NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Digger’s Bristol Disappearance, Lazy Legends Coverage & Screwy Scrolls

Hello, race fans. After a week off, both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were back in action this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway in the mountains of eastern Tennessee for both the Food City 500 and Scotts Turf Builder 300. In addition, a special “Saturday Night Special” charity event featuring legends of the past and celebrities in late model stock cars was held after the Nationwide race on Saturday. How did all these broadcasts stack up? Let’s find out.

To start with, let’s take a look at an issue that continues to bug me for practice and qualifying. As you may remember, I’ve talked about SPEED’s inability to get the on-screen scroll right in past critiques. This past weekend, I did not notice any number issues like they had at Atlanta. However, they did have some issues with letters bunching together in the space where driver names are typed in. The result was an illegible mash of black, with no clear lettering of who or what they were trying to display. I’d attribute this to the production crew rushing to make changes on the fly – but it’s still a careless mistake. This happened multiple times during the Sprint Cup Pole Qualifying session on Friday and continues to be a major irritant for a fan flipping the channels and hoping to take a quick look at posted speeds.

Saturday brought ESPN’s coverage of both the Scotts Turf Builder 300 (aired on ABC) and the Scotts Saturday Night Special, which aired on ESPN2. Generally, I didn’t have any issues with the telecast of the Nationwide Series race this week. From what I’ve seen this season, the ABC/ESPN crew of Dale Jarrett, Dr. Jerry Punch and Andy Petree have done a relatively good job in the booth covering NASCAR’s No. 2 series, with many of the criticisms surrounding these announcers (in particular, Punch was under fire last year) not resurfacing over the first few races of 2009. Technically, the ESPN2 race had few mistakes or major concerns to speak of.

However, the standalone races at Nashville and Kentucky are not too far away. There’s always a change in quality at these events, mainly because the normal on-air talent may not make the trip. In addition, the normal cameramen and women are at the Sprint Cup venue for the week – or in Nashville’s case, taking the week off to enjoy the Easter holiday with family and friends. So, we’ll have to see if the broadcasts stay strong for ESPN as we head towards split race weekends in April, May, and June.

As for the Saturday Night Special, the event itself was fun to watch on television. ESPN2 did pay proper homage to the accomplishments of the legends in the field. Maybe they could have touched a little more on the accomplishments of drivers like Jack Ingram and LD Ottinger; but unfortunately, a good chunk of those two drivers’ careers occurred before the creation of the present-day Nationwide Series in 1982. NASCAR consciously made the decision to wipe the results clean before that year, claiming inaccuracies in the record keeping of local short tracks in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Ingram is officially credited with 31 victories in the Nationwide Series. The last of those wins came in 1987. However, there are far more victories in Ingram’s resume that came in the predecessor to the Nationwide Series, the Late Model Sportsman Division. Second to None, a 2001 book by Rick Houston that covers the history of the then-NASCAR Busch Series, claims that Ingram had approximately 250 victories wiped off his slate. Ottinger and Sam Ard were in this same category. In Ottinger’s case, his post-1982 work makes him look like the odd man out in the Legends race – like he didn’t belong. Then again, his resume was probably better than Phil Parsons was to begin with…

Anyways, the field was set by qualifying races run by celebrities. These preliminary events were won by David Akers (kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles) and Andy Petree. However, these races took place before the TV coverage started on ESPN2. Highlights of these races were shown during the coverage of the event (before the race started), but I think these 15-lap qualifying heats should have been televised live as well. It’s not like they were racing the sun or anything like that. Considering these heats were being publicized as part of the draw for the main event, I found it surprising that they didn’t get live TV coverage. For example, Brad Daugherty, who finished second in his heat, was driving a car No. 34 in homage to the late Wendell Scott. However, most people likely didn’t even see the car at all.

For the legends race itself, ESPN2 chose to take a more old school approach to covering the event, one that spread to all areas within their television production. Cutting back, they had just one in-car camera during the race, mounted inside the No. 2 Miller Lite Chevrolet driven by network colleague Rusty Wallace. Wallace also served as an In-Race Reporter during the event. On screen overlays were kept to a minimum, and there was no running order scroll at the top of the screen like normal.

Since Andy Petree, who is usually the third man in the booth, was working as a teammate to Harry Gant in the race, ESPN2 invited former commentator Ned Jarrett to come out of retirement and replace him. This is the second time in the last year Ned’s made a guest appearance; he also joined his son Dale, Dr. Punch and Andy in the booth during the May Nationwide race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. It was nice that he was there at Lowe’s; however, since Ned was the fourth guy in the booth, I noticed he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. On Saturday, there may have been one less analyst, but it was still much of the same for Ned. He was generally happy to be there; otherwise, he didn’t really contribute all that much to the overall discussion of the race.

Not that there was all that much to discuss.

Sterling Marlin opened up a can of whoopin’ on the other legends, leading flag to flag in what generally became a single-file race to cover. Gant would have challenged Marlin for the victory had his hood not bowed up within the first five laps, necessitating a pit stop to fix it. Ottinger, who finished third, simply started too far back (10th) to be able to give Marlin a run for his money.

Overall, the Saturday Night Special showed that racing skills are much like the skill of riding a bike. I once went three years without saddling up on a road bike, but I got back on, did very little practice, then did a 51.5-mile charity ride along the Hudson River on some quite difficult (at times) terrain. In stock cars, it’s pretty much the same thing; even if you don’t do it for a long time (Ottinger, who is 70, claimed that it was the first time he’d been in a racecar in at least 10 years), you never forget how to do it.

But while the legends adapted well, their level of competitiveness was probably lower than expected by the fans. ESPN2 did their best to show actual racing out there on the track, but with only 12 cars in the field – and only nine of them really being competitive – there sadly wasn’t much to be found. ESPN2 also made only a passing reference to the massive winner’s trophy that Marlin got to take home. That trophy looked like it was legitimately four feet tall and required two people to hold it up, an exciting storyline in a night devoid of them which the network could have easily expanded upon.

Sunday’s telecast of the Food City 500 on FOX brought some changes to the overall broadcast. It seems that FOX used the first four races of the season as a trial period to try out new features. Evidently, those changes didn’t go over very well, because this race looked a little different than the rest of the 2009 ones they’ve covered to date.

Digger still has a role on the broadcast, but he’s not quite as visible now. Indeed, animated in-race Digger sightings were down significantly from Atlanta, and most of them were of Digger in his little convertible car when FOX was coming back from commercial. However, there remained 28 still graphics of Digger that were shown throughout the event – so it’s not like he disappeared altogether.

Most importantly, though, the animated Digger cartoon that’s been the source of frustration amongst so many fans, viewers and insiders within the sport did not air during the pre-race show for the first time in 2009. I don’t remember hearing the Adventures of Digger and Friends theme at any point, either. This is a definite plus, and I know many of you out there agree. If you’ve been reading this critique this season, you’ve probably noticed how much I’ve ranted about how airing those cartoons hurt the integrity of FOX while minimizing NASCAR and the Sprint Cup Series.

On the other hand, a rather negative thing I noticed was that the news and notes were tucked deep into the pre-race show again (approximately 22 minutes in). FOX needs to realize that not everyone has cable, satellite or “Telco” television these days (“Telco” meaning television programming provided through a telecommunications company, like Verizon). Especially in this economy, many people have switched to effectively over-the-air programming through their new digital converter boxes. As you might expect, those people don’t have access to NASCAR’s magazine shows (NASCAR Now, NASCAR in a Hurry) or the pre-pre race show (NASCAR RaceDay) before the race telecast begins. That means there are millions of fans out there who aren’t that informed when they turn the broadcast on, but would like to know what the heck is going on in the world of NASCAR before the drop of the green. In my opinion, I believe that the News and Notes should start off the broadcast, similar to what the weekday editions of RPM2Nite would do back when John Kernan hosted the show in the 1990s. Kernan would welcome viewers to the broadcast, tell them what was coming up on that episode, and then would immediately go into the news of the day. I think that would be a good approach for FOX (and TNT and ESPN, for that matter) to take for their pre-race shows as well.

However, this was not the only alteration that I noticed. With the starting lineup graphics, yes, they still scroll the drivers in reverse (which, while I understand why they chose to do it that way, I still find to be weird on television). However, instead of using the graphics that were used for the Daytona 500 grid from last season, FOX now features the scroll that was used in the other ten races they did last year. This is a step back, in my opinion. I’m not really sure why they did it, either. Personally, I think the best starting lineup graphic FOX could use is the one they used for the first four races, only starting with row one instead of whoever’s starting along on row 22.

The issues on the scroll from SPEED qualifying refrained from popping up on the FOX side during the race. However, the top-10 only scroll also returned during Sunday’s latter stages, which I’ve always found to be a little annoying. It typically comes up whenever I want to see where someone outside of the top 10 is running, and yesterday was no exception.

I also had a slight picture issue around lap 270. For about two laps, the screen turned a translucent light blue except for a small strip below the scroll, but towards the top of the screen. That one horizontal strip was normal. I could still watch the race during that time… but it was weird. There was no reference to this technical issue during the broadcast, and although it was fixed quickly, it would have been nice to know what the heck was going on. Sources tell me it was a quick, technical crash within the production compound… did anyone else see the light blue screen during the race, or was I the only one?

One of the side effects of the reconfiguration of Bristol Motor Speedway is that there aren’t as many wrecks during the races as there once was. As a result, the actual event goes by much quicker. Sunday’s Food City 500, despite being extended to 503 laps as a result of a green-white-checkered, lasted only two hours and 54 minutes. But FOX’s time slot for the race ran through 6:00 p.m. ET. This left the network having to fill roughly 45 minutes of time after the race ended, causing the post-race show to run several more interviews than they normally do. Eight of the top-10 finishers were interviewed on air, as the only ones who escaped the cameras were Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya. Winning car owner Joe Gibbs, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and David Reutimann were also put in front of the mic.

The increased length of the post-race also led to long discussions of Sunday’s actions between the booth commentators (Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds) as well as Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond in the “Hollywood Hotel.” One of the topics briefly discussed was how NASCAR determines which cars have to go through the vigorous post-race inspection. The winner is a given, since they won. But after that, it seems to be a bit of a random draw with everyone else. On Sunday, it appears that the No. 9 of Kahne was the lucky dog, as FOX cameras caught his Budweiser Dodge getting the once over by inspectors. The whole thing was a nice touch by the network, as well as an explanation of a procedure most fans never get to see firsthand.

Well, that’s it for this week. Next Sunday brings on Martinsville for the Cup Series, while the Nationwide Series takes yet another week off (their third in four weeks, something I really can’t understand for a series that has a 35-race schedule). After two weeks off of its own, the Truck Series will also return to the fold with a 250-lapper at Martinsville as well. I will be here to critique the coverage of those two races, as well as whatever else piques my interest.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio.

As always, if you choose to contact the networks by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions in a courteous manner than emails full of rants and vitriol. Thank you, and have a great week.

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