Mike Neff · Monday April 16, 2007
SPEED Channel has always offered us various forms of entertainment through a typical weekend of NASCAR activity : Tradin’ Paint, Trackside, and NASCAR Live! are just some of the many options a fan can choose from. Nothing, however, seems to compare with the strength of the audience that tunes in for NASCAR RaceDay. The centerpiece of the various pre-race festivities that occur throughout the weekend has grown largely due to the uncensored, honest opinions expressed by the show’s analysts, Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer. Spencer in particular has always been exceptionally opinionated, unafraid to ruffle the feathers of the higher-ups in Daytona about things that he feels are wrong with the sport or how something is being handled.
Until this weekend, that criticism has been met with mild resistance; now, that unadulterated attitude finds itself threatened on the heels of comments that may have finally gone a little too far over the line for someone’s taste.
The controversy centers around the way Spencer handled his opinions on the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. contract negotiations; specifically, his opinion of Earnhardt’s sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge. During the pre-race show for the race in Texas this weekend, Spencer made the comment that Kelley should no longer be involved in negotiating her brother’s contract, having become a hindrance to the process because of her reliance on the family name. Going one step further, Spencer clearly stated that if Elledge worked for anyone else, she'd be fired due to the way she was handling the situation. He even commented on her personal preference to retain the Earnhardt family name, saying she should have dropped it like most women do after marriage.
Such strong opinions are nothing new for neither the show nor Spencer, but after the race was over, there was a new, unprecedented twist for the post-race telecast. As the show went to air, Spencer wasted no time to quickly stand up and apologize to Kelley. He claimed that he took things personally, admitting in public that it was not appropriate for him to make the comments he did during the pre-race telecast. Showing humility and remorse for his actions, it was the most glaring retraction of an opinion Spencer’s had since he’d been hired as a part of the show.
Now, whether his comments were accurate or not is not the piece that is up for debate here. The opinions expressed were those of Jimmy Spencer, and the reason networks want to have him on their broadcasts is that he speaks his mind and that strikes a legitimate chord with the fans. It’s his unfiltered opinion that’s largely responsible for drawing viewers to RaceDay, a unique personality that ultimately serves to drive up their ratings. For Spencer to speak his mind against popular opinion was nothing new; what was new was an apology. Based on patterns established through years of being on the broadcast, it certainly appeared that someone felt that those comments were out of line enough to have taken the time to speak to Spencer, clearly emphasizing in no uncertain terms that he should retract his thoughts as quickly as possible in order to avoid any possible backlash.
If that indeed turns out to be the case, then Spencer's whole appeal to the fan base has now been compromised. If he is going to let himself and his positions be influenced by what others think and feel, ultimately changing what he can say on each broadcast, then he is no longer going to have the appeal to the fans that brings so many of them to the couch each Sunday to watch his shows. If Spencer didn't realize his comments were out of line by himself, making the retraction on his own, then he is no longer the uninfluenced voice that everyone loves. One of the few unique voices in the NASCAR community might as well be permanently silenced, it’s ability to tell the truth permanently compromised by public opinion…or private dissatisfaction by the powers that be.
Today's attitudes of political correctness in the sterilized sports environment, where everyone is afraid of stepping on someone else’s toes, has made it nearly impossible to find unabashed opinions on a broadcast television program as it is. Nowadays, it seems any special interest group or corporate behemoth can easily reel a show in due to their power and influence. A classic example of this phenomenon was SPEED Channel’s Pit Bulls program, a show where journalists were able to voice their opinions without fear of retribution. Debuting a couple of years ago to strong initial ratings, the program continually allowed for insider points of view, showcasing to fans a wide range of opinions they were previously unaware of in the sport, many of which weren’t all that positive towards NASCAR. It didn't take long for the sanctioning body to react, reportedly putting excessive pressure on SPEED to pull the show from the very beginning. Eventually, they succeeded; the program only lasted one season before being pulled.
Hopefully, this situation proves to be an isolated incident where Jimmy realized he had simply allowed his own personal opinions to come into play while speaking about a private issue with which he was not familiar. If he is able to move on and continue to have the kind of attitude that brings people to listen to his shows, giving the fans an untainted view of how he views the sport and its problems, then the popularity of his programs should remain at a high level. If not, he will be just another emasculated mouthpiece for NASCAR that spews the same company line drivel that fans have grown so accustomed to. With one politically motivated decision, NASCAR RaceDay now could find itself heading towards an irreversible downward slide.
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