The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: SPEED Subs Well For ESPN While FOX Pre-Race Gets an "N" by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday May 3, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Frontstretch’s weekly look inside of the TV broadcasts that we all watch. It was a very busy weekend for both major racing series, and for myself. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were at Richmond International Raceway, while the Izod IndyCar Series raced on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. If you’re looking for a critique of SPEED’s Thursday night coverage from Richmond, that will be covered in the Critic’s Annex on Thursday in the Frontstretch Newsletter. In the interest of grouping, I will cover the Izod IndyCar Series race first in order to keep the Cup and Nationwide races together.

Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 Presented by Nestle

Sao Paulo typically creates a bunch of issues for Versus. The normal compliment of on-air personalities do not make the trip to Brazil. One pit reporter, Kevin Lee, did make the trip. He was kept very busy while on-air. Marty Snider was simply not there at all due to his TNT obligations. Lindy Thackston watched the race from Versus’ production compound in Indianapolis and tried to help with the broadcast behind the scenes. Not really sure how.

The normal broadcast booth did the race from Indianapolis as well. Robin Miller joined them in the “booth,” but I don’t believe that he really added anything to the broadcast. Abrasive as Miller can be, he was just in the way last weekend. Also, it is just another example of what I like to call the Rule of Three. Quite simply, never have more than three in the booth (unless one is a temporary special guest).

Pre-Race coverage was quite brief. Yes, it was still under the IndyCar Central name, but it was very much reduced. None of the normal features made it into the show. There was a recently taped interview shown with pole sitter Will Power, and taped interviews with Justin Wilson and Helio Castroneves based upon the incidents Castroneves has been involved in so far this year. Had there been more time, I think that Versus should have done something to reference the late Ayrton Senna in pre-race. Why? I know Senna never raced in IndyCar (although he did test a car for Penske back in the early 1990’s through his relationship with Marlboro), but Sunday was the 17th anniversary of his unfortunate death at Imola, and Sao Paulo was Senna’s hometown (more or less). The only reference to Senna made was during an interview with Vitor Meira, who has a depiction of Senna on his helmet.

The race ended up being red-flagged on the tenth lap due to an absolute deluge. During what turned out to be a two-hour plus delay, Versus (via Lee) brought viewers bunches of interviews from the covered paddock (which doubles as a storage area for Carnival floats, I guess).

Another couple of features talked about classic Indianapolis 500’s, like the 1991 race that came down to a duel between Michael Andretti and Rick Mears. Another talked about A.J. Foyt’s first win at Indianapolis.

The teams did eventually get back on track to run some laps behind the pace car. However, the booth notified viewers that those laps would not count. Come Monday morning, Jenkins notified fans that the laps did in fact count, so there were 14 laps completed when the green came back out. I don’t understand that. Must have been some bad information relayed.

Of course, that wasn’t the only issue. After the coverage seized, it became apparent that IndyCar had not completely given up on the race. Had they actually started it after Versus left, I guess the whole thing would have been aired via tape delay. Of course, that didn’t happen. Versus also left the air fast enough (they were already a half-hour over the end of the timeslot had it never rained) that they were gone before the word officially came down from the network that they would air Monday’s action live starting at 8am EDT. I ended up finding that out from Thackston on her Twitter feed. Of course, that screw-up from Versus led to other outlets giving incorrect information, like Sportscenter (yes, they showed highlights of the first part of the event on there, which is interesting because they almost never show IndyCar highlights on there unless its the Indianapolis 500).

The race was run basically from the start as a timed race with a two hour limit. I don’t understand how the Izod IndyCar Series’ time limit for road races works. Back in March, I made reference to the fact that the season opener in St. Petersburg went over the two-hour mark in my recap. ESPN never referred the time limit, or even if one existed during their broadcast. That race went its full distance. I need clarification. Is the time limit a permanent thing, or is it simply instituted on the discretion of say, the much-hated Brian Barnhart?

Post-race coverage was fairly extensive, given the schedule for the day. There were post-race interviews with Power, Graham Rahal, Ryan Briscoe, Marco Andretti, Dario Franchitti and the KV Racing teammates Takuma Sato and EJ Viso (who did not crash during the race). There were also checks of the unofficial results and point standings before Versus left the air.

Right after the finish, Jenkins voiced what amounted to a lot of frustration about the race day. Jenkins needs to be careful here. Much like the ESPN booth’s mess at Talladega in 2009, opinion really cannot affect race commentary. Granted, it had been completed by that point, but that doesn’t mean that their job was over for the day. Also, right when the red flag was flown on Sunday, Jenkins referred to the proceedings as a “fiasco.” I have all the respect in the world for Jenkins, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that, even if there was some truth to it.

Can’t do much about them. Its Sao Paulo. It can rain a lot. We’ve had two races on the streets of Sao Paulo, and both races got red flagged at some point due to rain. Moving the event to May was actually supposed to help that out a little (remember, Sao Paulo is in the Southern Hemisphere, so holding the race in May is like having it in early November). Of course, the city being just about at the Tropic of Capricorn in latitude means that it would be warm and humid almost regardless of when the race is held. For the future, I would recommend holding the race in either July or August, if possible. It is the middle of the Sao Paulo winter, even though it is still warm. Also, the winters are much drier there. March was a real toss-up last year.

The broadcast was a mess. I can’t say anything other than that. Mind you, that doesn’t even include the camera work during the event from the host broadcasters. I would describe it as “shaky,” incredibly so at times. However, there was nowhere as much bias in who is on camera as Brazilian broadcasters have shown in the past. Frustration seemed to be at an all-time high amongst everyone there. It looked like the Monday restart was going to be done in the dry, but the rains returned with half a lap to go before the green came back out, forcing the entire field to pit after maneuvering through three turns. Its just one of those weeks, I guess.

BUBBA Burger 250

Friday marked a big night for SPEED. It was their very first official broadcast of a Nationwide Series race. I only use the caveat “official” because SPEED aired the 2008 Lipton Tea 250 from Richmond under similar circumstances to this past weekend. However, the broadcast was really a simulcast of ESPN’s broadcast. ESPN had moved the race to ESPN Classic, a station that had begun to drop off in popularity. Many cable systems were either outright dropping it, or moving it to a premium tier that fans were opting not to subscribe to.

Three years later, ESPN Classic is very hard to find. I still get it, but it moved to the Premium Sports Tier last year. Of course, whether I can view it even though we pay for it here is another story. As a result, ESPN decided months ago to move the race to SPEED and let them handle production. As a result, ESPN’s broadcast team did not make the trip to Richmond.

SPEED gave viewers a telecast with the vast majority of the team that does the Camping World Truck Series races. The exception was the addition of Darrell Waltrip in place of Phil Parsons. On paper, its a great choice since Darrell brings a lot of knowledge to the booth. However, knowing his track record, I was a little nervous.

The qualifying coverage made me really nervous. It might have been SPEED’s worst ever coverage of Nationwide qualifying. Its rare that I receive e-mails ranting about qualifying coverage, but I got one Friday. You had drivers (like Brian Scott) basically being ignored due to conversation in the booth. Not good.

A special 30-minute edition of Trackside served as a pre-race show for the race. However, the first 20 minutes of the show (with an interview with Matt Kenseth) served as a prelude to the rest of the show, which aired after the Nationwide race.

Once SPEED went inside the track, they gave viewers pre-race interviews with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards before they transitioned into race coverage. Compared to normal pre-race coverage on ESPN, the Nationwide Series got the shaft. The Kenseth interview could have just been moved to the rest of Trackside after the race and SPEED could have given viewers a special edition of the Setup instead.

As frustrating and annoying as pre-race coverage turned out to be, the race coverage was anything but. There was a completely different feel to the race broadcast with SPEED in charge instead of ESPN. There was more focus on the Nationwide regulars than I can remember on ESPN anytime in the last three seasons. Simply amazing.

I was somewhat concerned, especially based on the travesty that was qualifying coverage, that Kenny Wallace would actually get too much coverage, much like Kyle Busch does on ESPN. However, that was not the case. The field was covered equally. Cup drivers were given just about the same amount of coverage of SPEED as compared to non-Cup drivers (by that, I mean that each of the frontrunners received equal treatment, regardless of whether they were running for the championship or not).

One gripe that I had was that SPEED didn’t really acknowledge those cars that had dropped out of the race, whether they were starting-and-parking or not. For example, Mike Wallace dropped out after 64 laps and finished 33rd. I had no clue that he had engine problems until I checked online after the race. In the future, SPEED should give some coverage to that in their broadcasts. Despite the problems that a lot of viewers have with Marty Reid, that is something that he is very good with.

In an 11th hour deal, RaceBuddy was also back up and running. Viewers could access it from either nascar.com or speedtv.com. The typical setup was in use, but with a leader board finally. However, that leader board only showed selected drivers. I have no clue why that was so.

Post-race coverage was quite decent. SPEED provided viewers with eight post-race interviews and checks of both the unofficial results and point standings before they left the air.

Overall, I was quite impressed with what SPEED put together for Friday night. They produced an unbiased broadcast (for the most part) where the Nationwide regulars seemed to finally get their due after spending the last couple of seasons as the equivalent of Butters on South Park prior to season 5. Allen was able to keep the Waltrips in line (if you remember my list from last week, you’ll notice I’m thankful for that. ESPN should take some notes from Friday’s broadcast and see how they can possibly use some of the work seen here to improve their own broadcasts. Of course, ESPN would also do well to not screw up their graphics to read that Danica Patrick finished third in a race that she did not even enter. If you’re wondering, SPEED did that. Kind of embarrassing.

Crown Royal Presents the Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400

On Saturday night, FOX brought us Cup Series coverage from Richmond. After the one hour pre-race show that featured the return of the much-maligned Chris Pizzi, Richmond saw things go back to normal. That isn’t necessarily good, either.

The highlight of pre-race was an excerpt of a one-on-one interview that Darrell Waltrip conducted with Tony Stewart where he talked about a number of topics, including his complete lack of desire to ever drive an IndyCar again. Stewart’s girlfriend, Jessica Zemken, was also mentioned. Probably the first time (that I can think of) that she’s been mentioned on a NASCAR broadcast. Stewart talked about how they spend time together racing at tracks. It should be noted that I have seen Zemken race once. It was at Lebanon Valley Speedway last year in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car race. She qualified very well (eighth quickest) and was in position to get into the Dash for Cash (which set the top 10 starting spot). Also, Stewart and Zemken raced against each other at Glen Ridge Motorsports Park in Fultonville, NY last year. I did not go there, but someone tipped off the local TV stations of Stewart appearance at the quarter-mile track. Apparently, he got salty with a cameraman, but I digress.

Jeff Burton, who has struggled so far in 2011, was the only pre-race interview (done via the FOX desk). The pit reporters basically could take the pre-race show off. The completely scripted pre-race show is just not the way to go. Currently, If I don’t watch NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot, I don’t think I would feel prepared for the race. Simple as that.

During the race itself, the big topic of discussion was radio chatter. FOX seemed to play a lot more chatter than normal during the race. Now, I’m not opposed to that. It definitely helps the commentators because it gives them evidence to back up their points. Of course, there was also a whole bunch of stuff that FOX couldn’t air, like an apparent rant from Kurt Busch, or Martin Truex, Jr. chastising his crew for missing a lug nut on his final stop (which Tom Bowles talked about in his column just yesterday).

I would be all for playing that audio live on the broadcast, but I think that the FCC would have jurisdiction here. We might not be having this conversation if this race was on TNT. Even though most of the rules that came in effect after the infamous wardrobe malfunction have been struck down as unconstitutional, I don’t think FOX is willing to press their luck on F-bombs from radio transmissions.

Post-race coverage was decent. FOX provided viewers with five post-race interviews along with checks of the unofficial results and point standings before they left the air. There was also a substantial amount of post-race analysis from both the broadcast booth and the “Hollywood Hotel.”

The coverage overall was not all that bad on Saturday night. However, there was an over reliance on rear bumper cam footage. As a result, you can only see so much there. Other than the bumper cams, the tight shot issue was not too much of a problem, which is good. I didn’t really have any issues with the broadcasters themselves, although I did notice that Waltrip did get a little more airtime Saturday night than he did Friday. Unfortunately, the pit reporters remain underused, especially in pre-race. They need to fix pre-race so that they have something to do, and viewers can get an idea about the actual race, which isn’t really previewed at the current time except for when the commentators give us their picks to win.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will be back in action at Darlington Raceway. Meanwhile, Formula One will be back from their three week break over in Turkey. Here’s your listings for the week.

Friday, May 6

Time Telecast Network
3:00am-4:30am Formula One Grand Prix of Turkey Free Practice No. 1 SPEEDTV.com^
7:00-8:30am Formula One Grand Prix of Turkey Free Practice No. 2 SPEED
11:30am-1:30pm Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
2:00-3:00pm Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
3:30-4:30pm Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN 2
5:00-6:30pm Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
6:30-7:00pm SPEED Center SPEED
7:00-7:30pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN 2
7:30-10:00pm Nationwide Series Royal Purple 200 ESPN 2

Saturday, May 7

Time Telecast Network
4:00am-5:30am Formula One Grand Prix of Turkey Free Practice No. 3 SPEEDTV.com^
7:00-8:30am Formula One Grand Prix of Turkey Qualifying SPEED
12:00pm-1:00pm NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN 2
4:30-5:00pm SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
5:00-7:00pm NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
7:00-7:30pm FOX Pre-Race Delivered by Pizza Hut FOX
7:30-11:30pm Sprint Cup Series Showtime Southern 500 FOX

Sunday, May 8

Time Telecast Network
7:30am-10:00am Formula One Grand Prix of Turkey SPEED
11:30am-1:30pm V8 Supercar Championship Series Trading Post Perth Challenge SPEED*
7:00-8:00pm SPEED Center SPEED
8:00-9:00pm NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
9:00-10:00pm Wind Tunnel SPEED

*- Tape-Delayed
^- Available online via free stream

I will provide critiques of both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races in next week’s article here at Frontstretch. Also, make sure to check out the Critic’s Annex in the Frontstretch Newsletter on Thursday. This week, I look at SPEED’s coverage of the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown. Next week’s piece will take a look at the hour-long Roundtable editions of NASCAR Now.

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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Steve
05/03/2011 01:08 PM
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Phil, I think you are far too kind to the FOX crew. Their coverage is unwatchable.

I watched the last 100 laps and was glad I missed the first 300. Commercials galore, ads cluttering up the screen constantly and driver montages all under green flag conditions. When they did show the racing it was Kyle all by himself lap after lap with the superlatives flowing from the FOX crew with the actual racing being ignored.

Calling it “not all that bad” is far too nice for this network. They are a main reason tv ratings are down. Yes i missed 3/4 of the race this week but its the same thing every week.

And please tell me that it was Kyle’s crew chief or spotter that said “Bring it home” on the last lap and not Waltrip.

Joe
05/04/2011 11:54 AM
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I agree COMPLETELY with Steve’s comments! The FOX broadcasts are UNWATCHABLE. Phil, PLEASE step up and help us provide some leverage to get the Cup broadcasts up to snuff.