The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Should Promote Nationwide-Only Drivers While Showing Us More Backbone by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday October 27, 2009

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Hello and welcome to this week’s critique, entry No. 39 in an ongoing series where I look into NASCAR’s TV broadcasts. This past weekend saw the Cup Series compete on Sunday in the TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, while Kroger Supermarkets sponsored races in the other two divisions: the Truck Series’ Kroger 200 in Martinsville and the Nationwide Series’ Kroger On Track for the Cure 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park in Millington, TN. Due to the way that the broadcast schedule ended up playing out, I’ll have to do my critique in chronological order instead of grouping the races together by which track they were held at.

Before we start the actual critique, I want to cover a couple of things. Many of you may have heard about commentator Bob Griese’s off-the-cuff, inappropriate comment about Juan Pablo Montoya during the Ohio State-Minnesota college football broadcast on ABC Saturday afternoon. Admittedly, I was too busy critiquing the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series races to actually watch this game (and I’m unclear whether it aired here in Albany since ABC shows a lot of regional games), but news of Griese’s remarks leaked shortly afterwards. What happened during the game was they were doing a promo of Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500, with the top 5 drivers in the Chase points on screen. Broadcaster Chris Spielman asked where Juan Pablo Montoya was (he was sixth because of last week’s issues, and thus, not featured). Griese replied that Montoya was “off eating a taco.” Now, even though Montoya is Colombian, he is still susceptible to insensitive remarks of this caliber. It was a bush league remark, and it has no place in a live sporting telecast on network television.

To Griese’s benefit, he did apologize shortly afterward, claiming that Montoya was “…one of the best drivers in NASCAR” and that he “just wanted to apologize for what he said earlier in the game.” At least he’s showing contrition in this instance; however, showing contrition doesn’t mean you don’t get punished these days. The damage had been done, and ESPN has levied a one game suspension on Griese for his comment. As of press time, Montoya is continuing to refuse comment on this issue.

Juan Montoya didn’t want anything to do with controversial comments from Bob Griese.

Now, I’ll admit that it’s been a tough week for ESPN. Steve Phillips, a regular on Baseball Tonight, admitted to an affair with a 22-year-old PA on Wednesday and took a “leave of absence” from ESPN — only to be fired Sunday night. The PA, Brooke Hundley, has also left ESPN as of Monday, although it is unclear whether she was fired as well or if she just resigned. It’s a long story that I’m not going to rehash here. Deadspin.com’s ESPN Horndog Dossier last week also exposed former NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias as a sexual harasser, among other things. As a result, ESPN is not letting anything inappropriate fly this week. Still, I think it’s obvious that Griese really is sorry for his remarks. But like Allen Bestwick told me in Watkins Glen, once you say something, it’s out there and you can’t take it back. All you can really do is deal with the aftermath.

Also, I’d like to respond to some of last week’s comments, which is something that up to this point, I’ve never done in a critique before (although I have responded in the comments section). Don Mei commented about the commentators effectively being shills for NASCAR. I don’t think that they’re “shills” outright, and they don’t always pout out the company line on everything. However, Don is right in the fact that NASCAR commentators over the years have basically never thrown the gauntlet out there much. Prior to 2003, there was the fear that you would have to answer to Bill France, Jr. if you ever did. Truthfully, I wouldn’t be surprised if that made people apprehensive back then. However, today Brian France needs to be questioned… and questioned often. I definitely liked the idea that Jeff Meyer had last week in hooking Brian up to a machine and asking him questions about NASCAR. Since he rarely shows up at the track, I wonder if he watches the races on TV, and if he does, what does he think of the telecasts?

Mark also mentioned last week that we have too many pit reporters that have to justify their jobs with tosses to what amounts to fluff. Now, I will admit that some of the stuff mentioned when talking about certain drivers during races is a little inane and probably doesn’t belong on the race telecasts, but when all is said and done, most of what they bring to the telecasts is pertinent information.

I hope to make responding to comments inside of the critique a weekly occurrence for the remaining races of 2009 and for all of 2010. That’s right, I will be back for another 30+ weeks of critiques, thoughts, complaints, compliments, and other good stuff. So please keep the comments coming. If you’re lucky, I might just reference you in the critique.

With all that aside, let’s move on to the actual races, which is most definitely why you guys are here.

On Saturday afternoon, the Truck Series raced in the Kroger 200. This race was originally scheduled to start around 1 PM EDT. However, rains delayed the green flag until 2:50 PM. Luckily, for me (and all of you that read this critique), I upgraded to a DV-R on Friday. This allowed me to pause the Nationwide race and critique the Truck race live.

I will admit that in the pre-race show, I really liked the feature on Johnny Sauter and his struggles before hooking up with ThorSport Racing. It was another example of how SPEED does a pretty good job of promoting the drivers in the series, which I currently cannot say about ESPN and what it does with the Nationwide drivers. It was a classy piece, well-executed as it documented Sauter’s ups and downs of a career that’s hit the Cup level twice … only to stall out and nearly fall apart before his current deal with Thorsport has given him new life in the Truck Series.

The pre-race coverage (via NCWTS Setup) lasted approximately an hour before SPEED left for alternate programming (NASCAR Performance and NASCAR Smarts). In that time, SPEED showed eight interviews: the aforementioned Sauter feature, some pre-race analysis from Rick Allen, Phil Parsons, and Michael Waltrip, and a couple of other features (the first Martinsville truck race in “The Vault,” which got delayed to Monday, and a segment where drivers were asked whether they would rather go to the Super Bowl or the World Series).

Once the race finally started, SPEED brought us a typical broadcast, which means that it was generally solid. It was enjoyable to watch, for me at least. Even Waltrip kept himself in check for the most part, without the type of rampant promotion that’s become typical during his time in the booth.

One thing that I would like to have had explained, however, was why Red Horse Racing put Timothy Peters in the No. 1 while Peyton Sellers did a one-off in the No. 17 with his own sponsors. Didn’t make any sense to me. The No. 1 of Peters actually had a No. 17 decal on the B-Pillar.

While the trucks were racing at Martinsville, the Nationwide Series started their event, the Kroger On Track for the Cure 250, under sunny skies at Memphis Motorsports Park. Since this was a split weekend, ESPN used their “B” team crew for this race. Marty Reid was joined in the booth by Rusty Wallace and Randy LaJoie. This was a crew that worked together earlier in the season, to generally positive reviews. The pit reporting corps were represented by the crew of Mike Massaro (who also hosted NASCAR Countdown from pit road), Jack Arute, and Rick DeBruhl.

The pre-race (NASCAR Countdown) show was a significant change from what we have been seeing recently. There were more interviews than what I’ve been used to (I counted at least nine during the pre-race, but admittedly, I was switching back and forth between NASCAR Countdown and the Truck race). Also, of those interviews, ESPN decided to talk to some of the Nationwide-only drivers before they got to interviewing Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards towards the end of pre-race. However, I still think that ESPN missed an opportunity for the race fans to get to know the non-Cup drivers. Maybe just a little get-to-know-you feature with a couple of the drivers that made their Nationwide debuts on Saturday (Richard Boswell, Blake Koch, Matt DiBenedetto, Eddie MacDonald) would have been helpful for fans to establish a bit of a bond with them before the drop of the green.

Now, due to the Truck race telecast ending around 4:45 PM, I could watch the Nationwide race live. (I had paused the telecast at 3:30 PM on the DV-R so I could watch the rest of the Truck race live.) When I unpaused it, I admittedly skipped the opening ceremonies and got right to the race. The action was fast and furious out there on the track. Lots of contact between drivers, and unfortunately, wrecks. Memphis does have the second highest number of cautions in a Nationwide Series race (25, in 2007), so Marty Reid did reminisce a little about that marathon of an event (which was actually 40 full minutes shorter than this year’s race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve).

I also think I heard Rusty Wallace make his first reference to a team actually starting and parking, when Chase Miller got involved in the pileup in Turn 1 that was caused by John Wes Townley’s No. 09 dumping oil all over the track. Instead of parking due to lack of funds, Miller ended up heavily damaging the No. 73 Dodge, to the point DCM has recently pulled out of the final three Nationwide races of the season as a result.

On the negative side, I did experience approximately five audio drop outs during the race on Saturday. I don’t know if this was just me experiencing them, or if it was related to my DV-R (which still isn’t working perfectly as of now). Also, I’m not really sure that ESPN really needed to use the taped Tech Garage segments. They didn’t really add anything to the race broadcasts. However, they weren’t as intrusive to the racing on Saturday… (More to come on that subject in a bit.)

The one downside of actually critiquing a race based off of a time-shifted broadcast is that I don’t really have any frame of reference of when the race ended in regards to its timeslot. By the time I finished the race telecast, it was a little after 7 PM. Based on the race time listed on racing-reference.info, I’m thinking that the checkered flag flew around 6:20 p.m. This would have likely meant that the telecast had about 10 minutes of post-race coverage. In that ten minutes (we’re going off of an assumed 6:30 PM sign-off), ESPN interviewed Brad Keselowski, his crew chief Tony Eury, Sr., and four other drivers. In addition, the unofficial results were shown in the scroll, and there was a traditional points check.

On Sunday, ESPN on ABC brought us the TUMS Fast Relief 500 from Martinsville Speedway. This was an action-packed race, with 21 lead changes amongst 11 drivers. Those 21 lead changes were the fourth-highest number ever recorded in a Sprint Cup race in Martinsville (the record is 25, set back in 1980). So you know the action was pretty good, despite the fact that Johnson and Hamlin combined to more or less dominate the race.

How was the coverage?

We’ll start with NASCAR Countdown. Like we’ve become accustomed to in recent weeks, there weren’t very many interviews on the pre-race show. Only Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and pole sitter Ryan Newman were interviewed.

This past weekend also marked the five year anniversary of the tragic plane crash that took the lives of ten people, mostly people related to Rick Hendrick (his brother, son, and nieces were amongst the deceased). ESPN decided to put a feature on the plane crash into the pre-race show. However, anyone watching it would have noticed that it was clearly excerpted from Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story. I realized this right away. It hasn’t been that long since it premiered on ABC (only two weeks ago). In addition, this excerpt also aired on the 10 AM edition of NASCAR Now. I think they were a little lazy on this one.

There was also a short feature on the ever popular Jesse Jones Hot Dogs that are sold at Martinsville Speedway. Brad Daugherty spent some time in one of the concession stands, and talked a little bit about the unusual “magenta” color. Having never been to Martinsville, I’d definitely check them out if I ever get to go to a race there. But I will admit that SPEED kind of did this live as well during their extended pre-race on Saturday. Krista Voda was inside the infield concession stand serving ‘dogs to, among others, Ray Dunlap. Also of note is the fact that one can buy a pack of Bailey’s Cigarettes for $5 at that stand. That’s cheap! At Watkins Glen, for example, a pack of cigarettes cost $10 and could only be purchased in the Pyramid souvenir store.

Back to the race coverage; it was OK this week, but a number of problems sprouted up. For example, ESPN used full screen cutaways on multiple occasions on Sunday. One of these was for a cut to Tim Brewer in the Craftsman Tech Garage on Lap 96. The other three were for replays. The third of those, on Lap 263, was a full screen look at Jimmie Johnson’s pit stop from the previous caution where he had lost time. However, ESPN basically missed a lead change in doing that.

Because of this, I believe that ESPN definitely needs to adopt a split-screen setup for replays during green flag action like SPEED has for the Truck Series races. I cannot claim that I know how difficult this is to do from a production standpoint, but I think that it is definitely possible. Doing this would not only allow ESPN to show their replays, but also allow fans to not miss out on things as often as they do.

Also, early in the race Dale Earnhardt, Jr. blew a right front tire (likely due to bead issues) and came to a stop on the frontstretch. This drew the third caution of the day. Normally, this would draw a one lap penalty for drawing an intentional yellow. However, this didn’t happen. Not sure why, but ESPN never really questioned NASCAR’s motives in not penalizing Earnhardt Jr. That was a missed call. Weak. ESPN should have called NASCAR out on that, but they chose not to for whatever reason.

Even with the fifteen caution flags, ESPN still had over a half hour left in their timeslot at the end of the race. They filled this time with interviews with ten drivers, two crew chiefs (Chad Ford and Darian Grubb), and, for some reason, Denny Hamlin’s parents. They also included extensive post-race analysis from the infield studio and the broadcast booth. There was also a quick cut to Tim Brewer in the Craftsman Tech Garage, where he talked briefly about the post-race inspection criteria. I think he had already done that at least once this season, to be honest. It just shows that yes, the networks do repeat themselves at times.

That is all for this week. Next week is Talladega. Action is absolutely guaranteed, as are quirky things. In fact, the track just last week brought in a Creek Medicine Man to perform a “cleansing ceremony,” supposedly to rid the track of the supposed curse put on the land over 170 years ago.

At Talladega, the Truck Series will race in the Mountain Dew 250 on Saturday afternoon. Qualifying coverage will be live on SPEED at 5 PM ET (4 PM CT) on Friday evening. Race coverage will start at 3:30 PM ET, with NCWTS Setup with the race coverage starting at 4 PM.

The Cup Series will race on Sunday afternoon in the Amp Energy 500. Coverage starts on Friday, with the first practice on Friday afternoon at 2 PM ET (1 PM CT). Happy Hour will air at 4 PM, right before Truck qualifying. Sprint Cup qualifying will air on Saturday at noon ET (11 AM CT). Finally, race coverage will start with a one hour edition of NASCAR Countdown starting at noon ET (11 AM CT), with race coverage starting at 1 PM ET. The green flag will fly around 1:18 PM. Also note that Daylight Savings Time ends Sunday morning at 2 AM. So, set your clocks back an hour (if they don’t do it automatically, like my cable box does) before you go to bed on Saturday night.

I will also give my thoughts on NASCAR Performance next week, the Larry McReynolds-hosted program that focuses on the technical aspect of NASCAR racing. In addition, I will talk about any other random tidbits that I find interesting next week, like Joey Logano and Kyle Busch on WWE Raw (which occurred this Monday night).

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 politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Contact Phil Allaway

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Kevin in SoCal
10/27/2009 01:38 AM
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Phil, it was explained during the broadcast that Timothy Peters runs the #117 truck, so when the owner of the #17 truck shows up, he has to run a different number so there is no confusion.

Bad Wolf
10/27/2009 01:49 AM
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Back before the 2000 season I used to watch the backhaul feeds of the races on the old C-Band dish. These were the direct feeds that went from the track to the networks, and when they went to commercial break I could still see the racing action and listen to the booth crew. During these breaks they would just be talking between themselves and telling it like it was. They would call BS on certain things and I heard them call drivers boneheads and worse a few times. As soon as they were back on air they would put their gameface back on and and revert back to PC announcers.

Those commercial breaks were some of the best race coverage I have ever seen, and I always wished they could let them loose like that for the whole race. Sadly that all went away when Fox came in, as they scrambled those feeds and put them on KU band.

Mark
10/27/2009 09:05 AM
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A lot of things get worse when FOX comes in Bad Wolf . I enjoyed the commercial break conversations between the analysts too , but there were too many people listening and too many opinions being expressed about the drivers and NASCAR . So FOX effectivly shut them up .
Once again , the race was reduced to a Hendrick documentary . Just for fun , i picked one driver to pay very close attention to during the race . He is in the chase , he isn’t a Hendrick driver . I was curious to see if maybe its only my perception that the attention paid to two of the Hendrick teams is way over the top .
My perception was certainly accurate . My driver was almost never mentioned and i never once saw his crew chief on screen . Someday someone should really use a stopwatch and see how many minutes of a broadcast are devoted to Hendrick teams and gushing accolades about Rick and his organization . It is WAY over the top . Every tiny move of Johnson and Gordon is analized breatlessly . We see Letarte and Knaus constantly on screen during the race . And of course Punchs’ crush on the HMS drivers . Now , as the ratings for NASCAR continue to plummet , maybe someone at the networks should take a real hard look at how these shows are being scripted and how most of the teams and stories are being ignored for the sake of Hendrick .
Speaking of which , the 88 car not getting a panalty for intentionaly bringing out the caution should be no surprise when you look at Andretti sitting sideways on the frontstretch and no caution flag thrown .
I know the ALL HMS ALL THE TIME tv broadcasts are really a factor of favoritism by the producers , directors , and certain talking heads . And i realize that Hendrick and his sponsors pay to have their teams on screen at all times . But in the case of Dale Jr. and Andretti , i’m starting to think that its not only Brian France thats incompetent , its Helton and Darby as well . Maybe we’ve all been wrong to assume that the poor quality of racing and dumb decisions are all the fault of Brian alone .

Mark
10/27/2009 09:17 AM
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As i was changing the channel after the final lap of the race , i believe i heard that a press conference of the top three finishers was scheduled . I assume this will be a weekly thing , probably should have been done decades before now . Maybe the networks and NASCAR are finaly listening to the fans who constantly compliment the F1 broadcasts . Stealing the press conference idea is , i hope , only the beginning . There is an awful lot that the F1 broadcasts do correctly , and the NASCAR broadcasts should copy .

Ryan
10/27/2009 09:42 AM
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The terrible race broacasts aren’t just ESPN . There haven’t been good race broadcasts on tv since the days of Ned Jarrett , Neil Bonnett , and Benny Parsons . There are some good analysts on these shows . But mostly hack ex-pit reporters who were brought in because …. well i’m not sure why they were brought in .
The NASCAR broadcasts until recently were aimed at race fans . And race fans don’t need the dumbed down explanations of everything that goes on .
The race broadcasts of the last few years have been aimed at the new or casual fan . Thats why we get graphics explaining how drafting works , and endless lessons on pit stops , and intense examinations of stategys .
NASCAR has lost its way , the networks are blindly following along , and the only fans who really care about the racing are being lost . NASCAR and the networks keep apealing to new and casual fans who simply don’t exist . The true fans are made to suffer through these lame shows . Thank goodness for MRN radio .

JohnP
10/27/2009 10:10 AM
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The coverage of the race from Martinsvill was so bad, the wife and I made a joke about it.. Basically every other sentence was “Jimmy Johnson this..” “Jimmy Johnson that..” We went about the rest of the day saying “Jimmy Johnson bla bla bla”.. It was so funny.. ESPN should be ashamed of the coverage and just goes to show they are simply a ball and stick outfit.. A far cry from the 90’s when they were top rate in Nascar.. Mark above (kudos for doing so by the way) said he intentionally watched a non-Hendrick car, but another car in the Chase and the coverage was bad.. You think?? Seriously, it’s been that way since the Chase started.. As a Stewart fan, I basically heard nothing about him at Martinsville, and yes, he’s still in the run for the Chase, bairly, but still there..
For some reason unknow he finished in the 20’s.. However, I feel like I know what Jimmy Johnson had for dinner last month on September 16 at 5:32pm est.. Maybe I should apply at ESPN.. I got it down “Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy Johnson, Chad Knaus, Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy Johnson”.. Wow, I got hired.. lol.. As Mr Bill says, Nascar’s drinking to much Kool-Aid these days.. People either get that or they don’t, I’m not explaining.. Seems like Nascar had better crunch down on the people broadcasting their “shows” at the track.. Oh, but wait, Brian France is rairly at the “show”, so truely, how does he even have a perspective?? Think about that, the owner of Nascar rairly shows up at the track, that he, himself is promoting!! Now, what’s wrong with that?? I see a lot wrong with that.. He’s either to rich to give a damn, or he thinks it’s boring.. Welp, he’s both..

JohnP
10/27/2009 10:25 AM
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Ryan said: “The race broadcasts of the last few years have been aimed at the new or casual fan . Thats why we get graphics explaining how drafting works , and endless lessons on pit stops , and intense examinations of stategys.”

You know something Ryan, I never thought about it from that view point.. And I’m not to proud to admit I never put that thinking together.. Your so right!! I truly get tired of the drafting graphics, McRenalds telling me what loose and tight means.. What wedge is, or a rubber.. But yet, they can’t find time to talk about The Race.. And endlessly showing me brake parts or the “cut-away-car”.. I don’t give a damn, show me the Race..

Phil Allaway
10/27/2009 11:50 AM
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Mark,
Yes, NASCAR holds press conferences in the Media Center after the race. The second and third place drivers appear together, then the rookie of the race (when I was in Watkins Glen, it was Max Papis), then the winner. Currently, only the winner’s press conference is televised live on ESPNEWS.

NASCAR’s Kerry Tharp will announce the drivers, crew chiefs and/or owners, then ask a question before throwing it to the assembled media to ask questions.

It’s probably better in person, and if Johnson doesn’t win. That’s only because there’s a higher chance for humor.

Kevin in SoCal
10/27/2009 12:56 PM
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Mark said “Someday someone should really use a stopwatch and see how many minutes of a broadcast are devoted to Hendrick teams and gushing accolades about Rick and his organization.”

Have you heard of cawsnjaws.com ? They do analyse the race based on commercials, which drivers are talked about, etc. Go check it out.

Fred S.
10/27/2009 11:33 PM
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I was happy to see Denny Hamlin’s parents on the post race interview. They deserved the attention. They mortgaged all they had to put Denny in racing and I am glad it has paid off. I’m sure there are others like them that we don’t hear about and that could be the subject of another segment on some show in the future.

Tom Antrim
10/29/2009 03:57 PM
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Being an old fan of NASCAR I’ve kept up with the sport since the early 60’s and have seen a lot of changes. The biggest was when they started doing them live.
Today it is like watching military tanks racing. I am for safe cars but somewhere along the way it has become boring. If you started watching racing in the 90’s then your prospective won’t be as dramatic.

Richard in N.C.
10/30/2009 06:47 PM
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Saw Erik Kuselias on EESPN college football show last night. Does that mean he’s been given a pass by EESPN or that the above accusation is erroneous? Pretty serious accusation to leave hanging if it is false.