The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Strong Pre-Race Show At Bristol, But In-Race Improvements Needed For ESPN by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday August 25, 2009

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Hello, race viewers. The infamous Bristol night races have historically featured close racing, wrecking, and tempers. However, the wrecking and tempers have decreased significantly since the track was reconfigured in 2007, creating “graduated banking.” As a result, the races this past week lived up to the old ideals of Bristol, but with more competitive racing for position because of the banking allowing for side-by-side action and multiple grooves.

But, before we get into the critique, I have something that I need to address. Earlier this summer, I wrote about how it is generally wrong that the companies that sponsor the races are basically hit up for additional monies (via an ad package) in order to get their race name mentioned on TV more than once an hour. While I am still not a fan of this, I do have some additional knowledge on the topic now that I think my readers might find interesting. The day I left to drive out to Watkins Glen, I received an email from Mike Joy, NASCAR on FOX’s Play-by-Play man and a regular reader of my critique columns here at Frontstretch.

In the email, Joy effectively set out what the policy is regarding mentioning of race names in the current TV contract. Prior to 2001, the networks could effectively do whatever they wanted. Most just used the real race names. The only exceptions were Michigan on CBS when Miller sponsored the race (due to an exclusivity deal with Anheuser-Busch) and Charlotte in 1981 (referred to as the Charlotte 600). The real names of those races were never used on air.

Today, re-titling of race names in the above fashion is a violation of the TV contract. However, they still don’t have to use the official race names. If the network declines to use the real name (i.e. “The Price was Wrong”), they can refer to the race as “NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing on (Insert channel here),” or as “NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing on (Insert channel here), Presented by (Insert telecast sponsor here).” The actual factual race name must be used at least once per hour.

Now that I’ve gotten that little tidbit out of the way… back to Bristol. Did the race telecasts live up to the races themselves? Let’s find out.

The first race of the weekend was the UNOH (University of Northern Ohio) Perfect Storm 150 for the NASCAR Whelen Modifieds on Wednesday night. This race was actually a combination race for both modified divisions (north and south). Mike Joy and Dick Berggren, both Northeast natives, were in the booth for SPEED’s telecast.
These days, modified telecasts are extremely rare, so this race was a potential showcase for the series. Unfortunately, SPEED saddled the race with a 7:00pm start time for the telecast when the race really rolled off at 6:15. Yes, they tape delayed it. Not a fan of that. I could understand the tape delaying of the race if something important that could not be pre-empted was airing in its place. But SPEED was airing Pass Time, their drag racing game show where two contestants compete for $2000 against the house expert. (I swear that no one ever wins on that show, but someone pulled it out on Wednesday.) The point here is, that show should not take precedence over live racing. SPEED can air Pass Time whenever the deuce they want.

The result of this tape delaying was a choppy, disjointed broadcast because of the editing. A bunch of laps in the second half of the race, including a caution and a brief red flag, were edited out so that the race could fit in its one hour time slot. The five to ten minute halftime break (been awhile since I saw one of those) was heavily edited as well. Also, there was an issue in the scroll where Eric Goodale was listed as the driver of both the #58 that he drove, and the #50 that Tony Hirschman crashed.

Having said all that, Joy and Berggren were definitely having fun with the broadcast. That is what I want to see in the booth. It was a different feel having just Joy and Berggren up there, perhaps because it had been the better part of 15 years since there was such a pairing. Also, while I feared that the Cup drivers in the race, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne, would take up too much time on the broadcast, that was simply not the case. They were complete non-factors, with Newman crashing out early and Kahne just not having the speed. After they dropped out, they were not even mentioned at all, which I’m fine with.

In conclusion, I would have greatly preferred this race to have been televised live. It would have solved most of the issues that I mentioned above. However, I still had fun watching the telecast, and Joy and Berggren were very upbeat in the booth.

Later that night, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series raced in the O’Reilly 200 Presented by Valvoline. I had a couple of issues with this telecast, mainly in the presentation. First off, SPEED missed the last restart while they were showing commercials. The green had already been out for two laps by the time that SPEED came back from commercial. This is not wise to do with 25 laps to go in a race at Bristol, mainly because you can miss a lot in a couple of laps at this track.

Another thing I didn’t like was how SPEED was trying to convince the viewers that there is some kind of rivalry in the Truck Series between Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday. As far as I’m concerned, to claim that there is a rivalry is a stretch at best. I think there’s none at all. Busch is not full-time in the Truck Series and skipped most of the recent events in Hornaday’s recent five race winning streak. Based on what I’ve seen this season, Kyle Busch has a stronger rivalry with at least three or four other drivers in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series than Hornaday in the Trucks.

I did like the piece with Johnny Benson that aired during the pre-race show where he talked about his super modified crash at Berlin Raceway (which he co-owns) and his recovery. It was good to see Johnny doing fairly well after that scary crash, and I’m sure Truck Series fans were happy to see him both on the broadcast and at the track during the pre-race festivities.

After a dark day on Thursday, Friday brought NASCAR’s top two series into Bristol Motor Speedway’s confines. The Nationwide Series had a one-day show Friday for the Food City 250. Unlike the rest of the Nationwide Series races since the Sprint Cup Series came back to ESPN, the “A team” of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree was in the booth for the race.

The differences were quite evident between the A team and the squad led by Marty Reid, albeit not as substantial as they were back in July when the switch was made. Before Reid took over in what we have been led to believe was a full-time play-by-play role for Nationwide Series races for the second half of the season, Dr. Punch started to give the S&P teams a little more attention. That continued here, but not quite to the level of which Reid performed earlier. Reid will likely return next weekend in Montreal, along with Randy LaJoie and Wallace.

The big wreck on lap 53 that took out Kyle Busch was really a mixed bag for ESPN. I feel that Dale Jarrett was, perhaps, a little too harsh on Chase for his actions. Keep in mind that this was his first start at Bristol in the Nationwide Series, and that it came together last minute. Austin admitted Friday in an interview during qualifying that Jason White was originally scheduled to S&P the No. 07, but had to opt out for some reason. Austin was thrust in there last minute, and was using Jason White’s seat to gain experience instead.

Also, knowing that Austin had a flat tire, I think that there would have been a yellow before Austin would have been able to get down to the apron anyway (if he had stayed up near the wall). I’m thinking that had he stayed up high and let the field go, the car might have spun out on him in the roughly two laps that it would take him to get off the upper line. Austin likely knew this, and this was why he was feverishly signaling out the window so that he could get to the apron as soon as possible. This accident was just one of those racing incidents caused by something outside of Chase’s control.

I give ESPN credit for actually getting interviews with all the principals involved in the crash, including Kyle Busch. In Busch’s case, ESPN basically followed him back to the No. 18 hauler, where he went inside to cool off before coming back out to talk about five to ten minutes later. Reed Sorenson and Chase Austin did interviews next to their broken automobiles.

The Austin-Busch-Sorenson wreck also saw an unexpected circumstance: An on-air interview with Armando Fitz, acting as the car owner for Chase Austin. Personally, I’d thought he exited the sport and sold his owners’ points (from the No. 22 last year) to Pete Szekeres. But, there he was in the pit stall. Dr. Punch knew that that it was Fitz, but the graphics department didn’t know that (they identified Fitz as Pete Szekeres). I had actually never seen Fitz on screen before, so I had to go to Google Images during the race and look up Fitz because I honestly didn’t know what he looked like (or Pete Szekeres, for that matter). I guess the No. 07 getting the No. 22’s points from last year was more than just a shift on paper.

I did have an issue with the way that replays were presented during the seventh caution of the night. For those of you following along, the seventh caution was the crash involving Brian Scott (in the No. 11 this week) and Peyton Sellers. The replays shown after the wreck showed Sellers and Scott spinning off of turn 4, but cut off before they hit anything. The booth commentators concluded based on that replay (I’ll admit that it was a little difficult to tell from that angle) that Sellers simply got loose. However, ESPN had more stuff that wasn’t shown for quite awhile. Eight laps into the caution, ESPN showed the wreck from a previously unseen angle where Scott effectively took out Sellers. In addition, they played audio from Scott’s radio where he basically said that he was going to push him out of the way. Well, he did; but it did seem like, in hindsight, that the replay was a little late and out of order.

Another piece of graphical advice that I’d like to give is to not use the “Leader” graphic, or the “Lead Change” graphics that go on top of the scroll during cautions. It’s kind of pointless and unnecessary, especially since the wave-around rule has essentially abolished the scenario where cars can be on the tail end of the lead lap.

Post-race on Friday night was actually quite similar to the post-race from Michigan on Sunday. The race went over their time slot, so ESPN had to rush off the air. In that time, they fit in short interviews with the winner (David Ragan), his crew chief (Mike Kelley), and the second and third place finishers. There was no points check before the coverage ended, which is quite annoying knowing that the commentators talked about the points for a good chunk of the race. Even if it’s just in the unofficial results scroll during the Victory Lane interview, please try to fit that in there for the viewers.

Saturday night brought on the Sprint Cup Series’ Sharpie 500 (the last night race at Bristol for Sharpie, but this was not mentioned, mainly because Sharpie didn’t buy the ad package). Last week, the pre-race show (NASCAR Countdown) was attacked for not being able to adjust to the stories as they break during the race weekend. Did this get any better at Bristol? Slightly. There were not any glaring omissions like at Michigan, but I think that ESPN should make a point to at least review the events of the Nationwide race as part of the pre-race show. Not only would it be a good idea, but it might help boost the fan base for the Nationwide Series.

As it stands, the one hour pre-race show was a combination of multiple features (one on Stewart-Haas Racing, another on Martin’s 1,000th NASCAR start, one (with the help of Tim Brewer) on brakes at Bristol, and a feature on anger) and multiple interviews (11 or so, slightly more than average). I generally liked the features, especially that one about anger.

However, the race telecast suffered from some of the same issues that the Nationwide one did. For example, it took forever to get a good replay of Kevin Harvick’s crash. I don’t know why the cameraman shooting the stack-up behind it didn’t zoom out in order to show Harvick spinning into the wall. Some have claimed that ESPN uses tight shots in order to emphasize their HD capabilities. Well, I just want to see the whole story… and to do that, sometimes you need to go wide.

Based upon the aforementioned shot that mainly showed the stackup behind Harvick’s crash (and Kurt Busch’s spin), the commentators thought that Bowyer spun out his teammate. Yes, Harvick had some contact with Bowyer, and Bowyer hit the wall as a result, but he didn’t cause Harvick’s crash. About six to eight laps into the caution, another replay was shown where it could be seen that Jamie McMurray actually got into the back of Harvick by accident and put him into the wall.

Saturday’s telecast also saw the debut of some features that highlight the Chase. First of all, the scroll was given a makeover to allow for certain drivers to have their names on a green background. Those drivers (12 in all) were in the Chase as of that moment. Drivers with yellow backgrounds were still in contention mathematically to get into the Chase, while those who had already been eliminated had the normal white lettering on a black background. Officially, drivers as far back as Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were still mathematically alive for the Chase going into Bristol (the drivers were 20th and 21st in points entering the race). This confused some viewers, since they had effectively been written out of Chase contention by everyone and their brother for months now. Most people (including ESPN’s own commentators) only saw four legitimate contenders (Kyle Busch, Vickers, Bowyer, and Reutimann) that could usurp one of the current top 12 drivers and get into the Chase. For the Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta on September 6th, only those drivers within 390 points of 12th will get the yellow background (this will be the aforementioned four drivers, plus Ambrose and Jeff Burton).

Another feature that made its first appearance of the season was the Up to Speed feature that was focused on the Chasers (and for now, prospective chasers). This is generally not welcomed due to the fact that it completely ignores drivers out of the Chase, no matter how good they’re running. We’re now at the point of the season in which someone can race in the top 5 for much of an event, but still be nearly completely anonymous on the race telecast since they’re not in Chase contention (Mike Bliss at Richmond in September, 2004 is a blatant example of this). Effectively, the only way for a non-Chaser to get any publicity during the Chase is to win.

Also, in closing, I was also keeping tabs on ESPN’s RaceCast while doing the Live Blog on Saturday night. At one point, David Gilliland moved his No. 71 TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet into the eighth spot early on after starting 12th. On their leaders graphic, the top 8 cars are shown using ovals. Apparently, ESPN never counted on TRG ever getting into the top eight at any point of any race, as the oval representing the No. 71 was a yellow oval with a question mark in it. Wow. Was not expecting that.

That’s all for this week. The Sprint Cup Series takes their fourth and final weekend off for the season next weekend. However, that does not mean that there won’t be any action on television to watch. The ARCA Re/Max Series and Camping World Truck Series are having a doubleheader at Chicagoland Speedway on Friday evening. The ARCA Re/Max Series will start the festivities with the Ansell Cut Protection 150 at 6:30pm, while the trucks will follow up with the Chicagoland 225 at 9:00pm (All times listed Eastern Daylight Time). Both races will air live on SPEED.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will be at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal for the NAPA Auto Parts 200 Presented by Dodge on Sunday (Note: I’ve always wondered why the length of this race is measured in miles when the race is in Canada, where the metric system is used). Race coverage will start around 2:30pm on ESPN2. I will critique all three of these telecasts for next week.

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. Also, if you would like to follow me via Twitter, you can go to my Twitter page here. And if you would like to contact TNT, ESPN, or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:

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 Phil Allaway

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Douglas
08/25/2009 07:37 AM
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This scrolling of who is in, who is out, who still has a chance, quote: “Officially, drivers as far back as Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were still mathematically alive for the Chase going into Bristol (the drivers were 20th and 21st entering the race)”.

IS ABOUT THE DUMBEST THING I HAVE SEEN IN A LONG, LONG, TIME!

To see Jr.s name as “still in the hunt”, was a slap in the face to the any fan that pays even the slightest of attention!

A full NINE (9) cars would have had to drop immediatley out of the race once the green flag dropped, and Jr. would have to drive to victory lane, in three (3)consecutive races yet!

Yep, elephants can fly!

Well, you know it is
about credibility, and the current race coverage has ZERO!

Why even watch? Their (ESPN) killing the sport with their STUPID tactics!

Jr. has a better chance of winning the lottery that he does make the chase!

But he still has a chance! Right?

LOL!

Don’t you really wish ESPN was a REAL sports channel?

Bill_W
08/25/2009 12:52 PM
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I believe it was Matt Hirschman in the 50, not Tony.

Kevin in SoCal
08/25/2009 12:58 PM
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Did anyone else notice Jamie Little say that Kyle Busch had not won since Las Vegas? And then later she said Kyle had not won since May but mentioned a different track? (Sorry I cant remember what track she said). Wow.

marshall
08/25/2009 01:17 PM
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What Joy failed to mention in his e-mail , is that nothing has changed . If the race sponsors are willing to pay the network some extra money , then the race will be referred to by its contractual name . If the network does not receive its shakedown money , the the race will often be referred to by another name . And sadly , the same holds true for Joy and his cohorts . Pay them extra and your company will memtioned and shown on screen in direct prportion to the amount you pay them . Refuse to pay extortion money , and your company will be called “ and four new tires “ during the pit stops .
I noticed the ratings going up for the ESPN Nascar broadcasts . As FOX owns ESPN , i don’t think we can attribute that to better production values . No , i’d say the difference is strictly in on air personalitys . No more barely literate talking over each other courtesy of Mac and Hammond . No more pontificating and devils advocate rotine by Joy . The increase in viewership is , despite Jerry Punch , a fresh approach to calling a race . Genuinely interested and interesting play by play from Jarrett and Petrie along with a former crew chief who doesn’t think its his duty to make inane comments every minute of a race broadcast .
I’ve also noticed some new camera angles , shots that we’ve never seen before of certain corners and new and different elevations .
Bottom line , someone has apparently listened to the criticism of the horrible FOX broadcasts and decided to do something about it .
Now if we can just get them to drop the constant drumbeat for the ridiculous Chase .

mkrcr
08/25/2009 03:03 PM
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Cool, Mike Joy reads this column? Then pass this on to your cohorts Mike. Get rid of Jerry Punchline and put Alan Bestwick in the booth. Having to listen to “Well, folks”, while he doesn’t give a rat’s a$$ about what’s going on, doesn’t come close to endearing me to his broadcast. Send him back to baseball where he belongs.
You’re right Phil, the camera shots are complained about by many fans. This is not “HD envy”. Even if I had HD, I wouldn’t want to watch the constant barrage of “cool shots” that doesn’t do a thing to put me in the action. Put me in the action by showing me the race as it happens through the field. And show me the race. I have to thank ESPN for allowing me to win a “friendly little wager” with my wife. Somewhere mid race,during the ridiculous number of commercials, I told her there would be a caution or lead change when coverage came back. Duh, right on cue, “while we were away FOLKS”. Don’t think she’ll be betting at Vegas anytime soon.