NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Unrestricted Thoughts on Restrictor-Plate Coverage from FOX & ESPN

NASCAR’s top-two series each put on a whale of a show at Talladega Superspeedway this past weekend, producing a pair of thrillers that left the TV cameras on high alert from start to finish. Of course, that’s not a new thing when it comes to Daytona and Talladega; and because of the nature of restrictor-plate racing, action at these tracks becomes very tricky to cover. In a matter of seconds, a driver can go from leading the race to being shuffled back to 28th place to spinning through the tri-oval and wrecking half the field.

So, while following the action, race announcers and producers are left with the daunting task of prioritizing which battles to cover, as well as when to break from the constant action to explain another aspect of the event. There’s never a dull moment, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make the broadcast commercial-free; knowing how to manage sponsor obligations with on-track excitement becomes a major part of any restrictor plate television broadcast.

Considering the fast pace of these races, the breaking Tony Stewart news, and the late-breaking story of Dario Franchitti’s ankle, well… breaking, FOX and ESPN each put on respectable shows. Both networks, though, weren’t without some major flaws in what’s always a roller coaster three hours of quick cuts, fast-paced storylines, and scintillating finishes down in Alabama.

Here’s some thoughts on the television weekend that was:

  • In the past couple of years, all NASCAR broadcasts have been routinely late in spotting wrecks and early race mechanical failures, and Talladega was no exception to that. During Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, Denny Hamlin dropped out very early due to a blown engine, but ESPN did not mention this until around halfway through the event. During Sunday’s race, it was the same old story; Jon Wood took his car to the garage in only his second Cup start after just a few laps. However, FOX failed to mention or expand on his problem until well after Wood had re-entered the race; at that point, he was several laps down and long out of contention.
  • The same theory holds for drivers who just aren’t up to speed during the race for whatever reason. Since FOX and ESPN each spend too much time covering the action at the front of the field, they ignored why some top drivers (like Kurt Busch on Sunday) were suddenly a lap down. That causes viewers to be surprised when people like Busch are in the lead pack but not battling for the top spot; the networks should do more to clear up the confusion in those circumstances.
  • ESPN has tinkered with its pit-road lineup several times since the beginning of last year, but at times, it’s come back to bite them. Though it is smart for the network to try hard to try and score the right combination, they’ve got to be careful; too much change stifles chemistry development and leads to an inability to establish a solid rhythm. This becomes quite evident when pit-road reporters botch tosses to each other or back to the booth at least once per pit sequence.
  • One change ESPN did make – moving Dale Jarrett to the booth – has proved to be a great decision. Jarrett’s knowledge and uncanny ability to clearly dispense it is a rare combination to have, one’s that’s just like his father had when he announced for ESPN and CBS in the 1980s and ’90s. In particular, Jarrett did a wonderful job Saturday in both explaining the draft and analyzing the Stewart situation. Two thumbs up go to ESPN for actually substantiating the Stewart-Joe Gibbs departure rumors after Frontstretch‘s Editor-In-Chief Tom Bowles broke the news for Sports Illustrated ahead of the network’s own Marty Smith. Including Aaron Fike’s drug admission, ESPN has done well at covering two huge stories in the last three weeks.
  • FOX also covered the “Tony drama” well, conducting intimate interviews with both Stewart and Carl Edwards on their contract situations. The commentary from the boys in the Hollywood Hotel and atop the track reiterated and added to any analysis Jarrett provided the day before.
  • However, FOX’s constant, shameless self-promotion of its own non-NASCAR programming – Digger, Digger apparel, etc. – is just too much. One of the graphics for the AT&T Race Break superimposed over a crucial Stewart pit stop, obstructing the beginning of the sequence and also botching the advertisement at the same time. The bombardment of sponsors may sustain brand awareness, but viewers are jaded by them and will eventually tune to other outlets for their NASCAR fix, like DirectTV: NASCAR HotPass instead. Oh, wait… that is a FOX entity too. Darn!
  • Edwards and Matt Kenseth each had right-front tire trouble during Sunday’s Cup race. As usual, FOX quickly got to the bottom of the reason why this happened, clearly explaining how too much camber can damage a race tire, and attributing that to a setup issue within Roush Fenway Racing rather than Goodyear itself. It’s that type of analysis you look for so people don’t assess blame in the wrong places.
  • But actual interviews are something that proved lackluster this weekend. FOX, SPEED, ESPN and TNT all need to take lessons from MRN Radio, PRN Radio and the people that direct Sprint Vision at racetracks on how to dispense detailed information to viewers. As a member of the media, I get to watch the Sprint Vision footage, and have noticed how the MRN and PRN pit reporters interview drivers on camera for all of the fans at the track to see. Not only do these reporters question superstars involved in on-track incidents, they also interview some of the other drivers that get less coverage, too. I know that the networks have to squeeze in their reports, but it sure would be nice to get a comprehensive view on the happenings in a race, instead of watching Digger again… and again…

That’s all for this week’s television Touch ‘Em All. Next week, the NASCAR circus returns to Richmond, and we will have full coverage of all aspects TV after that weekend showdown under the lights.

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