Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Broadcasting Brilliance – My Picks for an All-Star NASCAR Commentating Crew

The 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is nearly over, with Jimmie Johnson still responsible for his engine turning over next Sunday (Nov. 22) at Homestead-Miami speedway for the mercy killing of the 2009 season and Chase for the Championship.

Stat dorks have their calculators running overtime right now, trying to conjure up how and when Jimmie Johnson will actually clinch the title – assuming he does not pull a 2005 Homestead stunt and take himself out of the running, which would afford Mark Martin and the No. 5 team a shot at winning the Sprint Cup championship.

While the action on the track the last two weeks has caused the points battle to rubber band back and forth from a mere 73 points back to 103 markers between Johnson and Martin, what also has gotten the fans attention as of late has been the communication of the chaos that has transpired on the track.

Namely, the television coverage.

Now, I am not going to pile on with criticism of the ESPN crew – though by prefacing my comments with that statement, I’ve just about opened the floor to any number of beratings and belittlings – but something has been lacking this year with the coverage. Not to fault anybody, but considering there is a championship at stake, their seems to be something missing.

Even NASCAR took the network to task a couple of weeks back, taking issue with the broadcast team deeming AMP Energy 500 at Talladega as “boring;” while at the same time, drivers including Tony Stewart were heard to be radioing into their crews, requesting something – anything – to keep them awake through the insufferable dross of a single-file queue of cars 30 deep, motoring around in a circle for half an hour.

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Ramsey Poston of NASCAR insisted that there was intense racing throughout the field during this stretch of the race – though these claims remain unsubstantiated and have as yet not been vetted.

Perhaps intense racing means different things to different people; but I digress.

That being said, with the final race upon us, history stands to be made with Johnson poised to win his fourth consecutive title next weekend. Spare the hate mail; I’m just reporting the facts. Even though the facts bear out that under the traditional points system, Johnson would have a mere seven-point lead over Stewart and be up 51 points on Jeff Gordon.

During the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 this Sunday (Nov. 15) at Phoenix, every effort was made to create excitement where there was little to be had, to help keep those at home from nodding off to the dulcet deceleration tones entering the first turn. A puff of smoke here, a jackman getting taped up there or something as innocuous as the track having shade on it (as if it would adversely affect only the one car in the process of lapping the field), was cause for alarm – though nothing actually happened.

While keeping things they way they were and worked for nearly 30 years could have potentially led to some intense racing, the scenario as it stands has Johnson winning his fourth, or Martin breaking through to win an improbable first championship under the current circumstance.

That being said, I started thinking about who would I want calling these final laps (besides me) to decide the 2009 Sprint Cup season finale. Like any great meal, it all boils down to presentation. After all, you don’t serve filet mignon in a yellow-paper wrapper or lobster tails in a Styrofoam container with tartar sauce packets, right?

So to set the backdrop for a championship finish that needs a world-class crew to call it down to the wire and add some spark to what has become a bit predictable, I have assembled the following all-star broadcast crew below.

Ken Squier: To many who first started watching NASCAR about the same time Cale was mashing in Bobby’s fist with his face, this was the man who was recognized as the voice of what he deemed “big-time stock car racing.” At 74 years of age, Squier still occasionally narrates NASCAR specials, and makes an appearance during Speedweeks in Daytona for SPEED for the Daytona 500 – the event he deemed “The Great American Race.”

He gave legitimacy to a sport by convincing CBS to carry the 1979 Daytona 500, from green flag to checkered, and helped develop the in-car camera three years later. Sure in his later years broadcasting he may have missed a name or two, (for some reason he would call Jimmy Spencer, “Jimmy Smith”) but he has had a decade to get rested and ready, and call the record-setting fourth consecutive championship for Johnson – or Martin’s improbable title, coming out of self-imposed part-time exile, at 50 years of age.

Allen Bestwick: If there is a good reason that Alan Bestwick is being allowed to languish in the ESPN studios and not call the action during the race, I am all ears and would love to hear it. He was about as close as you can get to some fans long standing practice of muting the television and listening to MRN. He was one of the brightest additions to the “new” NASCAR network television package that debuted back in 2001, with NBC Sports.

While many fans wring their hands over necks they’d like to do the same with, the same would never be said about Bestwick, as his race broadcasts were always insightful, informative, unbiased and remain the benchmark that all others today should be judged.

David Hobbs: For those of you like me who actually look forward to getting up at 7:00 a.m. to watch a live Formula 1 race, one of the things that you welcome is the deadpan British humor of Hobbs. He too started his broadcasting career calling NASCAR races in the early 1980s and appears as himself in perhaps the greatest racing recreation in the history of cinema, 1983’s cinematic masterpiece Stroker Ace.

I can only imagine the banter and opposite accents traded back and forth between Hobbs and Darrell Waltrip late in the race or the next time Sam Hornish Jr. loops it around in traffic.

Kyle Petty: Think of all of the former drivers in recent years that have retired or pulled back to a part-time schedule that you would want to listen to call a race. Dale Jarrett does an admirable job, following in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one and Waltrip has become as synonymous with NASCAR races as mysterious debris cautions, even when nobody has wrecked for the previous 45 minutes.

While he was often chastised during his career because he had other interests and pursuits beyond just driving a racecar, television is clearly his calling. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who has a bad word to say about Kyle Petty, and he serves as the perfect link to NASCAR’s past, present and future.

Kyle would probably quip that makes him the “missing link” and do so in a way that didn’t sound cheesy, corny or self-aggrandizing as some might.

Dave Despain: Some many recognize Despain as the baritone bald guy with his own call-in show on SPEED, capping off their bevy of racing shows Sunday nights, but others may not know that he used to be one of the chief pit reporters for CBS Sports along with Mike Joy during the 1980s. Despain has no issue making his opinion known and does so in a way that helps educate many fans who are just starting to watch NASCAR – as well as those who have thrown up their hands and have just about had it.

It’s probably no surprise that he reminds me a little bit of the late George Carlin; though I don’t think we’d have to worry about him blurting out one of the seven forbidden words during race telecasts.

Besides, what winning driver wouldn’t want to be presented with a Despain bobble head in victory lane?

Jeanne Zelasko: Hah! Just kidding. Wanted to see if you were still paying attention. I’m sure I that piqued Steve Park’s interest a tad. Those of you who remember the Infineon race at Sonoma from 2001 will know what I am referring to.

Bill Webber: Webber has always gotten a lot of grief from race fans, which I never could quite understand. Back when he was doing pit work for ESPN during their heyday of NASCAR coverage (i.e., not today), he was one of the best in the business at explaining to fans the nuts and bolts about nuts and bolts.

His time in the booth this year with TNT was ended prematurely after he got into it with a fan in a hotel, but he was the first guy to say “hello” to me in the press room at Michigan International Speedway last season while I was fumbling around for the days bulletins like the noob that I was. While his future status is unknown in the booth, he needs to be in the thick of the action, Nomex footies on the ground and put that hurricane-proof hair to the test once again.

Matt Yocum: The guy knows the name of every catch-can man on even the most obscure start-and-park team and can set up a post-race question to Stewart that will not illicit a terse response, even if he blew an engine while leading on the last lap of the Brickyard 400.

Since Martin stands to finish second in the points standings for the fifth time in his career, despite having his best season in over a decade, there are sure to be some powerful emotions brewing, and the last thing that is needed at this point is a dumb question that pours salt into the wound or causes that vein in his forehead to explode.

Robin Meade: Host of CNN Headline News morning show, Morning Express with Robin Meade, her credentials will be well known to anybody who watches her for anything longer than three seconds. Does she know anything about racing? She took a lap with Wally Dallenbach for TNT a few years ago, helped to promote a NASCAR ride along giveaway on her show and made an appearance at Chicagoland in 2008. That’s good enough for me.

Sorry Rusty; Game Over.

With the final weekend upon us, hopefully the Ford 400 at Homestead affords a memorable call for a finish that will be either historical or hysterical. Whether it’s Bill Elliott racing towards a million dollars at Darlington or Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd spinning at North Wilkesboro, the crew calling the action is forever ingrained as part of that event. Some of that seems to have been lost in recent years; I think my team could bring it back.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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