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Full Throttle: Where Did The Old ESPN Go?

The enthusiasm surrounding the return of ESPN to the sport this season might be a surprise to new fans, but for those that have been around awhile, expectations were high for good reason. When no one else was clamoring to put NASCAR on TV back in the 1980s, it was ESPN, then a fledgling sports network, who embraced the sport and developed the formula for successfully broadcasting auto races. As ESPN carried NASCAR, the sport grew into a national phenomenon, creating a broadcasting standard that would be hard to reach for those who would attempt to in the future. And the suitors looking to develop NASCAR’s TV future would eventually come in droves; with NASCAR’s success, the sport was a highly sought after property for networks by the end of the 1990s. When the contract ran out for ESPN in 2000, they lost out to NBC and FOX for the rights to continue broadcasting the sport. It took ESPN six years to win those rights back, but they have them once again, earning the rights to 17 Nextel Cup races as well as the entire Busch Series schedule. Unfortunately, it appears that during those years away from broadcasting the sport, they forgot what made them so successful in the first place.

One of the things that made ESPN so good at covering racing what the fact that they did just that; they covered the race. No matter what, the most important thing about the show was always the action on the track. If something happened, you saw it, no matter how deep in the field the action was; if there was a battle going on for 15th place, and it was the best racing on the track, then that was what they showed to the fans. Even when it came to commercials, the race took priority; if a caution flag flew during a break, ESPN would break out and come back to show what was happening on the track every time. It was an automatic.

Well, that devotion to the racing doesn’t seem to be a priority anymore. Already on two separate occasions this year, ESPN has actually gone to commercial as a caution flag was flying on the track. Apparently, the folks who are calling the shots are from the same Columbia School of Broadcasting as the people at NBC and FOX. The focus is no longer on the racing… just like so many of us have seen with the sport itself, the focus is now on the almighty dollar. It’s now become more important to fulfill the sponsor obligations at the exact point that they are scheduled rather than worry about letting the fans see what is going on at a critical point during the race.

Justifiably, NASCAR fans are getting tired of this mindset. The reason the fans watch the races is to see the action on the track, to understand the strategies that are unfolding, and to know both when and why a caution occurs. The fans want to see the action as it unfolds; they don’t want to see a tape delay of something that happened while they were being told about natural male enhancement for the fifth time. They’d rather see a pass for the lead than watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. hocking DirecTV for the 20th time during the race.

It is a simple concept, really, when you think about it: spectators watch racing to see racing. For those watching on television, they want the same thing; show them what is going on and let them see the best action on the track. It would be refreshing to once again see a tight race for 15th instead of a strung out parade at the front of the pack. Surprisingly enough, it’s actually OK to show the frontrunner who was caught back in traffic picking his way through the field instead of talking about the leader and his commitment to the adoption of orphaned dogs or his charitable work.

Bottom line, ESPN needs to do some serious soul searching. They laid the foundation for stock car race coverage in the modern era, and they were the first to do just about everything when it came to the sport of NASCAR. Now that they have it back, the fans deserve to see what they used to see… only better. Give spectators the action, show them who is having the best race on the track, and give them the best product possible…just like they used to receive. This sport is fantastic to watch: it can take so many twists and turns, and the fans should get to see every nuance of the event. ESPN, remember what made you the best at race coverage… give it to us again.

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