NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Does NASCAR Need Digger?

Sometimes I feel for the FOX Sports people, even if it’s difficult to muster sympathy for them while sitting through infuriatingly bad broadcasts of racing. The artists and animators who created Digger are only trying to entertain, trying to add to the NASCAR broadcast, and some of the backlash has been nothing short of vicious. One of the nicer comments suggested a “Digger as main course” barbecue.

But the sentiment is understandable. The cartoon rodent is one more of the countless distractions that flood a typical NASCAR broadcast these days.

Digger may be amusing to some and annoying to others, but the gopher is more of a symbol of the over-saturization of sports than anything else. Networks never cease to believe that the show always needs more spice, more pizzazz, more dazzle. That racing needs a stimulus package, if you will.

In an article in USA Today, FOX Sports Chairman David Hill was quoted as saying of Digger, “This is a tawdry attempt to develop another revenue stream.” At least he’s honest. And truth be told, it seems to be working. There isn’t anything wrong with that. If FOX wants to sell Digger t-shirts, shot glasses, toilet brushes or other items, that’s fine. Digger is amusing to some of the kids, which is a good thing for NASCAR, even if race start times are clearly NOT geared towards kids. Not the ones who go to school on Mondays, anyway.

Hill also said “I’m trying to walk that line between blatant and subtle.” So far, he’s walking that line about as well as an ardent supporter of Kasey Kahne’s sponsor.

It seems as though Hill and execs at the other networks, much like the people who rule NASCAR, all share a constant need to add more bells and whistles to the show, as if they will not otherwise receive credit for their role in the sport’s success. Heaven knows, we’ve seen enough tinkering from NASCAR in recent years to make us believe they’ve forgotten why people watch. This isn’t anything new, but as graphics and video technology improve over time, the colors and noises become louder and gaudier. And one day it reaches the point, as it certainly did at Daytona, where the actual event itself is a letdown. Fox’s pre-race show for this year’s 500 (with its tawdry Digger segment) was almost as long as the race itself.

We live in a world of gimmickry where actual substance is either dwarfed or sometimes nonexistent. It is one of the flaws we must accept about capitalism – be it Budweiser frogs, Paris Hilton or the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But I’m willing to bet that NASCAR’s most devoted fans arrived there through a friend’s or relative’s love of the sport and through seeing some great races, not through the glitter and glitz used by networks to sex up the broadcast.

MCLAUGHLIN: WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE

What do you ultimately remember from the first flag-to-flag broadcast of the 500 in 1979? Do you remember the graphics showing the positions of the first five drivers (which at the time were state-of-the-art, hard as it may be now to believe), or do you remember the fight? You might remember who the announcer was. But if you saw it, you remember who won the race, you remember who was throwing fists, and you remember where the fight took place on the track. Even at the age of 10, it stuck in my mind for weeks. No CBS chalkboard necessary.

NASCAR didn’t become the second biggest sport in America because of boogity, Digger, draft tracks, in-car cams or the Chase. It especially didn’t get there on corporate sponsored extraneous distractions – like the Allstate Good Hands Move, the Ford cutaway car or the Aflac trivia question. If it did, a separate show featuring these artifacts would be a ratings grabber on its own. One could argue that NASCAR has succeeded in spite of all of that, which is a testament to the adrenaline that stock cars adorned with the bright colors of American commerce bring out in so many of us. All of the extra tidbits are part of an overall attitude that has done and is still doing damage to NASCAR’s status… the apparent disregard for anything but profit. It reaches the point where one sometimes asks, doesn’t anyone running NASCAR like NASCAR?

NASCAR has gotten to the point where gimmicks often take over the show from the racing. For some nutty reason, networks still believe that racing is boring, the proverbial guys driving in circles. (I’ve often wondered what geometric shape people who absolutely cannot abide circles would prefer. Dodecahedrons? Isosceles trapezoids? Figure-eights?) TV has always felt this way, back to the Wide World of Sports years. Can you even fathom a network today interrupting the Daytona 500 for something like a rodeo or a ski jumping competition? That used to happen, my friends. It was partly because there were far fewer channels on the dial back then, but it’s still difficult to fathom.

There is such a thing as overdoing it with the bells and whistles, and if Mr. Hill is interested, that line he is trying to walk is easy to define by remembering one Simple Truth: that in the end, people are tuning in to watch an auto race.

Stick to that and fans will be happy. Or at least less unhappy.

Whenever any network deviates from the Simple Truth, the broadcast suffers. They forget when we see the Hollywood Hotel that viewers did not tune in to watch commentators talk. They forget when they go to the cutaway car that viewers either already know what causes an engine to expire or they don’t care, but they are currently missing the race for an explanation anyway. FOX forgets that fans do not want to miss 20 seconds of racing for a silly short film of the current leader with bursting flames surrounding him, as he reminds us that “you’re watching NASCAR on FOX” (as if you’re ever allowed to forget) before a break.

None of the spectacular and probably expensive effects in a broadcast, not even a cartoon gopher, will hold a fan’s interest better than Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon battling for the lead ever will. Not even for the kids. If FOX pushes Digger beyond the point where it could ever be called subtle, it will be yet another part of what is wrong with NASCAR broadcasts. Digger bits aren’t at that level yet, but never underestimate FOX’s ability to make it happen.

Now, dear reader, can you name one sideshow item any network has employed in the last 30 years that has increased your devotion to the sport? Even palatable gadgets like in-car cameras, the running leaderboard, improved screen graphics? Was any of that what turned you into a lifelong fan?

Anyone who has attended a race and has witnessed the spectacle without the distraction knows what I’m talking about. Nothing in the entertainment universe compares to the deafening volume of the engines starting… or the unparalleled excitement of 43 racecars roaring by after the green flag drops. Even on TV it’s pretty cool.

Digger isn’t going to sink NASCAR. But excessive gimmicks aren’t going to help either if fans aren’t enjoying the racing. And one way people can enjoy racing is to be able to simply watch it without near-constant distractions.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Tony Stewart so far has been running very well, proving me as wrong as the day is long about how difficult it would be to turn his team around. A good run at Vegas and I will be convinced he’ll make the Chase, unless someone diverts shop funds to bail out Gene Haas. I may have to do that press conference after all. But I’m not advertising on my armpits. Not even if Apollo Creed asks me to.
  • Is it me or has Dale Earnhardt Jr. been on the touchy side this season? First his “drivers do enough” rant, then calling Brian Vickers an idiot at Daytona. I don’t know whether the pressure is getting to him, or perhaps he’s weary of having to be the face of NASCAR all of the time. Maybe he’s just drinking too much Amp.
  • Statistics currently project a 36-win season for Kenseth in 2009. Seriously, odds are decent that he could pull off a trifecta in Vegas – he’s won a couple there and is as hot as a DeWalt soldering iron right now. (Yes, I know DeWalt doesn’t make soldering irons, but I fudged it.) Remember, James Bond bet on black 17.
  • You could probably count on one hand how many Hendrick engines prematurely gave out last season, and Mark Martin loses one in just his second points race with HMS. What does that guy have to do to get rid of the dark cloud over him?

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