The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Why ESPN Excelled At Michigan Coverage by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday August 17, 2010

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Talking NASCAR TV: Why ESPN Excelled At Michigan Coverage

Phil Allaway · Tuesday August 17, 2010

 

Hello, race fans. It’s that time once again — critique time! This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were at Michigan International Speedway. Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck Series had a standalone race at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night. How were these telecasts to watch on TV? Let’s find out.

Too Tough To Tame 200

On Saturday night, the Camping World Truck Series returned to Darlington Raceway for the first time since 2004 to run the Too Tough To Tame 200. SPEED provided the coverage with their usual on-air crew.

NCWTS Setup started out with a look back on some classic finishes on the egg-shaped oval. The problem with this little montage is that all the great finishes were in the Cup Series, not the Trucks. Granted, it’s always nice to see classic footage, but this is not the Sprint Cup Series that we’re talking about here; it’s the Camping World Truck Series. There were six pre-race interviews conducted by Alexander and Dunlap, which I believe is a fair number for a half-hour pre-race show.

The Vault feature returned, after a long hiatus, in order to recap the 2002 race at Darlington, won by Ted Musgrave. That was so long ago ESPN2 had the exclusive rights to the then-Craftsman Truck Series, meaning viewers heard Dr. Jerry Punch’s call of the race in the background underneath the narrator. The series was quite different back then. But, it could definitely be used as a learning experience for viewers since very few of the teams in that race are still around.

There was also a feature on Brett Butler’s rookie season in the series and what he’s learned so far. Brett appears to be realistic in his goals, and he’s at least worth watching in the future.

Apparently, who was driving for some of the Truck Series teams Saturday night was a bit of a mystery to SPEED’s announcers. But aren’t the TV guys supposed to be the ones who’re the experts?

When it came to the race broadcast, SPEED mainly stuck with their main storylines. This meant that they covered Ken Schrader’s exploits after having to change a battery before the start, point leader Todd Bodine, and whoever was up front. Having said that, the broadcast booth was very informative with the on-track action. In all honesty, that’s about all I really need from a race broadcast these days.

SPEED did make a mistake in identifying a Lucky Dog recipient during the seventh caution. Yes, the No. 46 received it; however, SPEED mentioned the wrong driver. The No. 46 was being driven by J.C. Stout on Saturday night, but SPEED referred to Stout as Clay Greenfield. Greenfield has driven the No. 46 a few times this season, including Nashville on August 7th. Whoops.

A new level to the scroll was introduced during the race. Instead of it showing the manufacturer, lap times, or interval behind the wall, it would show the number of points that each driver had. I don’t like it very much, to be honest. It’s jumbled up and just not ideal.

Since the race had nine cautions, post-race coverage was relatively brief. SPEED provided viewers with interviews of winner Todd Bodine and crew chief Mike Hillman Jr., Timothy Peters, Johnny Sauter, and Ron Hornaday. There were also checks of the unofficial results and point standings before SPEED left the air, having just filled their slot.

Carfax 250

On Saturday afternoon, the Nationwide Series returned to Michigan International Speedway for the 19th running of the Carfax 250. ESPN had their usual group of personalities on hand for the call.

Since Saturday was the second race for the new Nationwide Series cars (Challengers, Mustangs, etc.), ESPN decided to go with a one hour pre-race show. I generally don’t believe that was necessary. Also, due to Nationwide Series Technical Inspection running extremely long (something Kenny Wallace called NASCAR out on for starting too late during coverage of qualifying on SPEED), Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour was running at the same time (on SPEED) as the first half-hour of NASCAR Countdown.

In addition to an expanded amount of pre-race analysis from Bestwick and the gang in the Infield Studio, ESPN showed a feature where Andy Petree went to Penske Racing to learn about some of the differences between the old car and the new car with the help of Justin Allgaier’s crew chief, Chad Walter. This was aided by some graphics from ESPN. Informative, I guess. Andy then joined the broadcast for continued discussion about the car and how Cup CoT information can carry over to the Nationwide machine.

Tim Brewer added to this line of discussion with a Craftsman Tech Garage feature on the front springs and how these cars can coil bind. Later on, Brewer did a second feature on the “spoiler ears” on the cars and how they can be adjusted.

Allen Bestwick did a sitdown interview with Dodge President/CEO Ralph Gilles and Roger Penske about the new Nationwide Dodge Challenger. Penske’s portion of the interview was based around his relationship with Dodge, while Gilles talked about the transferring of technology from the Nationwide Challenger to the street car. These Q & A sessions looked like they were only an excerpt of a much longer feature, but what we got to see was pretty interesting.

Following a recap of last years’ Carfax 250, ESPN showed a feature on Brad Keselowski in which Brad talked about his driving style and how he feels like he needs to be the center of attention. I’ll admit that this interview was interesting to watch.

This race also brought Danica Patrick back into the picture for her sixth start of the year. Mainly because she’s Danica, ESPN decided to give us constant updates of her position on track. Of course, the result was a bunch of disjointed updates where the broadcast booth interrupted what they were talking about to cover Danica’s struggles (she finished four laps down in 27th).

Once the race started, ESPN focused as much as they could on actual battles for position, which is always good to see. However, the first green flag run went for 62 laps. In that time, Brad Keselowski pulled out to a mammoth 11-second lead over the field. When that happens, ESPN could have two options. One is to hope to find a good race further down the pack to cover. The other is focus in on individual stories and try to make it interesting. For most of Saturday’s race, ESPN chose the latter out of necessity.

There was an instance of an uncensored F-Bomb making the broadcast when Rick Yeomans, rear tire changer on Mike Wallace’s No. 01, had some issues on his first stop. Yeomans was serving as ESPN’s Over the Wall reporter. After the stop, Reid acknowledged the obscenity and apologized. Now, I guess that’s expected these days, but I don’t believe that it’s necessary. It’s one thing if Marty cussed on-air, but someone swearing in the heat of the moment during a bad pit stop is almost to be expected. Most people that would get offended hearing something like that on TV would do it themselves in that situation.

Since the race ended quickly, there was plenty of post-race coverage to be had. There were 11 post-race interviews, and a check of the point standings. The unofficial results were kept in the scroll. Once the interviews were done, there was an additional Craftsman Tech Garage segment on clutch issues that nearly derailed Brad Keselowski’s race.

Carfax 400

The Sprint Cup Series returned to Michigan International Speedway on Sunday for their second visit of the season. ESPN had their usual group of on-air personalities, except for one. Jamie Little got the week off. Mike Massaro took her place on pit road.

Kevin Harvick’s crew chief, Gil Martin, briefly joined Brewer in the Craftsman Tech Garage to discuss changes that were made to the No. 29 prior to the race. As far as I know, that is a new aspect of pre-race. I find it interesting. Now, there are times (Talladega) where this concept cannot be used, but I think it will be beneficial in the long run.

Marty Smith made a rare NASCAR Countdown appearance to talk about Jack Roush’s return to the track after his plane crash. The same clip of Roush explaining what happened in Oshkosh that was played during NASCAR Countdown on Saturday (and multiple other times throughout the weekend) was replayed here. Smith, introduced as a NASCAR Now reporter, is probably the third or fourth-most experienced NASCAR reporter personality with ESPN these days, behind Punch and Massaro. As a result, I believe that he is underutilized on NASCAR broadcasts — with the exception of NASCAR Now. It would benefit ESPN to give him a bigger role. If this means Marty is conducting pre-race interviews, so be it. He works relatively well with other drivers in features, so that’s doable as well.

ESPN decided to constantly remind us of Michigan’s tendency towards long green flag runs throughout NASCAR Countdown and into the race. I guess that’s accurate, since it occurred in the Nationwide race and in the Cup race, but we generally don’t need to be reminded more than once. With the many diehards that watch the races, maybe not at all.

In Watkins Glen, ESPN debuted their RaceTracker graphic, which is effectively a combination of the lap tracker used in their qualifying coverage and TNT’s Closing the Gap feature. However, I think that this actually works better than Closing the Gap because it estimates when a “catch” might occur. Also, TNT’s graphic is more dependent on the actual pictures. ESPN’s can operate independent of the pictures.

Another new graphic that appeared during the race on Sunday was a mileage comparison graphic. Such a thing is only possible via the transponders that all the cars carry on their windshields. This graphic displayed the total distance traveled in the race up to that point. This is interesting in that it gives a visual representation of how using different lines on the track equates to total distance traveled over a period of time.

This year, ESPN is also showing all of the races to the finish line to the viewers. This is a step up from last year, when sometimes, as few as three cars would be shown before cutting to either an in-car camera or a celebrating crew.

Post-race coverage was fairly typical. There were post-race interviews with Kevin Harvick, crew chief Gil Martin and car owner Richard Childress from the winning No. 29 team. In addition, ESPN also had interviews with Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano (post-argument), and Kasey Kahne. Carl Edwards, who finished third, joined the Infield Studio for his regularly scheduled chat during Sportscenter.

Generally, this telecast was a very good one to watch on Sunday. ESPN showed as much of the action on track as possible. When Harvick ran away to a seven-second lead, action further down the ladder was shown. The enthusiasm was quite high, especially on the restarts. It’s quite a change from the constant complaining last year about commentators sounding bored.

That’s all for this edition. Later this week, all three of NASCAR’s top series will be at Bristol Motor Speedway. In addition, the Whelen Modified Series (Northern and Southern Divisions) will run a conjunction event at Bristol right before the Truck race on Wednesday night. Here’s your schedule:

Wednesday, August 18
Time Telecast Network
4:30 – 6:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
6:00 – 7:30 PM Whelen Modifieds UNOH Perfect Storm 150 SPEED
7:30 – 8:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
8:00 – 10:30 PM Camping World Truck Series O’Reilly 200 SPEED

Friday, August 20
Time Telecast Network
10:30 AM – 12:00 PM Nationwide Series Happy Hour SPEED
12:00 – 2:00 PM Sprint Cup Practice SPEED
2:30 – 3:30 PM Sprint Cup Happy Hour SPEED
4:00 – 5:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying SPEED
5:30 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN2
7:00 – 8:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
8:00 – 10:30 PM Nationwide Series Food City 250 ESPN2

Saturday, August 21
Time Telecast Network
5:00 -7:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
6:00 -7:00 PM Izod IndyCar Series Qualifying Versus
7:00 -7:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ABC
7:30 -11:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Irwin Tools Night Race ABC

Sunday, August 22
Time Telecast Network
10:00 – 11:00 AM NASCAR Now (Bristol Wrap-up) ESPN2
3:00 – 6:00 PM American Le Mans Series at Road America SPEED
5:00 – 8:00 PM Izod IndyCar Series Peak Antifreeze Indy Grand Prix Versus
7:00 – 8:00 PM The SPEED Report SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 PM NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck Series races from Bristol next week, while the Modified race will be covered the following Thursday, inside the Critic’s Annex in our FREE 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 from last weekend, please click on the following links:

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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Mark
08/17/2010 09:25 AM
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The coverage of the cars crossing the finish line should be made a rule by NASCAR . If you want to televise a race , you are required to show every competitor thats still running going across the line at the finish . If we miss the winners crew high fiving each other , then so be it . There is far more to each race than just the winner or the top five finishers .
The entire on air crew for ESPN has done a stellar job so far . Articulate , interesting , not bent on constant self promotion , and able to simply talk about racing rather than parroting talking points delivered into their earpieces like the fox crew does .
I also like some of the new camera angles and camera locations ESPN is using this year .

jerseygirl
08/17/2010 10:23 AM
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ESPN’s coverage of the race on Saturday wasn’t that good. They did a much better job on Sunday UNTIL they messed up the camera shot at the finish line. C’mon guys — every fan wants to know where their guy finishes and not just by seeing it on the scroll.

Keep a camera shot fixed on the finish line at the end of the race. Use a split screen to follower the winner/happy team/wife/whatever so that fans can see the cars cross the finish line.

Steve
08/17/2010 12:56 PM
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I’m less upset about watching cars cross the line as I am about the fact that it seems every time something happens on the track, ESPN is at commercial or they just miss it completely. It took about 5 minutes and 4 different camera angles before they were actually able to show what happened with Busch’s engine. It was like that all day.

Also, are the races this unexciting that ESPN has to generate false excitement by providing us false information. Twice they mentioned Biffle having problems as he’s passing another car on the track. Talk about confusing viewers.

Then Jarret after the last restart saying Biffle is the car to beat as he falls back in the field.

Rusty saying that fresh tires are so important as Harvick, who didn’t even pit the last caution, pulls away from the field.

Dougherty trying to convince us that something is up with the 48 team just because they are not in the Top 5 every week. You would think after 4 years people would get this. The tracks are not in the chase so they do not pay special attention to these tracks, so he is not always in the front. His cars are good and he will be a threat once the Chase starts I can assure Brad Dougherty of this.

Other than the false sense of excitement, I actually didn’t think this was one of the better races at Michigan.

DoninAjax
08/17/2010 01:00 PM
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The TV cameras should show the in-car shots out the front windshield for a longer time so it will show how the cars are handling and moving around and gaining or losing on the car in front. They tease us with three or four seconds when it would be better for a lap or more.

Martin
08/17/2010 01:10 PM
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Speaking of the 48 , why didn’t ESPN bother to mention the Hendrick cars during the race . No mention of Gordon starting so far back , or how many cars he passed . No mention of the 48 team at all during the race . And no mention at all of Martin . Not even Earnhardt Jr. . It seems ESPN only wants to focus on all of the other competitors and ignore the Hendrick cars . If they don’t pay any attention to the Hendrick teams , stock car racing is going to die off completely .

DoninAjax
08/17/2010 01:11 PM
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Time slot for race 12-4:30
12-1 Pre-race crap
15-20 minutes pre-race crap
Green flag
Time allotted for race 3 hours
10-15 minutes post-race drivel
Actual time of race 2:47
Finished too soon
Needed about six laps for “debris” caution for another 13 minutes of commercials.

old farmer
08/18/2010 02:04 AM
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Hey, Martin: lots of us are sick of hearing “Hendrick, Hendrick, Hendrick.”

There are other cars & owners, and it was a delight not to have the convicted felon’s team shoved down our collective throats yet another time.