The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN's Cup Return Successful For 159 Laps... But About Lap 160... by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday August 2, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where we’re fine with innovation, as long as they benefit the final product. This past weekend saw the return of ESPN to the Sprint Cup Series at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, approximately eight miles to the northwest, the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series both raced at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, potentially for the final time.

However, before we start:

On Monday, Vulture, the entertainment division of New York Media (owners of New York Magazine), reported that Starz Media is set to announce a new NASCAR-related one hour series centered upon the first female car owner in NASCAR and the uphill battle to gain corporate backing. Apparently, this series has been described as “The red state Mad Men.” There is a tentative title, but I don’t think I can type it here due to our site’s standards on language. It’s in the link if you want to take a look. If it reaches the air, it will not be the first racing-centric drama series on premium television. Back in 1997, Showtime aired a series entitled Fast Track that featured Keith Carradine.

SPEED covered Timothy Peters win at Lucas Oil Raceway…and did a good job at this small, tight track.

AAA Insurance 200

On Friday night, the Camping World Truck Series had their 17th race at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. The usual crew was in play.

Following the normal recap of the previous race (Nashville), SPEED brought viewers a rehash of Austin Dillon’s diving failure following the race, and the piece from NASCAR RaceHub last week where Jimmy Spencer awarded Dillon a “Straitjacket Award” for his stupidity. Then, Dillon busted in, Kool-Aid Man style. Why did they do that? First, because it was quite humorous. I’ll give them that. Secondly, SPEED had an ace up their sleeve with home movie footage of Dillon on a homemade slip-n-slide at roughly age 3.

There was a feature on Parker Kligerman, his rise up through the ranks of open-wheeled racing prior to the switch to stock cars, and his season so far in the No. 29. Admittedly, the entire first half of the piece was effectively a less specific version of the interview that I conducted last year with Kligerman. The second half was a detailed look at Kligerman’s 2011, which was interesting. As the season’s gone along and Kligerman’s climbed up the point standings, he’s gotten more and more airtime, so he’s not all that much of a dark horse anymore. Granted, I’m pretty sure the 2010 Kligerman would be pretty pleased with where the 2011 Kligerman is now.

Another feature was on Rick Crawford, a former driver in the series that has been forced to take a break from racing. It took a look back at his long career, which was fruitful, but only included a few visits to Victory Lane. It also showed what Crawford is doing these days (serving as the Promoter at Mobile International Speedway). There was no mention of some of the work he’s done recently with Jennifer Jo Cobb’s team.

When the race finally got underway, I was very happy with the amount of battles for position that were shown on-air. Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis is always good for that type of action, but it seemed like we just plain got spoiled on Friday night.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that SPEED was expecting the race to go caution-free for the final 107 laps. As a result, there were a series of commercial breaks that were all but back-to-back (nearly three minutes), followed by maybe three minutes of racing, then three more minutes of commercials. Such a practice really breaks up the race and makes it difficult to follow what was going on.

Since the race ended fairly early, SPEED had plenty of time for post-race coverage. To that end, SPEED provided viewers with eight post-race interviews, along with checks of the unofficial results and point standings. There was also some post-race discussion and a period put on the collision between Todd Bodine and Dillon. Cameras captured the two drivers discussing the crash and coming to a consensus about it. There was even an embarrassing moment when tenth-place finisher (and first time starter) Ross Chastain called Hermie Sadler “Sir.” I don’t think Hermie’s used to that, although it appears that he used to call his dad sir when he was younger.

Aside from the commercials that I mentioned above, I really enjoyed watching Friday night’s race on SPEED. The good amount of action on-track served as a definite contrast to Sunday’s action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. SPEED’s trio in the booth was excellent and on task. They’re just a pleasure to listen to, even Michael at times.

Kroger 200

Saturday night was supposed to be a big night for the Nationwide Series. It was the last Brickyard 400 weekend Nationwide race at the short track, but it was also scheduled to be the Nationwide Series debut for Travis Pastrana. However, a botched attempt at a 720 on Thursday night in the Moto X Best Trick event resulted in a broken heel and foot, forcing Pastrana to sit out. Obviously, this significantly changed ESPN’s plans. It resulted in planned features, one of which consisted of a look into the logistics of the “Pastranathon,” being scrapped. So, what did they do for pre-race?

Instead of being Pastrana-focused, ESPN went with a normal pre-race. Since the Pit Studio was eight miles down the road, Marty Reid, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Craven hosted NASCAR Countdown from stools at the exit of pit road. They talked about the race itself and some of the stories surrounding the Nationwide Series.

Pastrana did appear on NASCAR Countdown via satellite from Los Angeles, where he still was prepping for a (at the time) potential run in the RallyCross event on Sunday. He ended up having a go with a hand-operated throttle. He thought that it would have been possible to use it in the Nationwide Series, but he felt that he wasn’t experienced enough to give it a go. He also revealed that he is having surgery today and will be out of action until at least October, possibly until after the season. There goes seven races’ worth of storylines. Oh well.

The race telecast was pretty decent to watch. However, going from watching Bestwick in the booth in Indianapolis and then watching Reid at Lucas Oil Raceway emphasizes some issues with Reid. He is apparently not the most observant person out there. Yes, he is good with pointing out who’s S&P’ing, but not much else. Truthfully, Reid is more of a sports car guy. That’s his background in television. He’s even driven sports cars in the past. Although he’s had multiple stints covering NASCAR in the past, he’s simply not the most knowledgeable guy out there. As a result, Wallace and Craven definitely seemed to be running the telecast.

Once again, Craven has proven to be a great analyst to listen to in the booth. He is very informative and his explanations are simple enough that anyone can understand, without pandering. Wallace is himself, but he’s keeping himself in control these days. He doesn’t go on and on about his own cars unless something spectacular happens to one or both of them.

Of course, that happened Saturday night. Tim Andrews and Michael Annett collided and crashed in Turn 3. ESPN failed to catch Andrews and Annett’s crash on camera, which (according to Reid) was a first for this season. They only caught when Steve Wallace got loose and hit the both of them (already stationary) in Turn 3. Reid acknowledged that ESPN failed to catch the crash, which is good (in that he acknowledged it), unlike at Pocono last year (which he obliquely referenced). However, this is a short track. It is not that hard to see everything. Perhaps if the cameras weren’t zoomed in as much, they could have caught the wreck.

Also late in the race, Justin Allgaier’s car burst into flames under caution while running second. When that happened, ESPN decided to sneak in a break before the restart. After the break, they showed a replay of Allgaier getting out of the car via split-screen. The screwy scoring move that put Brad Keselowski in second instead of Elliott Sadler was simply explained away as an “adjustment.”

Post-race coverage was actually typical in scope since the late race yellows (not to mention the red flag) sapped much of the extra time away. Still, ESPN provided viewers with eight post-race interviews and a check of the points. However, their results were actually wrong and were not corrected before they left for X Games coverage.

The first three-quarters of the telecast, despite being carried by Wallace and Craven, were pretty good. However, the end of the race really fell off. It’s sad that all the cameras can miss a wreck at a short track. Even worse that they would slip off to a break like they did with Allgaier’s fire and then not properly explain how the deuce Brad Keselowski went from fourth to second. I’m sorry, but it appears that ESPN didn’t let the commentators do their jobs properly right there. That can’t stand. You have to be better than that. I expect improvement in Iowa next week.

Brickyard 400

Sunday saw ESPN’s return for year No. 5 of their stretch run coverage of the Sprint Cup Series. With ESPN’s return to the fold, some changes followed. As I’ve already written about previously, Marty Reid is out for the Cup races from now on and Allen Bestwick is back in the booth. I’d imagine that Reid would be the substitute in the booth if Bestwick was unable to fulfill his duties, though. Nicole Briscoe is in the Pit Studio, taking over Bestwick’s prior role.

On the technological side, ESPN’s new graphics package debuted this weekend. Big plus, there. Yes, it only brings ESPN’s NASCAR coverage in line with the rest of the network, but it looks a lot better and its a lot easier to read. Unfortunately, being late to the party graphically was an issue even in the 1990’s. Back then, ESPN’s NASCAR coverage was graphically behind the rest of the network. For example, when the silver and purple graphics were introduced in early 1994, the NASCAR coverage didn’t get it until August.

Since the Brickyard 400 is what amounts to the crown jewel of ESPN’s chunk of the schedule (Chase not withstanding), they went all out during NASCAR Countdown. There was a piece centered on what current and former drivers thought about racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I always think that those features are interesting because of the era we’re in now. Nobody makes their opinions known all that often.

SportScience returned with a look at how drivers can conserve fuel on the track. This was something that Andy Petree or Tim Brewer could have done, but the SportScience feature did it using computer-animated visuals. I don’t think I learned anything, but then again, I’ve been watching races on television for over 20 years.

ESPN also replayed the piece on Kyle Busch and how his perception has changed over the past year. That piece originally premiered on Wednesday night during NASCAR Now. In it, Busch talked about how some people have certain perceptions of him that he cannot change. As a result, he’s just not going to worry about it. The piece also brought up some of the shenanigans from this season (the bumping incident at Darlington, the 128 in a 45 in Troutman, North Carolina and Richard Childress channeling Nolan Ryan on Busch’s head). By the time it aired on Countdown, it was already the third time I saw the piece.

There was another new technical innovation on the broadcast. ESPN, along with BSI, the provider of in-car camera technology for all NASCAR broadcasts, unveiled a new HD in-car camera system. To simplify it, ESPN can now show two in-car shots from one car at the same time live. In addition, those two shots can be from any combination of the cameras available in the car. Pretty sweet setup. I figure such a setup would be more helpful for replays of wrecks than anything else. In practice, ESPN showed the two shots via split-screen under green. One view would be pointed ahead, while the other one would be pointed at the driver. I guess its a work in progress for now, but it will definitely benefit the coverage in the long run.

Another change was a move to a quad-pits setup for rounds of stops under yellow. Unlike FOX’s quad-pits setup where it is just four boxes on screen, ESPN’s setup has the four boxes in the corners of the screen, while viewers can still see the race off of pit road. Its nice. I like it. However, there were a couple of screw-ups. The first time they used it Sunday, Kasey Kahne was in Juan Pablo Montoya’s box, and vice versa. Whoops. Also, another time, Clint Bowyer was shown to have taken 255 tires on a stop instead of just two. Always good for a laugh, but just like math class, you gotta check your work.

The changes brought about by ESPN did benefit the broadcast. Having Bestwick in the booth instead of Reid meant that the broadcast was a lot more focused than last year. As a result, more actual racing could be covered. That’s a plus all around.

The Brickyard 400 appears to be probably the easiest race to cover for members of the production crew whose experiences are mainly in other sports, like football. For example, ceremonial pace car driver Hope Solo dropped by the Pit Studio right before the first round of pit stops to chat about her experiences at the track and behind the wheel of the Corvette. It reminded me of some of the booth interviews during Monday Night Football games.

Also, Ned Jarrett joined Bestwick, Petree and son Dale Jarrett in the broadcast booth for 25 laps during the middle of the race. While there, Ned talked about his career a little, his (brief) interactions with current UPS-sponsored driver David Ragan, and other topics. In addition to not really aging much in the last 11 years, Ned is still very sharp-witted on the mic. I don’t think he would be willing to return to booth work anytime soon (if ever), but it’s nice to hear from him.

The end of the race hurt the rest of the telecast badly. When Paul Menard came across the line to win, ESPN’s cameras zoomed in on the flagman waving the checkered flag in the flag stand and did not show any other cars crossing the line. In all honesty, this did not surprise me. ESPN/ABC has shot the end of Indianapolis race in this fashion for decades. Don’t believe me? Here’s the finish of the 1993 Indianapolis 500 at the 9:20 mark. Look familiar? It should. That is basically what ESPN did Sunday.

Me expressing a complete lack of surprise for ESPN’s actions led to a pseudo-argument with John Daly of The Daly Planet on Twitter after the race. If you read his articles, you probably know that not showing all the cars crossing the line at the finish is a huge issue with him. My main gripe is not that, actually. ESPN was so busy playing Menard’s audio and showing his crew celebrate that they failed to report on the stuff that happened on the final lap, like Mark Martin running out of gas. They should have cut away to show that after Menard crossed the line.

Since the race ended very early (it’s not the fastest Brickyard 400—fifth actually), ESPN had plenty of time for post-race. Viewers were treated to 13 post-race interviews, in addition to a check of the points. The ceremonial kiss of the bricks was shown live as well.

ESPN’s return to Sprint Cup went fairly well. But, there were a couple of glitches of note. I talked about the pit issues and the finish already. Another gripe I had was with the drivers that dropped from the wayside. I had no idea that Jeff Burton had blown an engine until I watched NASCAR Now on Monday. Not cool. Robby Gordon also claimed to have one go south on him early in the race. ESPN should work on keeping everyone fully up to date on those issues in the future. Interestingly enough, that was one of Reid’s strong points.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is a split-weekend, but all three of NASCAR’s major series will be back in action. The Sprint Cup Series will make their second trip of the year to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. They will be supported by the unusual split show between the Camping World Truck Series and the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will make their second trip of the year to Iowa Speedway. Here’s your listings:

Friday, August 5

Time Telecast Network
12:00pm-1:30pm Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
2:00-3:30pm Camping World Truck Series Practice SPEED
2:20-4:00pm~ American Le Mans Series Qualifying ESPN3.com&
4:00-5:30pm Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED

Saturday, August 6

Time Telecast Network
9:30am-10:30am Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
10:30am-12:00pm Sprint Cup Series Qualifying ESPN 2
12:30-1:00pm NCWTS Setup SPEED
1:00-3:00pm Camping World Truck Series Good Sam RV Emergency Road Service 125 SPEED
3:00-5:00pm ARCA Racing Series Pennsylvania ARCA 125 SPEED
3:15-7:00pm~ American Le Mans Series Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge ESPN3.com&
6:00-7:00pm Izod IndyCar Series Qualifying Versus*
7:00-7:30pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN 2
7:30-10:00pm Nationwide Series U.S. Cellular 250 ESPN 2

Sunday, August 7

Time Telecast Network
9:00am-10:00am NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN 2
9:30-10:00am SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
10:00am-12:00pm NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
12:00-1:00pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN
1:00-5:00pm Sprint Cup Series Good Sam RV Insurance 500 ESPN
2:00-5:00pm Izod IndyCar Series Honda Indy 200 Versus
7:00-8:00pm SPEED Center, Post-Race SPEED
8:00-9:00pm NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
9:00-10:00pm Wind Tunnel SPEED
10:00pm-12:00am American Le Mans Series Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge (Highlighted) ESPN 2*

*- Tape-delayed
&- Available via password-protected online streaming. Check with your cable and/or internet service provider for availability.
~- Approximate

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series broadcasts in next week’s critique here at Frontstretch. The ARCA broadcast may be roped into the Truck Series critique, as well. The Izod IndyCar Series race telecast from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will be covered in the Annex on August 11.

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:

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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glenn
08/02/2011 11:26 AM
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your exactly right, they really blew it at the end. If you were looking for anyone besides Menard or JG, you were out of luck.

Bette
08/02/2011 01:55 PM
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Phil,
Very good! Till now I didn’t know about Burtons blown engine. Just read a bit ago to what happened to Joe N. Also would like to have know what happened to S.Speed etc. Sure liked having Allen B. heading up things. Ricky C. was very good ,wish we could have him all the time.

Wingcars6970
08/02/2011 05:25 PM
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Did you guys catch the pit guy Hollywood call Bestwick… Marty?

I also noticed Boyers tire count….Like they say – If 4 tires are good, 255 must be better!

Marybeth
08/02/2011 06:48 PM
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What I missed was that JJ hit a pit crew guy from B. LaBonte’s crew. I knew he hit Vickers on pit road, but I missed where he hit another pit crew guy.

Chris
08/02/2011 10:12 PM
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Early in the race, the 27 car won the race off pit road by taking 2 tires. ESPN immediately went to break as the cars rolled off pit road. When they came back from commercial I noticed the 27 car was at the back of the field. No mention was made as to what happened. Had to read the race report later to find out about the penalty. I like Bestwick & Jarrett… but ESPNs in race producers seem to be a step behind every year.

paulfan
08/02/2011 10:53 PM
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For the first time ever, Directv had menard on Pitpass along with Gordon, Earnhart, and Montoya. It really bummed me out that they had the audio hooked up to Kurt Bush’s channel. How could that happen for the entire race???? The spotter, driver, and crew chief remarks were irrelevant.