The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Focus On Cup Drivers Hurts Nationwide Coverage by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 13, 2010

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Hello, race fans, and welcome back to our weekly TV critique. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series raced at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Arizona. Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series was in Leeds, Alabama near Birmingham for the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Legacy Credit Union. Let’s see how FOX, ESPN2, and Versus fared with their telecasts.

Bashas’ Supermarkets 200

On Friday night, ESPN2 broadcast the Nationwide Series Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 from Phoenix International Raceway. Marty Reid called the race from the booth, along with Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree. Shannon Spake, in her return for the first time since the end of last year, Dave Burns, and Jamie Little manned pit road. Dale Jarrett had the week off, along with Brad Daugherty, Vince Welch, and Dr. Jerry Punch. As a result, Allen Bestwick hosted NASCAR Countdown from the Infield Studio situated outside of the track near the kink in the backstretch, along with Wallace and Petree. The latter pair exited halfway through in order to get to the broadcast booth for the start of the race.

NASCAR Countdown started off with the news of John Wes Townley’s practice crash early Friday and subsequent replacement behind the wheel of the No. 21 Zaxby’s Chevrolet by Clint Bowyer. Although Richard Childress Racing claimed that it was a precaution due to the hard hit the second-year driver took, the rumor going around was that this wreck spelled curtains for Townley in the No. 21. However, news that has been released since Friday discredited that rumor, claiming Townley will return to the car sometime before the end of the month. But that didn’t stop Andy Petree from going on the record and saying that he didn’t think Townley would ever drive the No. 21 again. I definitely think that Petree was jumping the gun here.

There was also a nice sitdown interview with Carl Edwards that was conducted by Dale Jarrett during the week. It was pretty interesting, but the problem I have with it is that Edwards is a full-time Cup driver. He doesn’t really need the extra attention from an ESPN feature. For all I know, ESPN could have put that in the bank and used it later this season when the Sprint Cup Series returns to ESPN, or even on an episode of NASCAR Now. If ESPN really wants to help grow the Nationwide Series, they would do well to profile some of the full-time Nationwide-only drivers a bit more instead of focusing on the Sprint Cup interlopers.

This focus on interlopers continued in the actual race telecast. There was a small bit of attention given to Bowyer in the No. 21, since he only had the two laps of qualifying in Townley’s backup car before the race, but much of the TV time was on the other “Cupwhackers,” Busch, Edwards, Brad Keselowski, etc. I will say that this coverage was an improvement over the race last year, though.

If you don’t remember last year’s Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 telecast, I described it as the point in which ESPN’s telecast Jumped the Shark. I even referenced the telecast when I interviewed Dr. Jerry Punch in Watkins Glen as being a particular low point of last season.

There were some other facets of the broadcast that I didn’t like. You can’t do anything about the first two cautions coming out in the middle of commercial breaks (again), but I would prefer that ESPN find a way to get us some kind of a replay before the green comes back out. Unfortunately, in the case of Michael Annett’s spin, they were unable to deliver. In fact, they didn’t show a replay of the spin until Lap 26, 11 or so laps after the incident and six after the green had come back out. This was also shown in a full screen replay while there was action on the track for position. Unacceptable. Couldn’t ESPN have used a split screen here, like what SPEED uses during Truck races, or even like how they did a brief Craftsman Tech Garage segment on the kill switch later in the race?

There was some indecision in the commentators figuring out what caused Steven Wallace to hit the wall on Lap 102, spinning out his uncle Mike in the process. It was pretty obvious to me, at least, that a cut right front tire put the No. 66 in the wall, yet the ESPN commentators seemed slightly confused. The rear bumper cam on the No. 01 of Mike Wallace showed this perfectly, yet ESPN needed a second group of replays to see make this definitive for their announcing crew. I don’t know why.

Another gripe that I have—and not just with Friday night’s race, but with a lot of ESPN’s races — is that the network seems to have additional angles that catch incidents, yet never show them on-air outside the race recaps that Allen Bestwick narrates from the Infield Studio. In this race, ESPN actually had footage of Clint Bowyer stalling early in the event, causing the second caution, but didn’t show it until well after halfway.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief, as ESPN had gone overtime due to the seven cautions and the red flag following the big stack-up on the frontstretch. There were interviews with the first four finishers — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Brendan Gaughan — as well as a check of the point standings. The unofficial results only appeared in the scroll during the aforementioned interviews.

Subway Fresh Fit 600k

On Saturday night, FOX broadcast the Sprint Cup Series’ Subway Fresh Fit 600k from Phoenix International Raceway. Due to NASCAR’s new policy of standardized start times for the 2010 season, the beginning of this race was moved up by an hour. In an attempt to make the race finish around the same time as last year, the race length was extended to 600 kilometers. There was not a whole lot of discussion about this extra length; after all, the race was still only 375 miles in its entirety (as opposed to, say, 500 miles at Darlington in a couple of weeks).

With the Cup show running on a Saturday night, pre-race coverage was shortened back to a half-hour instead of the full hour that FOX has provided us for the first six races of this year (and will provide us next weekend in Texas). As a result, some of the more irritating features of FOX’s Pre-Race (A Slice of Pizzi, anyone?) thankfully took the week off. However, a substantial amount of pre-race was spent unveiling the brackets for the DirecTV Head2Head Showdown, FOX’s picks competition. FOX really should have started it before the NCAA Tournament ended, to be honest. I really don’t care about it right now, and it took away time that could have been used to talk with drivers.

During the actual race telecast, the Head2Head Knockout actually affected how the pit reporters were disseminating their information. Under the third caution of the day (for Brian Vickers’ crash), information about individual cars was presented in the context of their First Round matchups (which start next week in Texas). I guess that this setup will be the norm over the next six weeks or so.

I would argue that this 32 driver competition could give some teams outside of the loop more exposure. However, if it dominates next week’s telecast, I won’t be happy about it.

This week, only two of the races’ nine cautions flew during a commercial break (Cautions 7 and 8). Still too many, in my opinion. The idea for the informational scroll during commercials from last week remains.

600 kilometers took much longer than anyone anticipated.

I also believe that FOX wildly underestimated how long this race was going to take. According to my on screen guide, the race telecast was supposed to end at 11pm EDT. Well, the race ended at about 11:40pm EDT. As a result, FOX provided us with the bare minimum of post-race coverage. This included interviews with the podium finishers — Newman, Jeff Gordon, and Johnson — followed by a quick check of the point standings. The unofficial results, like on ESPN2 on Friday night, were confined to the scroll along with some production credits. Some closing thoughts from the broadcast booth closed out the telecast.

I think that FOX seriously had no clue that this race was going to take almost three hours and 50 minutes. This was mainly because… there had never been a Cup race in Phoenix that has taken anywhere near that long before. As for their analysis, there’s been plenty of criticism I’ve heard directed towards the network over the past few days; but keep in mind this was not the most exciting race ever run. I think that FOX did a OK job showing the action, but I do agree there just seemed to be something missing this week. I can’t really put my finger on it … but everyone did seem just a little bit off.

Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Legacy Credit Union

Sunday saw the Izod IndyCar Series make their 2010 debut on a natural terrain road course with the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Legacy Credit Union at Barber Motorsports Park. Although this is the second race of the season that has been televised by Versus, it is the first one to be done with the full crew on site. The Sao Paulo Indy 300 in March was done seemingly with only one Versus on-air personality (Jack Arute), and the trio of Bob Jenkins, Robbie Buhl, and Jon Beekhuis were sequestered in a studio…somewhere.

As a result, Versus more or less debuted their 2010 setup in Leeds, Alabama on Sunday. Coverage began with Versus’ pre-race show, IndyCar Central, hosted by Lindy Thackston. On the surface, this pre-race show is relatively similar to NCWTS Setup on SPEED. IndyCar Central started off with a brief montage of the previous race from St. Petersburg, Florida before getting into interviews.

There was a nice feature on Will Power where they showed some of his training regimen, i.e. carrying a “slosh pipe” on his shoulders, his nutritional habits, and spare time activities — drumming with friends. Quite interesting to watch.

There was also a quick tour of the Barber Racing Museum, which overlooks the race course and has the largest collection of vintage motorcycles in the country. Very impressive-looking place. Versus also had some fun with Grand Marshal Charles Barkley trying out the steering wheel out of Ernesto (E.J.) Viso’s No. 8. Obviously, Barkley is a bit too large to get in one of the cars, and there is no way in heck that Barkley could wear E.J.‘s driving suit — as shown on the air.

With that, we were on to the main broadcast. The trio of Jenkins, Buhl, and Beekhuis were in the booth, while Jack Arute, Lindy Thackston, and Robbie Floyd were on pit road reporting. Arute also serves as a “race strategist” for the coverage, which means that he gets more air time than Thackston and Floyd during races.

During the actual event, Versus did a fairly good job of showing the on-track action, much better than in Sao Paulo. Of course, it also helps that Versus had their own crew there in Leeds as opposed to making use of overseas TV production. Also, there is not as much Danica emphasis in Versus coverage as there is in ESPN’s. For example, Danica wasn’t even interviewed during IndyCar Central, mainly because she was starting 19th and had struggled most of the weekend. Based on that, you could argue that Versus’ coverage is more equitable.

Versus also has the Full Throttle setup in which the race telecast continues in a small box on the left side of the screen while the commercial plays. The idea behind this was technically created for Turner Sports in 2000 and dubbed “No Brakes Coverage” at the time. It’s a nice way to keep track of the action while also showing ads. The first full course yellow came out during one of these breaks when Takuma Sato’s No. 5 stalled on track. On a NASCAR broadcast, we would have had to wait until the break ended to see it.

I do have some technical things to touch on. Versus unveiled a new pointer graphic on Sunday. In essence, it’s just like the FoxTrax that has been in use since 2001. Personally, I could go either way on this, but it definitely looks like a rip-off graphic. Another new graphical thing is a pop-up window where the drivers introduce and talk about themselves. If you took out the “talking about themselves” part, it would look a little similar to the athlete introductions before the bobsled competitions that SPEED used to show during the winter. I don’t like this feature during green flag action. In the future, I would prefer that Versus only uses it during cautions, if at all.

Post-race coverage was decent. There were interviews with some of the top finishers (winner Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon, and Castroneves’ race strategist, Tim Cindric), a check of the unofficial results, and a point check. There was also some post-race analysis from Jenkins, Buhl and Beekhuis before Versus left the air.
~~~

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is a busy one, with most of the major racing series in action. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will be at Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung Mobile 500 and the O’Reilly 300. In addition, those two divisions will be joined by the ARCA Racing Series presented by Re/MAX and Menards for a new event, the Rattlesnake 150.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, the American LeMans Series and the Izod IndyCar Series will be racing on the Streets of Long Beach, California.

Friday, April 16:
Time Telecast Network
11:30am Nationwide Series Happy Hour ESPN 2
1:00pm Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
2:30pm Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN 2
4:30pm Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
7:30pm ARCA Rattlesnake 150 SPEED

Saturday, April 17:
Time Telecast Network
12:30pm Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
1:30pm Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
3:00pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN 2
3:30pm Nationwide Series O’Reilly 300 ESPN 2
8:00pm Tequila Patron American Le Mans Series at Long Beach SPEED*

Sunday, April 18:
Time Telecast Network
12:00pm NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:00pm Fox Pre-Race FOX
3:00pm Sprint Cup Series Samsung Mobile 500 FOX
3:30pm IndyCar Central Versus
4:00pm Izod IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Versus

*=Tape-Delayed

I will provide critiques of all three of the events at Texas Motor Speedway in next week’s edition of Talking NASCAR TV. The Izod IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series events from Long Beach will also be covered, but in next Thursday’s edition of the Critic’s Annex in our Frontstretch Newsletter.

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:

FOX
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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wcfan
04/13/2010 09:00 AM
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Kudos to ESPN for the last 50 laps of green lap racing with no commerials. If we are going to slam them for to many commerials, we need to praise them when they give us 20+ min of green flag racing WITH NO commerials. Yes there are still many things they can improve. Next I will probably complain about the commerials.

Mark
04/13/2010 09:55 AM
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The IRL on VS was a very good broadcast , lots of different slants on stories , not focusing on only one or two drivers . My only suggestion would be to tone down the on screen grahics a bit . Too much info can be just as distracting as too little .
As to the Phoenix races , i’ve seen it said many times , it isn’t the races that are bad , it’s the FOX presentation of the races that’s bad . Anyone who was at the Friday or Saturday race saw a completely different event than what the poor tv viewers watched . The Friday show wasn’t bad , We got to see some great action . The confusion you refer to in the booth following the Steven Wallace crash wasn’t confusion . It was professional courtesy to Rusty . A little uncomfortable in the booth to be accusing Rusty’s son of causing a wreck while Rusty is sitting beside you . You want to be sure before you open your mouth .
The Saturday race was just more of the same . FOX has no business televising any race . They plan to stick with their story lines , their favorite drivers and teams , their cameras only focusing on one car’s sponsor for ad value . And of course the 3 stooges in the booth . I think i saw desperation this weekend by FOX . How else could we explain the idiotic bracket idea . Now there was a genuine waste of film .

Lugnut18
04/13/2010 11:53 AM
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Mark, I wouldn’t call all 3 commentators in the booth stooges. DW can be a hand full, there have been many times when I wish he just didn’t talk. Larry Mac is better than DW, I can stand him more. Mike Joy on the other hand is very good. The guy knows his stuff, and provides good commentary. The problem with fox is they dumb down the commentary so the “casual fan” can figure things out. They need to take a look at formula 1 broadcasts. Very technical, no cheesy stupid crap, they talk about racing both on and off the track. That is what I want to see.

Mark
04/13/2010 06:30 PM
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The F1 broadcasts should be the model for all network auto race broadcasts . Another race broadcast i really enjoy are the NHRA shows , not Paul Page , but Mike Dunn . Mike is extremely knowledgeable about every facet of drag racing , and as far as i know has never shilled for any one driver , team , or sponsor .
When i compare Mike Joy to the really great NASCAR announcers , i find someone whos biggest interests in life seem to be voice modulation and pretending to know everything . My idea of a NASCAR announcer would be Neil , Ned , Benny , Buddy and nowdays Dale Jarret . The one thing all of those men have in common ? They aren’t interested in being the center of attention . They’re interested in helping the fans enjoy the races .

Phil Allaway
04/13/2010 09:18 PM
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I like the idea of an F1-style approach to commentary on NASCAR broadcasts (to that end, both Varsha and Hobbs have worked on NASCAR broadcasts before, although I don’t believe that Varsha was in the booth for that). I struggle to see how that would look, though. It would be exciting to watch, though.

Steve
04/15/2010 12:45 PM
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The Indy Car race will start after the Cup race but it will also end before the Cup race is over. 2 or 3 hours is perfect for a race. The Texas borefest this weekend will approach 5 hours.

I can’t really comment about the FOX broadcast on Sunday. All I could see were ads, promos and commercials with a little racing thrown in. All I know is from now on I will be recording the races, even if I am home to watch them. That way I can watch the race in half the time and skip through all the bull. Mike Joy deserves better than what he’s had to work with.