The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Some Thoughts About In Car Cameras In Between Spotty Darlington Coverage by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday May 12, 2009

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Hello, race fans. Hope you enjoyed this weekend’s racing from Darlington Raceway. I thought it was pretty good as well. Maybe a few too many cautions for my taste, but that’s OK. I cannot control that facet of races. I’m still kind of surprised that Sam Hornish’s spin late in the race did not cause a caution despite the fact that he slid nearly the entire length of the frontstretch. Oh well. Enough about that for now … let’s get to the review.

Normally, I just critique the TV coverage of the races themselves, but I’ll start this weekend with coverage of Sprint Cup pole qualifying. I have two issues that I want to address here. The first of these was the constant reference to Tom Carnegie, the retired PA announcer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now, it’s perfectly fine to admire the man and his skill behind the microphone. I have no problem with that. I wish I could keep a job like that for 60 years. However, the impersonations of Carnegie need to go. I swear this happens every year when we get to May. Mike, Darrell, and Larry… you guys are not Tom Carnegie. It’s getting annoying now. This has been going on for what, three years at this point? Please stop.

The second thing I want to address is the coverage of the session itself, or the scheduling of it. Due to the rain on Friday, the Nationwide Series qualifying session had to be scrapped. However, the Sprint Cup session still went off around 5 PM. Yet SPEED seemed to stay with alternate programming (Trackside Live) instead of starting the qualifying telecast live. The result was that the qualifying coverage was delayed (or “TiVo-ed,” as Mike Joy put it) by 20 minutes. Ordinarily, this would not be so bad. You could see all of the cars take their times, and where they all landed up in the starting lineup.

However, with the condensed schedule on Friday at Darlington, tape delaying qualifying coverage put the final cars up against NASCAR Countdown on ESPN2. The session didn’t finish on SPEED until around 7:15 p.m. I’m probably the only person around that was a little bit ticked off about this, but I cannot critique both Cup qualifying and the Nationwide race at the same time.

As for the Nationwide Series broadcast from Darlington (the Diamond Hill Plywood 200), I do have a few points I want to make here.

One is the fact that when caution flags are thrown, ESPN is fairly slow to notify viewers as to who is getting the “Aaron’s Lucky Dog,” the free pass back onto the lead lap, or a free lap back (depending on circumstances). There is a definite inconsistency on ESPN (and FOX, for that matter) in when viewers are notified of this instance. On a few occasions during the broadcast Friday night, ESPN outright never told the viewers who got their lap back due to the yellow. I basically had to guess based on the current standings scroll on the top of the screen who actually earned the Lucky Dog. On another occasion, Dr. Jerry Punch informed viewers after a restart that Jason Keller had gotten his lap back during the previous caution. On others, ESPN displayed an Aaron’s graphic with the free pass recipient. You get the picture … and the bottom line is there needs to be more consistency in what they do for this.

Another talking point is when Michael McDowell went to the garage area during the sixth caution for repairs. Dr. Punch promised viewers updates on what was wrong with the car and so on and so forth. Did ESPN deliver? Based on what I saw, heck no. It was never voiced on air what was even wrong with the car, or that McDowell re-entered the race from the garage, 13 laps down. Do I know what happened to McDowell Friday night? Yes, I do. How did I find out? Mike Lovecchio, the grandmaster of the Live Blog, sent me a link to McDowell’s Twitter page during the Southern 500 Live Blog Saturday night. On it, McDowell typed using his BlackBerry that his car had had a double ignition box failure. Mind you, this was while the repairs were being made. C’mon, ESPN… do your jobs, and don’t make promises to viewers that you cannot keep.

A third point was the return to ESPN overhyping the point battle between Edwards and Busch again. Let’s be honest now: Friday was the 10th race of a 35 race schedule. It’s still too early to be talking championship implications with every on-track pass. As a side note to this season-long Busch-Edwards duel, late in the going Friday, Edwards was supposedly “really struggling” out there on the track. Where was Edwards running at that time? Fifth. Where did he finish the 209-mile race? Third. Either ESPN has unrealistic thoughts about where Edwards should normally be running — or the hype machine is running overtime these days.

There was also a substantial focus on the top 10 cars in the race. ESPN only did one “Up to Speed” during this event, and it only covered the top seven cars. The other three cars in the top 10 received only a passing mention by Dr. Punch before a commercial break. Bush League. After the 3 minute commercial break, ESPN continued the passive rundown with some of the drivers just outside of the top 10.

A fifth point comes out of a lot of the problems that Kenny Hendrick had in his No. 42 during the race. Normally, if someone smacks the wall and causes a headache for drivers in his wake because of his wounded car in the middle of the track, it would at least merit a mention from the commentators to get them to stop what they were talking about for a moment. At ESPN, that was not necessarily the case though. Viewers saw Hendrick smack the wall for what had to be the third time and hold up traffic while Dr. Punch and Rusty Wallace (in the booth in place of Dale Jarrett for the second week in a row, since Jarrett’s on a short vacation) discussed some random occurrence that had nothing to do with what was on screen. Once they finished, the incident shown on screen got maybe a sentence from the commentators, with no emotion at all. I don’t know anything about calling a race, but I think me and my buddies could call a race better than ESPN2 did on Friday night.

Not surprisingly, I’d say that the network’s Nationwide Series coverage was a step back from the previous couple of weeks.

That’s quite a mouthful for just the Nationwide Series race from this past weekend. Could FOX do better with their coverage of the Southern 500, presented by GoDaddy.com? Let’s find out.

The first thing that I noticed about the telecast was the fact that the pre-race show seemed to be about ten minutes shorter than normal. I’m not sure why this was so… but I’m not complaining. Personally, I think this format just flows better than the typical setup, as the race started a mere 36 minutes after the pre-race started. Due to the shorter format, there was no Digger cartoon on the pre-race this week either. For next week, I’m not sure what they’re going to do in regards to that creature since the race is going to be on the SPEED Channel —but I’d expect to see his mug at least 15 times.

Having said that, for having 20 minutes of pre-race coverage before opening ceremonies, there were almost no interviews at all in that time. I guess FOX has basically farmed out the driver interviewing (outside of pre-race features) to the cast of NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED.

Once again, the beginning of the pre-race was shifted over to the SPEED Channel in some regions due to baseball running long. That happens, sometimes, and I’m happy that FOX kept their word from last week. This will be the last time that this will be an issue this season, thankfully. Here in the Albany, NY area, we were given the Tampa Bay-Boston game, which was just starting the top of the ninth at 7 p.m. When the last of the baseball games finished up, a graphic popped up saying that the coverage was available on FOX, indicating that all of the baseball commitments were over. I believe this happened during the national anthem. Mike Joy thanked the SPEED Channel (a sister station of FOX) for allowing most of the pre-race to air on SPEED — in addition to FOX for those who had the Philadelphia-Atlanta game, which ended well before 7 p.m.

FOX’s inclusion of the pedal cam in Saturday’s broadcast wasn’t necessary. And if it was simply a collaboration between the production crew and Michael Waltrip for Mother’s Day, it sets a bad precedent.

For some reason, the production crew in charge of in-car cameras installed a foot cam inside of Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 NAPA Toyota. I guess Waltrip collaborated with the camera guys to install a foot cam on the left side of the foot, well… so that he could send his own personalized message to his momma. This brings a couple of things to mind. One, I really hope they don’t use that shot when the series gets to Infineon Raceway next month, because you couldn’t see the clutch pedal (it was off of the bottom of the screen, I guess). The old foot cam shot, which I think was mounted either right next to the shifter or underneath the steering wheel, was perfectly sufficient. Secondly, should the drivers be able to collaborate with the production crew to do things during race telecasts? Yes, Waltrip’s message was genuine and all that, but are we opening a box of worms here?

Probably the biggest thing mentioned during our Live Blog was that the FOX commentary crew made a lot of references to “fast laps” or “fastest laps.” It was to the point where a couple of posters thought of a fastest laps drinking game. Take a drink every time the terms mentioned above were said by either Larry McReynolds or Mike Joy. I didn’t keep count, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was mentioned 25 times during Saturday night.

For the weekly Digger count, it was down as compared to normal, despite the fact that the race was over four hours long and the telecast was a shade over five hours in length. I counted a total of 31 Digger appearances in the telecast. 17 of those sightings were of the still picture variety during shots from the “Digger Cam.” You would think by now that viewers would know what it is, so they don’t need to show the graphic on screen every time. FOX has been using this Digger Cam since the beginning of last season, and I already knew it was called the Digger Cam before this season began — long before them initiating Operation Rodent Overexposure on the NASCAR viewer base starting at Daytona. In addition to the 17 still shots, there were nine animated sightings, one commercial hawking the Digger merchandise, and five information graphics for purchasing Digger stuff for cell phones (accompanied by the FOX update chimes). At the very least, using the update chimes to hawk Digger downloads has got to go. Why not actually show regular updates on scores during races? It’s not like FOX hasn’t done that in the past.

The mentioning of in car cameras makes me want to make a point here. Apparently, NASCAR’s computer scoring program includes a small icon to denote cars that have in car cameras installed. Mike Joy brought this up during practice coverage on Friday at Martinsville back in March. This was done in reference to the fact that David Gilliland had one installed in his No. 71 for TRG Motorsports (or so we were led to believe he did). Was this camera used at all that weekend? Not that I can remember.

But the number of in car cameras in use in Sprint Cup races is actually either stagnant, or actually down from the level that they were at prior to the beginning of the 2001-2006 TV Deal. The Nationwide Series actually has about the same number of cars with in car cameras as the Sprint Cup Series these days (typically eight a race). Today, both FOX and ESPN use the “Brady Bunch” style display before each race to show their in car views. This is done by breaking the screen into nine sections and showing the cameras in the small sections. Since there are typically eight cars with cameras per race these days, the networks’ logo is shown in the middle while the cameras are shown on the outside. This has the effect of de-emphasizing the teams with the cameras. I’d like to see the networks stop this and just show the teams with the in car cameras like they used to; but since the current format allows for more hyping, I don’t see this changing anytime soon.

Also, the sad truth of this display is that it may be the only time that three or even four of those cameras ever get any air time in the broadcast. I believe that this is a shame and actually makes it pointless to have that many teams with in car cameras. I know that teams that have cameras installed in their cars are only guaranteed a certain amount of airtime from the network, but I’m sure that they don’t use it all. I’ve seen an example of this for the Rolex 24 a few years back (I think it was either 2003 or 2004). Teams that had cameras in their cars were only guaranteed something like two minutes of time on the air in the race, with their race positioning would likely determine if they got more or not. Under this current deal, I’m not sure if the teams that carry the cameras are guaranteed any actual air time for their cameras outside of the Brady Bunch setup at the beginning of the race.

Also, in both series, there is never any real variety in the teams that get to carry the cameras. In the Cup Series, Waltrip always has one. So does Earnhardt Jr. Most of the others get cameras based on sponsorship deals (Ex: Zaxby’s Restaurants for the No. 09). It makes me think that the in car cameras are actually written into sponsorship contracts and that it is decided before the season even starts who gets the cameras. I know in the past (we’re talking the mid-1990’s here) that Mark Martin almost always had a camera. Dale Earnhardt almost never did, and when he did, it was mounted really high and way back. Also, it was fixed into place because Earnhardt was annoyed by the sound the camera made when it panned back and forth. He was the anti-Dick Johnson (an Australian Touring Car Champion that started four Cup races in 1989 and 1990, who would actually talk to commentators on the Seven Network during green flag racing) in this regard.

ESPN, prior to 1993, was known for having a group of teams (mainly mid-field teams) that would run their cameras, like Whitcomb Racing’s No. 10, Cale Yarborough’s No. 66 (and prior to that, No. 29), AK Racing’s No. 7, and more. For the other networks, it was basically a hodgepodge that would change from week to week. I would like to get back to that — see ng more variety in the teams that carry the cameras from week to week. I’d like to see a team from outside the Top 25 in owners’ points have a camera every once in awhile; heck, I’d like to see Morgan Shepherd have one sometimes during a Nationwide race. Why not?

That is all for this week. Next week is the annual Sprint All-Star Race from Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina, a home race for most of the teams in the series. In addition, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be in town for the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 on Friday night. I will critique the Truck race, the Sprint Showdown (the race for non-qualifiers for the All-Star Race), and the Sprint All-Star Race itself.

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 the 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 in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions in a courteous manner than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Contact Danny Peters

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Ryan
05/12/2009 07:15 AM
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Jerry Punch and Rusty Wallace continued to talk between themselves while ignoring action on the track ? Imagine that ! The majority of the talking heads in these broadcasts really do feel that their importance trancends the race and everything about the race . I’m convinced that most of the FOX and ESPN team think that if they didn’t show up to announce , there couldn’t possibly be a race . AAAHHH , the thought of hearing only race engines instead of mindless banter and pontificating for three hours .

dickness
05/12/2009 10:39 AM
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The Sonoma Race is on TNT so the new Fox foot cam is not going to be an issue. TNT has their own version which shows the clutch.

As for the in car cameras it would be nice if there was some variety to who got one, but unfortunately it seems to be all about sponsors. I enjoyed the Race Buddy coverage that TNT had online last year, but I noticed during the Coke 600 that the cameras were all mounted inside cars that had some sponsorship by Coke. I am not sure if that is always the case or if it was just because it was the Coke 600. Either way the networks will continue to use the in car cameras to help promote their sponsors. The best some of the others can hope for is that their car happens to be in the shot when they are advertising for Aflac, Napa or someone else. I don’t have a problem w/ the networks showing their sponsors, but w/ sponsorship so difficult to come by these days it is a shame that some of the cars rarely if ever are shown on tv.

amy anderson
05/12/2009 11:34 AM
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Let’s face it-the overall coverage is mediocre at best and embarrassing at worst. The booth coverage is a total embarrassment. I spend what time I watch the screen reading the leader board because my drivers are never mentioned unless they are involved in a wreck of some sort. But on a good note, I can go to the IRL races and listen to Bob Jenkins, who makes the FOX broadcasters look like the clowns they are. Really, though, when one considers the other fare FOX delivers on a daily basis, should the race telecasts be any different?

Michael
05/12/2009 12:29 PM
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I read or saw somewhere that the in-car and roof-mounted cameras are paid for via the sponsors, at their discretion, which is why the stickers are all placed easily in camera view.

Dans Mom
05/12/2009 01:47 PM
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Fastest lap drinking game? Is that supposed to be in addition to, or in place of the current “Digger Drinking Game”? I sure am going to miss THAT game in a few weeks… but maybe I’ll remember the end of a race once he’s gone!

Joe
05/12/2009 03:19 PM
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Tell me why when a driver has an in-car camera pointed at them, and the driver wrecks, we never see that angle in the replays. We aways the roof cam. I want to see how the driver reacts with their hands and how much movement their head makes wearing the HANS. I think I saw this angle once with Harvick and he let go of the steering wheel while spinning. The camera is there, so why not show it?

Ryan
05/12/2009 04:03 PM
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Amy , very well said . You are right on the money .

Yes , sponsors do pay to have the cameras in certain cars . And there are only so many to go around .

The in-car camera is not used to show the driver DURING a crash for two reasons . The networks are afraid of maybe showing a driver being seriously injured or even killed on live tv . And Nascar will not allow it it because of potential liability issues .

Phil Allaway
05/12/2009 04:11 PM
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Ryan, I wouldn’t be surprised if NASCAR nixed that after Reutimann’s crash in the Auto Club 500 in 2007. You might remember how after he hit the wall, he was unresponsive for a little while before coming to and getting out of the car.

Bob
05/13/2009 01:23 AM
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Go Wally’s World

Fantastic article and critique. It seems like the YouTubeUppies that they call Producers at FOX and ESPN would do well to:
1). Read your critique.
2). Actually know the history of the sport.
3). Quit chopping up the telecast into 4 second segments when the cars whoosh by the wall. Let all of the cars pass by, especially during the “Crank it up” segment. Those could be so cool.
4). During the “Crank it up” segments, go to an in car camera, and stick with the same car for at least one lap. Two is preferred.
5). Watch the old (circa 1980’s) ESPN broadcasts. That is the right way to televise a racing event. Enhance with the new technology, but it didn’t need reinventing.
6). Speaking of which, did you get a chance to see the Versus coverage of the Indy 500 pole day and qualifying. Fantastic. Bob Jenkins, Jan Beekhius(sp?), and crew did a A+ job. This is what the NASCAR telecasts should aspire to.

Dave
05/13/2009 08:31 PM
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Mentioning cars with cameras that weren’t seen during the race… Brad Keselowski had an in car at the Talladega race. I’ve seen clips on speed and ESPN shows after the fact, but can’t actually remember seeing from it during the FOX broadcast.