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Talking NASCAR TV: Noticeable Glitches Undermine Solid TNT Effort at Sonoma

When TNT debuted its 2008 NASCAR coverage two weeks ago at Pocono, a major audio foible took away from what was an impressive performance for the network. Two weeks later, Sunday’s presentation of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 still had its own share of avoidable mistakes, making a professional, lucrative television operation look like anything but.

Using the highly advertised TNT Race Buddy online, I was able to view four different camera angles of the race, meaning that I saw some cars pitting and some cautions happening that were not being shown in the television race coverage. During a race with few yellow flags, the timing of different competitors’ pit stops means everything. But before the second major caution, David Gilliland pitted without any television mention until others began the mainstream pit sequence. That oversight occurred despite an extended on-air talkabout just laps earlier, describing how the No. 38 car had positioned itself better than anyone else due to fuel mileage. To add insult to injury, Gilliland’s strategy – combined with some sour luck for Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray – led him to his best career finish of second place. A casual mention by TNT of his pitting well after the fact is not good enough; at least Race Buddy gets major props from me for showing Gilliland’s pit stop and other instances not shown on TNT.

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The network did have two especially good features for Infineon. The first was a well-placed camera near the feet of Juan Pablo Montoya, showing how much gas and brake he was using at various points around the road course. This was a good shot, but was not used enough and apparently was referred to a few more times in the broadcast without actually being shown.

Another good feature that TNT had was the labeling of the turns at this road course. The track has 12 turns, and the Cup Series only comes there once a year, making it difficult to remember which turn was where. Heck, I get confused at what turn the cars are in at an oval track – so, it was good that TNT placed those graphic labels all over the screen. My only complaint is that they only placed them in two or three of the turns; it’s too bad they couldn’t have had one for each.

These were just a couple of examples of ideas that TNT got creative with, but can clearly fix and improve upon for 2009. Great ideas are one thing, but carrying them out to perfection is another issue altogether…

Here are some more happenings from the week’s coverage in the latest edition of Talking NASCAR TV:

  • The boys in the TNT booth sure are hard on each other. It seemed like every chance he got, Bill Weber had a jab ready for Kyle Petty whenever he spoke about something going on in the race. I know that guys are never shy to poke fun at each other, but the dynamic in the booth comes across as Bully Bill not only bulldozing Petty, but others who interjected, too. Kidding around every once in a while is OK, but doing it too much makes the broadcast seem unprofessional.
  • Wally Dallenbach and Kyle Petty kept mentioning that Marcos Ambrose never gets to race against the Cup boys. They must have forgotten that a large percentage of the Nationwide Series is comprised of Cup regulars, making their statements less than accurate. Yes, Ambrose does not regularly race the likes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – but he has come pretty close to getting a taste of the big time.
  • TNT has surpassed FOX in some ways, but one way that they have not is with their cutaway car that Larry McReynolds uses to explain the Car of Tomorrow. TNT’s car body is lifted by a crane and suspended over the body, so McReynolds can explain happenings inside the car. But as he is explaining something, the body is not just suspended over the racecar – it sways in the air. There is nothing quite as gripping as seeing Bill Engvall’s head swaying back and forth behind Larry Mac. FOX’s car is much better, with half of it being cut away and the other half covered by the body.
  • Petty and Dallenbach did do a great job of explaining what a driver must do to pass at Infineon, something that did not happen very often during the race. The whole crew also did a superb job predicting the fuel and pitting strategy that would win the event. The TNT pit crew did not mess up along those lines much at all; though many of us, including Bill Weber, wondered aloud why Lindsay Czarniak was almost whispering when doing an early race report.
  • I do want to apologize for a criticism I had of both the TNT and FOX pit crews’ post-race reports. I questioned why they never tossed to each other when transitioning from driver to driver, but the likely reason is because those interviews are not done live, due to a short timeframe of driver availability. Since these end up being taped segments, the reporters do not know which person will follow them, so they just end the report cold and allow the broadcast to flow to the next interview.
  • TNT needs to be more religious about doing its “Through the Field” coverage. Most racing broadcasts lack decent analysis of the racing and storylines back in the pack, and bringing this feature back in full force would set TNT apart from FOX and ESPN.
  • Here is one final TNT thought: thanks for bringing back Marc Fein to the actual race coverage. Use him more… he is good!
  • ESPN2 did a nice job in its coverage of the Nationwide Series race. In particular, it was good to see the team focus on the immense history at the Milwaukee Mile. Rusty Wallace seems to have improved at least a little bit in the booth, though he and the whole broadcasting team kept calling “Colin Braun” “Colin Brawn.” The kid has been racing this entire season in the Truck Series, and that mistake sure seems to indicate the crew is not watching the those races very much.
  • Again, Rusty Wallace seems stronger in the booth than he has before, but here is one quote that cannot go without mentioning: “There cars have that rigid go-kart feel. They are all go-karty and rigidy.” That is quite profound, Rusty.
  • ESPN’s NASCAR Now on Monday, hosted by Allen Bestwick, had a great segment regarding the future of both Mark Martin and Casey Mears in the Cup Series. Bestwick interviewed Marty Smith by phone, who nearly confirmed Mears not being in the No. 5 car next season. Smith, though he has been shaky on camera with ESPN, is undeniably one of the reporters with the most sources in the garage. By the way, the roundtable discussion with Randy LaJoie and Mike Massaro was interesting and insightful. It is too bad Johnny Benson could not catch a plane to be on the show this week.

TNT and the Cup Series now head to New Hampshire for Sunday’s race; and once again, Kyle Petty will be broadcasting from the racetrack where his son Adam Petty died. How this blends into the broadcast may be one of the TV storylines to watch next week…

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