The way I found out that Kahne was two laps down is because Earnhardt asked where he was on the track on his radio and his crew said he was two laps down. ESPN never mentioned any reason as to why Kahne lost the position, and only mentioned Kahne when he got penalized for jumping the restart. Another driver that ESPN could have updated more often, incorporating driver audio and an interview with a crew chief, would have been Joey Logano, who finished the day as the lowest-placed driver who had not had on-track trouble. His foray into Cup racing is supposed to be huge, but has been anything but that, so far.

Speaking of Cup debuts, ESPN did not drum up the debut of Brad Keselowski very much in the pre-race broadcast. The fact that he and Logano both made the show was miraculous enough, and the crew did a great job of covering that during qualifying. If Mark Martin ever retires, Keselowski probably will drive the No. 5 Hendrick Chevy and be a Cup star one day. ESPN redeemed itself from the pre-race snub, however, by giving the young driver lots of airtime during the race and praising him for his Top 20 finish in his debut. In fact, there were many times where he was running in front of his teammate Jimmie Johnson. Some audio and interviews from both Keselowski’s and Logano’s teams would have been good filler during some of the less exciting part of the race.

ESPN’s coverage of NASCAR is nowhere near excellent yet; however, the strides that the network is making do deserve applause. This team has the advantage of staying together all year long, so they can refine their skills and build their chemistry. Since they have spent so much time together, their output should be better by now.

Here are some other observations noticed on NASCAR TV this week:

  • SPEED Channel’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series pre-race show took the cake as far as NASCAR entertainment this week. Since the race was on Halloween night, the entire on-air crew each were dressed as a character from the Wizard of Oz. The show’s host Krista Voda (who always does a great job) was dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West, and looked nothing like herself. Pit reporter Ray Dunlap was dressed as Dorothy — red slippers and all — while fellow reporter Adam Alexander was dressed as Glenda the Good Witch, and even laid a big smooch on Todd Bodine and Max Papis (that probably did not sit too well with some of NASCAR’s more traditional crowd). In the booth, Rick Allen (the Tin Man), Phil Parsons (the Scarecrow), and Michael Waltrip (the Cowardly Lion) each played their goofy parts brilliantly. Let’s give props to SPEED Channel for loosening the apron strings a little bit (um, Dorothy) and having a good time in Texas.
  • SPEED produces a quality product that is often overlooked, since it does not have the broadcasting rights to either the Cup or Nationwide Series. One facet of the channel’s lineup never mentioned in this column is The SPEED Report, which airs every Sunday night at 7 p.m. On this week’s installment, Ralph Sheheen and Krista Voda co-anchored the newscast and provided quick recaps of most of the week’s racing events, but with enough depth for each series that viewers had a good understanding of each event. Ironically, The SPEED Report gives more airtime for the Nationwide Series and Truck Series than This Week in NASCAR does despite covering all of motorsports.

Just two more races remain for ESPN to continue building its momentum toward 2009. Turn here next week to see how they and the other networks covered the weekend’s activities in Phoenix.

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

You can hear Doug talk racing every week on the Bellamy Strickland 120. the show airs this Saturday, from 6:30 until 8 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com.

Contact Doug Turnbull

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Bob
11/04/2008 12:43 PM
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There is no such thing as a good car being put a lap down! If you get lapped, you are junk.

HankZ
11/04/2008 01:33 PM
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Funny how Edwards dominates on race day and its considered he “commanded the race”. But when Johnson dominates a race, he “stinks up the field”.