The Frontstretch: Does NASCAR Need Digger? by Kurt Smith -- Thursday February 26, 2009

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Does NASCAR Need Digger?

Kurt Smith · Thursday February 26, 2009

 

Sometimes I feel for the Fox Sports people, even if it’s difficult to muster sympathy for them while sitting through infuriatingly bad broadcasts of racing. The artists and animators who created Digger are only trying to entertain, trying to add to the NASCAR broadcast, and some of the backlash has been nothing short of vicious. One of the nicer comments suggested a “Digger as main course” barbecue.

But the sentiment is understandable. The cartoon rodent is one more of the countless distractions that flood a typical NASCAR broadcast these days.

Digger may be amusing to some and annoying to others, but the gopher is more of a symbol of the over-saturization of sports than anything else. Networks never cease to believe that the show always needs more spice, more pizzazz, more dazzle. That racing needs a stimulus package, if you will.

In an article in USA Today, Fox Sports Chairman David Hill was quoted as saying of Digger, “This is a tawdry attempt to develop another revenue stream.” At least he’s honest. And truth be told, it seems to be working. There isn’t anything wrong with that. If Fox wants to sell Digger T-shirts, shot glasses, toilet brushes or other items, that’s fine. Digger is amusing to some of the kids, which is a good thing for NASCAR, even if race start times are clearly NOT geared towards kids. Not the ones who go to school on Mondays, anyway.

Hill also said “I’m trying to walk that line between blatant and subtle.” So far, he’s walking that line about as well as an ardent supporter of Kasey Kahne’s sponsor.

Whether you find him amusing or annoying, Digger is a symbol of the over-saturization of sports.

It seems as though Hill and execs at the other networks, much like the people who rule NASCAR, all share a constant need to add more bells and whistles to the show, as if they will not otherwise receive credit for their role in the sport’s success. Heaven knows, we’ve seen enough tinkering from NASCAR in recent years to make us believe they’ve forgotten why people watch. This isn’t anything new, but as graphics and video technology improve over time, the colors and noises become louder and gaudier. And one day it reaches the point, as it certainly did at Daytona, where the actual event itself is a letdown. Fox’s pre-race show for this year’s 500 (with its tawdry Digger segment) was almost as long as the race itself.

We live in a world of gimmickry where actual substance is either dwarfed or sometimes nonexistent. It is one of the flaws we must accept about capitalism—be it Budweiser frogs, Paris Hilton, or the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But I’m willing to bet that NASCAR’s most devoted fans arrived there through a friend’s or relative’s love of the sport and through seeing some great races, not through the glitter and glitz used by networks to sex up the broadcast.

What do you ultimately remember from the first flag-to-flag broadcast of the 500 in 1979? Do you remember the graphics showing the positions of the first five drivers (which at the time were state-of-the-art, hard as it may be now to believe), or do you remember the fight? You might remember who the announcer was. But if you saw it, you remember who won the race, you remember who was throwing fists, and you remember where the fight took place on the track. Even at the age of 10, it stuck in my mind for weeks. No CBS chalkboard necessary.

NASCAR didn’t become the second biggest sport in America because of boogity, Digger, draft tracks, in-car cams or the Chase. It especially didn’t get there on corporate sponsored extraneous distractions—like the Allstate Good Hands Move, The Ford Cutaway car, or the Aflac trivia question. If it did, a separate show featuring these artifacts would be a ratings grabber on its own. One could argue that NASCAR has succeeded in spite of all of that, which is a testament to the adrenaline that stock cars adorned with the bright colors of American commerce bring out in so many of us. All of the extra tidbits are part of an overall attitude that has done and is still doing damage to NASCAR’s status…the apparent disregard for anything but profit. It reaches the point where one sometimes asks, doesn’t anyone running NASCAR like NASCAR?

NASCAR has gotten to the point where gimmicks often take over the show from the racing. For some nutty reason, networks still believe that racing is boring, the proverbial guys driving in circles. (I’ve often wondered what geometric shape people who absolutely cannot abide circles would prefer. Dodecahedrons? Isosceles trapezoids? Figure-eights?) TV has always felt this way, back to the Wide World of Sports years. Can you even fathom a network today interrupting the Daytona 500 for something like a rodeo or a ski jumping competition? That used to happen, my friends. It was partly because there were far fewer channels on the dial back then, but it’s still difficult to fathom.

There is such a thing as overdoing it with the bells and whistles, and if Mr. Hill is interested, that line he is trying to walk is easy to define by remembering one Simple Truth: that in the end, people are tuning in to watch an auto race.

Stick to that, and fans will be happy. Or at least less unhappy.

Whenever any network deviates from the Simple Truth, the broadcast suffers. They forget when we see the Hollywood Hotel that viewers did not tune in to watch commentators talk. They forget when they go to the cutaway car that viewers either already know what causes an engine to expire or they don’t care, but they are currently missing the race for an explanation anyway. Fox forgets that fans do not want to miss 20 seconds of racing for a silly short film of the current leader with bursting flames surrounding him, as he reminds us that “you’re watching NASCAR on Fox” (as if you’re ever allowed to forget) before a break.

None of the spectacular and probably expensive effects in a broadcast, not even a cartoon gopher, will hold a fan’s interest better than Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon battling for the lead ever will. Not even for the kids. If Fox pushes Digger beyond the point where it could ever be called subtle, it will be yet another part of what is wrong with NASCAR broadcasts. Digger bits aren’t at that level yet, but never underestimate Fox’s ability to make it happen.

Now, dear reader, can you name one sideshow item any network has employed in the last 30 years that has increased your devotion to the sport? Even palatable gadgets like in-car cameras, the running leaderboard, improved screen graphics? Was any of that what turned you into a lifelong fan?

Anyone who has attended a race and has witnessed the spectacle without the distraction knows what I’m talking about. Nothing in the entertainment universe compares to the deafening volume of the engines starting…or the unparalleled excitement of 43 racecars roaring by after the green flag drops. Even on TV it’s pretty cool.

Digger isn’t going to sink NASCAR. But excessive gimmicks aren’t going to help either if fans aren’t enjoying the racing. And one way people can enjoy racing is to be able to simply watch it without near-constant distractions.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Tony Stewart so far has been running very well, proving me as wrong as the day is long about how difficult it would be to turn his team around. A good run at Vegas and I will be convinced he’ll make the Chase, unless someone diverts shop funds to bail out Gene Haas. I may have to do that press conference after all. But I’m not advertising on my armpits. Not even if Apollo Creed asks me to.
  • Is it me or has Dale Earnhardt, Jr. been on the touchy side this season? First his “drivers do enough” rant, then calling Brian Vickers an idiot at Daytona. I don’t know whether the pressure is getting to him, or perhaps he’s weary of having to be the face of NASCAR all of the time. Maybe he’s just drinking too much Amp.
  • Statistics currently project a 36-win season for Matt Kenseth in 2009. Seriously, odds are decent that he could pull off a trifecta in Vegas—he’s won a couple there and is as hot as a DeWalt soldering iron right now. (Yes, I know DeWalt doesn’t make soldering irons, but I fudged it.) Remember, James Bond bet on black 17.
  • You could probably count on one hand how many Hendrick engines prematurely gave out last season, and Mark Martin loses one in just his second points race with HMS. What does that guy have to do to get rid of the dark cloud over him?

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jaymatt
02/27/2009 01:04 AM
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The track camera is rather neat at times, when used sparingly.

“Digger,” the imaginary gopher, groundhog, mole, or some such is just plain stupid and detracts from the seriousness of the racing. At least those idiotic mascots at football, baseball, etc. games are basically used only at halftime, between innings, etc.

Maybe “Larry, Daryl, & Daryl” could hang out with the rodent during red flags to fill time.

Kevin in SoCal
02/27/2009 01:24 AM
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In-car cameras and the scrolling leaderboard add to the racing experience, but they dont make me want to tune in more. I, like most everyone, tune in to watch the race.

jim
02/27/2009 04:42 AM
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juvenile…just another attempt to dumb down what was once a mature sport

SallyB
02/27/2009 06:05 AM
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You hit it perfectly “Doesn’t anyone running Nascar like Nascar?” I’ve contended since he took over that Brian France sees racing with the same contempt that most media does. Other than the ability to put money in his pocket, he feels that gimmicks (the ‘chase’, the ‘Lucky Dog’, etc.) are necessary to keep fans attention.

Speedcouch
02/27/2009 08:32 AM
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Awesome article, Kurt! I couldn’t have said it better! The bells and whistles Fox have used since 2001 simply detract from the reason real race fans watch.

dawg
02/27/2009 08:44 AM
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As annoying as Digger, is(& Digger, & DW together is way beyond annoying.)TNT’s use of the broadcast, as a promo delivery system gets me going the most. I can mute the sound, & listen to MRN, but there’s nothing I can do about those constant damn promos. Enough already. I get it that you have a TV show called Saving Grace, & It stars Holly Hunter. (see repetition works) but you don’t need to keep clubbing me over the head with it. Sometimes I think NA$CAR allows, even encourages these bad broadcasts. Just to soften us up for Pay Per View.

Bill B
02/27/2009 08:59 AM
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NASCAR, Fox and ESPN need to stop worrying about dumbing down the broadcast to attract casual fans and start worrying more about keeping the fans they have. Digger is even more insulting than draft-track.

MJR in VA
02/27/2009 09:45 AM
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“It reaches the point where one sometimes asks, doesn’t anyone running NASCAR like NASCAR?” NO, NO, NO!!! They don’t like it…they like MONEY!!!

NA$CAR:

Now
All we
Seriously
Care
About is
Revenue

MI. Mike
02/27/2009 09:57 AM
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Kurt, you hit the proveriable nail on the head. All good points and well put.

I understand bells, whistles, gimmicks etc. More importantly capitalism. We live in a country founded on just that, if you can make buck go for it. The thing about just that is the market will dictate the demand. I forsee little demand for this Digger nonsense. Anyone following the reader response on the issue wonders why isnt dead yet.

I find it has little positive effect on the business and lots of negative. If 99% of people dont want to buy your widget why continue to shove it down the consumers throat?

chase
02/27/2009 10:13 AM
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Thanks for the great column Kurt! Having watched NASCAR since its early days on TV, perhaps Brian F. should watch those tapes and see just what made NASCAR work and succeed – no gimmicks, pure and simple and accurate coverage by the very adept announcers, astute camera work which picked up virtually all the nuances of racing, etc. The sad thing is that Brian could change it if he wanted to – turn it back to what it was – exciting, nail-biting, don’t want to move far from the TV-racing – get rid of the COTs, the owner points, the top 35 teams, bloody Digger, the way too-long pre-racecast and just give us the racing – thats all we want to see – get rid of the Chris Myers of the NASCAR world who serve no purpose other than promoting the dumbing down of racing – lets just have it as we would were we at the track in person – nothing else is necessary. Thanks!

marshall
02/27/2009 10:31 AM
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FOX has decided that these NASCAR broadcasts are really all about them , not the races . They actually think that fans tune in each week to hear Larry Mac and Hammond relive their history as crew chiefs , not very good ones mind you , and DW rewriting history to suit whatever pointless observation hes trying to make . The Digger idea is just an extension of that idea . FOX is convinced that without the Hollywood Hotel , the cartoon character , the two hundred or so pit reporters , and the folksy banter between analysts , that no one would watch the race broadcasts . The powers at FOX think stock car racing is boring , so they assume that the broadcasts have to be spiced up to hold our attention . They are correct in assuming the racing is boring in many instances , but FOXs’ antics aren’t the answer . True race fans and fans of good tv broadcasting simply rely on the mute button so they can concentrate on the real reason they tune in . THE STOCK CAR RACING !

Linda B
02/27/2009 11:33 AM
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Great article! Digger is so annoying.
I think the main problem with Jr is that after a year with the best team out there, he still did nothing more then he did at DEI. It is becoming much clearer now that Jr is just an average driver and nothing more. There are no more excuses Jr can use as to why he is not winning a lot. It is becoming very clear he is not the greatest and most perfect driver his fans say he is. Jr is very down cause he now knows the world will realize he is not as good as he claimed to be. He knows now there is nothing he can hide behind any longer and the truth is out. HE IS JUST AVERAGE AND NOTHING MORE. That is why he is so down.

FOX
02/27/2009 11:49 AM
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KILL DIGGER!

Kevin in SoCal
02/27/2009 01:04 PM
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MI Mike said: I find it has little positive effect on the business and lots of negative. If 99% of people dont want to buy your widget why continue to shove it down the consumers throat?

Actually, according to FOX, Digger merchandise is selling like crazy online and at the tracks. (shrug)

Chris
02/27/2009 01:27 PM
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Kurt, great article. I hated Digger when they started promoting him. Now that he has an entire family, I can’t stand it. I now turn on the tv about 5 minutes before the green. Fox loves to destroy their coverage (I.E. Football Robot). The next Revenue booster will be a sponsor on Digger’s chest…you wait.

Chris is probably the worst pre-race host I’ve ever seen. His humor is terrible and why poke fun at Dick? If Fox wants more viewers, here’s the secret recipe:

More Racing, fewer commercials, less clutter = Happy Fans.

I’m in sales, and I understand creating revenue, but this is terrible. I wish I could attend every race. That way I could enjoy the race, watch & hear my driver, & not have to deal with tv coverage! No one watches a race and then talks about that excellent coverage of Fox & all their blab. Let us enjoy the damn sport!

Don
02/27/2009 01:32 PM
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I wish someone would run over the stupid Gopher, and what ever idiot came up with him, looks to me like just another way to sell junk to the kids

CP
02/27/2009 01:46 PM
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Hi Kurt,
I totally agree with you, I just want to watch RACING, NOT DIGGER or DOPHER. PLEASE MAKE DIGGER GO AWAY IMMEDIATELY.

Just give me details on the track during racing, catch all the exciting moments, if you need to go to commercial, please put it to a “split screen” so I can see and hear all the things happened on the tract and not depending on MRN.

I don’t want to see the yellow after TV came back from commercial and wondering why.

Again, we just want to watch racing, NOT DIGGER OR GOPHER. TAKE IT AWAY NOW. If you can do that, I maybe able to stop listening to MRN and mute the TV before, during and after the race.Thank you.

kelsey mccosh
02/27/2009 02:06 PM
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Chris Myers “I kid because I care” is the most irritating thing on Fox. He’s WORSE than Digger!

itsborken
02/27/2009 02:55 PM
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I’ve had it with the network broadcasts. I’m starting to turn off the sound and turn on the MRN broadcast instead. I’m tired of losing continuity with the race every time these networks go off on a tangent.

Nelda
02/27/2009 06:21 PM
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The original Digger, who came out of the speedway,once in awhile, & pretended to scream, was funny. This gimmick is no longer funny, & absolutely not “subtle.” The Fox CEO crossed that thin line as their broadcasting began this year. I have to use my “Mute” button way too much these days.

Chris2
02/27/2009 08:13 PM
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Kurt, its interesting that you bring up the 79’ Daytona 500. I was having a discussion about NASCAR this week with someone and our annoyance with all the BS that goes along with the race, (or what NASCAR calls “Product”..odd, never hear another sport call what it does a “product”). I mentioned the 79’ Daytona as an example of how exciting racing is without any of the add-on junk that we have now. In 79’ you had guys running for_alot_less money that weren’t even thinking of the money when they were banging doors at 190mph. Then you had many guys running on_local sponsorship with limited crews and funds..these guys did it for the love of racing..that is what you still see at alot of your local short tracks and where NASCAR came from…if only they remembered what brought fans to begin with. I’m not saying that NASCAR drivers don’t love racing but I am saying like many sports that the money has become way bigger and way more important.

Master Braytak
02/27/2009 08:47 PM
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Racing coverage was at it’s best on ESPN in the late ’80s. The broadcast would start at noon with Ned and Benny on the roof of the broadcast booth overlooking the track. We would get a 5 minute rundown from those two, then cue the invocation and National Anthem, and the cars would be fired up and leaving pit road before 12:15 for the pace laps.

It was never about Ned and Benny, or Dr. Punch on pit road, but rather the action on the track. ESPN would show any and all action no matter what position would be changing, not just the top 5 all day. We were also never treated to a constant barrage of ads and graphics to get in the way of the on track action.

I’ve been a fan for 40 years, or should say was a fan for 40 years. Fox has taken it all away, and I have not watched a race yet this year. I get my fix from Matt’s rundown on Monday and thats better for me now than wading through a crap filled afternoon on Fox. I used to go to a couple of races a year, but that’s over now also, thanks to Fox (especially Dee Double You) and Brain Z. Frances childish meddling.

Rodney
02/27/2009 09:17 PM
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Fox Sports needs to get rid of Digger, John Roberts and Chris “the idiot” Myers. The broadcast would be MUCH better.

Gina
02/27/2009 09:20 PM
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Great article! You hit it right for me when you say that they’ve forgotten that the fans have tuned in to watch the RACE, not all the other garbage! Thanks, it’s a shame that you are preaching to the choir.

Racingdude3
02/27/2009 10:05 PM
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I hope the suits at FOX have enough intelligence to realize that America thinks Digger sucks and they should allow him to become road kill. That’s a “Digger Moment” I would stay and watch.

When it comes to the broadcasters, DW truly has great knowledge and insight of the sport and its’ history. The Hollywood hotel sucks and should be condemned. Jeff Hammond could be better utilized and you coulf get rid of that “put me to sleep” boring dialogue of Chris Myers. You can also get rid of John Roberts as he has no history or relevence to our sport.

If you want to send the ratings through the roof, tie Brian France to a chair with his “brains” pointed skyward. Allow any real NA$CAR fan the opportunity to to pay $20 to swat his “brains” in an attempt to put some real knowledge in them.

John Wyckoff
02/28/2009 12:58 PM
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First of all Digger was meant to bring in a younger audience to NASCAR racing, a much younger audience. The parents who are purchasing the Digger merchandise are going to find themselves selling it two or three years down the road at yard sales for pennies on the dollar. The kids today are a lot more sophisticated these days. To give an example a neighbors 7 year old was asked if he wanted a Digger t-shirt, his answer was I don’t that stupid thing can I have a Carl Edwards shirt instead? His reason was he liked seeing Carl do his back flip when he wins a race. This seems to be the trend with other relatives,friends and neighbors kids also. They are actually more interested in seeing the drivers and racing. To me as far I’m concerned like the boogity,boogity, boogity thing, Digger was cute for let’s say five minutes.

Chip
03/01/2009 03:21 PM
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I’ve been screaming about the dumbing down FOX has applied to race coverage since the 2001 season. I’m thrilled to see the same opinion in about half a dozen posts here as well. Shwew! I thought it was just me. And to answer the question: NO Nascar does not need Digger.

Leona Sewell
03/01/2009 04:05 PM
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Please keeep digger.We LOVE you digger. We need you more than anything.

E. J. Macke
03/01/2009 08:43 PM
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The best thing that Nascar could do, and I hope quickly, is to turn the “Aarons Lucky Dog” into a pitbull and take out “Digger”

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