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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Cup Race Good, But ESPN Stands Alone with Poor Nationwide Coverage in Montreal

Editor’s Note: Talking NASCAR TV columnist Doug Turnbull is on vacation, so Frontstretch newsletter contributor Phil Allaway filled in for this week’s edition. Look for Doug to be back next Tuesday with another long list of critiques that’ll keep those producers, directors, and announcers both honest and accountable for their TV coverage of the sport!

In just their second full weekend of coverage, I thought the Sprint Cup telecast on ESPN was pretty good Sunday. But as for Saturday’s Nationwide Series show, it was a whole other story altogether. You knew issues were bound to arise with the network using the No. 2 crew to do the race; but the number of problems seemed to only increase along with the rain pouring down on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve that afternoon.

The main issue I had with the race coverage was the camera shots. I’m personally not sure if ESPN themselves was in charge of the on-track cameras, or if a Canadian station like Global or TSN was – but no matter which one led the way, they produced some pretty bad camera work on Saturday. Editor’s Note: ESPN was in charge of the camera crew for this event. Finding good shooters can always be an issue with races in foreign countries because of their potential inexperience with covering major auto races, but I was expecting better from the cameramen and camerawomen on Saturday.

Most notably, all three of the major wrecks during the race were not caught on cameras at all until well after they occurred. This made watching the event a little like watching a Formula 1 race from about 1993. You see the leader driving along leisurely; then, all of a sudden, you cut to a big crash out of nowhere five seconds after it ended. To his credit, play-by-play announcer Marty Reid at least disclosed to the viewers that they did not have each of the wrecks on tape. However, it is very rare for this to happen three times in one race, especially in an event that only went 130 miles (48 laps) before it was called. For the Sprint Cup Series, at least FOX and TNT have the computer simulation software that can show what happened in the rarity that a wreck is not caught on camera. Unfortunately, that technology has not reached neither Nationwide Series telecasts nor ESPN as of yet.

It would be a benefit to the fans at home if something along those lines could be implemented in those telecasts in the future, though; at least then, you’d have an idea of what went on to cause those crazy wrecks. In the aftermath of these mistakes, some fans online have even started throwing the censorship term around based on the faulty camera shots, claiming that NASCAR intentionally blocked ESPN from showing replays that could have made their race in the rain look bad. Of course, this rumor is far-fetched at best.

Admittedly, aside from the camera issues, I thought the race itself was pretty good to watch, and the story surrounding the rain tires was embraced, not ignored. The action shown on the track was generally pretty good once those Goodyears did get switched, as the rain simply made the race into a slower version of last year’s event. Visibility was not the greatest, but with rain falling (heavy at times), fog generally follows, especially when you’re right on the water like the track in Montreal. That made the action even harder to see; but surprisingly, the in-car views held up pretty well in the rain, and the network should be commended for at least sticking with those. Often times, rain and low ceilings ground aircraft required to beam in in-car shots. However, since the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve hosts F1’s Canadian Grand Prix, it has a ground-based setup for the in car cameras. This also allows them to work in places like Montreal and in the tunnel under the Grand Hotel in Monaco.

As for the No. 2 set of booth commentators (Rusty Wallace, Marty Reid, and Randy LaJoie), they did an OK job on this one, regardless of the fact that these are clearly not the “A” squad the network has to offer. Reid is generally a professional commentator that I’m personally OK with. Wallace was himself – for better or for worse – while LaJoie, although still generally inexperienced at the mic, I discovered could be quite informative at times.

What about the rest of the racing coverage this weekend? Here’s a couple of odds ‘n’ ends from the ESPN broadcast of the Cup race at Pocono the following day:

  • As a viewer sitting at home, the first I knew of the competition caution on lap 21 is when Andy Petree mentioned it just four laps earlier. As someone who’s covered and watched the sport for a long time, I assumed that there would be one of these yellow flags, since it is standard operating procedure for NASCAR to put one in place when practice is rained out on Saturday (as it was at Pocono). If the caution was mentioned explicitly, though, either I did not hear the commentators say it clearly enough, or it was only noted during NASCAR Countdown before the actual race broadcast started, during a time when many viewers aren’t yet watching. Either way, it was an important fact the broadcast needed to make clear to its audience during the event – especially in light of the litany of competition yellows at Indianapolis the week before.
  • I’ve been quite confused in recent years over the de-emphasizing of the starting lineup in the telecast. FOX was the first network to simply put the lineup in a scroll at the top of the screen, and ESPN/ABC simply copied it onto their broadcasts when they returned to NASCAR coverage last year. I’m personally against this method, as I thought that the previous way of doing the starting lineup worked great. To take it even one step further, I think the ideal starting lineup introduction is similar to what ESPN did in the 1990s. Why did that get discontinued? It’s because I just don’t believe that the networks actually realize that people actually like some kind of a starting lineup montage at the beginning of races… and that’s mind-boggling to me. Attention, producers and directors; there is a reason why starting lineups from old Daytona 500s are posted on YouTube, and it’s because people generally like them. Of course, finding the right music for such a montage is crucial. CBS was generally very good at this in the 1980s and early 1990s; but any type of musical background proves a mute point during lineups when networks like ESPN play them in the background in favor of spending the pace laps talking with their in-race reporter. At least Mike Joy, play-by-play man for NASCAR on FOX, understands the fan fascination with the lineup, and he made numerous references to this issue back during Speedweeks.
  • As for the race commentators (Dr. Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, and Dale Jarrett), I believe that they did a fairly good job in the booth Sunday. Petree may have come down a little hard on the No. 8 of Mark Martin for taking four tires on lap 90, but he was simply reacting to the team having some issues on the previous stop on the right front tire. Like Doug said in last week’s TV review, though, Jarrett does stutter just a little bit, using the word “um” to cover it up as he does it. In a Public Speaking class, he would definitely lose points off his grade, but in this environment, it’s generally tolerable to both his fellow announcers and viewers alike.
  • I wasn’t a fan of the way that ESPN dealt with Michael Waltrip’s engine problems early in the race. On lap 18, they cut to Waltrip’s roof cam and showed that he was running 43rd with a car that sounded like it was down to seven cylinders. However, they never actually said that it was, and the network didn’t throw in a pit reporter soundbite or anything for proof. Such an audio clip would really have been quite informative, as would an interview with Waltrip once he exited the event.
  • I’m not a big fan of the guys in the ESPN portable studio jumping in under green-flag conditions. Actually, let’s take that one step further; I’m not a fan of having them around during the race at all. At best, their time should be restricted to only during caution periods, or if something really important is happening.
  • A major factual error Sunday concerned Pocono’s frontstretch; unlike what Allen Bestwick said during the race, it’s not the longest straightaway in NASCAR. Talladega’s backstretch, at 4,000 feet long, takes the honors in that department. Pocono’s longest straightaway is 260 feet shorter – still pretty long, but not enough to surpass America’s Fastest Superspeedway. Hey, I guess Allen could have said it’s the longest “unrestricted” straightaway in NASCAR…
  • As Doug has mentioned many times in this column, Sportscenter continues to struggle to live up to the same standards employed by ESPN’s race broadcast. On Monday, they used the wrong race logo while running the highlights of the event. That logo was from the Pocono 500 in June, rather than from the Sunoco American Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 that was run on Sunday afternoon.

All in all, though, it was an OK weekend for ESPN’s coverage. The Cup race was generally very good… but the Nationwide show was clearly substandard. I know that some things can be chalked up to being in Canada and not the United States, but that doesn’t mean the broadcast itself can slack off because of that fact. If I were to give letter grades, the Cup race would get a B, while the Nationwide coverage would get a C- at best – and that’s probably being lenient.

Tune in next week, when Doug is back to give a thorough review of Cup television coverage following a little road racin’ at Watkins Glen.