The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Are NASCAR Broadcasters Getting Too Impartial? by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday October 9, 2008

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Last week, former NBA star and current ABC/ESPN analyst, Brad Daugherty, announced that his fledgling Cup team has formed a “technical alliance” with Michael Waltrip Racing. The JTG car, to be piloted by Marcos Ambrose and sponsored by Little Debbie, will naturally field Toyotas as a result. I wish all involved the best in this new endeavor. Certainly, Daugherty faces a daunting task getting his new team up to speed for the Cup Series, and I wish him more success than some other athletes from the stick and ball sports who have attempted the same with limited results. He’s off to a good start with a driver, at least: Ambrose is both a talented and likeable guy who’ll serve him well.

Meanwhile, officials at MWR have announced they are still moving forward with their efforts to field a fourth Cup team next season. That means that however tight the alliance might be between MWR and JTG, they will legally be separate entities. Whether this sort of alliance violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the new rule that will limit teams to a maximum of four entries is a topic for another column. And no, I’m not picking on Toyota here. When Jimmie Johnson referred to Tony Stewart as his “teammate” for next year — even though Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing will be separate entities — that tells a reasonable person something.

Anyways, what bothers me is a completely different angle of this thing. With one stroke of the pen, we have yet another TV “journalist” getting paid to comment on and analyze races, while also accepting checks from a sponsor and manufacturer who he’ll have a chance to promote during his time on the air — to the exclusion of others.

This isn’t a new problem. In addition to paid relationships with sponsors and carmakers, some NASCAR TV types have familial relationships with competitors. That’s the nature of the sport where so many sets of fathers and sons and brothers have competed. Ned Jarrett was broadcasting races for ESPN while his son Dale was out there racing. Terry Cook’s wife was a pit reporter during Truck Series broadcasts. Benny Parsons called some races his brother Phil competed in. And obviously, you have Darrell Waltrip calling races his brother Michael competes in.

Michael Waltrip — (in)famous for his marketability — uses every opportunity to sell his sponsors and their products.

But there are differences from the announcers now and the announcers then. When it came to calling races where his son Dale was a factor, Ned Jarrett was the consummate broadcast professional in most instances. He’d refer to Dale Jarrett simply as “Jarrett,” occasionally lapsing into calling him DJ but almost never taking sides as a fellow driver battled with Dale for the win. Ned also didn’t go out of the way to note what his son was doing when DJ wasn’t running well. Of course, the most glaring exception to Jarrett’s professional detachment was his call of the final laps of the 1993 Daytona 500. With Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt battling hard for the win, Ned Jarrett began urging on his son and offering him advice he’d never hear. But since it was so completely out of character for him, most fans found that call endearing rather than annoying — although one person disagreed. The next week at Rockingham, Ned Jarrett sought out Dale Earnhardt, hat in hand, and apologized for what he felt was a grievous breach of professional ethics in favoring his son. Dale Earnhardt just grinned and told him, “Don’t forget, Ned, I’m a daddy too” in letting him off the hook.

Now compare that to Darrell Waltrip today, who makes no bones about the fact he’s one of “Mikey’s” biggest cheerleaders. He’ll find any reason possible to mention his brother in the booth, even when the driver of the No. 55 car is running laps down as a slow moving chicane to lead lap cars. Waltrip constantly swears that he’s seeing real improvement in MWR despite any on track evidence to the contrary, and he mentions his younger brother’s sponsors every chance he gets. It might be “Labonte in the 43 car,” but it’s usually “Mikey in the NAPA Toyota” when DW’s calling the race.

I guess the trouble really started brewing when Toyota decided they were going to go NASCAR racing midway through FOX’s first TV contract. Darrell Waltrip signed deals with the manufacturer to run Toyotas for his team, appear in a series of truly bad TV ads for them, and even run a few Truck races at the wheel of a Toyota. Larry McReynolds also received financial support from Toyota for a racing team he was trying to run at the time. And both broadcasters all but tripped over their tongues touting Toyotas and their commitment to the sport in every broadcast.

For newer fans of the sport, let me explain a little about how this all works. There’s a firm called Joyce Julius that analyzes each and every race broadcast, sentence by sentence and frame by frame. They carefully document how many minutes each sponsor’s logo is shown clearly and in focus during a race broadcast, counting every mention of a sponsor during the race as well. It doesn’t matter if that driver is winning or running 43rd; it only matters how many minutes those logos are shown clearly and in focus, as well as how many times those corporations are mentioned. When the numbers are tallied up at the end of a race broadcast review, the company compares how many minutes of focus that company got and compares it to how much they’d have had to pay to buy a similar amount of TV advertising during the same broadcast. Sponsors then evaluate their spending on Cup sponsorship by that ratio. That’s why you’ve seen some companies that have formerly backed lesser Cup teams decide they’re better off buying TV commercial time rather than backing a team that isn’t running all that well. If you buy ads, you know you’re going to get airtime. But if your driver falls out on the first lap of the race and is never shown again… you get little to no exposure for your investment.

Thus, when a TV broadcaster is taking money from a company and using his position on the broadcast team to give them “mentions” and direct the coverage towards a particular car, they are repaying their corporate benefactors. In doing so, they are committing a grievous breach of journalistic ethics, the sort that get real reporters fired.

Let’s say, for instance, a print reporter was found to have been taking money from the Obama (or McCain) campaigns and was slanting his stories and coverage to favor his benefactor and denigrate the opposing candidate. That reporter would be out on his or her ass in the blink of an eye, and would be lucky to ever work in that field again.

In a perfect world, there are folks who sell NASCAR broadcast commercial minutes, and there are the broadcasters who call and produce the races — two entities which should be completely divorced with the same level of separation as church and state. Yes, the TV networks need to, and obviously want to, make money broadcasting NASCAR races by selling commercials. But the broadcasters are there to tell the story of the event however it unfolds. If the driver of the Home Depot car is dominating the race, well, it’s just too bad that Lowe’s bought all those commercial TV minutes when their boy is a lap off the pace. The Home Depot car gets broadcast time, while the Lowe’s car does not because those responsible for televising the race are there to show the story, not appease corporations. Next week, the roles of the two drivers may be reversed, so it could all balance out in the end. And if it doesn’t … that’s the way the competition shook out.

But right from Jump Street, FOX ushered in a new era in race broadcasting in 2001. Their very first major NASCAR event was the Bud Shootout, and when the drivers’ names and pictures of their cars were shown to set the field, only those sponsors who had bought TV commercials during the broadcasts had their logos shown on the cars. In contrast, any corporations that didn’t buy ads had their cars shown with the logos airbrushed out. The move caused instant outrage, and FOX had to back down.

Still, next time they show the field on pit road, notice which cars the network tends to focus on — you can bet it will be the ones whose sponsors bought TV ads during the subsequent broadcast. It’s still being done, just much less subtly now. In an era where UPS was a major sponsor during the race broadcasts but Dale Jarrett was running poorly, somehow or another the UPS car always managed to get more screen time than a guy whose car was running sixth. We’re not longer watching a sports broadcast, we’re watching an unending litany of advertising billboards. And meanwhile, in the booth and in the studio, certain supposed journalists are adding their own drumbeat with their constant mentions of favored drivers and corporations while trying to get the cameras refocused on the appropriate cars. Lots of cars get towed back to the garage area after wrecks, but note which cars the cameras seem hypnotized by as they are hauled away. Listen for which drivers get interviewed after a wreck or a blown engine … and you’ll notice the pattern that develops.

Michael Waltrip isn’t going to make many lists of one of the best NASCAR drivers ever born, but he will go down in history as one of the best marketers a sponsor could enter a deal with. Yeah, Waltrip might run lousy a lot, but he’s going to get his face on TV and tout his sponsors. His brother will help see to that during the FOX part of the season; then, Waltrip will appear on a bunch of panel discussion shows during the week and keep plugging those sponsors as shamelessly as he can get away with. It’s an art form to him, but a major annoyance to many fans I speak to — and it’s one of the reasons I haven’t watched an episode of This Week In NASCAR / Inside Nextel Cup in years.

You might compare this madness to the late night TV shows. Nobody pretends otherwise, but Letterman and Leno are entertainers — not journalists. They want big name guests to draw the TV ratings and sell TV commercials during their programs, while the big stars want a chance to appear and tout their latest film, TV show, or album. Their staffs are trying to book guests that they feel bleary-eyed Americans might stay up to see, not those whose movie companies are willing to buy ads during the broadcast for. Meanwhile, the journalists in the industry are the film critics who pick or pan a film based on what they thought of it, getting no compensation from those studios to do so. If they’re caught, they’re out a job.

I can’t ever recall an NFL broadcast where an analyst tried to promote an advertiser’s product. You never hear them say, “The defense looks a little flat. They might all want to try an AMP energy drink” or “Look at the way those Nike athletic shoes are allowing the receivers to pivot on this slick field!” So, why do NASCAR fans have to put up with this boorishness week in and week out? My guess is because the broadcasters think ya’ll are too stupid to notice it.

I think it’s time the networks sit down and decide to act professionally. During a race broadcast, it should be the “20 car” or “Tony Stewart” but never the “Home Depot Chevy” (And the same goes for all other competitors, of course.) Show the action no matter what sponsor logos are in view; there’s enough damn commercials without turning the broadcast into a three hour long one. If a broadcaster has a financial relationship with a sponsor, that should be revealed, and he should be compelled not to talk about or even mention those sponsors during a broadcast. Sure, the drivers need to be able to plug their backers, and if they win or run well, they will get their chance. But direct post-race interviews to drivers who might have something interesting to say — that’s what the fans want to hear after a race, not drivers backed by broadcast sponsors.

Race broadcasters make a comfortable living, and they’re entitled to it. They’ve reached an elite level through hard work and success at their fields of endeavor, whether it’s as a journalist, a driver, or a crew chief. They need to live with those salaries, not try to supplement them through commercial work or alliances with key players in the sport who have an interest in getting air time during broadcasts.

Me, I’ve never gotten close enough to the game; I’ve never been offered much beyond a few free ball caps and beers. I’m happy out here in my own little orbit, a safe distance from the big planet. But back in the day, I got a little too close to the sun in the music industry. I watched big name disk jockeys in this market accept money, drugs, and sexual favors to play and promote certain albums and songs on their programs. I also knew of record stores that lied to Billboard about which albums were selling in an attempt to drive a disk up the charts. When all was said and done, it ended badly for those involved, and I was happy to have kept a safe distance. That close encounter forever soured me on the music industry, however — except for Rock & Roll. Some things — Harley Davidsons, Rock & Roll, and stock car racing — are too pure and holy to sacrifice to financial expediency. As such, I hope the TV networks will impose some sort of journalistic ethics on their key players before the line between what’s a commercial and what’s a race broadcast gets any fuzzier.

(For the record – I do not get paid anything by Harley Davidson. I paid for mine, and the folks at Smaltz’s Harley Davidson were nice enough to give me a free ball cap and T-shirt.)

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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10/09/2008 03:42 AM

Not that I disagree with the main arguement of the article, I just have to add my twist to how things should be done.

Instead of never saying “The Home Depot” car, I think that sponsors should pay for air-time to get their car highlighted if it isn’t running up front… or wrecking. For example, instead of seeing a 60 second commercial for Lowes, I would much rather see 60 seconds of Johnson racing while they mention the fact that he is driving the Lowe’s car.

In short, what it comes down to, is that we are already watching 43 sponsors every week interrupted by commercials paid for, for the most part, by those very same sponsors. Thus, we miss out on watching racing due to the fact that we have to be reminded that a driver has a sponsor on his car.

Don’t even get me started on having to miss the race to watch a NASCAR commercial telling me that I should be watching NASCAR. ARGH!

Carl D.
10/09/2008 07:38 AM

Fred, your suggestion may sound good, but the sponsors will never give up straight commercials just to have their cars shown on track for 60 seconds. And personally, I’d rather keep the commercials and the race coverage as separate as possible. That said, I’d much rather watch Kasey Kahne run around at the back of the pack than to have to endure him fulfilling “sponsorship opportunities” for the Allstate gals.

10/09/2008 07:47 AM


If I remember correctly, this issue became a big problem a few years ago when Cracker Barrel was the race sponsor at AMS. Apparently the check they wrote to be race sponsor wasn’t large enough to include the slush funds to NA$CAR and broadcasting partner (FOX, I think) for tv time mentioning. I think Cracker Barrel thought they were entitled to more brand mentioning during the broadcast since they were the race sponsor.

It’s just all about the money.

10/09/2008 07:53 AM

Thank you for putting the following into words: “There’s a firm called Joyce Julius that analyzes each and every race broadcast, sentence by sentence and frame by frame. They carefully document how many minutes each sponsor’s logo is shown clearly and in focus during a race broadcast, counting every mention of a sponsor during the race as well.”

I have stated many times here, mostly when people rag on Mikey for “blocking-the-leader” or such, while being lapped, the longer a driver stays in contact with the leaders of the race, for good or for bad, the more “exposure” he gets, the more “points” he gets in the advertising world!

Maybe not every time a driver tries to stay ahead of another car, but I am sure most!

In this case, “points” = $$$$ and the ability to sell sponsorships!

And that is another shortcoming of current race broadcasting, coverage only includes the top three or four drivers, the others are forgotten about during the course of a race. Except of course for the elite 12 that make the chase.

Makes you wonder why sponsors are so anxious to jump on board the NA$CAR freight train because their chances of getting mentioned during a race are slim to none!

But again, maybe that’s why we are seeing a softenening in the sponsorship arena!

10/09/2008 10:44 AM

In my opinion DW doesn’t give Michael any more credit than he is due. Maybe he doesn’t choose to totally ignore Mikey as other commentators tend to. And as far as giving NAPA or Toyota a plug, it doesn’t matter who is driving that car. Certain companies pay money for those plugs. Pay impartial attention yourself and you will see. Now I have to go fill up my Pontillac Starfire with Bumocco race fuel.

10/09/2008 10:49 AM

I don’t think letting sponsors pay the networks for extra coverage is a good idea. Can you imagine a race where NAPA paid even more money to the network to cover their car? We’d spend half of the race watching the 55 car run around in 40th and never see the leaders (except when they’re lapping Mikey).

Something else I’ve noticed, sometimes during a race, the leaders will pit under yellow, but some of the cars running in the back will stay out for track position. It’s at this point in time when the network decides to show the “How they’re running” team graphic. And surprise: MWR has three entries in the top ten! And the broadcasters always comment on what a good run they’re having. I scream at the TV every time this happens.

10/09/2008 10:58 AM

I don’t see the situation changing anytime soon , probably never . The sponsors demand that their products be mentioned at every opportunity , and if the networks were to threaten to stop the constant shilling by on-air folks , the sponsors will threaten to pull their advertising or ask for far cheaper ad rates . Guess who will win that battle .
Chris Economaki has often opined that the vast majority of auto race announcers should have lost their jobs because of obvious bias . And denials aside , the announcers and producers get paid to shill . In subtle ways somtimes , in direct monetary fashion mostly . Why do you think the fuel supplier is mentioned with every pit stop of every team while the tire supplier is very often refered to as “ and four tires “ .
And the drivers . The shilling has gotten out of control because it was allowed to . Advertisers demanded their name and logo be presented to the fans at all times , in every fashion . The marketing types at NASCAR over the years felt that too much would be just right . The end result is Michael Waltrip who can’t and won’t utter a sentence without making a commercial out of it . And now , the trend has been established and will not be allowed to change . And other than the Tony Stewart Subway commercials , you’ll notice the drivers are always wearing their driving suits when it would make no sense to do so . Are the advertisers afraid we won’t recognize a driver without his uniform , or is it to cram more logos in .

10/09/2008 11:50 AM

It is a bit sickening. I tend to trun down the sound on the TV and turn up the radio….(most times it’s Sirius) it’s a lot more exciting that way.

10/09/2008 12:00 PM

This is also what has made TV coverage of the races rather boring at times. The networks just love to do the close up shots of the 4 wheeled billboards rolling around the track. The shots are so close that you usually can’t see any other cars or have any idea of where on the track they are or how the car is really handling. They might as well park em on the pit lane and do still shots so there is no blur at all in the billboard.

10/09/2008 12:16 PM

What else would really expect from Faux?

If fans want to dial back the commercialism.
Head for the local short track. And for Gods sake wheneaver ANY Waltrip is on TV, hit the mute.

Carl D.
10/09/2008 01:12 PM

dawg… That Mute button is a wonderful thing. Not only does it work wonders on those pesky Waltrips, but it’s also helpful for when the National Anthem is being belted out by a 3rd-rate hip-hop artist with way more lungs than talent or respect.

scott b
10/09/2008 01:20 PM

I am in agreement here.

Ned Jarrett’s call of DJ’s Daytona win was a great moment in broadcasting, because it was real… a father watching his son take the biggest event in his sport. The fact that he rarely let his guard down while on the air made the rare exception even more special.

On the other hand, the shilling many current broadcasters are doing, particular DW for Mikey, is just plain annoying.

Bill B
10/09/2008 01:26 PM

Amen Matt but your preachin’ to the choir. The NASCAR broadcasters are shameless when it comes to favortism. You are right, no other sport is as blatant but then no other sport has the same history and business model as NASCAR. Still, the reporters should strive to be impartial and the networks should take the prospective applicant’s current affiliations into account when filling front line broadcasting positions.

10/09/2008 02:53 PM

When the drivers interject 10 sponsor names in their 10-second post-race interview, I don’t necessarily have a problem with it. But when announcers do it, it looks completely bush league.

Who the heck says “I’m going to go fill up the car with Amoco Car Fuel, dear, need anything?” No, its completely silly, and makes NASCAR in general look silly.

The rampant ads on the cars people understand, that’s fine.

don mei
10/09/2008 03:49 PM

M. Waltrip is also a shill for Nascar. I turned off last weeks “This Week” when MW started explaining how Nascar made the right call at Talledega. He really is a shameless jerk.

Shayne Flaherty
10/09/2008 03:56 PM

I’ve become immune to the shameless plugs and mostly robotic statements from drivers.

I do love me some Butt Paste and Anti-Monkey Butt Powder though.
10/09/2008 08:07 PM

The cracker barrell mention is correct. If you notice it was in 2001 to present the races all became the “atlanta 500” “dover 400” or next week its “winston cup racing from talladega” “sprint cup series at martinsville” instead of the actual race names. No more Hanes 500, MBNA 400, Cracker Barrell 500. You only got a race name mention if you paid big bucks to the network.. TO CALL THE RACE BY ITS ACTUAL NAME! What a pathetic joke that was. It wouldn’t matter if races ever had sponsors anymore.

10/09/2008 11:40 PM

I find it humorous that Harley Davidson was an example of purity. Harley Davidson is an excellent study on marketing. In the CEO’s own words, “we suggest personal freedom and independence.” Suggest. And they provide as many chrome and leather accessories as can be manufactured to help you be unique in this quest for freedom. I have nothing against Harley Davidson, I live ten miles from the original headquarters, but to call them pure is ridiculous.

Actually, calling HD pure while bitching about Nascar partiality, is the ultimate in hypocrisy. After reading Frontstrech for the last two weeks, I’m finding that is a common problem here.

In general, why does anyone expect Nascar to act in its fan’s best interests instead of its own? Does any other for-profit corporation do that? Why are we expecting socialist tactics from Nascar? Is Nascar here to make money or to please everyone else?

10/10/2008 03:44 AM

Christopher I was going to mention the same thing. I feel so bad for the commentators who have to say ‘They’re filling up Driver’s X’s car with Sunoco fuel!!!” They sound like idiots. Shame on ESPN for whoring out their commentators like that. And then are we supposed to take what these shills say seriously?

10/10/2008 09:14 AM

Why all the hate for Michael? What in the world has he ever done to any of you to generate this kind of bile?

10/10/2008 12:29 PM

Don’t forget about FOX in 2001 “cartooning” the cars in their pre- race graphics for those sponsors that did not pay the big bucks to them. You’d see a bunch of 2nd tier cars with no decal on the graphics for about the first 5 or 6 races. Really it’s not different than when FOX took over and ESPN’s crew had to go the the helo pad or air strip to interview drivers because they were not allowed in the track.

It’s all about money and greed. Remember it wasn’t that long ago where Cup was running 35 car fields.