The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Why ESPN, Even Erin Were Up To The Task At Atlanta by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday September 7, 2010

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Hello, race fans. It’s that time once again: time for the weekly TV critique of all the NASCAR broadcasts you love watching. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while the Camping World Truck Series headed deep into the heart of the Bluegrass State. We’ll start there.

Built Ford Tough 225

The Camping World Truck Series returned to Kentucky Speedway for their annual appearance in support of the Izod IndyCar Series. SPEED provided the coverage on Friday night.

NCWTS Setup was more reflective than normal. Yes, it started out with the usual look back at the previous race (Chicagoland), but there was also a detailed review of the Summer stretch of nine events, similar to what Beth Lunkenheimer did on Friday in her Tearing Apart the Trucks column. In addition, the Vault made another appearance, recapping the 2005 race that Dennis Setzer won after Terry Cook wrecked late.

I liked the direction of the pre-race show … until SPEED asked drivers what their favorite track is and why. It’s a question that us media members wouldn’t mind asking drivers, but it comes off as unprofessional and fanboy-ish to do in practice. The concept didn’t work well, and I wouldn’t recommend it for any of the other networks. There were also the normal six pre-race interviews conducted by Ray Dunlap and Adam Alexander.

From there, it was on to the race. I’m still on the lookout for Waltrip dominating the proceedings based on your recent comments, and I was happy to see that he was not really controlling the conversation inside the broadcast booth. I forget which wrestler would constantly say it (since I’ve never really been much of a wrestling fan), but the term “Know your role” comes to mind here. For one night, at least, Waltrip picked his spots.

There was some confusion within the telecast when Paddy Rodenbeck crashed his No. 82 Chevrolet on Lap 75. Initially, the broadcast booth seemed to have some trouble figuring out it was Rodenbeck who wrecked. First, they thought it was John Jackson’s No. 72, then Chris Lafferty’s No. 01 (which made no sense, since he was driving a red truck after crashing in practice) before they realized that it was Rodenbeck. The commentators have monitors in the booth… use them, please, if you cannot eyeball situations.

SPEED did a great job of following Todd Bodine’s night on the track, from his spin to holding the trophy in Victory Lane. But did they give his No. 30 Toyota a little too much airtime compared to everyone else?

Since the race finished a little quicker than normal, there was a higher level of post-race coverage. There were checks of the unofficial results and the unofficial point standings in addition to a half-dozen interviews of key finishers. In addition, the confrontation between Todd Bodine and Kyle Busch in Victory Lane occurred before SPEED’s broadcast concluded. So, in the interest of finding out what happened, the network returned for a second interview with Todd to see what transpired in the somewhat heated conversation. That follow-up amounted to great coverage by all involved in the telecast.

The timeslot finally ended with some post-race analysis from Allen, Parsons, and Waltrip in the broadcast booth before SPEED left the air. In my opinion, their hard work produced what was generally a good broadcast with good action. However, late in the going, SPEED was focusing on Todd Bodine a little too much. Yes, he was going for the win on fuel mileage, but there was still plenty of racing for position further back. SPEED should show that action a little more often when the race for the lead turns into a runaway.

Great Clips 300

The Nationwide Series returned to Atlanta Motor Speedway Saturday night for their lone season visit, the Great Clips 300. When I saw the TV listings for September 4th last week, I’ll admit that I was a little bit worried. The football lead-in was guaranteed to be a problem, as ESPN2 aired a College Football game starting at 3:30 PM (really 3:40 or so) with NASCAR Countdown scheduled to start at 6:30. I thought we would be lucky to get any pre-race coverage on ESPN2 at all.

As it turns out, I was absolutely right. The football (or in my case, ESPNEWS) went over its timeslot by 16 minutes, meaning ESPN2’s coverage from Atlanta came on air, then went straight to an interview with Kyle Busch, the in-race reporter on Saturday. There were just two additional interviews before the race began in earnest.

ESPN did have time to show a feature about Erin Andrews doing a 170 mph ride-along with Dale Jarrett in one of the Dale Jarrett Racing Experience Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS’s. Erin definitely seemed to be into the experience, which is good. There was also a Tech Garage feature on the tapered spacers. However, the way this concept was presented was not really all that pertinent for Atlanta due to the lack of grip on the track and how much the tires wear. This idea would have been better used at a place like Texas or Charlotte. Under the current circumstances, a Nationwide car could go flat out for maybe a lap or two before having to lift because of wear. Later on during the race, there was an additional Craftsman Tech Garage feature on how fuel burning off can affect the overall handling of a race car – perfectly fine for this type of track.

Also of note, ESPN had nine in-car cameras in race cars instead of the usual eight. This was accomplished by not putting one in the pace car. I think this tweak was a good idea that should continue going forward. The network also made use of the split-screen early and often on Saturday, which was great to see. Atlanta is naturally a very competitive track, so it is quite difficult to show all the racing for position at once. The split screen definitely helped showcase more of that action.

During a round of green flag pit stops, there was a substantial technical issue. Out of nowhere, the screen went black, then blue. The picture returned right before ESPN took a very sudden commercial break. Marty Reid described what happened as a transmission issue when ESPN returned from their unplanned commercial, resuming their coverage right in the middle of green flag stops. Unfortunately, these things happen in television: it wasn’t perfect, but the issue and resulting shifts in timing were handled fairly well under the circumstances.

After Kevin Harvick emerged from his green flag pit stop in fourth place, ESPN ran their race tracker graphic to show how Harvick was gaining on leader Kyle Busch. However, the way it was set up, the current lap was in the middle of the graphic. Marty Reid in the booth was constantly trying to inform the viewers of when a catch was going to occur. However, Harvick was five seconds behind and the graphic just did not go out that far. Two improvements could be made for this circumstance in the future: 1.) Don’t use the graphic in this situation or 2.) Make it wider so that we could see the expected intervals further out, moving the current lap more to the left side of the graphic to compensate. Either choice would be fine; they just can’t stick with the status quo. What we saw Saturday night looked bad, and it also made Marty look a little silly while explaining it.

Post-race coverage was quite detailed since ESPN ended early. There were ten post-race interviews (nine drivers, and Tony Eury Sr.). In addition, there was a check of the point standings and some discussion of the race in the Infield Studio. Finally, at the end of the show, the Infield Studio and Broadcast booth discussed Sunday’s Emory Healthcare 500 and what they could expect based on Saturday night’s race.

This production gave us a pretty good broadcast to watch. There wasn’t all that much racing for position, especially in the middle part of the event when Kevin Harvick ran off to a 12-second lead, but when there was action on track, ESPN seemed to be up to the task of showing it properly. Aside from the technical issue that plagued the green flag stops, network execs should be very happy with Saturday’s broadcast.

Atlanta gave us some great racing on Sunday night, and ESPN managed to provide some great coverage to go along with it.

Emory Healthcare 500

On Sunday night, the Sprint Cup Series returned to Atlanta Motor Speedway for their second run of the year. NASCAR Countdown was heavily focused on pre-race analysis from the Infield Studio. As a result, there were not that many interviews (only four) during the show.

In one segment, there was a nice feature about Mark Martin and what he brings to the Sprint Cup Series. It was a unique angle, consisting mainly of Martin’s peers talking about how he can or has helped them out in their careers. Definitely a fairly interesting piece, although I’m not really sure if Martin wants to be thought of as just the resident old man/elder statesman.

ESPN also repeated the feature from Saturday night where Erin Andrews did a ride along with Dale Jarrett. I have no clue why they chose to do it. My best guess is that Erin is starting to expand her “brand” these days, branching out onto Good Morning America and studio hosting. In the near future, she will likely begin to move away from sideline reporting and possibly sports in general. Regardless of whether that’s true, though, there’s no denying Erin is a marketable personality, and has been for the past three or four years for ESPN. It’s possible, if not probable, that her presence within the broadcast can drive ratings up.

Once the racing got underway, you saw a much more competitive event than on Saturday night. As a result, the booth was more upbeat and excited about the on-track action, which is clearly a good thing. However, I still do not understand why ESPN feels the need to pipe in fake crowd noise at the beginning of their races. It’s stupid, highly noticeable, and bush league. It’s like watching a Wheel of Fortune episode from 1992 or so, complete with canned audience reactions.

As the night went on, ESPN produced two Craftsman Tech Garage features via split-screen. One was on loose lug nuts and how they can adversely affect handling and even break parts, while the other was on wires feeding the alternator and how teams skimp on the proper wires to save weight. Personally, I’d really debate how saving a few grams of weight with wires would help the car go any faster. I can’t imagine that the risk is worth it to go that route, knowing that you could cause electrical issues.

There did seem to be a bit of sorrow that Atlanta will be cut down to one race for next season, a disappointment that was shared by the analysts in the Infield Studio, the broadcast booth, and a good chunk of the drivers as well. As a result, there was a feel of “let’s go out with a bang” throughout the broadcast. In all honesty, it was not all that dissimilar to the 1996 “finale” from North Wilkesboro.

The ending of the race ran beyond its timeslot, shifting most of the post-race coverage towards Sportscenter. However, both runner-up finisher Carl Edwards and winner Tony Stewart were among those interviewed before the network left the air.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the official ending of the “regular season” at Richmond. You know what that means: Wall-to-wall Chase coverage. We’ll definitely keep ESPN honest in this Saturday’s philosophical approach, especially considering the current anti-climactic scenario as to who will be in the Chase come New Hampshire. The Nationwide Series will join the Sprint Cup Series on the three-quarter mile oval, while the Camping World Truck Series takes the weekend off before returning in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series has their season finale at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah.

Here’s your race coverage listings for the week…

Friday, September 10
Time Telecast Network
8:00 – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Italy Free Practice 2 SPEED
12:00 – 3:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice ESPN2
4:00 – 5:00 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN2
5:30 – 7:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN2
7:00 – 7:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
7:30 – 10:00 PM Nationwide Series Virginia 529 College Savings 250 ESPN2

Saturday, September 11
Time Telecast Network
8:00 – 9:30 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Italy Qualifying SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 AM NASCAR Now Pre-Race ESPN2
2:00 PM – 5:00 PM Rolex Sports Car Series Utah 250 SPEED
5:00 – 7:00 PM NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
7:00 – 7:30 PM NASCAR Countdown ABC
7:30 – 11:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Air Guard 400 ABC
11:30 PM – 12:30 AM Sunday NASCAR Victory Lane SPEED&

Sunday, September 12
Time Telecast Network
12:30am – 1:30 AM NASCAR Now Post-Race ESPN2
7:30 – 10:00 AM Formula One Grand Prix of Italy SPEED
7:00 PM – 8:00 PM The SPEED Report SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 PM Wind Tunnel with Dave DeSpain SPEED

& – Tentative, start time dependent on when the Air Guard 400 ends

I will provide TV reviews of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Grand-Am races next Tuesday. The Grand Prix of Italy will be covered in the Critic’s Annex.

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

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.

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: Atlanta-2 Edition
One Day, Cock Of The Walk. The Next? Feather Duster
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In Sprint Cup: Atlanta-Richmond Edition
No Bull: Is Tony Stewart Now The Man To Beat?

Contact Phil Allaway

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Mark
09/07/2010 09:04 AM
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It’s a pretty big leap to go from newbie race tv critic to race car engineer Phil . I can’t imagine why Tim Brewer would make up the idea of saving weight by using smaller wire . But do yourself a favor and don’t bother debating the issue . You’re 100 % wrong . Weight savings is every thing in a race car .

Mastering the technique of ridiculously long sentences to keep yourself on air as much as possible is demonstrated weekly by the fox broadcast team . Also by the Waltrips and two of the Wallace brothers . And i really think thats the reason that Benny , Neil , Ned , Buddy , and more recently Dale and Andy are so well liked . They say their piece , or make their point in as few words as necessary and then hand off to someone else . Realizing the show isn’t about the announcers has never sunk in with the rest .

I wonder if the crew chiefs are as annoyed as i would be by the pit reporters climbing up on top of the pit boxes to ask questions ? Usually inane questions . I get the feeling they do it more because they can than because it adds anything to the broadcast . Next i suspect they’ll let the pit reporters stick a mic in the face of the pit crew crew members while a pit stop is going on .

r.d. adcock
09/07/2010 12:21 PM
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please someone replace marty reid, erin andrews knows more about nascar than he does.

melz2
09/07/2010 06:00 PM
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I don’t agree about Waltrip picking his spots, maybe because what he says never seems relevant and that delivery of his grates on me. Maybe it’s just an overdose of the Waltrip brothers, just plain had enough of them! That Dopey demeanor of his doesn’t help.

Phil Allaway
09/07/2010 08:45 PM
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I can understand delivery grating on you, melz2. That’s probably the main reason why I didn’t like Eli Gold on TNN. Now, I realize that I was probably in the minority at the time. As for the dopiness, I think that’s an act. I’m pretty sure Michael isn’t like that when it comes to his race team. He likely views his SPEED commitments as a way to unwind, publicly.

shoeman
09/08/2010 12:05 PM
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MIKEY” was never the driver his great brother was. But his wins on the superspeedways were well earned. He does a great job promoting his sponsors. And he is having fun in front of the TV cameras. Overall, he is entertaining, which is one of the things I want when I watch TV.