The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Drops the Ball With The Big One At Talladega by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday April 19, 2011

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Welcome, race fans. You’re currently reading Talking NASCAR TV, where the discussion of NASCAR race telecasts, telecast news, and whatever else tickles my fancy is the name of the game. Last weekend was very busy, with six major races on the schedule. Here, I’m only going to cover the races held at Talladega in order to save time. Otherwise, we’d be here until sometime next week. That, and our Fearless Leader is not the biggest fan of 6,000 word critiques.

Before we start, ESPN has announced a somewhat different broadcast booth lineup for this Saturday’s Nashville 300. Since it’s the first standalone race of the year, ESPN usually gives their regular commentators the week off for rest. The assignments for each race are revealed to the public each Monday morning via a press release. Yesterday’s release states that Marty Reid will be joined in the broadcast booth by Ricky Craven and Brad Daugherty, a somewhat unusual combination. Dave Burns, Jamie Little and Shannon Spake will be in the pits. The Infield Studio won’t be making the trip to Tennessee, so Burns will also serve as NASCAR Countdown host. Since everyone else is taking a break, it’ll be interesting to see how that group works together.

Also, SPEED started promoting their first exclusive Nationwide Series telecast last weekend. The BUBBA Burger 250 on April 29th will be on SPEED due to ESPN giving priority coverage to the NBA Playoffs (which will probably still be in the First Round by that point). It was asked during Friday practice coverage who would be there for the race. I’m still unsure about pit reporting coverage, but it sounds like Rick Allen will serve in the play-by-play role, with both Darrell and Michael Waltrip as analysts. Such a setup might be interesting to see… or make me want to tear my hair out. Thoughts on this move, anyone?

Having said that, onto the critiques.

3 Amigos Tequila 250

The second race of the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards season was originally scheduled for Friday evening at Talladega. However, the race had to be postponed to Saturday morning due to very severe weather in Alabama. As a result, I spent much of Friday evening watching a UStream feed of ABC 33/40’s coverage of the storms. Those storms had to be very scary for anyone at the track. No tornadoes touched down in the area, but there was one sighted in Talladega County roughly 25 miles south of the track.

Due to rains, the final practice session for Sprint Cup was cut short and SPEED quickly left the air and went to alternate programming (multiple episodes of The 10). They never came back on air and said that the ARCA race was postponed. They simply posted it in the scroll on the bottom of the screen. Kind of weak on the surface, but I have no clue what it actually looked like at the track at that time. Plenty of reporters at the track told stories of scary drives back to their hotels, dodging wrecks and debris along the way via Twitter. I guess because of the exceptional circumstances, I can give them a pass just this once.

When SPEED came on the air Saturday morning at the incredibly early time of 8 AM local, they gave viewers some pre-race coverage. There were quick interviews with Ty Dillon and Scott Lagasse, Jr., along with a recap of the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 at Daytona before the engines were fired and the cars got underway.

Also, Ken Schrader was originally confirmed to be the third man in the broadcast booth along with Rick Allen and Phil Parsons. However, that did not come to pass, perhaps due to the Friday postponement.

Throughout the race, SPEED had issues with their scroll. I have no clue what was going on, but SPEED decided not to have the scroll on screen at the beginning of the race at all. It didn’t appear at all until after the first commercial break, but even then, it didn’t have a working lap counter until roughly Lap 18. That lap counter was not even the normal one, but one that was basically inserted where the normal counter would have gone in a pinch. Not cool. Obviously, the production staff is not necessarily used to producing live broadcasts at 8 AM.

The race coverage was admittedly focused on the lead pack of cars. That number shifted throughout the race from six to 20. Anyone who dropped off the back of the pack was effectively dead to SPEED, which is not cool. Especially early on in the race, some notable drivers were off the back of the group, like Frank Kimmel. As a result, SPEED missed some things, like Joey Licata’s blown engine (they showed his car slowing on the apron, but that was it. No follow-up).

Enthusiasm, even at the early hour, was never a problem for the duo of Allen and Parsons. After over eight years of working together, calling races has become easy for them.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief since the 250-mile race ran right up against Sprint Cup qualifying. There were interviews with the top-2 finishers (Dillon and Frank Kimmel), and a check of the unofficial results and points before SPEED transitioned to qualifying.

Aaron’s 312

ESPN aired a special one-hour edition of NASCAR Countdown from Talladega on Saturday afternoon to pump up the near inevitable carnage that was bound to come (and it did). For the occasion, ESPN had Chad Knaus in the Infield Studio as a special guest. Knaus appears to be a pretty smart guy and he works fairly well on television (as his appearances on NASCAR Performance with Larry McReynolds can attest to), but I think that he would be better used on the show at an unrestricted venue. There’s only so much a crew chief can do at Talladega.

Of course, since this is ESPN, the Infield Studio dominated much of the hour of pre-race coverage. I know it’s par for the course, but there’s only so much that can be discussed ahead of a restrictor plate race. I would have preferred the time be used for more interviews and/or features.

There was a short piece about the “Snake Prank” that JR Motorsports filmed last month as part of an ad campaign for Suave MEN (who sponsored Earnhardt, Jr.‘s No. 7 on Saturday). Earnhardt, Jr. talked about the prank a little and his thoughts about who was scared the most. Always good for a laugh. However, I’d argue that JR Motorsports posted the prank on YouTube too early. By the time the piece aired on Saturday, I had already watched the clip multiple times and saved it to my favorites list. I’m not going to argue that the move by JR Motorsports was bad (mainly because it wasn’t), but I’m surprised ESPN didn’t insist on some synergy. In other words, an embargo of the clip until Saturday, for promotional purposes until it aired during the feature.

A tech garage piece showed off the ridiculous array of radio channels (I referred to it as the “Wheel O’ Channels” in my notes) required for the chain drafting that is currently en vogue. It’s insane that it’s come to this, but this segment was interesting to see.

Much like the ARCA race in the morning, the vast majority of the coverage was given to the cars right up front. If you weren’t up there and in the hunt for the lead, you were invisible. It’s like what Ricky Bobby often said in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” The characters even admit in the film that the statement is ridiculous. However, it appears to be the truth these days. At Talladega, more teams got coverage mainly because more squads were able to stay closer to the front than in Daytona, where only 12 cars finished on the lead lap in a race with few crashes.

Saturday’s race also marked Dale Jarrett’s return to the broadcast booth after nearly a month off. To be honest, that’s a long enough period of time to start to get used to having Rusty Wallace in there. Jarrett and Wallace have a somewhat similar temperament in the booth, but Jarrett is more likely to pick his spots. As a result, his performance was perfectly fine.

ESPN covered the race decently, but they dropped the ball when discussing the cause of the “Big One” Saturday afternoon.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief since the race ran long. Can’t do much about double-digit cautions and a couple of red flags. ESPN gave viewers interviews with the top-3 finishers (Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Joe Nemechek), the winning crew chief (Jason Ratcliff) and Johnny Davis, Mike Wallace’s car owner. With Davis, I think that was maybe the second time I’d seen him interviewed the whole time he’s been a car owner in the series.

Looking back at this race, ESPN did an OK job in televising it. However, there is something that they didn’t capitalize on. Earlier in the race, one of the pit reporters made reference to the fact that Clint Bowyer couldn’t really push very well. His car’s nose had the tendency to wedge itself. Well, no one seemed to realize that Bowyer’s nose wedging under another car was the root cause of the big crash on Lap 89. ESPN, c’mon now. You have all these people at your disposal in Talladega, and you’re not going to take advantage of what they give you? Weak sauce.

Aaron’s 499

For Sunday, FOX also trotted out a full hour of pre-race coverage to hype up the Sprint Cup race. It was the first time that a full hour of pre-race was shown since Daytona. Thankfully, with the additional time, FOX took it to talk to some more drivers. At least four drivers got interviewed during pre-race coverage, which really doesn’t sound like much for a full hour, but it’s better than the one a week we’ve been getting for the last two months.

Darrell Waltrip returned with his weekly one-on-one interviews, which I generally consider to be interesting. This week’s interview subject was Kyle Busch. The subject matter mainly concerned his start to the 2011 season and the supposed new demeanor that he’s shown so far this year. Busch credited some of his change to his happy marriage to Samantha back on New Years’ Eve (shown in the previously critiqued Fast and Fabulous: A NASCAR Wedding on the Style Network in March that ran in the newsletter.) Sam showed up later on for a Newlywed Game-esque segment. You see a different Waltrip in these features, one that I definitely like. He is an underrated interviewer. As much as his commentary can irritate people (not that often with me, but it can be), he is a different person on television if the focus is obviously not on him.

Waltrip also spent part of the pre-race show attempting to coin a new term for the two-car drafts. I have my own that I like to use, but Waltrip to chose to solicit suggestions from various Cup drivers, including Kevin Harvick and David Ragan. Not a bad idea on paper, although the execution was a little silly. I guess the new drafting technique is a little more difficult to nail down official terminology for compared to something like the double-file restarts. Oh, and if you’re wondering, I refer to the two-car drafts as “chain drafting,” or “chain racing” because it reminds me of chain races at Eves of Destruction.

Unfortunately, Talladega also saw the return of Chris Pizzi to FOX’s coverage. You probably remember him from the stupid “A Slice Of Pizzi” segments from FOX Pre-Race last season. Since then, the show he’s on, Cubed, moved away from being an exclusive of foxsports.com to a weekly series late nights on Fuel TV.

Last weekend, FOX dispatched Pizzi to the Talladega Infield to get the lowdown on the goings on in the bowels of Talladega Superspeedway. Being the trooper that he is (complete with an out of place Digger jacket), Pizzi toured around, sampled the local cuisine (mostly fried), and hung out with the masses. Highlights included gator on the grill, a guy who got married in the Infield (not making this up), and a trip behind the scenes at the Gretchen Wilson concert held Saturday night. I still find Pizzi annoying, but at least he wasn’t acting like a complete fool.

FOX’s coverage gave exposure to more teams all over the field than both ESPN and SPEED did. This happened mainly because a few fairly well-known teams (Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin for Hendrick Motorsports, Tony Stewart for Stewart-Haas Racing, etc.) decided to hang back. As a result, FOX needed to update the groups running further back in order to cover a lot of the top guys. That’s not necessarily the ideal reason to cover more teams further down the order, but it might be the best we can do at Talladega.

Post-race coverage was fairly extensive. FOX brought viewers seven post-race interviews and checks of the unofficial results and point standings. There was also a good amount of post-race wrap-up discussion before FOX left the air.

Overall, Sunday’s race gave me a headache, but that headache was not because of FOX’s performance. However, there was a lot of rear bumper cam footage included. In the future that should be kept to a minimum in restrictor plate races, though. Why? Because viewers can’t see jack. Sure, it’s nice to get up close and personal with someone’s grille every once in a while, but not 46 times a race. There’s simply no context for the viewer.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, thankfully, is much calmer. I could use the break, since I had quite the headache on Sunday. The Sprint Cup Series is off for the traditional Easter break (or, as Jayski likes to call it, the “Easter Bunny 500.”).

However, the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series will both be back in action at Nashville Superspeedway in the first standalone race of the season. Here’s your listings.

Friday, April 22 (Earth Day)

Time Telecast Network
5:30 PM – 7:00 PM Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED*
6:30 PM – 7:30 PM Nationwide Series Practice ESPN2
7:00 PM – 7:30 PM SPEED Center, Friday Edition SPEED
7:30 PM – 8:00 PM NCWTS Setup SPEED
8:00 PM – 10:30 PM Camping World Truck Series Bully Hill Vineyards 200 SPEED

Saturday, April 23

Time Telecast Network
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPN
3:00 PM – 6:00 PM Nationwide Series Nashville 300 ESPN
7:00 PM – 7:30 PM SPEED Center SPEED

Sunday, April 24

Time Telecast Network
5:00 PM – 7:00 PM V8 Supercar Championship Series ITM 400 Hamilton SPEED*
7:00 PM – 7:30 PM SPEED Center SPEED
9:00 PM – 10:00 PM Wind Tunnel SPEED

*- Tape Delayed

As you can see, its a very light schedule. Regardless, I will most definitely have critiques of the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series races from Nashville in next week’s critique. The V8 Supercar race in Hamilton, New Zealand (on a street circuit) will likely be covered in the Critic’s Annex next week.

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 any of the TV partners personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

FOX
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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Harry
04/19/2011 02:09 AM
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No critique for the Versus coverage of IICS?

RickP
04/19/2011 08:04 AM
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What drives me crazy is that Fox always turns the sound up and shows the crowd whenever Jr. gets to the front. The only other time they try this is if Kyle Busch crashes, they show the crowd cheering again. With the childish and juvenile behavior that takes place in the broadcast booth week after week, I suppose that the same actions from the production trailer shouldn’t surprise me.

Phil Allaway
04/19/2011 02:55 PM
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Harry, I’ll be covering the IndyCar race in the Critic’s Annex on Thursday in the Newsletter. Too much Talladega to cover here.

Harry
04/20/2011 12:03 AM
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Gotcha. Thanks for the response.