The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Checking Up On Offseason News 'N' Notes by Phil Allaway -- Thursday December 10, 2009

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Talking NASCAR TV: Checking Up On Offseason News 'N' Notes

Phil Allaway · Thursday December 10, 2009

 

Hello, race fans. Hope you had a great start to the holiday season! After a few weeks off, it’s time to give a little NASCAR TV update on what’s gone on so far this offseason. Quite a few pieces of news have actually broken on the TV front since Homestead, so let’s get right to it with a quick recap of what went down…

First, on Wednesday, Showtime officially announced a new, weekly series called Inside NASCAR (not to be confused with the Inside NASCAR that aired on TNN from 1995-2000, which was a continuation of Inside Winston Cup Racing). It will premiere Wednesday, February 10th at 10 PM. This will be a one hour show dedicated to NASCAR, put together in a way that’s similar to Inside the NFL, which also airs on Showtime. The series will air weekly for a total of 38 episodes, part of a two-year deal with a team of announcers and analysts TBD (although Showtime insists they’ll be familiar faces from FOX, TNT, and ESPN broadcasts). It sounds nice, but Showtime is only available in a limited number of homes, so many fans may never actually see the show.

HBO is also getting into the game with 24/7 Jimmie Johnson, a four episode series that will go behind the scenes with JJ as he and the No. 48 team prepare for Speedweeks. If you’ve seen any of the 24/7 series that have chronicled preparations for major bouts, you might have an idea what to expect: an inside look at how everyone involved in the lives of Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, and owner Rick Hendrick play a part in shaping their focus and competitive drive heading to the biggest race of the year. Three episodes will air prior to the Daytona 500, and one will wrap up during Speedweeks itself, with the premiere episode scheduled for January 26th at 10 PM.

The question of Cup race telecasts is also starting to become a bit more of a hot topic. NASCAR.com had an article on the issue posted Wednesday, revolving around the Talladega telecast and how ESPN’s commentators (Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree) talked about the action on the track. Apparently, it wasn’t just Ramsey Poston at NASCAR who was unhappy with the ABC telecast (he infamously ranted about it on the NASCAR Says Blog at nascar.com). It seems NASCAR executives weren’t pleased, either, with the lack of objectivity from the commentators. Here at Frontstretch, we touched upon this topic in Mirror Driving a couple of days after the race, and basically came to the conclusion that what they did was essentially a violation of journalistic principles. Now, I’ll admit the action wasn’t quite what we expected it to be. Commenting on radio transmissions (which were played on air) from drivers like Tony Stewart, who said he was bored, is certainly fair game. That would technically be considered a “fact.” Still, all journalists have to be careful to keep their own biases from dominating the telecast. Bestwick said it best when I talked to him earlier this year: “Once you say something… it’s out there. You can’t take it back.”

On a non-NASCAR (sort of) note, SPEED recently inked a three-year deal with AVESCO (Australian Vee Eight Supercar Company). This will allow for next weekend, tape-delayed coverage for the Australian V8 Supercars. I’m not sure what my readers think about this move, but to me, this is a “run around on your side” bit of news (like Homer Simpson did once). I’m really happy that I get to see my V8 Supercars on TV again, as it’s been two years since they’ve aired on SPEED. Before this deal, the only way you could watch Bathurst (the Super Cheap 1000, the biggest touring car race in all of Australia) in the United States was by watching it on a stream at justin.tv.

This move more than likely came about because of Marcos Ambrose coming into the Sprint Cup Series. Prior to coming to the United States, Ambrose was a two-time champion of the V8 Supercars. Admittedly, the first I’d heard of him was an embarrassing incident in the GMC 400 (GMC does not mean General Motors’ GMC) in Canberra in 2001, when he lost his left rear tire with three laps left in Race 1 of a doubleheader. The tire rolled down a hill, jumped up in the air after hitting a curb, and landed on top of a single strand pile of tires. Pretty funny to look at.

Before Marcos Ambrose got busy winning races in NASCAR, he was a top-level driver in Australia’s V8 Supercar Series – where he’ll make a special appearance in the SPEED TV booth when the series comes to U.S. television on Sunday, December 13th.

These competitions are a GM versus Ford affair, conducted in 3,000 pound production-based sedans with 600+ horsepower V8 engines. I think you guys will like it. Highlighted coverage of the last round of this season, the Telstra 500 (which was split into three races) from the new Homebush Street Circuit in Downtown Sydney (held on December 5th and 6th) will be shown on Sunday, December 13th at 1 PM EST on SPEED. Note that Ambrose is supposed to make an appearance in the Seven Network booth during the race.

In addition to the TV-related news that has broken in recent weeks, I’ve still got some leftover critiquing to get through. I never got a chance to judge “Quest for the NASCAR Sprint Cup,” which is a half-hour weekly series that aired during the second half of the 2009 season at 11 PM Tuesday nights on Versus. Due to the ongoing spat between Comcast and DirecTV over subscriber fees and channel placement, a substantial number of readers of this column (based on the number of homes that Versus is in, 20 percent of you or more is not at all out of the question) probably had no access to the show at all. Apparently, this is a series that SPEED actually passed on at some point earlier this year, which allowed Versus to jump at it and diversify their motorsports programming (which currently consists of live telecasts of IndyCar Series races and tape delayed telecasts of Indy Lights races).

The 11 PM timeslot was likely designed so that it would air after live sports telecasts (NHL games) finished for the night. It’s still on a little late, to be honest, so it’s tough for some fans to stay up for… I’ll give it some penalty points for that. However, it’s a very quick turnaround for this type of show. It originally aired on November 24th, just two days after Johnson wrapped up the title in Homestead.

Aside from that gripe about the timeslot, which is outside of NASCAR’s control, the rest of the show came off to me as being similar to Beyond the Wheel. What’s Beyond the Wheel, you ask? Well, at one point in 2005, the Thursday edition of NASCAR Nation was dedicated to Beyond the Wheel, which was a slickly produced recap of the previous week’s race, with voiceovers and interviews. Whenever I watched it, I thought the program was fairly well put together.

I echo those thoughts on Quest for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, even though it has a much tighter focus on the championship (sometimes too much so). The show is glossy, well put together, and includes exclusive (I think) interviews with main principals. In this case, since I’m basing this off the Homestead episode, they had plenty of quotes from Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. In other weeks, it would be different people in the comfy chairs talking about the race.

The show effectively chronicles the entire weekend using radio chatter and conservations outside of the car to help tell the story. In addition, there is usually an overarching theme. Not surprisingly, on the Homestead episode, the theme was “Dynasties.” In between showing still frames of great teams or great individual athletes, interview footage of Johnson, Knaus, and other drivers discussing the idea was shown. After awhile, though, I will admit that I found this storyline a little annoying, as it just seemed the show was piling it on rather thick as far as the “four straight titles were concerned.” While I understand a desire to reach out to new fans, there should have been an assumption most people watching already knew what Johnson was about to accomplish (and by the time this show aired, already had).

But despite that minor complaint, I think this half-hour show is fairly good. It just flew by when I was watching it, which doesn’t necessarily happen all that often when I’m taking notes on shows for these critiques. As of right now, I am not sure whether this show will return for 2010, or if it’s just a one-time deal. If it does come back, I hope it’s for the full season…

Also, recently, NASCAR held their season-ending banquets. The Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series banquet was held November 23rd in Miami and shown on tape delay December 4th on SPEED. That same night, the Sprint Cup Series held their banquet at the Wynn in Las Vegas. Now, I’ll be honest with you guys. I’m not a fan of banquets, either live or on television. They bore me to tears. However, since I’m a NASCAR TV Critic, I’m beholden to my readers to watch them and give my thoughts. We’ll start with the big show for the Sprint Cup Series.

Now, many of you have likely read about the mess that was the planning of Champions’ Week from various online sources. The lack of promotion (of the week itself) was quite sad, and it was really quite amazing that NASCAR took so long to name a host. Frank Caliendo signed on to host the banquet last minute, and a small collection of acts complemented him on stage. Was that enough to add a last-minute injection of energy to a night that’s traditionally a bit of a snoozer?

The quick answer is: not really.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. The coverage started out with Steve Byrnes and Jeff Hammond hosting what amounted to a one-hour pre-banquet show. This show featured a review of the season using video clips, some discussion of the evening, and Jeff trying to describe what the wives were wearing to the banquet. I’ll admit that I found Jeff’s attempt to be Joan Rivers (or her daughter, Melissa) to be kind of funny, because it clearly did not seem natural and was very out of place. Oh, well; SPEED doesn’t pay Jeff Hammond to talk about dresses. (When you think about it, the only clothing he talks about on a regular basis are firesuits and Nomex.) Now, under normal circumstances, some interviews would have been nice here because it sort of seemed like the drivers were just arriving at the time. However, truth be told, they were already inside eating whatever the Wynn provided for dinner. We just had no idea because a schedule of their night was not noted to the viewers… that’s penalty points right there.

Furthermore, it seemed that the broadcast was roughly 20 minutes behind the actual banquet. Apparently, this is an improvement from last year’s telecast on ESPN Classic … but it’s still a delay nonetheless. You can’t stop attendees from Twittering and posting pictures online during a live event, and that causes confusion for fans who found out through a tweet things they wouldn’t see on TV until several segments later.

Due to the short notice for the banquet, NASCAR relied on old standbys and effectively whoever they could get to fill the entertainment portion. John Pinette, the evening’s comedian, worked the banquet last year. He was OK, but I’m not a comedy critic. Since I skipped watching last year’s banquet, I had actually never heard of him before.

For the musical acts, the first act was Escala, an all-female string quartet which played Palladio (the song that used to be used in commercials for De Beers, the South African diamond company). This seemed to have nothing to do with the sport and was just added for filler, although their performance was pretty good. Of course, for full disclosure, I played the violin for eight years and actually played an arrangement of Palladio in the String Orchestra for a concert when I was in high school. Also, the instruments they played were quite elaborate pieces of art. But, I’m not here to critique musical instruments.

Of all the performances, the one by Brooks and Dunn was probably the best of them. I’ll admit right here that I’m not a fan of Country Music, but their performance was the most relevant of the night and was very well put together.

Caliendo had a couple of monologues and bits to himself that got an OK response from the crowd, but not overwhelming. Yes, the John Madden and George W. Bush impressions came out to play for a little while. I think that with the short notice, he couldn’t get all of his best material out there, and it showed. Caliendo disappeared backstage when the real banquet ceremonies commenced, allowing Krista Voda and/or Mike Joy to handle the podium duties. This is something that they did well on Friday night.

Something that definitely needs to be looked at for the future is the overall length of the banquet. The total length extended well over four and a half hours, longer than an average race. Jimmie Johnson didn’t get to make his on-air speech until well after 1 AM EST, when most of the NASCAR fan base had fallen asleep. Granted, the sport has fans all over this country, but a good number of them live on the East Coast. No wonder why so many people skip out altogether on this experience each year…

Even with the issues described above, ratings are up for the banquet from last year. NASCAR themselves pulled it off of ESPN Classic 23 days beforehand and gave it to SPEED, mainly because of ESPN Classic’s shrinking carriage. For next year, though, several other changes need to be made to make it more TV-friendly. Most of the changes are on NASCAR’s end (promotion-wise) and will get done because they’re smart enough to realize that they can’t plan something like a banquet last minute. On SPEED’s end, they need to coordinate with NASCAR to have the actual banquet start at 9 PM EST and have that on television LIVE. Also, the event should be shorter. Three hours should be the max… maybe less than that. Put the focus back on the drivers, as maybe they don’t need a celebrity host and Joy and/or Voda could just host the whole show. I’m not sure what the principals involved in the sport would prefer, but they should have a say.

Before the Sprint Cup banquet started, SPEED provided tape-delayed coverage of the combined Nationwide and Camping World Series banquet from the Lowe’s Miami Beach Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, where Krista Voda and Rick Allen co-hosted. As with the Sprint Cup banquet, the head table was right up on stage. Of course, with two series being represented here, there were two champions’ tables on either side of the stage, and the broadcast started off with the introductions of the winning teams. After a commercial (quite short, I might add), there was a “mystery” presentation of the Most Popular Driver Awards to Ricky Carmichael (for the Camping World Truck Series) and Brad Keselowski (for the Nationwide Series). This was known to us by the point that this aired on SPEED, but not on November 23rd, when the banquet was held.

After commercial number two, the presentation of the Raybestos Brakes Rookie of the Year awards were made. First, Johnny Sauter came on stage and did a sitdown interview with Allen and Voda, then Justin Allgaier followed suit. These segments seemed to look like they were shot before the opening of the show occurred, but I’m not really sure. 12 days is a long time to be able to fidget with a broadcast…

After another break, the top 5 introductions began. These introductions were done in a similar fashion to the Rookie of the Year intros in that there would be a graphic display, then a brief montage of the driver. Rick Allen would then call the driver up to the stage, and a mini three-way interview would begin between the driver, Allen, and Voda. While the interview was being conducted, the big screen on the stage showed either statistics from that driver’s season or clips of them at the track.

This process was done in alternating series order, meaning that the fifth place Camping World Truck Series driver (Colin Braun) came up on stage first, followed by the fifth place Nationwide Series driver (Justin Allgaier). After that, it was the fourth place Camping World Truck driver (Todd Bodine) and so on and so forth.

After the second place drivers came up on stage and did their interviews, there were some speeches. First was the representative of the championship winning Camping World Truck sponsor, in this case, Longhorn Tobacco’s Charlie Kivett (although Hornaday had other sponsors during the season). Series Director Wayne Auton then introduced Championship-winning crew chief Rick Ren and gave him a Victory Cigar, which he then dropped after he failed to put it in his jacket pocket. After that, Mike Helton introduced championship winning truck owner Kevin Harvick to come up and give his speech.

Following the trio of speeches, it was time for Camping World Truck Series Champion Ron Hornaday Jr. to come front and center and accept his accolades, which, in addition to the championship trophy, included multiple season-long awards (the Cup equivalents of which were handed out at the NMPA Myers Brothers Luncheon the day before the Sprint Cup banquet), a championship ring, and a necklace, described as a “spouse gift.” After the gifts were handed down, Hornaday made his speech.

After another break, the speeches and awards for Kyle Busch’s team were shown, effectively in the same order that it was done with Hornaday and KHI (CEO Jim Sexton spoke for one of Kyle Busch’s primary sponsors, Z-Line Designs, before Series Director Joe Balash introduced crew chief Jason Radcliff and then Helton introduced car owner J.D. Gibbs. Kyle Busch then came front and center, accepted his ring (no spouse gift because he’s not married to his girlfriend, Samantha) and made his speech, where he made a couple of jokes and seemed genuinely pleased with himself, even self-deprecating at times. Finally, the championship trophies were awarded and the show was over.

This banquet telecast comes off to me like a telecast of a truck race, to be honest. It’s the utilitarian version of a postseason celebration, and I liked it. Two hours is about right for a banquet, and it never seemed to drag (unlike the Cup banquet.) There were also no musical guests, comedians, or anything of that nature. The only “funnies” that were made were during speeches. I’m still not a fan of how they combined the banquets, but this format with one banquet for each series would be fine in the future.

That’s all for this critique, which went a lot longer than I thought it would. As of right now, I am not 100 percent sure when the next critique will run on Frontstretch, as we’re scaling back to a more intermittent schedule during the offseason. So if there’s no pressing TV news to write about between now and the end of the month, let me be the first to wish you a Happy and Healthy Holiday Season!

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 politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Contact Phil Allaway

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