The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: SPEEDing Through A Critique of Daytona 500 Week in 3,000 Words or Less by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday February 17, 2009

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Now that Speedweeks at Daytona are over, it is time to look back and reflect upon what we have seen, and what we have been provided for our viewing pleasure by NASCAR’s media partners for Speedweeks (FOX, Speed, and ESPN2).

Before I begin, I should state this. Speedweeks is supposed to be the most important time of the year in NASCAR, at least for the television partners. This is because the races at Daytona during Speedweeks are the biggest events of the year for each series that races. This includes the ARCA Re/MAX Series that had their season opener back on February 7, in addition to NASCAR’s three national series. As a result, telecasts of said races should be held to a greater standard. It is to this standard that I have to critique the broadcasts.

Unfortunately, this idea that the biggest races of the year should be the best in execution on television doesn’t work very well when the biggest races of the year for these divisions of motorsport are the first races of the year. Growing pains are to be expected at the beginning of each season. Technical glitches unfortunately happen. These are either completely unnoticeable, or they can significantly affect the broadcast, like the sound dropping out during the ARCA race that I touched upon last week.

For the sake of clarity, and chronological order, I’ll start my critique on Thursday’s coverage which was aired on the Speed Channel.

During NASCAR RaceDay (which was treated as the legitimate Gatorade Duels pre-race show, as opposed to the pre-pre-race show that it typically is), they ran a montage of clips of past Gatorade Duels. I know that I’m nitpicking here, but one of the clips run from 1984 actually did not occur in a Uno Twin 125 that year. The crash between the No. 34 of Jim Hurlburt and the No. 60 of Natz Peters pictured (the one where the No. 60 spun, hit the inside wall, then ricocheted out in Hurlburt’s path, resulting in a massive fireball) actually occurred in a Non-Qualifiers, or “Consi” race held the day after the Twins in 1984. A classic crash that did occur in a Twin 125 that year was Randy LaJoie’s crash bottom first into the concrete wall (flying over an Armco barrier in the process) coming out of turn 4 and subsequent barrel roll.

To Speed’s credit, when 2 pm came around, it was time to start. The pre-race festivities at the track (Color Guard, National Anthem, etc.) started as soon as the clock struck two.

In the booth, Joy, McReynolds and Waltrip were their typical selves for the broadcast. I am perfectly fine with them. They definitely seem to be enjoying themselves up there. There was some flubbing of words at times (Ex: “flouble” instead of double), but nothing serious.

I liked the color coding system that they used to help people understand the qualifying system for the 500, which could only be described as convoluted at best. On the scroll at the top of the screen, the positions with a gray (or silver, can’t really tell) background were already in the field. Green backgrounds represented one of the drivers outside the top 35 in 2008 owners’ points in position to lock themselves into the race, either by being one of the two best non-locked in cars, by their qualifying speed, or by the Past Champions’ Provisional (Terry Labonte). The yellow background meant that a driver had work to do in order to lock themselves into the field. The red background, which only came into play after the first Duel was over, meant that a driver had officially been knocked out of the Daytona 500. This is something that Speed has used in the past.

Also, when it came to taking commercial breaks during cautions, Speed took great pains to make sure that they would be back from commercial before the green flag flew once again. They definitely cut it close a couple of times, though.

However, I do have a couple of issues with the coverage.

One, when the second caution came out on lap 26 of Duel #1 for Mike Skinner’s No. 23 Chevrolet stalling in turn 3 due to a fuel pressure issue, the broadcast crew failed to mention why the caution flag came out. The cameras had shown Skinner’s Mahindra Tractors Chevrolet running slowly on the apron in turn 1 while the race was still green. A commercial break followed afterwards. When Speed returned from commercial, the yellow flag was out with seemingly no explanation. I had figured that Skinner hadn’t made it back to the pits and that that was the reason for the caution. However, Speed (and by extension, FOX) cannot use a policy for covering a race that is similar to how the NJDOT signs roads. People like to be notified why something is going on. Otherwise, like driving your car in many areas of Northern New Jersey, it becomes complete guesswork. The cameras never caught the No. 23 stalled out on the track, nor did they catch the car being pushed into the garage by a wrecker. All the on-air talent revealed was that Skinner had a fuel system failure, and that was about it.

Another issue was the idea of showing a full screen shot of A.J. Foyt on screen during green flag racing while Foyt was sitting on Tony Stewart’s pit box. Now, I’m perfectly fine with the crew pointing this out, mentioning that Stewart is paying homage to Foyt by running his famous No. 14 and that Foyt is Stewart’s idol and so on and so forth. However, does Foyt need to have the full screen on him when there’s racing going on? I could understand doing that during a caution, but not under green. The TV audience could have missed something important as a result.

Friday’s Camping World Truck Series’ NextEra Energy Resources 250 brought another series of issues to my attention.

First off, there were some issues with the scroll on the top of the screen. Incorrect numbers were showing up next to certain drivers’ names. For example, I saw Chase Austin’s name placed next to the No. 77 and the No. 24 a couple of times (for the record, Austin is running the No. 32 for Trail Motorsports). I also saw Brett Raymer’s name next to the No. 5 (which was driven by Mike Skinner, Raymer drove No. 85).

Another issue that I had was with the split screens that were used at times, mainly for replays. The larger screen on the right would be used for the replays while the live race action would be shown in a small window in the upper left hand corner of the screen. I’m happy that I can continue to see live action while they show a replay, but can they make the live action picture a little bigger? I couldn’t see all much of the live action while they were showing replays.

There was a picture issue right after the caution came on lap 80 for the crash involving Jason White, Rick Crawford and David Starr. Basically, what happened here was that the picture went out all together for a couple of seconds. Of course, when that happens, you’re never 100% sure that it was an issue on Speed’s end, or on my end, but I still wasn’t pleased. Luckily, the picture returned after about 3 seconds, and it was like nothing happened. The broadcast crew never actually acknowledged this, so it leaves me a bit confused.

Another issue cropped up during a montage on lap 93. Speed was showing a clip filled with the various trials and tribulations of Brian Scott when the audio got screwed up. The result of this sounded like Rick Allen was talking on top of himself, and part of the montage did not make any sense because of this. Once again, no explanation was given for this.

Generally, other than the previous issues that I have pointed out above, the Camping World Truck Series commentary team of Rick Allen, Phil Parsons, and Michael Waltrip was generally on their game. They know their stuff.

Saturday brought on ESPN 2’s coverage of the Nationwide Series’ Camping World 300. The changes to the telecasts brought on by ESPN’s presence were minimal. Some different camera shots were introduced (Ex: The ground level camera view next to the outside wall coming out of turn 2). The ESPN crew of Dale Jarrett, Dr. Jerry Punch and Andy Petree performed to their usual abilities. I really didn’t have any issues with their performances. Vince Welch seemed to be at home on pit road, which I more or less expected out of him since it’s not all that different of a chore covering the Nationwide Series on pit road than the IndyCar Series (IRL).

There was also a change to ESPN’s standings graphic for this season. In a move likely inspired by TNT’s scroll, the lap counter has been moved from underneath the standings scroll to above it, next to the ESPN logo. Also, when the intervals to the leader were shown, they were integrated into the same line in the scroll as the driver’s name.

We just so happened to be beta-testing the live blog feature that was rolled out for the Daytona 500 during the race, so I asked the people in the chat what they thought about it. They seemed to be in favor of it. I’m fine with it, if only because it opens up a little more of the screen for the viewers.

However, I did have one issue with the coverage.

That issue is “Draft Track,” the oft-used gimmick that ESPN loves to throw around in their coverage. My thoughts on it are this. Draft Track doesn’t show me anything that Andy Petree, or Tim Brewer couldn’t explain verbally. Also, it’s better used to describe regular drafting. However, one of the examples showed “Draft Lock” (shown with white particles). Fans can see draft lock. It doesn’t really need to be explained with the fancy technology. Maybe it’s something that can appeal to visual learners, I don’t know. It just doesn’t do it for me. At least it was only used once or twice.

And now, on to Sunday’s Daytona 500.

I should state right now that I cannot do anything about the start time of the race. This was NASCAR’s call in an attempt to increase their television ratings. Also, this is at least the third year in a row that NASCAR has insisted on the late start. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who was there or anyone who watched the race that it should have started earlier than 3:30pm. Not even because of the weather, just period. I was extremely surprised that they didn’t at least rush the start of the race, to be honest.

As far as the Pre-race programming is concerned, there was far too much of it. NASCAR RaceDay on the Speed Channel ran from 11am to 2pm, when FOX’s telecast began. You can only say so much about the race before you either start repeating yourself, or start having to ad-lib.

There was a technical problem during a cutaway car segment with Hermie Sadler’s mike. It cut in and out during his segment and finally died. Roberts apologized for the issue and moved on fairly seamlessly.

With FOX’s pre-race show, my main issue is the playing up of “Digger.” As many of you remember, Digger is the name of the Gopher that is the mascot of Gopher Cam, FOX’s camera that they bury in the tracks at certain points. Last year, it was a nice touch at the beginning. Then, they had a fan contest to name the gopher character that came out of the hole in the graphic, which is where the Digger name came from. Then came the merchandising. It’s like watching Spaceballs at times.

Now, we have a 12 part Digger cartoon series that will air during the pre-race shows during FOX’s part of the schedule. The Digger character reminds me of a combination of Screwy Squirrel, the Gopher from Caddyshack, and possibly Jerry from Tom & Jerry all rolled into one. Digger is addicted to the gopher cam and has a wolf dressed like a security guard that is after him. Good lord. Why do we need this? It’s ridiculous. The Adventures of Digger and Friends might work as an online-only series, like what The Kelly’s was on nascar.com a few years back. It would also work as a comic book, which they are in the process of producing (the comic book will be on sale at foxsports.com and dwstore.com). But, I don’t want this to be a part of the pre-race show every week. I guess FOX is trying to make their pre-race show appeal to a younger audience. I didn’t need cartoon gophers to get me interested in NASCAR when I was little. I got myself interested in the racing itself without the need for such tactics.

The other thing that I took offense with was FOX seemingly not even referencing the impending rain at all for hours. Amongst us here at frontstretch.com, we talked about the possibility of rain via e-mails the night before the race, and the entire race while we were doing the live blog. I watched the race on television while keeping a window open on the Live Blog, and had the radar on weather.com on a permanent cycle on another tab in Internet Explorer.

During NASCAR RaceDay on Speed, it was mentioned that it had sprinkled just a little bit during the show, but that it was nothing serious. Our own Mike Lovecchio, who was at the track in the media center, representing our site, would go outside periodically and give weather updates. However, on FOX, it was not until roughly 85 laps were completed that Mike Joy even mentioned the idea that rain might even affect the race at all. They never showed a radar shot of the impending precipitation either, which almost never happens in a situation like Sunday. It was almost like they were pretending that the threat didn’t exist, which is patently ridiculous.

NASCAR would never admit to telling the FOX crew not to shed light on this issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a representative of NASCAR told the FOX commentary crew not to mention the rain unless it was an absolute necessity to do so. I don’t even remember FOX showing the air and track temperature (via the FOX Weather Station) before the race, which is definitely not normal.

On the surface, it almost looks like censorship on the part of NASCAR and FOX on this issue. This garbage cannot continue. The general public deserves the right to be able to hear the truth about the issues. And rain was a major issue with Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Now, I cannot do anything about the fact that this was the least competitive restrictor plate race since the 2000 Daytona 500 (only 9 lead changes), or that NASCAR waited approximately 15 minutes after throwing the red flag to call it off. Unfortunately, that happens sometimes. What we, as NASCAR fans can do is to demand a proper telecast for the races, especially for the Daytona 500. Darrell Waltrip even said it himself early on during the race. He said, “This is our premiere event.” That should be a cue to NASCAR and FOX.

A premiere event on television, regardless of what it is, requires a premiere telecast. What we got from FOX on Sunday does not constitute a premiere telecast. In fact, it represents a telecast that will likely be improved on next Sunday in Fontana. A telecast, that dare I say, was “Bush League.”

In closing, FOX was not on their “A” game during the telecast of the Daytona 500. Their decisions left much to be desired by me, at least, let alone the rest of the general public that was watching. Under some circumstances, it could be chalked up to being the first race of the season, but I don’t think that excuse holds water here. I believe that FOX’s telecast will be better at Auto Club Speedway next weekend.

In next week’s TV critique, I will offer my opinions of the FOX telecasts of the Camping World Truck Series’ San Bernardino County 200 and Auto Club 500, along with ESPN 2’s telecast of the Stater Brothers 300. In addition, I will also cover Speed’s NASCAR programming. The critique of NASCAR Smarts, which I said I would cover this week, will be held off for a while (likely the off week after Atlanta), since it could not fit into the overall flow of this critique. This will also allow me to gather a little more information about the show (and thus, not completely lay the gauntlet down on it).

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the e-mail address provided on the website in my bio.

If you would like to contact FOX, ESPN, or the Speed Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please use the following e-mail addresses below.

FOX
SPEED
ESPN

As always, if you choose to contact the networks by e-mail, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to e-mails that ask questions in a courteous manner than e-mails full of rants and vitriol. Thank you and have a great week.

Contact Phil Allaway

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John S.
02/17/2009 08:05 AM
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I’m not sure if this was a Fox issue or Comcast or something else, but at the beginning of the race my HD signal would switch to non HD and then back a couple times. Fortunately that seemed to stop a little ways into the race. Dittos on Digger. Very silly. My son got into racing with me when he was nine. He didn’t need gimmicks.

Kevin in SoCal
02/17/2009 03:57 PM
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Digger is ridiculous. How about FOX take the money they’re spending on Digger, and spend it on more important causes. Like driving lessons for Dale Jr. LOL j/k

Richard in N.C.
02/17/2009 06:59 PM
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I’m still PO’d by the lack of racing coverage by SPEED, in particular, and EESPN during Dec. and Jan. despite a lot of significant news.

Bob M
02/17/2009 07:02 PM
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If any one is interested in seeing the race as it was televised (for the most part), NASCAR.com has it lap by lap. When it switches from one lap to the other it stops for a slit second it is annoying but watchable (they broke the laps up so that it would load small files rather than one big one).
The only thing you could not see was things like the ask.com and aflac overlays. For some reason they did not show.

Like you said Phil, I would say that there A game was not on based on what I saw (I worked through most of the race)