The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: TNT Does Well at Loudon ... Until The Race Ends by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday June 29, 2010

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Hello, race fans. It’s that time of the week once again: the Tuesday TV critique, where I take a look at the race broadcasts that we all watch (with or without sound, apparently). This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were both at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the Formula One World Championship held its ninth round of the season, the Grand Prix of Europe, on a street circuit near the waterfront in Valencia, Spain.

Before I get into the actual race critiques, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the inexplicable substance abuse suspension of Randy LaJoie by NASCAR and ESPN after he tested positive for marijuana. I don’t understand why Randy felt the need to puff up, especially knowing that he was thinking of reentering NASCAR itself the following week. He simply committed an act of stupidity, although I do give him credit for at least owning up to that mistake.

Let’s be honest; this will not affect Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that he was going to work for in the Nationwide Series, at all. However, ESPN’s NASCAR coverage will be hurt by his indefinite suspension. LaJoie, although not a full-timer, is probably one of the best NASCAR analysts that ESPN has on staff. He’s also acquitted himself quite well in the broadcast booth many times the past.

Who knows how long he’ll stay on the sidelines? LaJoie is willingly going through NASCAR’s rehabilitation protocol, and whether ESPN lifts his suspension when he finishes that program remains to be seen. ESPN most definitely has their own policies in regards to failed drug tests, so LaJoie will likely have to go through additional counseling in order to get back on-air.

With the week’s big story on our rear-view mirror, let’s move on to the critique.

Grand Prix of Europe

FOX brought us coverage of Sunday’s Grand Prix of Europe from Valencia, Spain. Since this race was not on SPEED (although SPEED did show a replay at Noon on Monday), there was no Acura Pre-Race show. FOX started the telecast with a brief musical montage, showing clips of Formula One cars racing each other before the normal theme for F-1 on SPEED was played instead.

With Bob Varsha in California for the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Orange County, Leigh Diffey joined the regular crew for just this week. There was a brief recap of the weekend in a feature called Morning Warm-Up, then some delayed footage of pre-race, including an interview with pole sitter Sebastian Vettel. There was also a lap of the track, shown through footage from Vettel’s camera. Including one commercial break, all these features combined to take up just 12 minutes of our time. On SPEED, it normally takes around 35…

Once the lap tour ended, FOX cut right to the formation lap and displayed the starting lineup. Following the lineup, a commercial break was taken as the cars were approaching the final corner before the pits. This was definitely a “stop tape” moment, as the cars were just reaching the grid once FOX returned from the break.

For those of you who do not know about Formula One’s telecasts, all but two of the Grand Prix productions are done by Formula One Management (FOM), owned by Bernie Ecclestone (the exceptions are Monaco and the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka). As a result, it is FOM that you should praise or rue for the pictures. Generally, FOM’s camera work in Valencia was pretty good, although some of their replays were a little weird. On the start of the race, there was some contact between Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. They had the in-car shot from Hamilton’s car of the contact, but switched off to show it from Webber’s car instead, where we really couldn’t see much – especially with the FOX Sports logo in the way.

Diffey was his usual enthusiastic self in the commentary room with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett. However, since the race was on FOX instead of on SPEED, there was a lot more explanation of the terminology used by the teams, as well as the individual rules put in place. I guess that’s understandable, because having the Grand Prix on FOX opens it up to a larger audience. But I really don’t think it was necessary to point out Nicole Scherzinger in Hamilton’s garage. Since she won Dancing with the Stars earlier this year, her awareness in the United States is likely at an all-time high.

Post-race coverage was quite brief. There were shots of the trophy presentations on the podium, but the national anthems of the winning driver and constructor were skipped. Also, the press conference footage only had comments from Vettel, with nothing included from Hamilton or Jenson Button. There was also a check of the drivers’ and constructors’ championship point standings before FOX left the air at 2 PM for skateboarding. I don’t like this shortened ending, but I understand it considering the timeslot. The entire coverage was designed to fit into a two-hour window, instead of the normal 2.5 – 2.75 hours we usually see on SPEED.

New England 200

On Saturday, the Nationwide Series returned to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the New England 200. ESPN provided coverage of the race.

This event was heavily hyped in the week leading up to it as Danica Patrick’s return. By now, we all know what that means.

ESPN started off their coverage by talking about the potential rain that could have affected the race (but thankfully did not) before recapping the day’s action in Loudon up to NASCAR Countdown. There was the usual amount of pre-race analysis from the “Infield Studio” as well. Quotation marks are only being used because it was located outside of the track, set up on the hill overlooking the backstretch (technically on part of the road course). There was also a Craftsman Tech Garage feature on the rear springs and potential anti-roll bar adjustments.

Perhaps the most interesting feature was where Colin Braun, Brian Scott, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. did a police officer driving training challenge at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That was highly entertaining, and showcasing some of the sport’s Nationwide-only drivers proved to be an added bonus.

As for the Danica Patrick watch, there was what amounted to a repeat of her year-in-review feature that ESPN aired prior to the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at March, only with additional footage from what’s happened since then. This was followed by an interview from the Infield Studio with Danica (she was in front of her team’s hauler at the time, with a camera pointing right in her face).

Late in pre-race, there was a short feature about Brad Keselowski’s bump-and-run on Brad Coleman during a restart, including a post-race interview with Coleman that did not make the post-race coverage on June 19. Better late than never there.

In addition to the Patrick feature/interview, there were interviews with nine other drivers, as well as Brad Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe. This is far above average for ESPN, and very good to see. But I don’t think ESPN’s going to try to talk to both In-Race Reporters during the pace laps anytime soon – especially during a race at a short track like Loudon. After the obligatory Danica chat, there was almost no time left to talk to Carl Edwards. Yes, Jarrett tried to (Edwards apparently didn’t hear Dale), but it was half a lap before the green flag. Since Carl Edwards is not Dick Johnson, I doubt he would have been willing to talk under green.

Mainly due to her crash early on with Morgan Shepherd, the race did not have as much Danica coverage as it could have. No offense to Danica, but that is generally a good thing (remember, she finished 30th Saturday). However, I could do without a full-screen replay of Danica getting lapped by Brad Keselowski on Lap 34 to go two laps down.

ESPN more or less dropped the ball with their coverage of the incident between Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Tayler Malsam on Lap 94. I can understand not catching the wreck live, but no camera caught the crash until the aftermath (which was shown live). As a result, viewers could not ascertain what happened in this incident. That’s important, as a fuming Malsam more or less blamed Stenhouse for the crash during his interview with Dr. Jerry Punch. Based on the evidence we have, I cannot come to an absolute conclusion on who’s right or wrong. It did probably involve Stenhouse’s right front corner… but we’ll never know for sure.

Post-race coverage was decent. There were interviews with Kyle Busch and his crew chief Jason Radcliff, along with Brad Keselowski, Danica Patrick, Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano, and Reed Sorenson. The unofficial results were left in the scroll, and there was also a check of the point standings before ESPN left the air.

This was an OK broadcast to watch, but once again, I feel that ESPN fell into that trap of relying on Patrick to carry the show. ESPN needs to remember that, especially if she’s not running well, she is not the main story out there. The actual race is.

Lenox Industrial Tools 301

On Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series returned to the track in New Hampshire. The race served as the fourth event in TNT’s six-race Summer Series.

During Countdown to Green, TNT’s Pride of NASCAR features continued with a profile of Dale Inman, eight-time champion crew chief (all of Richard Petty’s titles, plus Terry Labonte’s from 1984). This was an excellent piece, one that I really enjoyed watching. There was also a brief feature on the paybacks featured this season (and encouraged by NASCAR through their “Have at it, boys” policy). Another feature had Jeff Burton taking Lindsay Czarniak around New Hampshire in a Chevrolet Impala SS track car, describing what it’s like to drive on the one-mile oval.

There were six interviews on the one hour pre-race show. One of those interviews was with Denny Hamlin on TNT’s rotating stage. The other ones with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon were conducted either on pit road, or on the back of one of the trucks after driver introductions. Meanwhile, there were another half-dozen or so interviews conducted by Jim Noble on RaceBuddy.

Speaking of RaceBuddy, their chat function was frozen for what seemed like the vast majority of the race on Sunday. Since the Frontstretch already has our own Live Blog, I’ve never actually used it before. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that fans wouldn’t want to try it out. RaceBuddy definitely looks nice and all, but there have been quite a few technical problems with it this year.

Alexander, Petty, and Dallenbach continue to work well together in the broadcast. I think that Adam is finally coming into his own up there after taking a few weeks to get used to the play-by-play role on television. However, I don’t think anyone thought that we were going to have a 200-lap green flag run on Sunday.

Because of this ginormous amount of green-flag action, TNT eventually ran out of action to show on track. Drivers were relatively close together, but not really racing each other. This isn’t exactly the most exciting racing to watch on TV, although I understand there were no other options – production’s hands were tied.

The discussion during the aftermath of the Montoya-Sorenson crash was quite interesting to watch. The booth went from theorizing that Montoya cut a tire, to seeing the contact and thinking Sorenson got loose, to believing it was intention in about a minute. Kudos to TNT for fetching the footage from a few laps before the caution that showed Montoya bouncing off Sorenson exiting Turn 4.

Since the race ran a little short (it actually ended right at 4 PM), there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. However, like at Michigan two weeks ago, TNT skimped on filling their timeslot on TV. This is more than likely so that they don’t pre-empt their post-post-race show that is exclusive to RaceBuddy. I understand where they’re coming from, but they’re probably alienating more viewers then they’re gaining by cutting millions of TV viewers off at the pass.

Here’s the way that RaceBuddy’s post-race coverage should work: it should always air in normal situations. However, in situations where the race ends early, they should try to stuff as much content (interviews, analysis, etc.) into the timeslot as possible. If there is anything left worth covering once the end of the slot is reached, then sure, go right ahead and have that RaceBuddy-exclusive show. The way that FOX handled their post-post race coverage (after their lightly publicized spat with Turner Sports, when they devised an online post-race show under Turner’s nose) was probably the right way to go about it. If the race ends early (like Sunday), stuff as much as possible into the timeslot. If it ends really late in the slot, or after the timeslot ends, then do some interviews and analysis before breaking out the additional post-race coverage once they go off the air.

It does not save TNT any money to end their timeslot ten minutes early. Even if it did, it would be a small amount. They’ve already paid their millions to broadcast the race, so they might as well use all their allotted time so they make it look like the network wants to cover the Sprint Cup Series (although I have no doubt that the on-air personalities definitely do want as much coverage as possible).

As it stands, the network aired interviews with winner Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Kevin Harvick. In addition, there were the customary checks of the unofficial results and point standings before TNT left the air. In the RaceBuddy-exclusive coverage, there was the normal additional analysis from Czarniak and McReynolds, along with additional interviews with A.J. Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

That’s it for this week. Next weekend is the 4th of July, a time in which we generally get together with families, have cookouts, and watch fireworks. For me, it means a flight to Orlando and a drive up to Daytona Beach to represent Frontstretch at Daytona International Speedway this weekend for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series events, along with Grand-Am’s Rolex Sports Car Series. In addition, the IZOD IndyCar Series will be back in action in Watkins Glen for the Camping World Grand Prix at the Glen.

Also, remember that TNT’s telecast of the Coke Zero 400 will see the only appearance of their “Wide Open Coverage” this year. This means limited commercial interruption and a different graphical setup.

Here’s your schedule for the week:

Thursday, July 1
Time Telecast Network
4:00 – 5:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
5:30 – 6:30 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour ESPN2
6:30 – 8:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED

Friday, July 2
Time Telecast Network
1:00 – 4:00 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN2
4:00 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
7:30 – 8:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
8:00 – 10:30 PM Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeno 250 ESPN2

Saturday, July 3
Time Telecast Network
1:00 – 4:00 PM Rolex Sports Car Series Brumos Porsche 250 SPEED*
4:30 – 6:30 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
6:30 – 7:30 PM Countdown to Green TNT
7:30 – 11:00 PM Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400 TNT

Sunday, July 4
Time Telecast Network
10:00 – 11:00 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
3:30 – 6:00 PM IZOD IndyCar Series Camping World Grand Prix at the Glen ABC
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED

*Tape-Delay

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 the TNT, ESPN, or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

TNT
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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Don Mei
06/29/2010 09:09 AM
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What hypocrisy. If everyone in Nascar and/or ESPN who has ever taken a puff on a joint was booted, the damn pits and garage area would be empty. Are you listening Brian? OK, all together now let me hear you sing; “doobie doobie do!”

DoninAjax
06/29/2010 10:12 AM
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From a Newspaper: NATIONWIDE: According to Jerry Gappins, the vice-president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Danica Patrick was responsible for a 30 per cent increase in ticket sales for the Nationwide race Saturday, which was won by Kyle Busch.

She’s money in the bank, which is why NASCAR is courting her so strongly.

You listen to the NASCAR announcers, and she can do no wrong. The drivers fall all over themselves to make her feel welcome (and to stay on NASCAR’s good side). Said Jeff Burton on the weekend:

“It takes a lot of guts to expose yourself in front of millions of people, in front of all the media, in front of all your peers,” he told Steve Ballard of the Indianapolis Star.

“If somebody came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you want to run Texas in an IRL car?’ I’d say, ‘Hell, no. I don’t want to get embarrassed.’ She’s doing that. I have a lot of respect for that.”

They wouldn’t be saying that about some guy . . .

In any event, Danica is no different – as a friend of mine said – than Juan Montoya, Sam Hornish, A.J. Allmendinger, Max Papis. Scott Speed or Marcos Ambrose when they started their NASCAR careers.

No better, no worse.

Richard
06/29/2010 11:41 AM
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Nice to watch and not be bombarded with “Sunoco Race Fuel” etc, during the race and at every pit stop. It is obvious to me the people at Fox are paid to mention sponsors.

DoninAjax
06/29/2010 01:17 PM
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Maybe Randy misheard “Have some Snoke.”

Marybeth
06/29/2010 06:20 PM
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Phil, After Mark’s flip in F1, I asked myself the same question as this poster on another F1 site asked, “Nobody has talked about how after one lap Webber went from second to 9th? Okay so he had a bad start and went to 4th after a few turns, but then lost how many more positions? Bad tyres?” Can you give us an answer? The announcers did not even speculate & there was no interview with Mark afterwards.

Chris Evans
06/30/2010 10:44 AM
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Good report.

On Dale Inman he had one of my favorite quotes (which only later became ironic) after Dale Earnhardt wrecked Bobby Hamilton at Rockingham in 1996. Earnhardt came up to him a couple weeks later and asked Inman, “How long you gonna be mad at me?” and Inman replied, “How long you gonna be alive?”

Chris