The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Creative Approach To Practice Makes ESPN Shine At Nashville ... Until Nemechek's Flip by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 14, 2009

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Last weekend was Easter Weekend, a traditional week off for the Sprint Cup Series for as long as I can remember — and probably before that as well. However, the Nationwide Series has not always stuck with that tradition. In the past, the division has actually held races on Easter Sunday at tracks like Hickory Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway back in the car’s V-6 era.

Today, the cars race on the day before Easter (Holy Saturday) at Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete tri-oval near Nashville, TN. This past weekend’s Pepsi 300 was the first standalone event of the new season for the Nationwide Series, so ESPN2 decided to use it to try some new things. For the final practice session, ESPN decided to essentially “adopt” a team and follow them all through practice. In this case, they chose the No. 12 Verizon Wireless Dodge driven by Justin Allgaier for Penske Championship Racing. The broadcast basically showed how the team was fine-tuning their Charger every step of the way, using shocks and other changes to perfect the handling of their race car. I found it quite interesting, to be honest, and it wound up being a great addition to theor show.

After the session, I got to thinking about it, and came to the conclusion this feature was similar to what ESPN would do during Speedweeks at Daytona back in the mid-1990’s. For example, one year ESPN basically promoted the story of Shane Doles, a racer who had given up basically everything (including mortgaging his home) in order to go racing at Daytona. Then, he crashed his No. 97 Pontiac in practice. ESPN, during their broadcasts of Speedweeks (which, by that point, were fairly extensive) chronicled Doles’ plight in repairing his race car and getting back out on the track. He ended up running very well in the ARCA 200 before wrecking again, if I remember correctly.

To continue to drive the technical points home at Nashville, ESPN had both Tim Brewer and Rusty Wallace at the cutaway car describing all kinds of different parts on the race vehicles themselves — including a comparison of different truck arms at one point. It made for some interesting segments, and I thought it was a very good way to help new fans to the sport learn about the Nationwide Series cars. The mainstay fans probably found it interesting as well.

Moving forward, there were many mentions of the terrible weather that had affected the Nashville metro area on Friday during the broadcast. This stuff, even though it really has nothing to do with the race cars, is important because it did, in fact, affect the weekend overall. The first practice session on Friday was washed out due to the early morning thunderstorms, making the final session the only one of the day.

Braun Racing, as was recounted on the broadcast, even had to switch hotels because a tornado came close to their building and damaged it. I cannot claim to have ever been that close to a tornado before, but I know that it’s pretty scary stuff.
Some teams, like the No. 27 Baker-Curb Racing team, vowed to donate money to the Red Cross if they won the $25,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus being paid out if a full-time Nationwide driver won the race (it wound up going unclaimed, as winner Joey Logano was not full-time in the series). Those stories were filled with great information that served to humanize the teams trying to help ordinary people in need.

As for technical issues during the practice session, the only one that I saw was the failure of ESPN to have even a generic number ready for the No. 76 of Ryan Hackett. It’s not like this team had never raced before; they made at least one attempt last year (Richmond, where they finished 35th in the race). Maybe they had a graphic left over from last year that they could have used. Instead, the scroll used a blank space where Hackett’s No. 76 should have been. Not cool. By Saturday morning, they had a generic No. 76 for Hackett when qualifying came around instead. This is an example of how ESPN can make changes relatively quick. Another one came on Friday, when the number graphics for the No. 31 of Tim Andrews were listed as red with a white number. By race time, they were white with a purple number — just like the car.

Speaking of the race coverage, it was a definite change not having Dr. Jerry Punch in the booth this week. Even before this season, ESPN liked to give their on-air personalities a “vacation” since commentating on the Nationwide Series on ESPN2 is as close to a full-time gig as sports commentary gets. Luckily, his replacement Marty Reid is experienced in the booth, not just with the Nationwide Series but with the CORR Series (which he owns), the IndyCar Series, and the Truck Series during the period when it was exclusive to the ESPN family of networks.

Reid was joined by Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace, who returned to the booth for this past weekend to call the race. Wallace, in the rare times that he gets booth duty these days, is generally less irritating than he was back in 2007 (so perhaps, in this case, less is better).

But before we could hear the new announcing trio in action, ESPN2 felt the need to have a detailed, drawn out one hour pre-race show prior to the green flag. While it was a Nationwide standalone event, this was definitely not necessary and clearly overdone. This pre-race overkill from all networks isn’t right and needs to be changed ASAP.

Aside from that, however, the race coverage was fairly good. ESPN went to great lengths, especially early on, to show as much racing for position as they could throughout the field. However, they did fall back on their typical norm of showing a normally up front driver who had to race back up through the field due to an issue (Carl Edwards) later in the race.

Due to the rain, NASCAR also scheduled a Competition Caution at lap 30 to check tire wear. As a result, ESPN took what looked like an extra commercial break in order to show all the pit stops. I think this was also a little unnecessary, and probably the most irritating of all the commercial breaks in the show.

The main technical issue during the broadcast was that the sound completely dropped out on two separate occasions. One was during the sixth caution when Shannon Spake was giving a pit report. At first, I thought it was a dead battery on Spake’s mike. That happens sometimes. But then, the sound went out again right after the restart following the seventh caution. This was just a complete dropout with silence for about 10 seconds. It then happened a third time on lap 179 right before a commercial break.

No reference was ever made to these issues. But based on the pictures that I have seen from inside the production trucks on site (as part of the NASCAR on ESPN Press Kit that I have (Thanks, Andy)), the production trailers are chock full of wires. The audio drops could have been caused by something as simple as someone stepping on a wire; regardless, it was a noticeable problem.

I also wish that ESPN had a better camera angle for the big crash on lap 217 in the tri-oval. When the coverage cut to the crash, viewers could only see a couple of cars spinning across the start/finish line. The cameras caught the crumpled car of Joe Nemechek going down the backstretch after its roll. However, only one of the cameras (the speed shot camera at the start/finish line) actually caught the roll, and it was very hard to figure out what happened to cause Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to come down and hit Nemechek in the first place. The commentators believed that Stenhouse hit the wall coming out of turn 4; however, the viewers couldn’t tell.

It was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. who triggered one of the more mysterious crashes of the season Saturday, but ESPN cameras failed to catch a solid angle of the incident.

Shortly thereafter, ESPN’s post-race coverage (or lack thereof) resulted in a simple question of “Does NASCAR require a certain number of drivers to be interviewed in post-race coverage?” Personally, I think it completely depends on the time slot. If there is time, at the very least, the winner and his crew chief will be interviewed, along with the second place finisher. Beyond that, it’s dependent on remaining time in the time slot. However, there have been some races where there have been no interviews at all — like the Fall race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2003. So, technically, I think the answer may be no. All I can tell you is, in this case, the winner and a handful of top finishers on ESPN were interviewed very quickly before the broadcast itself quickly switched off the air. If any new information comes in as to future guidelines from the networks, I’ll be sure to add it in next week’s critique.

Also, with the posting of the full race on YouTube comes my critique of the Kroger 250 Camping World Truck Series race from Martinsville. Due to the rainout, the race was run on Monday morning in front of a crowd of just 2,500 people.

Before I watched this on YouTube, I had already read thoughts about the race on SPEED’s message board from fans that actually caught the race on SPEED the day it aired. In general, they had one main gripe concerning how this broadcast played out — that there was too much discussion of the previous day’s Sprint Cup race during the event. At first, it was included with discussion of how the tires would work during the race; but eventually, it devolved into Michael Waltrip acting as if he was on This Week in NASCAR, the show he typically does on Mondays.

Were those fans’ criticisms justified? Well … yes and no. The discussion at the beginning of the race did happen, but I think that wasn’t a horrible idea to use the Sprint Cup race as an indicator of tire wear. Think of it this way: especially before the introduction of the CoT into the Sprint Cup Series in 2007, tire wear in the Busch Series race was considered to be a sign of what might happen during the Cup race. This was part of the reason why there was so much “whacking” in the Busch Series, especially after the ill-fated impound experiment in the Cup Series in 2005.

The second part of the fan’s criticism I did not agree with — for the most part. Waltrip did admit how long it would take him to get back to Charlotte in order to tape This Week in NASCAR after the race ended (apparently, just under two hours). Later on in the race, he also referenced the bump-and-run that Jimmie Johnson put on Denny Hamlin when showing a replay of an incident where Jason White spun out because of a bump and run put on him by Matt Crafton. Waltrip then went on about the incident a little too long for my taste. Nice to hear your thoughts about it, Michael — but this doesn’t apply to a Truck incident. Yes, it was a battle for position… but it was not a battle for the lead. Other than that, though, Waltrip mostly kept himself on topic during the race.

Additionally, even though the race was on SPEED instead of FOX, Digger still showed up three times coming back from commercials. It felt completely out of place, too, since it was a NASCAR on FOX graphic that never translates into the Truck Series. As far as I know, SPEED doesn’t have (and doesn’t need) a mascot for their motorsports coverage. Not surprisingly, the first Digger appearance then precipitated a Digger discussion led by Michael Waltrip about Digger’s “brand.” Now, mind you, this was under caution, but I’m honestly not in the mood for that while watching a truck race.

One other announcer note: Rick Allen confused Chad McCumbee with Shane Sieg on a restart at lap 99. Understandable, since McCumbee is currently driving the No. 07 for SS-Green Light Racing. Sieg drove the No. 07 in the past.

Finally, the post-race coverage was quite lean, to be honest. SPEED interviewed race winner Kevin Harvick and second place finisher Ron Hornaday, showed the unofficial results, and then went off air. The whole thing lasted less than five minutes. I would have at least liked to see the point standings before SPEED went off air, but apparently, there just wasn’t enough time.

That is it for this week. Next weekend sees the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series racing in Phoenix. I will critique the Nationwide Series’ Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 and the Sprint Cup Subway Fresh Fit 500k, in addition to my thoughts on ESPN’s NASCAR Now. I think it’s better to get a little bit more than just one week’s worth of shows during an off week (for the Sprint Cup Series) before bringing down my judgment on the broadcast.

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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hotaru
04/14/2009 02:10 PM
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I (and a few others I know) found the NW practice not very good. They rarely showed any on track action, and cut to the tech center too often.