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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Knights of Standards & Practices, Please Report to the SPEED Stage

Hello, race fans. Last weekend’s races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (soon to become Charlotte Motor Speedway once again) were marked by cold weather and somewhat dodgy conditions (both races were somewhat hampered by rain, in addition to the cold weather). This can affect race coverage positively or negatively.

Which way did the networks go? Well, before I start with the race coverage critiques, there are a couple of other things to cover. The first of these was the Hall of Fame announcement ceremony, which both ESPN and SPEED covered in varying degrees. ESPN did it with a short cut-in for live coverage of the announcement on ESPNEWS with analysis from Dr. Jerry Punch in Charlotte, who just so happens to be a voter. Punch is informative enough… but the coverage was simply too little. ESPN only showed the announcement, some analysis… and that was it. They were gone in 20 minutes or so.

On SPEED, however, the Hall of Fame announcement was the centerpiece of a two-hour live show. Mike Joy and Ken Squier (both of whom had votes in the process), along with Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty anchored the telecast. Randy Pemberton and Wendy Venturini were also reporting from the floor after the announcement of the five inductees, which none of whom really surprised me all that much. (For the record, I considered both Frances, Earnhardt and Petty to be locks, leaving one wild-card spot open. I’m fine with Junior Johnson taking it, but I would have been fine with Pearson too).

The floor interviews were OK, although Pemberton’s with Ned Jarrett was a little rough (I think the camera cut to them about five seconds before they anticipated it, to be honest). The real fun came with the four anchors having guests up at their portable set. Brian France shows up these days at NASCAR functions about as often as the Mr. Invincibility item appears in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game on the NES (for reference purposes, it shows up three times in the whole game), so it was nice to see him talk about his father. Same for Lesa, who I can’t remember having appeared on television before Wednesday.

But it was the time that Richard and Lynda Petty spent on the set which was classic stuff. It was definitely a good way to spend your time right after work. Kyle was legitimately happy for his father, despite the acrimony that has played out between them over the years. Meanwhile, that story about Michael Waltrip living with the Pettys is crazy. I don’t really care that it had nothing to do with anything from last Wednesday… it was interesting.

Overall, SPEED’s coverage was a great show to watch, and I hope that with the building opening next year, that there will be more chances to do something like this type of coverage of the sport.

It is true that after NASCAR bound itself to traditions for so long, there is now a dearth of general knowledge about the history of the sport today. There probably always has been amongst casual fans, but even some of the die-hards don’t have the best knowledge of the sport’s history. Well, the Hall of Fame in Charlotte will go a ways towards alleviating that, but it can only do so much. Some have argued that NASCAR needs its own cable network like the NFL, NBA, MLB and the NHL already do. I think that would be nice, but I question a lot of things if that were to happen.

At this point, I simply do not know whether a NASCAR Network and SPEED can co-exist. There’s only so much NASCAR content out there. Apparently, the original plan was for SPEED to be that NASCAR Network starting in 2002, but those plans fell through. Based on SPEED’s dropping of many properties in recent years, including most of their offseason programming (some of which, including the WRC and the Isle of Man TT, has been picked up by Discovery’s HD Theater), it could still be argued that they may be going in that direction eventually. Also, there’s that issue of carriage for the channel from national cable providers (if it ends up being separate from SPEED). Sports fans are sick of the stupid battles between companies and programming providers (Versus, anyone?) that do nothing but deny people the chance to watch what they want, and those exclusivity deals that tick me off so much (NASCAR needs to open up HotPass to everyone, now).

Also of note, Kenny Wallace announced on his Twitter feed on Monday that he has re-signed with SPEED for another two years through the end of 2011. Great news for fans of the Herminator, who will continue in his current capacity on SPEED.

One final thing of note on SPEED this weekend was a blatant violation of S&P on NASCAR Smarts. In this case, we’re not talking about Start and Parks, but the infamous “Standards and Practices.” Traditionally with game shows (which NASCAR Smarts would kind of qualify as), people who work for the channel broadcasting the show, are related to someone working for the channel, or people who work for sponsors of the show are prohibited from being contestants. SPEED broke this rule at Charlotte by having a relative of John Roberts as a contestant on the show. That is Bush League and should never be repeated.

Now, the Standards and Practices are a part of contracts that everyone that goes on a game show has to agree to. This dates back to the infamous Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s, where people were “given the answers” on shows such as Twenty One. Obviously, SPEED doesn’t really take this show seriously if they’re willing to thumb their nose at S&P. Where are the Knights of Standards and Practices? Oh wait, they’re guarding against excessive use of profanities, and for some reason, the Thai dish Mee krob.

In an unrelated note, Jeopardy! had their own issues come to light this past week. It was discovered that the third-place contestant last Monday was actually a contestant on the show back in 1999, a violation of Jeopardy‘s own rules. Apparently, they didn’t realize that he previously appeared. A more detailed write-up of that incident can be found HERE.

Hopefully, you’re all still with me after all that.

Now, without further ado, to the races:

On Friday night, the Nationwide Series held the Dollar General 300 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. This was an interesting race to watch, with competitive racing for positions throughout the field, in addition to a few incidents on the track.

As has become the norm for NASCAR Countdown broadcasts preceding Nationwide races, the pre-race was a rather low-key affair, with only four interviews and analysis from the infield studio. I wish ESPN would do more to bring attention to Nationwide-only drivers and teams instead of giving all the focus to Cup drivers in the Nationwide races. ESPN, for all their faults this year, is generally fairly solid when it comes to features though.

However, I still believe that ESPN needs to bring in some kind of information box to properly show the teams that take the wave around during cautions. Voicing out the cars doing it helps, but when there are a bunch of them (like the nine that did Friday night during the second caution), it gets a little confusing because the trend is to bark out the names as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to think that Marty Reid gets a little exasperated with the pictures that are being provided to the viewers. He exuded a tone of frustration during the broadcast Friday night. He definitely does his best to point out the action on the track, but the cameras don’t always show what he’s talking about. For example, on one occasion, Reid pointed out the three-wide racing going on back in the pack on a restart while the cameras were focused in on the leaders, who were single-file.

Unfortunately, cameramen are not exactly allowed to just shoot whatever they want to shoot, or whatever the play-by-play announcer references. If that were the case, you would definitely have a toss-up for broadcasts. They could be really good, or covered with random shots of attractive women that has nothing to do with the race (like the so-called “Boob Cam” that often appears at NBA games). As a result, what the cameras shoot is more or less the decision of Director Rich Basile, and to a lesser extent, Producer Neil Goldberg. It seemed like what they wanted, though, wasn’t exactly matching up with what Marty was looking to see.

I also wondered out loud what was going on with the updating scrolls we’ve seen this season. They weren’t updating in real time Friday night, and I have no clue why, to be honest. It was fixed for Saturday night, but the absence Friday night was notable.

I didn’t really know what to make of post-race coverage. If you look at it on the surface, using TV listings, it would say that ESPN left the air a half-hour early (the time slot for Friday night’s race supposedly ended at 11:30 p.m.), for seemingly no reason at all. In their post-race time, ESPN interviewed the winning crew chief (Jason Ratcliff), and six drivers. In addition, there was the typical dose of post-race analysis. I have no clue why ESPN left at 11 p.m., though. None, whatsoever. Maybe they ran out of stuff to say, because as I’ve already said, they definitely weren’t in a hurry to get to anything.

On Saturday night, the Cup Series raced in the NASCAR Banking 500 only from Bank of America (yes, the name is unwieldy, probably because Bank of America probably thought it would make them look bad for advertising their bank so blatantly). This race was run in even colder conditions than Friday night (under 50 degrees at the start of the race), and was under the threat of rain early on.

Pre-race was short and low on content, to be honest. There were only two interviews (with Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) and no features were shown. If ESPN was not in commercial, or showing those aforementioned interviews, they were doing pre-race analysis from the infield studio. I should stress here that NASCAR was not in speed up mode for pre-race, too. It was originally scheduled to be a 25-minute pre-race show, far shorter than the others this season.

I will admit that Dr. Punch seemed to show a little bit more emotion in the booth on Saturday night than we’ve been seeing this season. While I think this is a good thing in the long run, I’m still not happy with ESPN’s notion that it was a good idea to not let Dr. Punch express himself fully in the booth. I can understand trying to play up Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree’s presence, but I do not believe that it should have been done at Dr. Punch’s expense.

Dr. Punch has plenty of experience calling sporting events. He’s done play-by-play for Cup races as far back as 1988. He did multiple Busch Grand National events over the years (I cannot give a number at this point, but if I were to guess, I’d say a shade over 70 prior to 2007). He’s done college football and college basketball, both from the booth and the sidelines. He’s been a loyal employee of ESPN for 25 years. He’s someone who rejected a potential deal with FOX back in 2000 to stay at the Worldwide Leader of Sports, hoping that someday, ESPN would re-acquire the rights to the now-Sprint Cup Series and allow him to “live his dream.” Yet we’ve actually seen Dr. Punch at his best not during play-by-play but rain delay coverage, when on-air personalities have to work off the cuff. Some think that Punch is miscast and should be on pit road, or in the infield studio. Well, I believe that Dr. Punch is under-utilized in the broadcast booth and has been operating with a metaphorical foot to the crotch this season straight from Bristol. The sooner that foot is withdrawn, the better….

The telecast showed a lot of the same issues that I, along with quite a few other writers, have pounded into the ground for much of this season. Every now and then, I read about fans making the conscious decision to not watch the races on television, opting instead for MRN Radio (if you’re lucky enough to live in an area with an affiliate, or have TrackPass). Still, others outright give up on the series until February, just so that they can stay away from ESPN telecasts. I am not really sure how common this is, to be honest, but I’ve seen sentiments along these lines on message boards over the past couple of years. I think it started sometime when NBC was still televising races (2005 or so?).

I really do think that ESPN needs to at least consider making some changes to these broadcasts in order to address the issues that have been raised this season. At this point, it could be assumed that their telecasts are actually hurting the sport. I understand the amount of commercials during the races (Hey, someone’s gotta pay for the broadcasts, which are most definitely not cheap), but the neutering of on-air personalities and outright bad camera work at times is not helping NASCAR out at a time in which they could use all the help they can get.

I really think that their on-air group doesn’t need any permanent changes, regardless of what my readership might say. However, there needs to be an outright change in philosophy for the broadcasts. This should be a change to a more straightforward style. It doesn’t need to be overly flashy. Also, as shown in the Behind the Scenes piece posted on here about seven weeks ago, ESPN insists upon using the broadcasts to show off their fully HD capabilities. HD requirements for ESPN telecasts already nixed the in-track cameras at Iowa in August (not built for HD cameras, apparently). Personally, I could care less about their capabilities despite the fact that I do watch the races on an HDTV. Yes, it looks nice, but getting up in someone’s grill does not show the whole story, and that is what needs to be worked on.

Post-race coverage was quite slim on Saturday night because the race ran almost right up to the end of the timeslot. As a result, hurry-up mode was brought into play for post-race. That’s a term that I am now going to use to describe post-race coverage where the Special Thanks and Video Courtesy credits flash on screen before the winner’s interview is even aired. There were only five interviews on-air after the race, one with winning crew chief Chad Knaus, and interviews with Johnson, Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Juan Pablo Montoya. The points check was tacked onto the scroll underneath the unofficial results.

That is all for this week. Next weekend is a split weekend, the last one of the season. The Nationwide Series has a standalone race, the Kroger on Track for the Cure 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park on Saturday afternoon. Coverage starts with NASCAR Countdown at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2, with race coverage starting at 3:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, at Martinsville Speedway, on Saturday the Camping World Truck Series returns after taking the last three weeks off for the Kroger 200 (yes, the supermarket chain is sponsoring two NASCAR races in one day). Pre-race coverage (NCWTS Setup) is scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m. ET on SPEED, with race coverage starting at 1 p.m. Finally, on Sunday, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the paperclip for the TUMS Fast Relief 500. Coverage will begin with NASCAR Countdown at 1 p.m. ET on ABC. Race coverage is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. I will provide critiques of all three of these telecasts. In addition, I will also provide some random thoughts and musings that I pick up from the broadcasts over the next week.

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. Also, if you would like to follow me via Twitter, you can go to my Twitter page here. And if you would like to contact TNT, ESPN or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:

SPEED
ESPN

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.

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