The Frontstretch: Talking NASCAR TV: Dealing With Tragedy in Las Vegas On-Air by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday October 18, 2011

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Talking NASCAR TV: Dealing With Tragedy in Las Vegas On-Air

Phil Allaway · Tuesday October 18, 2011

 

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where discussion of race broadcasts is the name of the game. I’m admittedly not really in the best mindset right now due to what happened on Sunday, but we have to go on. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series both had “home games” at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck Series was out in Las Vegas to support the Izod IndyCar Series in what was originally scheduled to be a 300 mile race.

Originally, I was planning to cover the Izod IndyCar Series race in the Critic’s Annex for Thursday. However, due to the extraordinary circumstances of this past weekend, I will focus on the weekend’s action in Las Vegas instead, while still covering Saturday night’s Cup race at Charlotte. As a result, the Nationwide Series critique will run Thursday in the Annex.


SPEED executed the broadcast of the Smith’s 350k well…until RaceDay ended it all.

Smith’s 350k

On Saturday afternoon, the Camping World Truck Series returned to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for their first day race on the 1.5 mile tri-oval in over a decade. SPEED was on-site with their normal crew. Let’s find out how they did.

Two weeks ago in Kentucky, Ron Hornaday scored his 50th career victory in the Truck Series. Celebrating that accomplishment was the main focus of the Setup. Throughout the show, various people talked a little about Hornaday, his on-track excellence and his generosity (Hornaday and his wife, Lindy, are known for taking people in to live with them). People who voiced their congrats here included Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle, Wayne Auton, Austin Dillon, Timothy Peters, Todd Bodine and Kyle Busch, amongst others. It was a nice touch.

Another piece had Hornaday talking about some of his greatest victories in the series. These included his first win at Tucson Raceway Park in 1995 (which also rolled into a discussion of how Dale Earnhardt discovered him through the Winter Heat Series), and his 1996 win in Loudon where he seemingly passed half the pack in the last few laps to claim the win, amongst others. Finally, there was a piece where Hornaday talked about his 50th win at Kentucky and what went into that win.

During the race telecast, there was a fair amount of amazement from the broadcast booth. I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect going in since it had been so long since the series had raced at Las Vegas during the day (and never on the current configuration). What we got was a wreckfest for the first half of the event, then a run long enough to stretch out the remainder of the field.

The booth seemed to be under the opinion that the whole field was going to eventually wipe themselves out before the 350 kilometers was through if they didn’t get their act together. Based on what we saw Saturday, it is quite hard to believe that there was a previous race with more cautions there.

Regardless, when they weren’t wrecking, SPEED did an excellent job showing the close racing for position throughout the field. There was significantly less focus given to Hornaday, who quickly made the Smith’s 350 into the Ron Hornaday Benefit thanks to his superior skill and equipment. I was very pleased with the actual race coverage.

Since SPEED’s coverage from Las Vegas ran long, there was a cut-in during the ninth caution to give a brief preview of what was coming during the final hour of NASCAR RaceDay Built by the Home Depot. However, since the race went over the end of it’s scheduled slot by about 15 minutes, there was literally no post-race coverage. They never actually showed the point standings at all. The post-race winner’s interview with Ron Hornaday was aired during a cut-in about 10-15 minutes after NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot was underway.

This was an incredibly weak way to end a great broadcast, but SPEED decided that NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot is more important than post-race coverage from a Camping World Truck Series race. To be fair, the truck races do not rate as high as NASCAR RaceDay does. I’ve seen articles that claim that NASCAR RaceDay gets over a million households every week. The Camping World Truck Series races only reach those levels at certain races. Saturday’s Coca-Cola 250 Powered by Fred’s will more than likely be one of them.


ESPN brought the final IZOD IndyCar race of 2011 to us, handling a difficult day with aplomb.

Izod IndyCar World Championships (or Las Vegas Indy 300)

Now, we come to the really sad portion of the critique. Sunday was supposed to be the 2011 season finale for the Izod IndyCar Series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The series was making it’s return to the 1.5 mile tri-oval, having not raced there since 2000. Granted, Las Vegas Motor Speedway was much different (and much slower) in 2000 since it still had the 12 degree banks in the curves.

Now, with the narrower racing surface and 20 degree banking, along with glass smooth blacktop played host to racing at speeds nearing 225 mph. These are speeds that were only seen in qualifying there in 1996. Of course, at that time, the series was still using Lolas and Reynards from CART. Those cars were not racing around the track in massive packs.

Before all heck broke loose on track, it was going to be a celebration. Maybe not like the Chappelle’s Show celebration that became the infamous Rick James episode, but a celebration, nonetheless. Danica Patrick was (more than likely, although the door has not been completely shut) making her final career start before leaving to race in the Nationwide Series full-time for 2011. It was also the final race for the Dallara IR03 chassis, a car that has raced in the Izod IndyCar Series for the last nine years. It is due to be replaced by a brand-new, low slung Dallara-built chassis for the 2012, with manufacturer-specific body kits coming in 2013.

In one feature, Patrick talked about her upcoming final start and looked back on her seven years in the series. The whole thing was set to Lady GaGa’s “Born This Way.” The general idea is that Danica wishes that she could have won more in the series, but she looks back at her time in the Izod IndyCar Series favorably.

On the lighter side of things, ESPN followed James Hinchcliffe and Oriol Servia to Cirque du Soleil, where they got to take a look at the preparation for the show. Hinchcliffe even participated by driving a small BMW Isetta-type vehicle onto the stage.

A third feature was based around Will Power and his drive to succeed. Of course, since this is Power, there was some banter about his name as well. Probably didn’t need to be there, but I’m not really in the mood to complain about that. Power took it in stride, though, since I’m sure he gets that all the time.

Finally, there was a brief piece on Dario Franchitti and his meticulous note taking. Apparently, during each race weekend, Franchitti brings a composition notebook with him and takes notes on anything he can think of that would pertain to the track or the car. Franchitti basically claimed that it started as just something to do, but it’s evolved into far more than that. He’s basically the thinking man’s racer.

Finally, we get to the race itself. During the first 11 laps or so, ESPN chose to focus on a lot of the crazy action in the pack. Meanwhile, up front, it was as close to sedate as you were going to get on this day.

Then, the huge crash happened. I’m not linking to it here because the vast majority of us know what it looked like by now. Under normal circumstances, replays are shown relatively quickly after crashes, especially when the commentators know that the drivers involved are ok.

Sunday was obviously not one of those times. Because of the violence of the crash and the situation involved, ESPN chose to refrain at first from showing any replays. This lasted for about ten minutes. I think they knew that it was a calculated risk showing any at all, frankly. The last thing that ESPN wanted to do is to look like they were glorifying the wreck.

For the next 30 or so minutes under the red flag, ESPN sought out as many interviews as they could with drivers involved in the crash, team owners, and other drivers who were ahead of the mess. A few drivers, like JR Hildebrand and Tomas Scheckter, declined interview requests from Jamie Little. Others did talk on camera, but refused to discuss what caused the crash.

As news of Dan Wheldon being airlifted to University Medical Center in Las Vegas was announced, ESPN made the decision to send Little to the hospital in order to give updates from there. For most of the rest of the telecast, Little was on standby and would call in and give updates to the production crew. She did not go back on-air (via the phone) until after Wheldon’s passing was announced.

At roughly the one hour mark of the red flag, a small group of drivers (Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan) met with Race Control and stated their desires to have a drivers’ only meeting. That took place in the Infield. During that time, ESPN stayed on air with the booth providing updates. Vince Welch and Rick DeBruhl went into the Media Center since there wasn’t anyone to interview.

Meanwhile, as the telecast continued on, it became harder and harder for Marty Reid, Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever to keep their emotions in check. Reid seemed to be quite close to breaking down on-air for most of the last hour. Then, Cheever seemed to lose it a little.

When the official announcement of Wheldon’s passing was made in the Media Center at roughly 6:00pm EDT on Sunday, ESPN tried to bring that announcement live. However, they couldn’t quite get there in time. DeBruhl signaled the truck that they were making the announcement, but ESPN was only able to catch the tail end. Subsequent replays were able to show the whole announcement, with DeBruhl’s voice muted out.

After the announcement, ESPN showed one more series of replays of the crash, but not before Reid warned viewers that it was a shocking crash and that if they did not want to see it, that they should change the channel. Showing the crash again at that point was really not necessary, especially since there had already been a confirmed fatality.

Between the replays and the parade/salute, there was discussion of the incident and of Wheldon’s legacy. Everyone talked in glowing tones about the Englishman, his somewhat off-beat personality, and his friendliness. Finally, we came to the five-lap salute, something that was apparently agreed to by the drivers during their private meeting. The booth decided to remain silent for that tribute for the meaning of everything to sink in, which I felt was quite appropriate.

Afterward, Reid ended the telecast by describing why he always signs off with the phrase, “‘Til we meet again.” It was a touching end to a terrible day.

The broadcast booth did their best to stay objective, but since everyone involved had come to know Wheldon fairly well over the nine years that he was involved in the series, that was very difficult to do. For example, Little claims that Wheldon was the first driver to befriend her when she started covering the series.

ESPN did as good of a job covering this tragedy as they could. Nobody jumped to conclusions about Wheldon’s fate. I’d hate to use a cable news analogy, but it was a little similar to when Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS earlier this year. CNN and Fox News were a study in contrast that Sunday night while waiting for President Obama to speak to the nation. Fox News went on-air and presented their scoops before President Obama spoke, while CNN chose to wait and not just throw a bunch of information out there that they could not back up. ESPN chose to follow the CNN example here, which I think was the better course of action.

I should state for the record that there were some people on Twitter that objected to the use of the word “carnage” by Reid to describe the crash. I can understand that notion because it could have trivialized the impact of what happened. I am sure that Reid did not intend to do that. Unfortunately, that is just what came out. Reid cannot take it back.

Bank of America 500

On Saturday night, the Sprint Cup Series returned to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the fifth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. As it was the final race of the season scheduled to air on ABC (and the final night race of the year), ESPN brought viewers a shortened version of Countdown in order to satisfy NASCAR’s required 7:30pm race telecast start time for night races.

In that shortened version of Countdown, the show was dominated by pre-race analysis from the Pit Studio. Nicole Briscoe chose to take the weekend off and go to Las Vegas to spend time with husband Ryan and accompany him to the season-ending Izod IndyCar Series Awards Banquet, which was scheduled for yesterday (due to Sunday’s events, it was cancelled). As a result, Mike Massaro was tapped into double duty for the weekend. Pit Studio host and Pit Reporter. I know ESPN has a policy of requiring suits and ties on-air for men, but couldn’t they have made an exception for Massaro knowing that he was due to report from pit road. I really don’t think it was necessary to force Massaro to make a quick change like that before going into the pits. Granted, it would be easier to pull that off at Charlotte as compared to some places (such a setup would be near impossible to pull off short tracks like Martinsville and Bristol).

Aside from the pre-race discussion, ESPN provided viewers with five interviews, and a Tech Garage feature on weighing springs and the benefits of spring rubbers. For such a pre-race show, this was just about typical. Low on content I’d like to see, but passable.

Due to ESPN’s Izod IndyCar Series commitments, both Little and Vince Welch were not in Charlotte, along with Reid. Massaro and Shannon Spake were pressed into action and they were solid. Both of them are generally at the track every weekend, regardless of whether they’re actually on-air or not, so they’re always in the loop (if they don’t have on-air responsibilities, they can usually be found in the garage or in the Media Center).

Since the race was on ABC as opposed to ESPN on Saturday night, Allen Bestwick chose to be a bit more educational in the booth. There were detailed explanations of things like the new points system for this season and the wave around rule. I’d argue that most race fans would be a bit peeved at having to listen to such simplistic explanations. This goes double for the wave around explanations since that rule has been in effect for years now. ESPN’s response to such a statement would be along the lines of “Since the race was on ABC, we’re opening ourselves up to a new group of viewers who might otherwise not watch Cup races on ESPN. As a result, we must make those viewers feel like they understand what is going on.” Note that the previous two sentences are not an official statement from ESPN. They are simply what I think representatives from ESPN would tell me if I asked them about it.

Once again, the Chasers were the primary focus of the telecast. That is to be expected since this is the Chase. However, what I keep going on and on about in these critiques is that I want more than that. Probably the only non-Chaser that got any focus Saturday night was Greg Biffle. That was because Biffle went out and led a good chunk of the race. There were quite a few other non-Chasers that had very good runs Saturday. Kasey Kahne was quite strong, as was David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger. Trevor Bayne was also having an excellent run until his unusual fuel issues caused him to stall on the track and bring out a caution that ended up changing the complexion of the race.

ESPN didn’t necessarily help themselves very much with Up to Speed segments, although a lot of that was outside of their control. They attempted to do it a couple of times during the event, but they were both curtailed early. One was due to the first caution of the race, while the other one was stopped after only a couple of drivers because a round of green flag pit stops started early.

Post-race coverage was fairly typical. If the spate of cautions in the final 100 miles had not happened, then it would have been more substantial. ESPN provided viewers with seven driver interviews (one of which was with a non-Chasers (Marcos Ambrose)), and an interview with winning crew chief Jimmy Fennig. There was also a check of the all-important points before ESPN left so that ABC affiliates (at least in the Eastern and Central time zones) could get to the late local news.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is a very exciting time for Sprint Cup fans, as Talladega is once again on tap. The new rule changes announced recently to break up the two-car tandems have not been tested, so it remains to be seen what they will do. The Camping World Truck Series will serve as main support. Meanwhile, the V8 Supercar Championship Series will be back in action on the streets of Surfer’s Paradise, Queensland. Here’s your listings.

Friday, October 21

Time Telecast Network
2:30pm-3:30pm Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
4:00-5:00pm Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED
5:00-7:00pm Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED

Saturday, October 22

Time Telecast Network
12:00pm-3:00pm Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
3:30-4:00pm NCWTS Setup SPEED
4:00-6:30pm Camping World Truck Series Coca-Cola 250 Powered by Fred’s SPEED
11:30pm-2:00am V8 Supercar Championship Series Armor All Gold Coast 600, Race No. 2 SPEED

Sunday, October 23

Time Telecast Network
9:00am-10:00am NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN 2
11:00am-1:00pm NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
1:00-2:00pm NASCAR Countdown ESPN
2:00-6:00pm Sprint Cup Series Good Sam RV Parks and Resorts 500 ESPN
~6:00-6:30pm NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
7:00-8:00pm SPEED Center SPEED
8:00-9:00pm Wind Tunnel SPEED
11:00pm-12:00am NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN 2

It should be noted that SPEED’s live telecast from Surfer’s Paradise only includes Race No. 2 of the weekend. There will be no live telecast of Race No. 1, which is scheduled to start at approximately 11:30pm Friday night (Eastern Standard Time). I will provide critiques of both of the races from Talladega, and the 300 kilometer V8 Supercar event in next week’s edition here at Frontstretch.

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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old97fan
10/18/2011 03:41 PM
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Respectfully, I think your analysis of the ESPN coverage of the Indycar tragedy was Waaaaay to generous. It was horrible and then after all of that waiting and inane commentary they managed to miss the initial announcement and then botched the replay of the announcement. After about 15 minutes of red flag, when it was obvious there would be significant wait for news, repair of the track etc. the genius producers at ESPN should have ran alternative racing programming with a ticker at the bottom of the screen explaining what was going on. We would have been spared the slow twisting in the wind the poor announcers went through, and the teams, family, and friends wouldn’t have been having their agony broadcast on international tv. The majority of the broadcast after the crash was nothing more than a vehicle to get through the commercial package and served no purpose but to serve ESPN twisted sense of drama.

Chris Fiegler
10/18/2011 11:17 PM
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I wonder how Jamie Little & Vince Welch will cope when they cover the Good Sam Club 500 at Talledega after they saw Dan Wheldon was Killed?

Don Mei
10/19/2011 11:19 AM
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I thought they did a fine job under the most stressful and difficult conditions. I sat and read the paper while glancing regularly at the TV. Last thing I wanted to see at that point was another race.

Steve
10/19/2011 02:56 PM
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old97, you couldn’t be more wrong. Going to alternative programming would have been the worst decision that they could make. Everyone wanted to know what was going on and most people were glued to the tv to find out updates. They did the right thing.

Also, alot of people give flack to Marty Reid, including myself, for his race broadcasts, but I thought he did one hell of job on Sunday under the circumstances. He didn’t speculate on anything and was classy the whole time. He must have been just as emotional is alot of people on pit road and a death of a driver has to be the worst thing for a tv announcer to report, so he should be commended for the job he did on Sunday.