The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Poor Post-Race Aside, ESPN Atlanta Telecasts Show Improvement by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday September 8, 2009

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Editor’s Note: Before we begin, a quick correction on Phil’s article on the ESPN broadcast from last week. While talking about how the pit reporters prepare for races, he referred that the network does not research information on all 43 teams entered. That was incorrect, and we apologize for the error which was a misquote. The network has since contacted us to correct this portion of the interview, claiming even all the start-and-park teams are spoken to before each race and they go into each one prepared on all 43 cars as you never know “which direction the race is going to go.”

Greetings, race fans. Labor Day weekend brought a split weekend schedule. The Cup and Nationwide Series both had night races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while the Truck Series had its inaugural race at Iowa Speedway. Now, normally, I do the critique in chronological order, but since the Truck Series race was at a different site, I will cover that event first.

On Saturday night, SPEED covered the Lucas Oil 200 for the Truck Series from Newton, Ia. Iowa brought a new wrinkle in the broadcast booth, as this was the first time that Johnny Benson was in the booth for SPEED. He’ll do two more races this season, on weekends in which Michael Waltrip cannot be in the booth. Personally, I thought that Benson did fine for a first time up there, but he was a little quiet in the booth. I’m not sure if that was really within his control, though.

Quite a few sound aspects of the broadcast were a little too quiet, to be honest. For example, viewers could barely hear Matt Crafton’s interview during the Setup over the PA announcer doing driver introductions.

Saturday night’s inaugural truck race at Iowa featured an interesting pre-race interview with track designer Rusty Wallace during SPEED’s broadcast.

I liked the feature on the construction of Iowa Speedway, along with the interview with Rusty Wallace (track designer). Often times these days, the networks all but don’t reference the existence of NASCAR’s other network partners (or even when it comes to races, other NASCAR series that they are not covering).

Also, SPEED used the “Tread Cam” during the race on Saturday. This camera position was built into Iowa Speedway during construction. You might have noticed that this was absent when the Nationwide Series was there last month. Why was this so? Back at Watkins Glen, I asked Shifty (James Shiftan, ESPN Producer) why it was absent. He told me that the chambers for the “Tread Cam” are not big enough to house HD cameras. And, since ESPN doesn’t use SD cameras on NASCAR broadcasts (for better or worse), the tread cam was sacrificed. Hence on Saturday night, a standard definition camera was down in the hole and did its job well.

One suggestion that SPEED should probably look at doing with their Truck telecasts is to institute a “Through the Field” or “Up to Speed” or whatever they want to call it; a segment similar to that of TNT and ESPN. As of right now, they kind of do it randomly and focus on somewhat random trucks. The only benefit of doing it the current way is that it is not its own dedicated segment, like on ESPN.

The post-race coverage left a little to be desired. I guess SPEED was running a little short on time, so there were only a couple of interviews and a point check before they left the air. Knowing that it was midnight by the time the race ended, there likely wasn’t anything really important that SPEED needed to get to.

Earlier on Saturday night, the Nationwide Series’ Degree V12 300 aired on ESPN2. This was the return of the Backseat Drivers format that was first used at Michigan. However, this is the fourth different booth configuration in as many weeks for the series on ESPN2. I thought the main idea behind Marty Reid, Rusty Wallace and Randy LaJoie being in the booth together for the Nationwide Series was to give the series its own dependable, yet different voice. With this constantly shifting lineup, it makes it kind of hard for everyone to get comfortable.

However, before I get into the ESPN broadcast, I have a gripe to throw at SPEED for their coverage of Nationwide qualifying. I know that it is relatively rare that SPEED covers this, but it’s not exactly excusable to screw up who was behind the wheel of the No. 96. Michael McDowell was driving the No. 96, not Dennis Setzer. Granted, it could have been possible for Setzer to drive since MRD Motorsports did not make the trip to Iowa, but McDowell was confirmed for the seat. SPEED even interviewed him before his qualifying effort. Big error there.

Now, to the race coverage on ESPN2. I’m still not a fan of having four people in the broadcast booth. I’ve mentioned my reasons multiple times this season. However, this broadcast seemed to be a little different than Michigan was. It seemed to sound a little bit more like a regular broadcast than “four guys sitting around, discussing a Nationwide Series race.” Unlike at Michigan, there was reference to the S&P cars by Dale Jarrett. This was something that I had griped a little about while I was taking my notes on the Carfax 250, and in that week’s critique.

One thing I was not a fan of was the lack of reference to free pass cars for the first two cautions. They were outright not mentioned on air. I listen closely during the race telecasts to be able to tell this, so I don’t look stupid by typing up something wrong. There isn’t anything worse than getting home from work to find an e-mail from ESPN or even NASCAR themselves asking you to adjust your article because you screwed up.

The telecast just seemed to flow a little better Saturday than it did at Michigan. That said, I still would prefer a traditional setup in the booth to this setup, to be honest. There is seemingly some kind of limit to what the commentators can do in a setup like this that otherwise wouldn’t be broached by a traditional booth.

I think that the production staff was a little more in tune with the Backseat Drivers this time around as opposed to at Michigan, when the production seemed to be a jumbled mess at times. A sign that the production of a telecast is going well is that when there is some kind of synergy between the production staff and the commentators in the booth. An example I can give of this was when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was trying to make it to the end of the race on fuel without stopping. Wallace appropriately used the in car cameras to allow him to convey what he was trying to say (showing how early Earnhardt Jr. was backing off in an attempt to save fuel).

Due to the green flag feel of the race, the event ended around 9:23 p.m. on Saturday. This left 37 minutes remaining in the timeslot. Did ESPN 2 fill it? No. They left the air 15 minutes early. But, they finished everything that they felt they needed to do post-race in those 22 minutes. This included a point check, and seven post-race interviews. This was in addition to the Backseat Drivers in the booth, and Bestwick and Daugherty in the Infield Studio providing post-race analysis. I think that they could have included a couple more interviews with drivers like Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, or even Greg Biffle or Reed Sorenson.

Before I get into the Cup race on ESPN, I’ve got a question that I want to ask. On SPEED, I noticed that for some reason, the No. 45 on Kyle Petty’s hat had a black piece on top of it. I’m not sure why this is so. It almost looked like SPEED was trying to censor it. Sprint wouldn’t have grounds since they sponsored the No. 45 when Adam Petty was driving it. I asked Kyle what was up with that on his Twitter feed, but haven’t received an answer as of press time.

On Sunday night, ESPN televised the Cup Series’ Pep Boys Auto 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway. The pre-race show was only a half-hour show. As far as I’m concerned, pre-race shows shouldn’t be longer than a half hour. With the way that the schedule’s set, the last time we had a half hour pre-race show for a Sprint Cup race was Dover in May (we’re not including Pocono and Watkins Glen in August, since those races were delayed to Monday because of rain).

However, likely because of the half hour NASCAR Countdown, I thought that ESPN felt a little rushed during pre-race. There were only three interviews conducted during the pre-race show and one feature. That feature was on the 13 year old girl (Jody Lawrence, a cancer patient at the Aflac Cancer Center in Atlanta) that designed Carl Edwards’ paint scheme. Also, during Jamie Little’s interview with Tony Stewart, one of the members of Diamond Rio (who sang the national anthem) was blatantly trying to check out Jamie. Very creepy to watch. I credit Jamie for staying professional through that (although it’s debatable she didn’t know what was going on). I know plenty of women that would have opened a can on that guy if they knew what was going on.

As for the race coverage, there were a couple of things that I didn’t like that I feel need to be addressed. I’ve talked in the past about ESPN’s love affair with tight shots. In my Behind the Scenes article, ESPN’s James Shiftan pretty much admitted that this was true, claiming that shows off ESPN’s HD capabilities. Makes me wish I had some current statistics on how many households own HDTV’s (for full disclosure purposes, we own two here at my house, but we only upgraded because we had three TV‘s die on us within a month). Right now, I think the penetration of HDTV’s is similar to the internet around 1999-2000. It’s not the norm yet and won’t be for another year or two.

I bring this up because with the first caution on Sunday night, ESPN was focused in really tight on a car exiting Turn 4. Viewers could see the smoke wafting up from the bottom of the screen, but we couldn’t tell where it was coming from. A cut to another camera showed that it was a spin involving the No. 77 of Sam Hornish Jr. It could be argued that had the camera not been zoomed so tight, viewers could have seen Hornish lose it.

Another thing that I think should be instituted for all Nationwide and Cup Series telecasts is that the commentary crews should take the time to mention all the teams (if any) that take the wave around. Lots of times, I’m guessing as to who takes it. The wave around allowed three additional cars (David Gilliland, A.J. Allmendinger and Elliott Sadler) to finish on the lead lap that otherwise would have been one lap down.

Ray Evernham more or less predicting the final caution was as a result of a mountain of notes showing that it was very likely that a yellow would fly sometime in the last 25 laps of the race. Of course, the past is just the past. It definitely feels good to be correct, and I have no issues with Evernham‘s conduct after the yellow flew. His point had been proven.

There was also a sound issue around lap 260. My sound cut out for a few seconds. Knowing the absolute mess of wires and everything that there is in the TV compound, this could have had any number of causes. Luckily, this was rectified fairly quick, so it didn’t really affect my viewing all that much.

I felt that the booth seemed to be a little more into the race than normal, which I’m happy to report. It’s good to see. Of course, we had some good action Sunday night. Attendance was up over 30,000 for this race from last year and the action was good. I don’t think what we saw with the “comers and goers” was typical for Atlanta, but it made it a little more interesting. It reminded me a little of the 1997 Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400 from Richmond, which I watched online Monday morning. In that race (which also saw the Winston Cup debut of the late Kenny Irwin Jr.), teams would go to the front, do battle, and then drop back as the tires wore (in the case of Jimmy Spencer, all the way down to the cords on the inside).

Post-race coverage was quite lean, to be honest. There were only four interviews (the top three finishers, and Kasey Kahne’s “Team Manager” Kenny Francis), and a point check before ESPN left the air. I knew this was going to happen before it did because the race ran long. In addition, ESPN had been heavily promoting SportsCenter because it’s the 30th Anniversary of ESPN going on the air (Monday was, but ESPN celebrated the anniversary a day early). As a result, the SportsCenter that aired right after the race had special clips, interviews, and the threesome of Bob Ley (a Seton Hall grad, like myself), Chris Berman and John Saunders anchoring, a group with 83 combined years at the network. In addition to the special stuff, the three men also narrated highlights of Sunday’s sporting events. It bites to know that a live telecast of a major sporting event apparently pales in comparison to a highlights show on ESPN sometimes, but I knew going in that it could potentially be an issue.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the last weekend before the infamous Chase begins. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will be at Richmond International Raceway. On Friday night, the Nationwide Series will run the Virginia 529 College Savings 250. For reference purposes, 529 forms are forms that can be filled out in order to obtain state-backed student loans for college education purposes. Only Virginia residents are eligible for these specific loans, although other states (like my home state, New York) have similar programs. This race will be on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. NASCAR Countdown will precede the race at 7:30 p.m. I can guarantee a couple of things for this race. More than five cars will finish on the lead lap, and nobody will run away with the race and hide.

On Saturday night, the Cup Series has the Chevy Rock and Roll 400. This is ABC’s first Cup race of the year. Afterwards, the ten Chase races will all be carried on network television. The race starts around 7:45 p.m, with pre-race starting around 7 p.m.

However, the action at Richmond is not the only televised NASCAR racing this upcoming weekend. The Truck Series is racing at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill. on Saturday afternoon. Qualifying coverage is at 11 a.m (10 Central) on SPEED, pre-race coverage starts at 2 p.m. with the NCWTS Setup, with the race coverage following at 2:30 p.m. I will critique all three of those races for next week’s column.

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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SB
09/08/2009 06:37 AM
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The black bar over the #45 on Kyle Petty’s hat is to remember Adam. That was his number.

Douglas
09/08/2009 07:46 AM
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As I stated yesterday, I turned the TV on early in the race (they still call NA$CRAP a “race” right?), maybe about lap 100 or so, it seemed like a full 5 minutes of commercials, THEN they went “side by side”, with yet even more commercials! So checking in to see if there was anything interesting (mmmm, bad choice of words as we are talking about NA$CRAP and the illustrious POS), going on, and only seeing a multitude of commercials, I simply turned the TV off, went back outside to watch the grass grow, much more exciting than watching the ESPN coverage of whatever may have been happening in Georgia!

During ALL these commercials, I actually wondered if I had the proper channel turned on, so went back to the program listings to verify same! It was, and back to the commericals!

Simply waited until the morning to see the results!

Michael
09/08/2009 12:08 PM
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The low point of the weekend Nascar coverage was Bob “ They Drill Holes In Their Wheels “ Dillner explaining that because of Carl Edwards’ broken foot , we PROBABLY wouldn’t see a victory back flip . I think he really believed that would surprise the audience the way it surprised him . Does anyone know who Dillner is related to at SPEED , someone is helping him keep his job .
No wait , the low point was Martin Truex leading the CUP race handily , making a pit stop , falling back to twenty third , and the booth and director didn’t even notice for the next 50 laps .
No wait , the low point was the biggest preocupation with scripted stories so far this season in a CUP race .
No wait , it was the constant babble over the points . I remember when racing dominated the broacasts , now racing takes a back seat to contrived points dramas .
FOX is the worst , always was . Because of the FOX connection , SPEED has now become the number 1 channel for worthless drivel . And now ESPN is beginning to rival FOX for king of the hill in poor race broadcasts .

Kevin in SoCal
09/08/2009 12:39 PM
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Yes, as SB said, the black bar over the #45 on Kyle Petty’s hat is in memorial to his son Adam. Its similar to wearing a black arm band.
The NHRA drivers had black bars over their numbers in memorial to Scott Kalitta and Eric Medlen, too.

Also, your column a week or so ago on the race sponsor needing to also buy TV time hit home this weekend. Did anyone else know the race was sponsored by Pep Boys? None of the race announcers mentioned it, and even the TV Guide on my DirecTV listed it as the “Labor Day Classic 500.” How rediculous.

Douglas
09/08/2009 02:42 PM
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And yet more “ESPN” garbage!

ESPN lost me when a couple of weeks ago they still had JR. as a possibility of making “the chase”!

JUST A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO AND THIS GUY WAS/IS IN 21ST PLACE!

STILL POSSIBLE”?

HOLY CRAPOLA!

ezrider714
09/08/2009 10:01 PM
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Get a grip dude
Never anything wrong with “checking” out hot chicks.