The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: SPEED Does Well in Daytona, Struggles In Irwindale by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday February 2, 2010

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Hello, race fans and welcome to entry No. 47 (No. 1 in 2010) in an open-ended series that looks into the broadcasts that we all love to watch. This weekend was the last weekend without action for NASCAR’s top three series, as Speedweeks starts in less than 72 hours.

But first, some late-breaking news (as in literally being announced while this critique was being written) – ESPN’s NASCAR Now announced on Monday’s show that they are soliciting fan opinions of certain show features and interviews through Twitter. The host (in this case Mike Massaro) will prompt you to send tweets to the program’s Twitter page in response to what you’ve seen on that episode, with certain tweets to be read at the end of each show. For example, Mike Helton was interviewed via satellite Monday, and Massaro asked fans to send tweets regarding what they thought of what Helton said. I’m not 100 percent sure on whether this interview was live or not, but apparently the reading of tweets may have been.

I haven’t had much time to react, but the first impression is I like this idea and I’m interested in how this will work later on this season.

Now, for this week’s critique:

Luckily for race fans, this weekend was not completely without motorsports action with two major races. In Daytona Beach the Rolex Sports Car Series, under the guidance of Grand-Am, hosted the annual Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. The Continental Tire Series (formerly the Koni Challenge Series) also held a race, the Fresh From Florida 200. For those of you wondering, Fresh From Florida is a slogan of Florida Citrus Farmers. That race ran on Friday afternoon in Daytona, but has not aired on SPEED as of yet. It is currently scheduled to air Feb. 13th at 7 PM on SPEED.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, NASCAR held its annual meeting of short track racers from all over the country at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, CA. Both events had great action for viewers to watch.

Since the Toyota All-Star Showdown was a two-day event, we’ll start with that.

On Friday night, SPEED brought us “time-shifted” coverage of the preliminaries of the Toyota All-Star Showdown. How do I know that it was time-shifted? Well, the coverage started off with pole qualifying for Saturday night’s 225-lap feature. I logged onto NASCAR’s “Home Tracks” Web site, which serves as a portal for NASCAR’s non-major touring series: the now-K&N Pro Series (East and West Divisions), the Whelen Modifieds (North and South Divisions), the Canadian Tire Series, and the Mexico Series. There, I saw that Pena had won the pole, and a write-up was already on the site before the qualifying coverage finished on SPEED.

Weak.

Also, I had some issues with the way SPEED presented that qualifying session. The only way that we learned about what times were run for most drivers was when Rick Allen or Phil Parsons told the viewers. There were a couple of exceptions for maybe two or three out of the 44 cars that attempted times – but no speeds were ever given for anyone. Apparently, no one was there to plug the times into the speed formula which is easily found on Jayski’s race pages.

Also of note during the session, SPEED showed Paulie Harraka’s qualifying effort from his roof cam. I found this interesting because this is banned during Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series qualifying sessions by NASCAR. The explanation given by James “Shifty” Shiftan for this at Watkins Glen had something to do with teams not wanting their competition to know what gears they were running; but apparently, it didn’t matter on a short track like Irwindale.

Finally, there was no reference on Friday night — or Saturday for that matter — to the fact that Joey Logano was driving what appeared to be a Chevrolet with Toyota logos on it. Strange. I’m assuming that the car had a Toyota engine under the hood, and Logano’s contract requires him to drive a Toyota in events outside of the Cup Series.

Later on Friday night, there was a 100-lap race for Super Late Models. For the second consecutive year this race was shortened, this time to 66 laps due to wrecks, reaching the one hour time limit. I was incensed that SPEED never bothered to give us viewers a starting lineup for this race. Instead, SPEED showed a group of notables, interviewed the pole sitter Rip Michaels, and then started the race.

The race coverage was OK, but the overall lack of a starting grid meant that I had no clue who 90 percent of these drivers were, which is really annoying. I’d prefer that SPEED not do that again. I think I saw the names of maybe 8-12 of the 40 competitors in this event, which makes it a little hard to follow things.

After briefly interviewing Michaels, who dominated the race, SPEED moved along to the K&N Open, which determined the last six spots in the All-Star Showdown. No starting lineup was given for this race, either. Also, there was no scroll for the first half of the race, which was just the beginning of scroll issues that SPEED had for most of the weekend in Irwindale (there were also issues with the lap counter).

My best guess is that the starting lineup for the Open was based upon how those 11 drivers qualified in the main session. Also, there didn’t appear to be any mention of the actual starting grid for the feature race until Saturday night. I had to go back to NASCAR Home Tracks and take the grid off of there before the race Saturday.

Also of note, Brendan Gaughan joined Allen and Parsons in the booth for the K&N Open, or – as I referred to it – the Consi. For the other races, Gaughan was there to assist with the radio broadcasts on SIRIUS. I don’t have SIRIUS, but from what I hear, he’s not the greatest on radio.

In this setting, Gaughan was OK, although he admittedly gave a lot of his focus to the lone female driver in the Consi, Candace Muzny, who finished third and raced her way into the field. To her credit, Muzny held her own in the Consi and in the main race Saturday night, until she got involved in a wreck.

Saturday night brought the 225-lap feature on SPEED. Once again, Rick Allen and Phil Parsons were in the booth, and were joined briefly during one of the pit stop breaks by Grand Marshal Michael Rooker (Rowdy Burns from “Days of Thunder.”) Of note with Rooker, Toyota Speedway used the All-Star Showdown to also celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the release of the notable 1990 Paramount film.

This was not mentioned on air.

Joey Logano may have won this year’s Toyota All-Star Showdown, but 16-year-old Sergio Pena was the story.

SPEED showed a brief recap of Friday night’s action and did four pre-race interviews. This weekend’s racing will be best remembered as the coming out party for Sergio Pena, the 16-year-old driver for Revolution Racing (via NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity). However, some of SPEED’s personnel had a bit of difficulty remembering his name. He was referred to on-air as “Sergio Garcia” on at least one occasion. I’m not the biggest golf fan, but I do know that Sergio Garcia is a professional golfer – and quite a bit older than 16.

SPEED still continued to be “short shrift” with the starting lineups on Saturday night, which ticked me off as I struggled to figure out which drivers drove which cars. Once again, please don’t do that in the future.

Having whined about all that, the coverage of the actual racing was not all that bad. SPEED didn’t have a full crew at the track for this event, so some things weren’t fully caught on camera. For example, if a Sprint Cup race has a minimum 60 cameras (remember, ESPN has between 60-76 at every Cup race), SPEED was making do with maybe 15-25 in Irwindale (this is a guess, because I’m not really sure). For example, when Josh Combs, driving the No. 9 Ford as a teammate to Jason Bowles spun out, SPEED missed what caused the multi-car crash on lap 145. The cameras only caught Combs after his car was already perpendicular to the track.

I think there was a lot of coverage given to Joey Logano and Sergio Pena, although I admit the race was more or less between the two teenagers. (Nobody else even made an attempt for the lead during the race.) There was some coverage shown further down the order, but not much – especially considering that we’re talking about Irwindale, a very competitive half-mile oval.

Post-race coverage featured interviews with the top four finishers (Logano, Pena, Matt Kobyluck and Matt DiBenedetto) and some analysis.

However, that wasn’t the last race of the night.

After the 225-lap feature, there was a 75-lap race for regular late models scheduled. This race was shortened to 55 laps due to going over Irwindale’s curfew (by a substantial amount). Under normal circumstances, a noise ordinance goes into effect for Irwindale at 11 p.m. PST, while this race ended at nearly midnight PST. Last years’ event had similar issues, which led to the races being split up and shortened. Needless to say, I was bushed once this race was over, and is likely why I slept through the first three hours of SPEED’s Rolex 24 coverage Sunday morning.

Of course, starting 44 cars for a late model race on a half-mile short track is sure to lead to a few accidents, and Saturday night was no different. Here, the camera views hurt the broadcast again because in one of the wrecks, it was unclear who actually spun out and caused two other cars to hit the wall in a futile attempt to avoid… crashing.

There were a couple of post-race interviews here with winner Tim Huddleston, who seems to be a bit of a showman, and runner-up Sean Woodside. This was followed by a quick wrap-up and then off the air by what I guess was 3:15 AM EST. Of course, I’m not really sure because at that time of night, I was battling to stay awake. Didn’t make it 20 minutes past the end of the race before passing out.

The moral of this story is it’s always good to be able to see lower divisions of racing on television. Unfortunately, at times, we have to accept a lower level of coverage in order to make it happen. Aside from the screw-ups surrounding Sergio Pena’s name, Allen and Parsons were relatively solid in the booth. The production just wasn’t quite up to their standard. I think next year’s Showdown broadcast will probably be better.

—-

Also on Saturday, SPEED provided live coverage from Daytona of the 48th annual Rolex 24, a never-ending race of endurance. Due to the economic issues that we already know about, plus some shady stuff (for example, the FarnbacherLoles GT team shutdown due to one of the owners being thrown in prison for embezzlement), car count was down this year. The 44 cars that started the race was the lowest number since 2003. That was the first year with the Daytona Prototype class, and only 43 started the race. A GT class Porsche GT3RS won overall.

Unlike last year, the start of the race was not shown on FOX. Instead, all of the race coverage, 16 hours in all, was televised on SPEED. I personally watched 13 of those 16 hours (I missed the segment from 7-10 AM Sunday because I slept through it).

SPEED brought an on-air crew of nine for the race, who would work in shifts. For commentary, there was the usual group of Australian Leigh Diffey, and former American racers Calvin Fish and Dorsey Schroeder up in the booth. Longtime Cup fans with memories tuned towards random minutiae may remember Schroeder being involved in ESPN broadcasts of approximately one and a half Winston Cup races at Watkins Glen in the early-to-mid 1990’s, when he was often used as a “road course ringer” the way Boris Said and others are today. This booth trio is generally a very knowledgeable group, and are enjoyable to listen to. In addition, Bob Varsha and David Hobbs, who usually commentate on SPEED’s excellent coverage of Formula One races, also lent their voices. Varsha was the de facto “host” of SPEED’s coverage, not unlike the role that Ken Squier played for CBS’ coverage of the Daytona 500 from 1998-2000.

On pit road, there were two duos of pit reporters. One duo was former racer Brian Till and Kelly Stavast, while the other duo consisted of former Trans-Am racers Chris Neville and Justin Bell. These pit reporters are not restricted to the “safe” side of the pit wall, unlike during NASCAR events, and can get up close and personal with teams doing repairs.

However, pit reporters were front and center in what was likely the biggest faux pas of SPEED’s coverage. It came during Justin Bell’s interview with Scott Pruett, who was sitting in his No. 01 BMW Riley. Meanwhile, in the background, the National Anthem could be heard. Not good. As could be expected, viewers flipped out.

I’ve found over the past couple of years that nothing ticks off race viewers like disrespecting the National Anthem, regardless of whether it’s by a network, the crowd at the track, or by viewers on a forum. Some sites that stream races online have actually made a point of banning people for saying anything during the anthem. As of 7 PM Monday night, a thread entitled “Disrespect” has 84 replies on the MySPEED forum for Grand-Am. This thread is dedicated solely to this slip up on SPEED’s part. To their credit, SPEED apologized for doing that interview (that appeared to be live) during the anthem. Granted, that apology came four hours into the race, but the fact that Varsha took the time to apologize for that says something (and he would know, since Formula One fans get angry at anyone saying anything during the playing of the national anthems of the winning driver and/or constructor at the podium ceremony).

Critiquing the on-track action during a 24-hour race is much different than a normal event. This is because for hours at a time, there may not be any actual racing for position. As a result, coverage tends to follow the leaders, battles (when they occur), and storylines. SPEED did well in this regard, but Saturday afternoon’s slip-up definitely hurt the overall broadcast.

Now, while the race was on SPEED (and when they were off-air), TRG had a web stream and chat on U Stream. SPEED prohibited TRG from showing any cars on screen, but the webcast featured live radio chatter along with interviews with drivers (including Andy Lally and Bobby Labonte) and crew members where viewers could send in questions to be answered. TRG had team member Lizabeth Moses heading up the web stream for the entire race, with some breaks. I give her a big +1 for being able to do the feed all night, on an empty stomach. An unclear number of unique viewers viewed the feed (possibly 50,000?), but the highest I saw at one time was a shade over 1300 people at one time.

Why do I bring this up? Two reasons. One, viewers on that webcast were complaining that SPEED was showing way too many commercials. Seemingly every major thing happened while SPEED was in commercial, from Justin Wilson’s dash to the Garage in Hour 21, to A.J. Allmendinger’s fire in Hour 23. I understand that producing 16 hours of on-air programming is not cheap, but sometimes luck does play a role in being able to show everything live. I guess SPEED just didn’t have it. The fact that SPEED had someone put SPEED stickers on a sponsor board during the web cast also ticked some viewers off.

Also, lots of important happenings occur during the nighttime hours, when SPEED didn’t provide coverage. John Daly suggested the idea of a RaceBuddy-like setup for next year so that fans could see the action online that wouldn’t be shown on television. I’m also generally in favor of such a free service, as long as a live chat is also available. Such a format would also be welcome for the 12 Hours of Sebring next month (if possible), 24 Hours of LeMans in June, and the Petit LeMans in October. SPEED does have On-board Pass available for Sebring and Petit LeMans (Road Atlanta), but that only covers on-board views.

Post-race coverage was centered upon the teams that made the podium in the two classes. As a result, members of only those six teams (Nos. 9, 01, and 95 in the Daytona Prototypes, and Nos. 70, 66, and 67 in GT) were interviewed. However, each of those teams had multiple members interviewed, so the final total came to 20 interviews in Victory Lane. The broadcast ended with a recap of the race and a wrap-up by Varsha and Hobbs.

Generally, not a bad broadcast, but SPEED has to be careful with the anthem in future telecasts. You mess with it, you get the horns. Simple as that. That’s not even an opinion here… fans have shown that it is a fact.

That’s all for this week. In a few days, the NASCAR teams roll into Daytona International Speedway to start practice for the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. SPEED will be down there with live coverage starting Thursday afternoon at 4 PM EST, while Budweiser Shootout practice sessions will air live from 5 PM to 6 PM and 6:30 PM to 7:30 PM EST. That’s followed by coverage of NASCAR Media Day, which I currently don’t know what that will entail. I’m assuming a bunch of interviews, but we’ll see. At 9 PM is the Budweiser Shootout Grid Selection, where the starting spots will be drawn.

Friday sees the first regular Sprint Cup practices, with two sessions scheduled from 2 PM to 3:30 PM and 4 PM to 5:30 PM EST.

However, Saturday is the big day of action. First up is Pole Qualifying for the Daytona 500. Coverage is scheduled to start at 1 PM EST on FOX and will run to 4 PM with the usual FOX crew of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds in the booth. Note that the qualifying coverage will be live. This means that some runs will not be shown on air, as opposed to the time-shifted coverage we normally see on SPEED, which allows every run to be shown in their entirety.

At 4:30 PM on SPEED is the ARCA Racing Series Presented by Re/MAX and Menards (I know, the name is unwieldy) with its season opener, the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200. Of course, a lot of attention will be given to Danica Patrick, who is scheduled to make her stock car debut in this race.

At 8 PM, FOX comes back on-air with live coverage of the Budweiser Shootout. I will provide critiques of both the ARCA race and the Budweiser Shootout. In addition, I will provide thoughts on the rest of the coverage as I see fit.

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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Michael in SoCal
02/02/2010 11:47 AM
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You are right about Irwindale – the track is very competitive. It’s too bad Nascar moved Fontana’s Camping World Truck Series race to Pocono instead of Irwindale.

Mark
02/02/2010 12:26 PM
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You seem surprised that there were problems with the SPEED coverage of races over the weekend . You shouldn’t be . You might remember the lyrics to a song “ she gets uglier and meaner every day , but i got her boy and that makes me the winner “ . SPEED / Fox has elbowed its way into the go to network for race coverage . Only the racing has become a sham . Far more marketing than racing .
There is still no better announcing team in auto racing than Varsha and Hobbs .