The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Too Much Focus on Leaders Hurts Road Race Telecasts by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday June 22, 2010

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Hello, race fans and welcome back to the weekly look into the race broadcasts we all watch. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup Series was in Sonoma, California for the Toyota/Save Mart 350k. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series was in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin for the inaugural Bucyrus 200 presented by Menards at the 4.048-mile Road America circuit. In addition, the Izod IndyCar Series was at Iowa Speedway for the Iowa Corn Indy 250.

NASCAR in 3D? Straight to your living room, via TNT and DirecTV…is it a must have?

However, before we start with the actual critique, there is a bit of news to cover. On Monday, NASCAR and Turner Sports announced that the Coke Zero 400 telecast on July 3rd, in addition to being TNT’s annual foray into their Wide Open Coverage, will also be the very first NASCAR race available in 3D. This special 3D telecast will be available to DirecTV subscribers and viewers of the RaceBuddy service (in addition to the existing HD RaceBuddy cameras). NASCAR will not be the first racing series to test the technology. Just this past weekend, the Seven Network in Australia experimented with 3D technology during their telecast of the SkyCity Triple Crown from Hidden Valley Raceway near Darwin.

Personally, I really don’t care about 3D television at the moment. This is still a very new technology. It’s like HD television was in 2000 or so. Prohibitively expensive for all but the highest earners in society, and it really just doesn’t add that much to the TV experience. Also, if you’re like me and have to wear glasses all the time, it’s all but unwatchable.

I don’t even really care much about HD television, to be honest. However, you can’t even buy old style TV’s anymore. It’s all flat screen. Bites if you want to break out the old Zapper light gun, but the main benefit is that every TV is much lighter than it once was.

Having said that, on to the critique.

Bucyrus 200

On Saturday, the Nationwide Series was in action in the Bucyrus 200 at Road America. ESPN went with a more low-key effort for this standalone event. For example, the Infield Studio did not make the trip up to Wisconsin. Instead, Allen Bestwick (who also provided play-by-play commentary) hosted NASCAR Countdown from the pit straight. I’m fine with this. Gets the on-air personalities down closer to the action, as opposed to some venues like Phoenix, where it was literally located behind the track next to a giant hill.

There was a feature on Colin Braun, his rise up through the ranks (including footage from what looked like the Daytona Test Days prior to his debut start in the Rolex 24 back in 2005 as part of “Team 16,”) and his struggles this season in the No. 16. It also included a look at the go-kart track his parents built at their home in Ovalo, Texas. Not pictured was the fact that their house is effectively a giant garage. It was an interesting look at the upbringing of a developing future star (that is, if he can cure his propensity to crash).

There was also a Craftsman Tech Garage feature on brakes and brake fluid. This ended up being very pertinent to the event due to the heavy use of brakes on the four-mile circuit.

The race telecast was generally pretty good, no matter how much Rusty Wallace feared the worst going in (he admitted as such on Lap 28). Yes, Carl Edwards ran away with portions of the race, but there was plenty of racing for position.

I think that there was a lot of emphasis put on Carl Edwards and Jacques Villeneuve during the telecast, which is a little troubling. Yes, they had the two fastest cars for much of the weekend, but with 39 cars attempting to race the distance on Saturday, the rest of the field deserved to have a little more exposure.

This race was chock full of incidents, but ESPN didn’t show replays of all of them, especially those that occurred towards the end of the race. For example, Tony Ave, who was driving the No. 35 TriStar Motorsports Chevrolet in place of Jason Keller, was spun out in Turn 5 on the last lap, apparently by Paul Menard. We never saw a replay of this. Ave was running in fifth at the time and dropped to a 20th-place finish. I understand that ESPN had some time constraints, but basically not telling how someone who ran in the top 10 all day and was in position for a top 5 got wiped out is not cool.

I have no idea what ESPN’s personalities think about NASCAR’s exceptionally quick trigger on the full course yellows, but I don’t think that seven of them were really needed. Five of them were definitely required, though.

Post-race coverage was lacking in content, but this was at least partially because of the 31-minute red flag on Lap 31 following a pile-up at Turn 6. As a result, there were only interviews with winner Carl Edwards and his crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. There was also an interview with Brendan Gaughan, who finished third. It’s quite sad that second-place finisher Ron Fellows couldn’t even get an interview on-air due to the time constraints. My best guess is that if Carl Edwards had just gone straight to Victory Lane instead of going halfway up the road, then backing up to do his backflip on the pit straight, then maybe Fellows could have gotten some airtime.

Toyota Save Mart 350k

On Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series returned to Infineon Raceway for the Toyota Save Mart 350k. Countdown to Green featured the usual amount of discussion from the TNT stage. This dominates the first half of pre-race, for better or worse. Czarniak and McReynolds, along with Kyle Petty probably do a better job than Myers, Hammond, and Darrell Waltrip at FOX, but I still don’t think they have to dominate as much as they currently do.

The Project Pepsi Refresh feature that was teased during pre-race at Michigan aired on Sunday. Truthfully, when I watched this, I thought it had already aired. However, I’m perfectly fine with what Pepsi is trying do here (benefit charities).

The Pride of NASCAR series continued with Part 9, which featured a sit-down interview conducted by Matt Yocum with Parnelli Jones, a jack of all trades who won in open-wheeled racers (and then won two Indianapolis 500’s as a car owner later on), sports cars, and in Mercurys fielded by Bill Stroppe in the 1960’s. I found this interesting to watch. TNT also added a small piece on Mark Donohue winning the Winston Western 500 at Riverside in 1973 driving an AMC Matador. This is important because it is considered the last time that a non-NASCAR racer swooped in and won a race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series.

One thing I really didn’t like was this week’s edition of the Ponytail Express. In between all the yelling and jumping around, I was able to deduce that this took place on a fishing boat off the coast from San Francisco, and somehow, Rutledge’s hat got swept overboard. They were able to scoop it back up, though. I found this ridiculous. Of course, we also saw the edited version of it. The full piece, available at nascar.com, is just over seven minutes long.

Like the Nationwide race on ESPN2, the actual Toyota Save Mart 350k seemed to be focused in on the top drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Marcos Ambrose, etc.) for the vast majority of the race. As much as Johnson wanted Sunday’s race to be one, events at Infineon Raceway do not tend to be runaways. There was plenty of action back in the pack to watch.

Alexander was quite good in the booth, however, he got a little confused on Lap 11, mistaking Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 for Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 when Bowyer spun in the Esses along with Jamie McMurray. He immediately corrected himself, saying that the cars look almost identical from behind. This is more or less true since both cars are yellow and red.

Phil Parsons had a slightly rougher day, referring to Mattias Ekström at one point as a “German Rally Champion.” Last I checked, I don’t think the Audi A4 DTM that Ekström normally drives would do much of anything off-road. The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters is a touring car series held on closed, permanent circuits (with the exception of the Norisring street course in Nuremburg, Germany).

Even RaceBuddy’s battle cam was not the best for capturing the action on Sunday. Seemingly half the time that I looked in on the service, they were showing what amount to scenery shots of sheep on top of the giant hill (they take care of the grass on the track’s property) and shots of San Francisco (approximately 30 miles from the track). Yes, that’s nice and all, but these pictures were seen during commercial breaks on the regular TNT coverage. Is that really the main reason why something like a Battle Cam on RaceBuddy is supposed to exist? C’mon now. Last year, there was so much action on track that you couldn’t show it all. This year, you just refused to show some of the action in order to set the mood and ambiance, which is stupid. Of course, RaceBuddy did catch some things that weren’t mentioned on the broadcast, like Mark Martin getting all four wheels off the road exiting Turn 10 late in the race.

As for Ambrose’s choke (let’s be honest with ourselves, that’s what it was), the booth was stunned. So was I. After composing themselves, they compared it to some of the more infamous gaffes of recent memory, like Mark Martin pulling off to go to Victory Lane at Bristol in 1994 one lap early. I guess this analysis was fine.

Post-race coverage was actually quite good. TNT provided viewers with seven post-race interviews (including winner Jimmie Johnson, and Marcos Ambrose), and checks of the unofficial results (outside of the scroll) and point standings before the regular broadcast left the air. The RaceBuddy-exclusive post-post race show included interviews with A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Boris Said, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It also included additional unofficial results and point standing checks, along with post-race analysis from Czarniak and McReynolds. Generally, a very good job post-race wise from TNT on Sunday.

Iowa Corn Indy 250

Technically, before the Sprint Cup Series event in California started, the Izod IndyCar Series ran their eighth race of the season, the Iowa Corn Indy 250. Coverage was provided by Versus.

Lindy Thackston informed viewers at the very beginning of IndyCar Central that they were in “hurry-up” mode due to impending thunderstorms. As a result, the race started about 20 minutes early.

IndyCar Central started off with a typical recap of the previous round, the Firestone Indy 550k from Texas two weeks earlier, then got right into the interviews. Ten of these interviews were crammed into a 35-40 minute span, which I’m definitely in favor of.

Of course, there were more than just one-on-ones. Jack Arute led an explanation of the reasons why the fire on the No. 78 of Simona de Silvestro took so long to put out at Texas. Apparently, the fire hose on the track had a kink in it, causing the water to back up. A change to the connector on the hose will hopefully alleviate that in the future. Mind you that the canisters (fire extinguishers) generally work better anyway.

The “ProfessorB” segment was dedicated to a new rule change instituted for Iowa by the Indy Racing League. Proximity sensors are now required on the cars in order to tell when the fuel rig is still attached to the car. Lights on the steering wheel to also indicate this are in the beta testing phase, to be required in a couple weeks. This is designed to try to prevent fires caused by drivers leaving their pit stalls with the fuel apparatus still attached, causing fuel spillage and a spark for the flames.

Once the race started, unfortunately, the slow No. 18 of Milka Duno came into play once again. Now, I’ve mentioned in the past about how there is a “ParkMilka” hash tag on Twitter and how she is a bit of a danger out on the track, but Sunday was pretty bad. Leader Scott Dixon ran up on Duno to lap her on Lap 20, and she almost turned right into him. This ended up hurting Marco Andretti more, since he had to back off. The leaders lapped her again just nine laps later, prompting the Versus booth commentators to note that she was a general danger out on the track. A couple of laps later, Duno was parked by the stewards (which was acknowledged by the booth). It’s definitely good that production understands how Duno can be quite the risk out on the track, but the outcry from fans has been centered on parking her for good for the better part of this year.

The Peak Tread Cam made its debut at Iowa. On paper, it sounds just the Digger Cam (little extension one-quarter of an inch above the track surface, etc.). The Lingner Group, which helps produce Versus’ broadcasts, created this back in the 1990’s for the (insert day of the week here) Night Thunder telecasts from Indianapolis Raceway Park, so this is nothing new. I do think that, long-term, Iowa Speedway needs to fix those existing in-track camera holes so that HD cameras can fit in there.

There was a rather unusual Pit Command segment with Jack Arute where he used a cheese grater (along with a hunk of cheese), a couple jars full of regular marbles, and a couple pieces of tile flooring to simulate what happens when you get out of the groove. This was right after Sarah Fisher crashed in a situation like this whilst being lapped. I guess Arute proved his point, but he made himself look like an idiot doing it. At least he’s having fun.

Post-race coverage was quite extensive. As Bob Jenkins said right after the race ended, they had a half-hour to fill, mainly because of the early start. As a result, there were 11 post-race interviews (the Top 9 finishers, plus winning car owner Michael Andretti and Dario Franchitti, who dropped out late). There were also checks of the unofficial results and point standings, along with some post-race analysis from the broadcast booth. All in all, a pretty good telecast, despite the fact that Jack Arute may have jumped the shark with his near spill on national television.

That’s it for this weekend. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will be back in action in New Hampshire for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 and the New England 200, respectively. The New England 200 will feature the return of Danica Patrick to the Nationwide Series. Just warning you guys right now… I’ll be on Danica Watch this weekend for sure. Meanwhile, Formula One returns to the Streets of Valencia, Spain for the Grand Prix of Europe on Sunday. Here’s your listings for the week.

Friday, June 25
Time Telecast Network
8:00 – 9:30 AM Formula One Free Practice 2 SPEED
10:30 – 11:30 AM Nationwide Series Practice SPEED
11:30 AM – 1:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
1:30 – 3:00 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
3:00-5:00 PM Sprint Cup Qualifying SPEED

Saturday, June 26
Time Telecast Network
8:00 – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Europe Qualifying SPEED
10:30 – 11:30 AM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED^
11:30 AM – 1:00 PM Sprint Cup Happy Hour SPEED
2:00 – 3:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
3:00 – 6:00 PM Nationwide Series New England 200 ESPN

Sunday, June 27
Time Telecast Network
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
12:00 – 1:00 PM Countdown to Green TNT
12:00 – 2:00 PM Formula One Grand Prix of Europe (from Valencia, Spain) FOX*
1:00 – 3:00 PM Australian V8 Supercars Round 7: Skycity Triple Crown SPEED*
1:00 – 4:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Lenox Industrial Tools 301 TNT
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED

SYMBOL KEY *-Tape Delayed
^-Joined In Progress

I will be providing critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Formula One races in next week’s critique. Also, later this week, I will be reviewing the Rolex Sports Car Series’ EMCO Gears Classic presented by KeyBank for The Critic’s Annex, available for your viewing pleasure on Thursday in the 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 TNT, ESPN, or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

TNT”: nascar@turner.com
SPEED
ESPN

As always, if you choose to contact the network 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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Ken
06/22/2010 12:03 PM
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Road racing just doesn’t make good TV broadcasts. You don’t see the track well and it’s hard to differentiate the normal banging from what means something.

Mark
06/22/2010 12:39 PM
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I enjoyed the TNT broadcast very much . We still have to put up with McReynolds and his dumbed down analysis of race cars and strategy . Compare his watered down ramblings to Andy Petree . Andy really does know what he’s talking about and it comes across to the viewers . The TNT shows far outclass any other network .
Speaking of camera angles and shots . thats been one of the revelations so far in the TNT shows . A lot of different camera locations from the norm that we’ve been fed . Road racing is tougher to cover than ovals , but they did a great job trying .
The IRL coverage is very good every week . There are some glitches in camera work and directions from the truck , but overall it’s been very good . And there is no excuse for NASCAR and every other race series not having the side by side commercials . The one downside to the IRL broadcasts is Jack Arute . He isn’t funny , he isn’t particularly insightful , and as he showed on this race broadcast with the marbles nonsense , he is embarrassing . Heres a hint for future broadcasts . These little amature physics demos aren’t needed , the average fan knows all of that , and the new fan isn’t going to understand much more after those types of demos than before .

Steve
06/22/2010 01:18 PM
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I would rather Arute be doing those things with the marbles than having Tim Brewer and Larry Mac dumb down every piece of a Sprint Cup car in the tech garage. At least it spices things up a bit. I especially enjoyed the explanation he gave as to what happened with De Silvestro the previous race. You have to give the IRL credit for addressing this problem immediately as well.

Versus and TNT are about equal right now with their broadcasts. They both bring something different due to the series being a little bit different but generally they are both solid broadcasts. I like the fact that Versus used their entire time slot for post race. You don’t see that often with a Nascar race. The best thing about the TNT broadcasts are Wally and Kyle (Adam is doing alot better too). They tell it like it is and don’t toe the company line and cheerlead for their favorites. Much more professional. As long as they keep the Waltrips out of the race coverage, TNT will always have a better broadcast than FOX, in my mind

DoninAjax
06/22/2010 02:48 PM
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Nobody’s mentioned how good Danica drove in the Indy race.

Monica
06/22/2010 03:17 PM
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She drove better than the men she beat .

Marybeth
06/22/2010 05:59 PM
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I was disappointed that Race Day put DW in instead of Jimmy Spencer.