The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Rough Weekend For Racing Broadcasters Across The Board by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday October 13, 2009

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Hello, race fans. Sunday saw the fourth weekend of the Cup Series’ Chase for the Sprint Cup at a new location, as the race at Auto Club Speedway moved from Labor Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend as part of three-way switch between Atlanta, Auto Club (Fontana), and Talladega. This was designed to both improve attendance and the racing because the temperatures were far less oppressive (in recent years, it has been upwards of 105-110 degrees in Fontana, and never below 92 during the day). Did cooler track conditions heat up the action? I think so … but only by a little.

Also this past week, NASCAR announced a new procedure for standardized start times for the Cup Series. As a result of a brokered agreement across all three networks covering the sport, for 2010 race coverage of all day races in the Eastern and Central time zones will start at 1 PM (or noon in the Central time zone). Race coverage of all races in the Pacific time zone (Phoenix, Infineon, and Auto Club) will start at 3 PM Eastern (Noon Pacific), and all night race coverage will start at 7:30 PM Eastern, regardless of the local time. The lone exception to these changes is the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. This race, because of its length, must start in twilight; so as a result, the race will keep its 5:45 PM Eastern start time.

What are my thoughts on this move? It’s overdue. The general idea behind moving the race start times back was to boost ratings. Unfortunately, it actually had the opposite effect. I’m personally sick of East Coast races starting at three in the afternoon, especially at tracks like Dover in September. Not every oval on the circuit has lights, so starting a race that late in the day leaves little to no margin for error in case of rain. It also could be argued that starting the races in mid-afternoon actually hurt raceday attendance and the racing because of the sun being a factor for much longer both on the track and in the stands, making it uncomfortable for everyone involved. I will admit that it was somewhat satisfying to see David Hill (FOX Sports Chairman) actually admit on the record that he screwed up after pushing this idea initially several years ago.

Before I get into the race recaps, I want to touch on pole qualifying from Friday a little. Now, SPEED is known for not showing the sessions live, and I understand that. They’ve described their telecasts on air before as “time shifted.” The idea behind this concept is to allow every car’s qualifying run to be seen; and generally, this has worked well.

However, the “time shift” seemed to be in a “time warp” on Friday evening, as a couple of teams had their qualifying runs cut off from the Cup Series telecast. SPEED came back from a commercial and interviewed Max Papis, who qualified 15th … except I don’t think I saw his run. Mike Wallace, who DNQ’d, also didn’t get his run televised. It was just weird, and I can’t explain it considering the network’s thorough pattern of putting every car on air.

Unfortunately, those mistakes proved to be a recurring theme of the weekend as we move on to coverage of the actual races themselves. Due to the unusual weekend television setup, I’ll start with the season finale for the ARCA Re/MAX Series, the American 200 from Rockingham Speedway. This race started at approximately 1 PM on Sunday. However, since it aired during NASCAR RaceDay from Auto Club Speedway, SPEED tape-delayed the event so that the telecast started at 10 PM ET, right after Wind Tunnel. What us viewers got as a result was a rather weird telecast.

Generally, if a tape-delayed broadcast is the only way that a race will be shown, I’d personally want it to look a little better than SPEED’s telecast did. Now, I’ll admit that I did look on ARCA’s website (and saw on Twitter) that James Hylton had been injured during the race, and thankfully, was released later Sunday evening after suffering an ankle injury. But the way that SPEED showed this incident made me very confused. They literally jumped from a replay of the No. 70 of Tony Palumbo spinning out exiting Turn 2, with Hylton passing by unharmed, to a shot of Hylton’s No. 48 with the front end destroyed and on fire. I could not figure out how this happened, and I think it left Rick Allen and Phil Parsons in the booth confused as well. It honestly made me think that they were cutting the race down so that it could fit in a two hour time slot and “Wrecked” wouldn’t be pre-empted (which wasn’t even a new episode, but a repeat).

Fans not at the track may never know exactly how James Hylton got hurt due to SPEED Network’s confusing coverage of the incident.

I should note here, by the way, that Hylton and Palumbo’s wrecks constituted the fifth and final caution of the race. SPEED had gone to a commercial during the fourth caution at approximately Lap 143; then, they came out of the break with the aforementioned replays. So SPEED more or less glossed over the red flag that Hylton’s mystery wreck caused, and then showed the restart at the beginning of lap 161. I’d definitely recommend not repeating that sequence, as it left more than a few viewers simply scratching their heads at what went on.

Also, there was quite a lot of talk about how the teams were doing a great job avoiding all the slower traffic out there on the track. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that the commentators thought that with 41 starters, this race could have been a wreckfest. But in reality, it was very similar in feel to the Spring race in Rockingham. Both races had five yellows and had mostly a green flag feel. So while there was a rather large speed differential between the front-running drivers and those at the back of the pack, everyone by and large held their lines and were able to pass without incident.

I did like Rick Allen taking what he claimed was the fan’s side in voicing out against the thought that Eddie Sharp, or one of his minions, went down to the pit of Clay Rogers (No. 54) and told Rogers’ crew chief to tell Clay to back off of Lofton. If this actually happened, then that move was absolutely Bush League. I don’t care if your team is racing for a championship, you don’t manipulate the opposition into rolling over for you, especially when it’s a completely different team than yours. I simply cannot accept those types of tactics.

Beyond those issues, though, ARCA races at Rockingham are unusual races to watch by today’s standards and quite enjoyable. People can often race their way up to the front, then drop like bricks because they burned up their tires getting there. There isn’t a race track like that in this whole country. Heck, Darlington wasn’t even like that before it was repaved. The sealer that Andy Hillenburg had put down on the track last year really didn’t change the way it races at all. It just sealed the surface, and now, that sealer is starting to wear off. I don’t know what’s going to be done to the track in the future, but the pavement is about 16 years old now. The big repave may be coming soon…. regardless, this telecast was a nice way to kill a Sunday night, but the stuff I mentioned above should be looked at to make the broadcasts better while the racing is actually going on.

Because it was the ARCA season finale, post-race coverage was a little more substantial than what we’ve seen recently. On most of the broadcasts this year, Kligerman and Lofton were the only drivers interviewed before and after the races on SPEED. On Sunday, there were interviews with Casey Roderick and Ken Schrader, in addition to interviews with Kligerman (who won the battle) and Lofton (who won the war), along with Lofton’s team owner Eddie Sharp. I don’t think Sharp was asked about the potential tampering, though. I’d like to hear what ARCA has to say about that.

Sunday was the ARCA Re/MAX Series’ last race of the season. As ARCA negotiates their television deals on a year-to-year basis, it is currently unclear how many events will be broadcast next season. Hopefully, they can increase the number of races shown, or at least keep the same number on SPEED that we got this year. Also, I hope that ARCA could possibly take on an additional media partner in addition to SPEED for additional races. Maybe not MavTv, since they have a limited reach, but someone else to help supplement the SPEED broadcasts.

On Saturday, the Nationwide Series raced the Copart 300 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA. Mainly because the race was on the West Coast, the start time was not up against the end of a college football game, unlike the last three weekends (Cup Happy Hour was the unfortunate NASCAR programming that got truncated Saturday). Of course, last weekend’s scheduling produced another problem not previously seen this season. Pole qualifying for the Copart 300 was not televised at all. Zippo. Squat. Nil. This was because of ESPN’s commitments to college football games and SPEED’s live coverage of the Grand-Am race from Homestead-Miami Speedway. I don’t understand why they couldn’t have put that coverage on ESPN Classic, to be honest, but the network chose to pass on the opportunity. They must have their reasons …

Once the race started, the coverage struggled a bit. Now, I don’t write this critiques to simply blast the networks. But I have to find something I like in there, and it was pretty tough to do that this time around. One of the toughest segments in particular, already addressed on multiple Web sites, was the epic roughness that was Jeff Gordon’s guest appearance in the infield studio Saturday. Now, this bumpy ride in studio was certainly no fault of Jeff’s. He was simply there to promote Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story, which was aired (in abridged format) on ABC at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. More on that film later. But he was put on at a bad time, during a section of the race where cars were fighting tooth-and-nail on the track for position. That caused an awkwardness from the second Gordon came on the air, as the ESPN crew stopped caring about the race and appeared to overly focus on their guest. It even started out as a full screen interview, which should never happened during green flag racing — let alone aggressive side-by-side action.

The interview went on for what I guess was about six to eight minutes, with mostly Bestwick, Rusty Wallace, and Brad Daugherty firing questions to Gordon. Sometimes, one of the commentators in the booth would chip in, but they mostly stayed quiet and let the studio take control. It was almost like a break for them, even though it was Lap 44 in the race. There were good intentions and decent questions throughout; yet slowly but surely, things devolved into a bit of a train wreck. Constant on-track action led to interruption after interruption, to the point Jeff even started stopping mid-sentence to try and comment on some of the action himself. It’s just debatable how much attention was being paid to the race during this time period by everyone else, as they seemed so focused on getting Gordon’s promotion out of the way as if it were some sort of sales item. In the process, they forgot to sell the one reason fans turn the TV on to watch them in the first place: the on-track competition.

Another issue was the post-race after one of the better events of the year filled with plenty of storylines. Unfortunately, it was very short because the event was already 18-20 minutes beyond its timeslot when the checkers were flown, leaving the network in a bit of a bind. That happens when you get ten caution flags. As a result, there were only three post-race interviews (winner Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski), along with a point check. The unofficial results were only shown in the scroll during the aforementioned interviews.

That rush to get off air led to missing one of the weekend’s bigger stories. The news of Tom Logano’s credential getting pulled had to get announced via Twitter feeds, since the race coverage was long over by the time NASCAR took action. Yet the confrontation happened almost immediately after the rest of the race, an issue the network could have reported had they stayed on air as little as another five minutes. Also, I would have liked to hear from a couple more drivers who had good runs on Saturday, like Michael Annett or even Jeremy Clements. In the future, moving post-race coverage to another channel like ESPN Classic or even having an online option for continued coverage would not be a bad idea here. FOX has done this with SPEED in the past, and NBC did it with CNBC or MSNBC at one point. TNT even has RaceBuddy exclusive post-race interviews that supplement the ones already on the broadcast.

On Sunday, ABC televised the Pepsi 500 from Auto Club Speedway, which was once again a rather sparsely attended event despite the date change to a more bearable time of year (attendance was reported at 70,000, equal to last year’s date in early September despite discounted seats).

The pre-race coverage, which was actually 45 minutes this week, featured only a few interviews, all with Chasers. There was also a sitdown interview conducted by Marty Smith with Kevin Harvick. This was an interesting interview to watch, definitely the racing television highlight of the weekend. Smith did an excellent job of probing Harvick, who appeared visually frustrated while describing his season in the No. 29. Smith admitted on his Twitter feed after he conducted the interview that he thought Harvick was leaving the team for sure after 2010 (interestingly enough, that opinion has since been deleted).

As for news ‘n’ notes, the incident between Greg Biffle and Tom Logano (Joey’s father) was barely touched upon by Allen Bestwick during the pre-race. However, it was not really discussed despite being one of the big stories of the weekend. Instead, there was a performance (taped) by Foreigner that aired during the pre-race show. Apparently, Foreigner has written a song about NASCAR and decided to use a venue to shoot a music video for the song. Personally, I didn’t think it belonged.

Moving on to the race, there’s certain things that are beginning to wear on me. ESPN needs to do a better job of telling the viewers where drivers are in the order during cautions. I don’t think I’ve been this confused before during a race since permanent on-screen displays were added to race broadcasts in 1995 (By “permanent on-screen displays,” I mean constant field rundowns, or the Top 10 pylon that ESPN/ABC used from late 1995-Las Vegas, March 1998). With the double-file restarts and different pit strategies, it’s very difficult to follow which cars are restarting where. Perhaps a dedicated resetting the field before each green flag run would be a great idea to give viewers needed info on who didn’t pit, who got penalized, and who got the wave around to get back on the lead lap.

Once again, the dreaded mystery caution issue reared its head this past weekend. Three cautions during the race were thrown for debris on the track, but the debris was only actually shown in one of those cautions (the third one). Apparently, someone didn’t tell Kasey Kahne that, as he ranted about that caution screwing up his day in an interview after he crashed out of the race. On Saturday in the Nationwide race, there were another three yellows for debris. Of those three yellows, only once was the debris actually shown on that telecast (a plastic Water Bottle, like the kind you get in a 24-pack of Poland Spring).

I remember when the debris cautions became an issue in the Cup series about three or four years early in the season. FOX decided to be proactive when that occurred, trying their best to find the debris and show it to the audience. I think ESPN needs to do that now. I’m pretty sure that with 60+ HD cameras at the track, whatever debris is out there can surely be found and displayed sharply for all to see.

Just like Saturday, ABC/ESPN scurried off the air with a hasty post-race show after the red flag ate up nearly 20 minutes right near the end of the race, leaving the event within five minutes from the end of a bottom-of-the-hour timeslot. To be really honest, at times, ESPN works with those timeslots as if it’s a hard deadline. What that means is that if ESPN can complete their race telecast on time, they will try with all their might to do so as if there’s never any other options. As a result, post-race lasted a shade over five minutes, although they did squeeze in interviews with the top 5 finishers. The point check and unofficial results were in the scroll at the top of the screen during those interviews.

As for Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story, I believe that the version that was aired on ABC on Sunday (and which will be repeated on ESPN2 on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET) was cut all to heck. I’m choosing not to critique it at the moment, and will wait until I get the DVD. The official release date is not for another few weeks, so it might have to wait until after the season ends before I give my thoughts on it. I didn’t get an advance copy to review like John Daly did, unfortunately.

That’s all for this week. Next week brings the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series to Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina (and after this weekend, the track will no longer be referred to as such since Lowe’s did not renew their naming rights deal with SMI). On Friday night, the Nationwide Series will run the Dollar General 300. This will be televised on ESPN2 starting with NASCAR Countdown at 7:30 PM. The race will start around 8:15 PM ET.

On Saturday night, the Sprint Cup Series returns for the fifth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Coverage for the NASCAR Banking 500 presented by Bank of America will start with NASCAR Countdown at 7 PM ET. The race is scheduled to start at approximately 7:45 PM ET. Get used to this setup for night races, because with NASCAR’s announcement of standardized start times in the Sprint Cup Series for 2010, this will likely be the norm and not the exception. I will provide critiques of both of these race telecasts once they’re complete.

Also this week, NASCAR will announce their inaugural Hall of Fame class. The announcement is scheduled for Wednesday at 4 PM ET and will be televised live on SPEED. I’ll give my thoughts on this telecast next week as well.

Two writer’s notes to finish up: Monday marked the premiere of SPEED’s new daily show dedicated to NASCAR and other motorsports, SPEED Race Hub. I want to watch a few episodes of that beyond the Hall of Fame announcement before rendering my opinion of it, so expect something from me no earlier than the October 27th critique. It’s been described as being relatively similar to ESPN2’s old rpm2night show from the 1990’s in literature; and hopefully, that’s how it turns out to be. It’d be even better at 7 PM instead of its current 7:30 PM slot, though…

Finally, as for the Chase count that I promised, I screwed up and didn’t keep count. But, I promise I will this 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 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.

Contact Phil Allaway

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Mark
10/13/2009 08:50 AM
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Well one good thing happened on Sunday . If you’re like me you forget from one lap to the next what the current points standings are . But Jerry Punch has decided to make it his priority to keep us updated . And sure enough , starting on lap 46 , he let us know ( if the race ended now ) how the Chase was progressing . And to his credit never let us go more than ten laps without mentioning the Chase in one form or another .
In all seriousness Phil , every network involved in NASCAR Cup broadcasts , except for FOX which is flat unwatchable , uses pretty much the same formula . So sadly , this is as good as its ever going to get . Some bright spots in announcers , a decent race every now and then , but mostly story lines that will not be changed no matter what , and lots of contrived drama . Not contrived drama that actually adds to the show , but the kind that makes even the casual fan shake their head in disbelief .
And when shameless promotion is discussed , Hendrick is at the very top of the list . But the question is , did Hendrick and his sponsors pay big ( as always ) to force themselves onto the tv screen , or did ESPN almost soil themselves over the possibility of getting to put their personal heros on the broadcast ? Once again , the fans can’t be trusted to cheer for the right teams and drivers . Let us the networks tell you who the greatest teams and drivers are . How can you fans be so stupid , theres no teams or drivers worth paying attention to that don’t race for Hendrick .

Phil Allaway
10/13/2009 12:31 PM
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From what I understand, Together was originally going to be a time buy by the Nascar Media Group. Then, Pepsi came on as a presenting sponsor along with Lowe’s and the Hendrick Automotive Group. Maybe it’s better for me to wait here. Waiting will allow me to review the whole package.

Frank
10/13/2009 02:03 PM
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The thing that really cheesed me off in Sunday’s race was the last lap coverage. There was really good racing for position in the pack and we get to see JJ cruising alone through turns 3 & 4. Thanks go out to those in charge of what we get to see. It’s so much better to read about where everyone finished than to actually get to see it as it happens. Just my opinion, but it’s another nail in the coffin. Let me stress here, just MY opinion.