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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Reviewing TNT’s Summer Stretch

TNT’s six-week run as NASCAR’s broadcast partner ended with Saturday night’s alleged race from Joliet. In my personal opinion and the opinions of the fans I speak to on a routine basis, the network acquitted themselves well during their six weeks and, if the coverage wasn’t perfect, it was head and shoulders above the farce that FOX force fed us early in the season.

Heading into their portion of the year, TNT had to deal with one problem they should have seen coming like a train wreck – and another that arose unexpectedly. Let’s face it, the six races TNT covered weren’t the pick of the litter – two fuel-mileage races, New Hampshire, a road-course race, the contrived excitement of the Firecracker 400 plate race and the farce from Chicago. In fact, they ended up with some of the runts that typically got put in a gunny sack with a few rocks and tossed into the “crick.” It’s pretty damned hard to write anything interesting about a boring race, so I can’t imagine how hard it is to cover one on live TV. But TNT knew what they were buying into and did the best with what they had.

Then, three weeks ago, right in the midst of the six-race schedule, veteran broadcaster and ESPN alumni Bill Weber got the boot after what has only been described as a loud and profane tirade at a hotel in New Hampshire. That thrust Ralph Sheheen into the limelight unexpectedly, like Spanky handing Alfalfa the mike and hollering, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show.” Sheheen rose to the occasion with admirable poise, although while it was clear he was pedaling as fast as he could, it took him some time to get up to speed.

TNT was also handed an unexpected bonus in that their coverage featured the first races using NASCAR’s new side-by-side lineup on restarts originally dubbed “Double-File Restarts, Shootout Style.” Eventually, Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach realized just how stupid that sounded and dropped the latter part of the term for the most part. However, I fully expect that while it will be old news by then, ol’ DW will latch onto the “Shootout Style” term like a determined retriever trying to hump your leg. (It makes my flesh crawl to envision “Boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing shootout style, Boys!”) In fact, that might just be enough to push me into retirement because a little vomit just came out of my nose-typing that.

Right from their first broadcast, it was clear that TNT was going to provide a different sort of telecast from the gimmicky, ego-driven, race-o-tainment shtick FOX blared into fan’s living rooms earlier this year. TNT featured a one hour pre-race show for the more devoted fans and a fast-paced, half-hour pre-race show for others without the time or inclination to spend an hour and a half watching the warmup to a three hour race. While long, the hourlong program was good and featured some excellent tributes to the racing heroes of yore that I hope a lot of newer fans found informative. Each piece was well done. Afterwards, the shorter pre-race show couldn’t have been more different than the FOX Hollywood Hotel crap. FOX is the network that uses “crank it up” as a gimmick; well, TNT’s motto might have been “Turn down the volume a little” and it made the program a lot more watchable. Rather than watching Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond hollering over each other while Chris Myers served as the goofball, uninformed straight man in the corner, the TNT bunch actually had interesting, informative conversations that at times were brutally honest. You know there had to be NASCAR employees in the next booth blowing gaskets like a well worn Flathead Ford pulling up Pike’s Peak.

This season’s “Wally World” segments that showed Dallenbach superimposed over race footage were less successful and gimmicky. Hey guys, you tried that, it didn’t work – come up with something new next year. The Ponytail Express, however, was a hoot.

Call it a sign of diminished expectations but, quite frankly, being able to watch a race without intrusions from that damn gopher probably dropped my systolic blood pressure 20 points. The interesting thing is though FOX and TNT share a producer, the pictures being shown are very different. Again, it was a fundamental difference in attitude. FOX tries to present entertainment, while TNT apparently decided early on they were there to present an automobile race with the stars in the cars, not on in the booth. The coverage featured more wide-angle shots, showing the proximity of the leaders rather than cameras locked on one driver (usually Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson). The coverage was more balanced, focusing on the leaders and hard chargers coming through the pack no matter who sponsored them or what their last name is. It was noted and appreciated.

The view wasn’t always perfect, though. Often, the boys in the booth would be talking about one car while the cameras focused on another. Too often, it seemed to take forever to re-rack the tape and find the correct camera angle that showed what started an incident, or how a driver set up a pass, or of a driver behaving badly. Usually, they found the correct shot, but it was sometimes two commercial breaks later. And perhaps too much attention was focused on Kyle Busch given the way he’s been running the last four weeks and his in general boorish behavior. No matter how ill-tempered he was, nobody at TNT seemed to want to take Busch to task other than an occasional snide comment that, “Busch declined to talk to us.” Eventually, this kid is going to hear from his sponsors, “Boy, we pay you big bucks to put on that clown suit and get our logo out there on TV. Do the job. If you want to make a horse’s ass of yourself, you’ll be running the Kentucky Derby next year, not the Daytona 500.”

In the booth, Weber, who has a prima-donna attitude sometimes, was a bit less annoying than I recall him – even a too intense co-worker can be a decent guy when you’re out with him shooting pool, scarfing down peanuts, and having a few brews. Then, of course, he was gone; and in my opinion, the network owed it to the viewers to give some explanation as to why. Welcome to the bigs, boys… sometimes you become the story.

Larry McReynolds was the most visible on-screen holdover from the FOX reign of terror that started the season. On TNT, not forced to do sitdown comedy and try to wedge a word in edgewise when DW takes a breath, he seemed more relaxed. In his role on the tech pieces, McReynolds was more in his element as he knows his stuff. He came across not as a really bad comic from Dogpatch but more like a really intense high school physics teacher who, in his desire to share his love of the science, sometimes needed to be told, “Go take a Prozac or something, dude.” Hey, I’ve come to accept this is a Southern sport and McReynolds is from Alabama. Yeah, I know he can’t even pronounce diction, but it seems to me, at bare minimum, he ought to be able to pronounce the drivers’ names. It’s Joe “Neem-a-check” not “Nim-a-cheg.” And it’s Jamie “Mick-Murray” not “Mac-Murray.”

Matt Yocum was usually solid in the pits and his pre-race features. The other guy? Man, would you let him wear a ballcap before he gets terminal sunburn on his scalp? And the blonde? (I’m not even going to try the lady’s name… it looks like an industrial accident at an alphabet soup company.) Let’s just say being eye candy doesn’t make up for journalistic chops. Lady, this here is stock car racing, not softball. Toughen up the questions when the situation warrants. They ain’t gonna hit you. (Well, maybe Kyle Busch might.)

Some fans will disagree with me, but I felt Kyle Petty did an outstanding job this year. His laid-back, self-deprecating style of humor (how many times did he call himself an idiot when he overlooked something) indicated a new, more comfortable attitude towards this broadcasting thing this year. As broadcasting becomes more what he does and less a quick timeout from driving for a few weeks, Petty was honest, insightful, and fully engaged unlike last season. He seemed to be having fun, and that helped make some less than fun races more enjoyable to watch. New this year was Petty using Twitter to communicate live with real fans during the race, often answering their questions. It was an interesting use of new technology that put some immediacy in the game. But, dude, lose those ugly checkered shirts. In high-def, it looks like you’re wearing a picnic blanket that you stole from your granny. I look forward to more TV work for Petty, though, as his driving career slowly fades into the rearview mirror.

Wally Dallenbach really came into his own this year and gets my vote for the most improved player. His chemistry with Petty was outstanding to the point the two of them could have called the races themselves. In his driving career, Dallenbach enjoyed his best success on road courses, and he was able to offer a lot of insight at Sonoma – but he was also insightful at the other tracks. His self-deprecating style of humor and laid-back delivery made it seem more like a knowledgeable friend talking to you about the race. Perhaps most importantly, Dallenbach is developing that big picture view of a race that was Ned Jarrett’s forte back in the ESPN days. Wally is seeing stories develop on the track and commenting on them, much like the way Jarrett, after watching two drivers’ increasing aggression towards each other intensify, could often predict a wreck a few laps before it happened. That’s tremendously valuable for TV viewers who can only see what the camera is focused on, not the whole track. If Mike Joy could be convinced to sacrifice six weeks of his summer vacation to anchor the broadcast with Petty and Dallenbach in the booth, that would be the dream team of the talent pool out there currently.

Again, the TNT crew came across like friends you invited into your home to watch and enjoy the race. Their best moment was probably during the dramatic last-lap crash at Daytona, when they all started yelling just like my friends did. (Only the TNT boys were a bit more couth in that none of them yelled, “Holy Shit,” spilled their beers on the couch or sent the popcorn bowl flying halfway across the room.) Their detailed analysis of what happened (exonerating Stewart) and Petty’s genuine concern for the safety of the drivers involved came across as genuine and unscripted by the dictates of political correctness. That made for great television.

The other highlight of TNT’s Summer Stretch was the virtually commercial free “Wide Open” coverage of the Daytona race, a feature IRL fans get to enjoy weekly. If I were put in charge of NASCAR for one day, my second official act (after having Brian France’s reserved parking spot moved to Afghanistan) would be to demand all three networks use “Wide Open” style coverage for every race.

Perhaps TNT’s biggest fault was their seeming desire to hurry away from the race like Kyle Busch beating a hasty retreat refusing to comment. Yes, after their on-air abbreviated post-race coverage, they continued it online at the Dark Empire website – but I still refuse to go there lest my brains be sucked out my nostrils and I become a zombie. It’s been tested.

All in all, I give TNT’s coverage a B+, or perhaps even a gentleman’s – and when have I ever been less than a gentleman, gentle readers – A- given the races they had to work with. If they can coordinate the commentary and views a bit better, offer faster replays, keep Larry out of the Starbucks on race day, stick around a bit longer after the race and hire Mike Joy, all will be well.

But thanks to all involved for generally respecting the races, racers and fans for your brief time in the spotlight.

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