The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: My Pre-Race Cup Runneth Over -- How To Fix It, And Other Vegas Notes by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday March 3, 2009

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Greetings, race fans! Las Vegas was the first NASCAR weekend of the season with only two of its top three series competing. While the Camping World Truck Series teams took the week off and dealt with the storm that blanketed most of North Carolina with a substantial amount of snow (I got about two inches here Monday afternoon), the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series teams stayed out West for the Sam’s Town 300 and Shelby 427 events in Sin City.

FOX telecasts from Las Vegas always seem to bring out some strange stuff, mainly as some kind of homage to the city’s history as a center of entertainment. This year proved no different than in seasons past, with magic tricks once again being the topic of the day during part of the pre-race show for what was apparently the third time. Also, at the beginning of the network’s coverage, Darrell and Jeff — for some unknown reason — donned Elvis wigs in the Hollywood Hotel. It looked pretty silly on television, let me tell you… but at least there wasn’t another ridiculous attempt at singing.

Like last year, the pre-race concerts disappeared by the time the show rolled into Las Vegas, which is a relief. I don’t watch races to see a concert; I watch races to see a race, and I watch pre-race shows to get pre-race information — not watch Jewel, Keith Urban, or whoever they got that week performing. I’m kinda torn about what to do with the length of the pre-race show as it is, because I’m not one hundred percent convinced that the current setup works as well as it could. More on that thought in a minute…

Anyways, probably the funniest part of FOX’s pre-race show this week was when they cut to one of the sports books (they did not mention which one, and it probably doesn’t matter) which happened to be giving an over/under on the amount of Digger appearances during the broadcast. I found this to be kinda amusing. Chris Myers noted that the over/under was 20, and claimed that “we’re under that right now.” Of course, they were only halfway or so through the pre-race show — but after the weekly Digger cartoon. I guess this was supposed to be some sort of self-deprecation on Myers’ part. It’s unclear whether the whole segment was a setup, or whether the sports book was really taking bets on that type of thing. If they were (and I would not put it past Las Vegas to take bets on something like that), then I definitely would have taken the “over,” just based on last week’s race in Fontana. Makes me wonder how much that would pay out to take the over; I could have made myself a couple of buckaroos if I was out there…

But back to the main topic at hand. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been having an internal debate about the amount of pre-race coverage we get for the Nationwide, Camping World Truck, and Sprint Cup Series on television. The general opinion that was voiced last week was that 75 minutes of pre-race for a Nationwide Series race was way too much — and I agree. For the Trucks, there is typically a half hour pre-race show (NCWTS Setup, hosted by Krista Voda) on SPEED. This is a half-hour show that’s largely driver interview-based, and it generally flows fairly well. It is somewhat similar to the old pre-race show that Ray Dunlap used to anchor.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series (and the Sprint Cup Series during the ESPN/ABC portion of the season) has NASCAR Countdown, a show of varying length with interviews, profiles, and such. The show was back to a half hour before the main race coverage started at Las Vegas — which was a relief to me. That seems to be more appropriate for this series, and we’ll have to see if that time holds in future weeks.

But when it comes to NASCAR’s top-tier division, we all know the coverage is absolutely overwhelming. The Sprint Cup Series has an hour long pre-race show when on FOX, the aforementioned NASCAR Countdown on ESPN/ABC (always an hour, then expanded to 90 minutes during the Chase), and not one, but two pre-race shows on TNT. There’s NASCAR on TNT Live, which is a one hour show that mainly shows features, and then the half-hour Allstate Countdown to Green (formerly Discover Card Countdown to Green).

In addition to all that, there is NASCAR RaceDay on the SPEED Channel which extends coverage even more. Typically, NASCAR RaceDay airs for two hours before the main pre-race coverage starts; but recently, the last half hour of RaceDay has overlapped the first half hour of FOX’s pre-race show. I’m not really sure why this is so; how could networks owned by the same company compete against each other while covering the same event? Because of my critiquing, this means I have to miss the last half-hour of the program, which usually includes the pick competition that Wendy Venturini dominated last season.

OK, repeat after us … “Please replace Digger on the pre-race show with Kenny Wallace.” Yeah, it takes a little getting used to …

I’ve found I really miss that final half an hour, because NASCAR RaceDay is a very enjoyable show to watch these days. John Roberts, Jimmy Spencer, Kenny Wallace, Hermie Sadler and the aforementioned Venturini seem to really enjoy themselves while doing the show. But enthusiasm can only do so much. Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think that there is too much pre-race hyping on Sundays (or Saturday nights) before the races start, which seems to diminish the impact of all content by the time fans actually get to the pre-race broadcasts themselves… and that makes even the best segments not as exciting as it could be.

Combined, there are a minimum three hours of pre-race coverage between NASCAR RaceDay and whatever pre-race show(s) the channel that the Sprint Cup race is on produces. This is way, way, way too much. It’s like the run up to the Super Bowl every week. You can only talk about the issues so much before you run out of things to say — and this is why you see certain things in pre-race shows that have nothing to do with racing at all. They have to fill in the time somehow.

The pre-race overload is an issue that’s already been well-documented throughout 2009; but while it’s easy to pinpoint the problem, I actually think I’ve found a solution, too. The thought I had originally was to cancel FOX’s pre-race show, moving NASCAR RaceDay over to FOX from the SPEED Channel to replace it. If that were to happen, the show would have to be shortened to an hour — but it could work. Hardcore fans would end up happy; Chris Myers, Darrell Waltrip, adn Jeff Hammond would be replaced, the overall pre-race gets shorter, and the efforts of the two networks get combined into one.

But while the concept would seem to work perfectly for FOX, such an idea would only be able to work if one channel actually broadcasted all of the races. In the case of the Sprint Cup Series, four channels broadcast the 36 events, and these four channels represent three completely separate companies — so one pre-race show would generally not work without a high amount of cooperation.

But under the current setup, all the personalities that appear on NASCAR RaceDay are at the track and have on-air responsibilities during the weekend no matter which network is covering Sprint Cup. Also, since NASCAR HotPass does not have dedicated commentary like it has in the past, these people could be put to work on the pre-race show behind the scenes, as none of them have direct ties to any network. That would provide a separate, unbiased entity in charge of the show for everyone.

The overall feel I’m going for kinda reminds me of when Dave Despain was the host of NASCAR Today on ESPN back around 1995-1996. At the time, Despain wasn’t really involved with ESPN’s Winston Cup telecasts outside of the pre-race (he was mainly involved with the infamous _______ Night Thunder USAC races). And since the NASCAR RaceDay on-air personalities are already familiar to many NASCAR fans on SPEED, why not transfer them over to the other cable/broadcast networks? Some of Spencer’s non-PC antics may not be allowed on broadcast television, as compared to digital cable, but I’m sure Jimmy could adjust…

As for the race itself, the coverage was OK. If I were to compare it to last week, I’d say that it was actually a little bit worse. The announcers seemed to pay a little more attention to Digger than in Fontana, and as I’ve established so far this season, the commentators referencing Digger during the broadcast of the race is not necessarily a good thing. The Digger count for Sunday really depends on who you ask — or how you count it. If you were to go by Jayski’s statistics, then there was a decrease in Digger appearances… down to 38 from 46. However, my numbers show an increase from 44 to 50 big ones. I do show a decrease in still Digger shots from 29 to 23 — but an increase in animated shots to replace them, up from 13 to 24. I guess I count the appearances differently from how Jayski does it. For me, the shot of Darrell driving the golf cart with the guy in the Digger costume on the back counts as a Digger appearance in my book. Anything Digger gets counted — because all of them are just as irritating.

In addition, a new commercial premiered on Sunday, advertising the Digger merchandise that can be bought either at the track, at the NASCAR on FOX souvenir trailer, or at foxsports.com or dwstore.com. This commercial aired at least twice during the race and would seem likely to be a mainstay of the broadcasts moving forward. As of now, it’s pushing the simple T-Shirts, stuffed animals, and the like-minded items you’d think you can buy with this type of gimmick. Based on what I saw on QVC’s For Race Fans Only on Friday night, a Digger diecast car will likely be coming soon, as well, if it isn’t already out (they had a show car on the set of the show with Digger plastered all over it).

Another merchandising revenue stream that has been developed for the Digger character is electronic media. At jamster.com, there are two mobile videos available for download to cell phones (they appear to be from the first episode of “The Adventures of Digger and Friends”). In addition, there are eight different wallpapers available, depicting either a Digger Cam logo, one of the characters, or the group altogether. What does this have to do with the broadcast? Four or five times during the race, you heard the update sound in the background, usually right after an animated Digger Cam graphic was shown. Last week, this was used to give updates on the Academy Awards, something which I found to be a little odd since people who watched the race were partly doing it so that they didn’t have to watch the Oscars. On Sunday, its use was shifted to advertise the available Digger content at jamster.com. It’s essentially free advertising for Jamster while continuing to pimp the gopher on the general public.

Alright, let’s shift from Digger to the actual coverage of the race itself. There was one technical gripe I had with FOX’s broadcast I should mention. On lap 89, the network threw it down to Krista Voda, who had a small tidbit of information about some issues on David Reutimann’s No. 00 Toyota. She mentioned that the team had a radiator ready to put into the No. 00 if need be, and then asked the cameraman to pan over to show the new radiator that the team had in the pits. However, Voda was never shown on screen during this (you could only hear her). As a result, the audience never saw the aforementioned radiator. This was definitely odd, as we heard something that we were supposed to see on screen verbally referenced — but it was never shown. There was no split screen, no visual cutaway to Voda on pit road — not even a quick cutaway to said radiator as an attempt to save face. Sounds like if FOX is going to have their pit reporters show and tell, they definitely need some improvement in the setup…

The only other slight issue that I had for FOX was that they didn’t have graphics ready for the Germain Racing No. 13 of Max Papis that made its debut on Sunday. During the weekend, FOX (and to a lesser extent, SPEED) used leftover number graphics from the Ginn Racing No. 13 that Joe Nemechek drove in 2007 until the merger with DEI. I know its nitpicky… but it’s something I noticed. FOX is generally good at catching stuff like this type of thing, though — far better than TNT was at it back during the first TV contract (2001-2006).

Because of all the yellows on Sunday (14 of them in all, for 66 laps), the race ran long by over a half hour. Typically, this situation results in a post-race like you got on Saturday from ESPN2 — maybe a quick word with the winner in Victory Lane while the courtesies are displayed on the screen. Perhaps you’ll get a quick interview or two snuck in beyond that quick hit — and then it’s poof! Off the air they go.

To FOX’s credit, this didn’t happen at all after the race on Sunday. The network took it upon themselves to have a somewhat typical post-race show, despite already being a half hour over the time they were supposed to be off the air Sunday night (here in New York, the race ended right about 8:30 PM). The network had their Victory Lane interview with Kyle Busch, then tied that in with interviews with Bowyer, Jeff Burton, and Reutimann before going off the air. It was all done in about 13 minutes or so — but it’s better than nothing. The one thing that kinda irked me during post-race, though, was that during the full field rundown at the end of the show, they just showed the number of laps down that the drivers that failed to finish the race were instead of just saying that they DNF’d. FOX did this last year as well, and it’s a little weird to look at on screen.

That’s it for my rundown on this week’s shows. 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 email address provided on this website in my bio. And if you would like to contact FOX, ESPN, or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:

FOX
SPEED
ESPN

As always, if you choose to contact the networks by email, do so politely and with respect. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions in a courteous manner compared to ones full of rants and vitriol.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Contact Phil Allaway

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Michael
03/03/2009 11:43 AM
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I for one don’t think that any pre-race shows are needed . They don’t give any added info to the race viewer ( we’ve all read the same web posts they have ) and the shows are so short on meaningfull content that the on air “ talent “ spend the majority of the shows talking about themselves , rerunning old war stories , or ridiculous interaction with the very few fans that bother to show up in person .
The ESPN broadcasts of the past are a great example . No pre race show whatsoever . New or breaking news was covered in the few minutes before the cars went onto the track or during the actual race . Sure worked well then .
But of course the pre race shows aren’t about or for the race fans . The real and only reason for the numerous , long , and boring pre race shows is the ability for the network to sell more ad time .

dawg
03/03/2009 10:49 PM
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My prerace routine Sunday consisted of watching the Axe men marathon on the History Channel. I even managed to miss the first few laps. The Thunder series was Speed’s high water mark. It’s programing has now deteriorated to the point the only thing worth watching for me is Wind Tunnel. As for Faux, I really have no choice, I have to watch, but not listen, to the race. What I don’t have to do is watch any of the Prerace junk.