The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Endures The Montreal Marathon by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday September 1, 2009

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Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Endures The Montreal Marathon

Phil Allaway · Tuesday September 1, 2009

 

Hello, race fans. This past weekend was the last off weekend of the season for the Sprint Cup Series. But, that doesn’t mean that there was no action out there on the track. The ARCA Re/MAX and NASCAR Truck Series were at Chicagoland Speedway on Friday night to run support races to Saturday night’s IndyCar Series race. In addition, the Nationwide Series was in Montreal for their annual assault on the permanent road course that sort of drives like a street course. Were these telecasts great to watch, or was there something missing? Let’s find out.

On Friday night, the ARCA Re/MAX Series had the Ansell Cut Protection 150 at Chicagoland Speedway. For reference, Ansell is a brand of work gloves sold exclusively through Menards Home Improvement Warehouse. This twilight race was quite interesting to watch on SPEED. Since the race was a doubleheader, Rick Allen and Phil Parsons, who were on site to commentate on the Truck Series race, commentated from the booth.

When I watch ARCA Re/MAX Series races on SPEED, I always notice the emphasis put on the young stars Justin Lofton and Parker Kligermann during the broadcast. They’re the only drivers interviewed before and after the race, regardless of where they start or finish. Yes, I know that they’ve combined to win two-thirds (10) of the 15 races run to this point, but I know they’re not going to be in the series much past the season finale at Rockingham. Both still deserve their due, but I think SPEED needs to put a little more emphasis on drivers not named Lofton or Kligermann.

One off-track item of note to report: Friday was ARCA’s ninth race of the year on SPEED. But only two of the remaining six races (Kansas and Rockingham in October) are even televised at all. As for the other four events (Toledo, DuQuoin, Millville (New Jersey Motorsports Park), and Salem), there may be online streaming if you’re lucky. It’s quite uncertain how much TV coverage the series will be able to get next year. The trend in recent years has been downward, and with Re/MAX scaling back their sponsorship, who knows where the series is going.

As for the on-track action, it was pretty good. I still think that some cameras that were used during the Truck race were actually disabled during the ARCA Re/MAX event. As a result, a couple of incidents didn’t have conclusive replay angles to use. SPEED depended on Frank Kimmel and his roof cam to show what happened on a couple of wrecks.

The post-race coverage was quite brief, mainly because the seven cautions caused the race to run long by about 20 minutes. As a result, the only interviews conducted on-air were with winner Justin Lofton, his crew chief Mark Rette, and Parker Kligermann, who ran out of gas on the last lap and finished 14th. Then, the coverage ended so that SPEED could start NCWTS Setup, which Krista Voda teased at one point during the ARCA race.

Right after the Ansell Cut Protection 150 coverage ended, SPEED went right into their pre-race show for the EnjoyIllinois.com 225. Last week, I referred to this race as the Chicagoland 225, not knowing that they actually had a naming rights deal done for the race. I’m sorry for that screwup.

During the pre-race show, SPEED had Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis up in the booth, which was interesting because this was the first that we had seen corporate representatives of the series’ title sponsor on SPEED this year (Lemonis later gave the command to start engines). Lemonis announced that this year’s Champion of the Truck Series would win, in addition to the typical year-end monetary awards, a brand new Class A Diesel motorhome, worth well over $100,000. In addition, one fan will also win a similar motorhome as part of a contest that starts on Sept. 4. It was a very interesting twist to the broadcast, and definitely shows Camping World’s commitment to the series. This interview was conducted live on air right after a feature was shown where Camping World had a fan event in Chicago (hampered by rain) where drivers signed autographs, and Circle Bar Racing unveiled a special paint scheme for James Buescher’s No. 10 in support of Chicago’s 2016 Summer Olympics bid.

Another feature surrounded T.J. Bell and his love of wakeboarding. Also, Bell, along with professional wakeboarder Gregg Necrason, tried to teach SPEED’s Ray Dunlap how to wakeboard. Let’s just say that didn’t go well (I kind of expected Ray to fail at that, to be honest). But still, I think it’s nice to learn a little bit more about the drivers in the series, and these features were well put together to boot.

The race actually saw a lot more green flag racing than we’ve been used to from the trucks this year, which was a great thing. Green flag pit stops cut a significant number of cars off the lead lap, leading to extensive reporting that kept us informed of all the changes. Overall, I was fairly happy with the coverage of the action out on the track and in the pits. But I do have one gripe: Michael Waltrip’s constant sponsor references to Aaron’s.

Michael Waltrip has never had a problem plugging sponsors, but his constant Aaron’s plugs this weekend were borderline unprofessional.

Early on, this only really came up during cautions when it was announced who got the Aaron’s Lucky Dog (Free Pass). Michael Waltrip would announce who got the Lucky Dog (Norm Benning, Terry Cook, etc.). However, he would continue with references to Aaron’s even outside of these Lucky Dog situations later in the race. Now, we know how Michael Waltrip is with his overpromotion of … everything, but I really haven’t touched upon it much this season. I think that is mainly because he’s been doing it for so long now that I’m just used to it, even though it does annoy me. It’s really very similar to his older brother Darrell’s “Boogity Boogity Boogity” refrain at the beginning of races on FOX. Darrell’s done that for almost every Cup race that FOX has televised, but after nine years of that, it’s a little worn out now. I know a lot of viewers are actually quite sick of the chant, claiming that it makes FOX look unprofessional and that it annoys them.

I, for one, am not the biggest fan of it, but I’m not exactly in a position to tell people to stop doing things. I’m not a TV executive, and these executives are seemingly the only people that are capable of rendering these edicts. However, I think that overpromotion by Michael Waltrip of his sponsors on-air can hurt the integrity of race broadcasts.

The post-race coverage was actually the most intensive of the weekend, featuring multiple interviews and post-race analysis. My general thought on the broadcast is that I enjoyed watching it. Waltrip needs to keep his self-promotion in check for these races, though.

Sunday brought the Nationwide Series’ NAPA Auto Parts 200 presented by Dodge. This race weekend was hampered by rain for most of the time. The first practice session on Saturday morning was held on a wet track using the rain tires, eventually cutting the session short because the track got too dry. Happy Hour shortly after was actually canceled because NASCAR wanted it to be run on a dry track, but the weather didn’t obey. NASCAR also wanted to have qualifying in the dry, but was unable to due to the constant rain. Eventually, NASCAR relented, allowed the teams to put on the rain tires, and conducted qualifying in the rain. This was the first time in NASCAR’s Modern Era that a NASCAR touring series has held a qualifying session for a points race in the rain. Previously, the NASCAR Special Suzuka Thunder 125 at Suzuka Circuit’s East Course in 1997 had qualifying in the rain. However, that race was an exhibition race featuring teams from many different divisions of NASCAR racing Winston Cup cars.

Since it’s a standalone Nationwide Series race, ESPN sent what amounts to a “B” team to this event. Marty Reid was back in the booth after missing the races at Michigan and Bristol, while Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree joined Reid on site. There was no portable studio at the track, so pit reporter Dave Burns hosted NASCAR Countdown. Personally, I think he did OK. The pre-race basically consisted of a series of interviews and discussions on important aspects of the race (rain tires, brakes, track position, pitting, etc.). It wasn’t all that bad of a watch, to be honest.

And, then, we got to the race.

As many of you now know, Sunday’s race was the longest (3 hours, 49 minutes) in the 28 seasons of the Nationwide Series. Nearly 41 percent of the laps (31 of 76) were run under the yellow, and the race’s average speed was slower than the average speed of my drive to Watkins Glen three weeks ago (two lane, 30 mph segments included). And, just to make the race that much crazier (and longer), it rained with 13 laps to go, forcing a red flag so that the teams could come into the pits and change their cars over to rain tires and install the necessary peripherals for racing in the rain (rain lights, windshield wipers, Rain-X, etc.). Now, I could go on about how NASCAR really should not have to order a five minute intermission so that the teams can install all this equipment, but that is not the purpose of this article.

ESPN’s broadcast team had to exhibit a lot of patience with all of the carnage that was going on out there on the track. In addition, replays were not all that quick in coming on Sunday because there was so much action. In ESPN’s defense, it is very rare that there are four or five separate wrecks on the same lap during a race. ESPN’s production staff in the video trailers on-site has to monitor multiple cameras, so it can take a while for the staff to record each camera that actually caught the wreck(s). This is why it seemingly took almost 10 minutes to get replays on Sunday.

Before the race ended, Reid thanked the viewers watching the event on ESPN and the crowd in attendance, an estimated 68,000. However, Andy Petree seemed exasperated towards the end of the race at all of the impatience and wrecking. Truthfully, though, I think everyone was exasperated by the end of that race: commentators, drivers, crews, and fans alike. Personally, I hadn’t seen craziness behind the wheel like that since Memphis in 2007, when 25 cautions slowed the event to a crawl that only just barely finished before sunset. However, despite those 25 yellows, that 250-lap race ended 47 minutes faster. Looking back, I think that ESPN did the best that they could with what they were given. Everyone was completely worn out from the long weekend and all the rain at the end of the day.

I was happy to see that ESPN was able to get Mike Helton into the booth for an interview during the brief red flag for rain-related changes (which I don’t believe was truly required, although the yellow was because of D.J. Kennington’s wreck). The only problem I had with the interview was that Helton really didn’t say all that much once they got him up there. At least, nothing I didn’t already know. I was also happy to see that Reid requested a follow-up on why Jeffrey Earnhardt went behind the wall just two laps into the race, saying, “…I didn’t think that team was supposed to be a start-and-park.” Eventually, it was shown that the team lost third and fourth gears and had to change a transmission. It really bites to have a transmission go that early in the race. My only experience with that comes from having gears missing in my transmission at the beginning of practice sessions in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season for the PC. However, unlike the game, Key Motorsports cannot simply press “Shift+R” to reset to pit road with a fresh transmission.

Due to the marathon nature of the race, the event ended an hour after the race was supposed to be off the air (the timeslot for the race ended at 6:00 PM EST). There were interviews with the top four finishers after the checkers. Also, in reference to recent weeks in which there was no points check before leaving the air, ESPN put the margin between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch (192 points) in the area right below the scroll, which was running the unofficial results. This was actually a suggestion I made in last week’s critique. Unfortunately, no other points standings other than the top two were shown on air. Perhaps running a separate scroll for the points standings in addition to the scroll for the unofficial results could have been useful here. Had this race actually ended somewhere close to on time, perhaps some of the surprising high finishers (Tony Raines, Jean-Francois Dumoulin, Antonio Perez, etc.) could have also gotten interviews.

That’s all for this week, folks. Next weekend is Labor Day weekend. I’m sure that a pretty good number of my readers are quite miffed that we’re not going to Darlington this weekend for the (insert corporate sponsor here) Southern 500. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about that. However, NASCAR has made a schedule change for this year, so we don’t have to put up with a 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway with hazy weather in the 95-109 degree range. Instead, the Labor Day weekend will be spent at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Georgia, where the Sprint Cup Series will run the Pep Boys Auto 500 on Sunday night, while the Nationwide Series will race in the Degree V12 300 on Saturday night. I will be critiquing both of these events for you guys next week.

A note on the Degree V12 300. ESPN has announced that Saturday night’s broadcast will once again feature the “Backseat Driver” concept, in which there is no play-by-play man but four analysts in the booth (Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Andy Petree and Ray Evernham). I’m generally not a fan of four speaking voices in the booth, period, regardless of whether there is a play-by-play man or not. This is because I think it leads to one of three things. One scenario has the fourth guy as essentially a “4th Wheel” and can’t get anything across on air since the other three guys are too settled into their roles. Another scenario is the other extreme, where everyone is talking at once and basically nothing gets across to the viewers, who really are the most important people to these productions when you really sit down and think about it. The third scenario is more or less what happened at Michigan when one guy basically controls everything — only not in a play-by-play role.

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 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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Scott
09/01/2009 11:54 AM
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I totally agree with you on the red flag to change tires. On road courses have the equipment on the cars, such as lights and windshield wipers, and let the teams decide with tires they want to run, like the other road racing series. The Helton interview was a joke, he didn’t say anything worth while. I also think they need a rule for the number of cautions you can cause! If you spin 3 times you are done! You get parked, on these road courses I think that would help with a lot of the stupid cautions at the end of races. How many times did Steven Wallace wreck?

SER
09/01/2009 11:34 PM
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