NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN on ABC… Sort Of? Why the Plug Was Pulled on a Playoff Race

For the third consecutive race, ESPN turned in a solid performance at Phoenix International Raceway. The broadcast team performed well in all areas, displaying only a few weaknesses throughout during what turned into a long, strenuous day. Unfortunately, an error far beyond the control of ESPN’s NASCAR broadcasting team overshadowed at least some of Sunday’s good effort.

The final 11 races of the NASCAR season are supposed to be broadcast by the ESPN team on ABC’s airwaves. This seems like a good pairing, considering the fact that ABC holds no Sunday NFL contracts. That means in theory, races should have no conflict in being broadcast. Sunday’s race at Phoenix, however, stretched longer than anticipated due to two red flags that lasted about 45 minutes. At about 7:15 ET, with only 30-40 laps remaining, Allen Bestwick informed viewers that the coverage was shifting to ESPN2 for the final laps on the East Coast because ABC had other programming commitments it could not work around. As a result, executives were forced to cut into the World Series of Poker on ESPN2 to air the race, surely infuriating fans of that show.

A statement from one of ESPN’s Media Relations Managers, George McNeilly, corroborates the reason behind the move.

“After two red flags, rain in Phoenix and 4 1/2 hours on ABC, we were still 34 minutes from the end of the telecast as it turned out. We told fans in the East and Central from the second red flag on that the race was moving to ESPN2. ABC’s entertainment viewers and NASCAR fans were both well served in a tough spot, and we are fortunate to have ESPN2 among our networks to serve the fans.”

ABC and ESPN and should be applauded for its transparency and willingness to try and satisfy everybody involved; but in reality, NASCAR fans in the Eastern and Central time zones got stiffed. The bottom line is the NASCAR playoff race was preempted in the final laps on network television to air America’s Funniest Videos and Desperate Housewives.

It’s enough to make you ask, did that really happen? Yeah, it did; but it shouldn’t have.

The decision to move the race to another network is further evidence that auto racing will always play second fiddle to stick and ball sports with the entrenched broadcasting networks. You may wonder why other sports are being brought up. On CBS, 60 Minutes, the network’s longest-running show and one of its highest rated, is often pushed back in favor of regular season NFL games. MLB and NBA playoff games are also always scheduled at times where they cannot interfere with regular programming. So, why does NASCAR get stiff-armed by the very network that coughed up millions of dollars to show its races in favor of a show that could always be shown at another time instead?

The blame does not rest entirely on ABC for pulling the plug on the race, however. NASCAR should get a big boot in the bottom for its insistence on pushing the start times of races back as far as they have. If this race starts at two o’clock on the East Coast (so it does not start too early out West) then there is little chance that prime-time programming gets obscured – even with these delays. It turns out Dale Earnhardt Jr. was correct in his observation last weekend when he agreed with a large number of the NASCAR fanbase in saying that races should start earlier. If they did, people would not be sitting around all afternoon waiting for start times and getting jaded to the coming event. Instead, as he said, they would all be rushing home from church, peeling off their Sunday best, feverishly pining for the fried chicken and cold drinks and finding the fastest route to their couches for a bona fide celebration of the Sabbath.

So, shame on ABC for not recognizing the importance of the race it preempted. Do the network executives not listen to the words in the broadcasts? Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of history, yet he and the rest of the sport were yanked in favor of redundant clips of men getting kicked in the groin. But NASCAR also should wake up to the reality of the mess it has created by selling out to the suggestions of consultants and doing what seems best on paper. Fortunately, the offseason is rapidly approaching, giving both entities time to marinate over the consequences of their actions.

As far as the rest of the show, things went pretty well. The pit-reporting team has really come into its own the past three weeks, following yet another strong performance. Dave Burns was obviously under the weather, but never let his hoarse voice derail him from giving good reports on pit road. And Shannon Spake, criticized here in the past, gets the gold star this week for reeling in the developing story about Jeff Gordon’s souring motor. Jamie Little and Mike Massaro each turned in solid performances as well.

The boys in the booth, particularly Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett, told the on-track story in a compelling manner. Jarrett and Petree each lent their knowledge of situations at the appropriate times, and kept the excitement at an appropriate level. Unfortunately, Dr. Jerry Punch still struggles to call the play-by-play action. He ought to take lessons from the Punch of 18 years ago, when he had to fill-in for Bob Jenkins in the lead announcer role at Phoenix back in 1990. Punch’s job then was much better, as he constantly told viewers exactly what was happening on the track and had good details to share about different drivers. Punch’s faults now can likely be attributed to a lot of the extra promotional one-liners he has to spend his time keeping track of now – but he still needs to improve in this area.

Allen Bestwick and the boys in the ESPN Pit Studio also did a good job, as Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham each had considerable amounts of information to add to different situations. Evernham in particular is well-adjusted to television already and fits in well at ESPN. However, Brad Daugherty seems like he is in the way. Yes, he is a team owner and has been before, but his true knowledge of racing does not compare, at least on-air, to his companions in the studio. Daugherty seems to simply cheerlead from his position and comes off more as a fan of the sport. Let’s put it this way: if ESPN had to cut one of the boys from the Pit Studio, he would be the weakest link to let fall out. Tim Brewer also needs more exposure in the Dish Tech Center and needs a bigger screen to show different graphics, because it is hard for viewers to see what he’s doing.

Up to Speed segments still need to happen more often. I only counted one on lap 137, and it only covered the top 10. ESPN still needs to spend more time covering the drivers and the racing action in the middle of the pack. There are still many drivers that barely ever see the light of day, even though they’re racing hard for 25th spot or for a Top-35 place in owner points. Covering these drivers would familiarize broadcasters with details about some of them, expanding their horizons on what’s going on in the series today.

And details are helpful for the boys in the booth when cameras show a pit stop of a driver not covered by the pit reporting team. For the third consecutive week, cameras cut to a pit stop of a non-frontrunning driver by choice; in this case, it was Travis Kvapil. But Punch, Jarrett and Petree have very little to say when something like this happens. Telling the stories of other drivers in the field makes the race more interesting, and these guys need to have the facts on all 43 cars – especially because you never know when one might be a surprise contender. At least the pit-reporting team did not disappoint in this area, especially when it was able to score interviews with several involved in the big David Gilliland/Scott Speed wreck that brought out the second red flag.

Overall, ESPN’s broadcast was solid, and the group seems to be gelling together much better than it did a few weeks ago. Hopefully this late-season surge can continue into 2009; and hopefully, ABC will recognize the significance of next week’s race at Homestead, keeping from skipping Johnson’s third consecutive championship to show baby-barfing videos instead.

Here are some other observations noticed on NASCAR TV this week:

  • Maybe Bill Weber isn’t so bad. I have never been a huge fan of the longtime NASCAR broadcaster and current lead announcer for TNT, but he was a great guest on Dave Despain’s Wind Tunnel Sunday night. Weber had lots to offer on different topics in NASCAR, and came off as much less of the talking head that he appears to be on TNT. His appearance on the show makes me look more forward to seeing him, Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach on TNT next summer.
  • SPEED Channel continues to cash in big with its Truck Series broadcasts. Not only is the series in midst of one of the tightest NASCAR points battles ever, but ratings on the network are through the roof. The broadcasting team turns in consistent efforts week in and week out, from Krista Voda’s pre-race show to the consistent calls in the booth and on pit road by the various racing veterans involved. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is clearly producing the best stories in the sport both on and off the track this season.

Listen to Doug Turnbull talk racing on the Bellamy Strickland 120 racing show this Saturday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com.

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