Greetings, race fans and welcome to this week’s critique, entry No. 43 in a long running series where I look into the quality of the race broadcasts. We’ve got a lot to talk about, so let’s get right into it.
On Friday night, the Truck Series held their season finale race, the Ford 200. SPEED televised the race with their typical crew of Rick Allen, Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip in the booth. However, there were a couple of additional guests during the race. Michael’s older brother Darrell decided to come on down and join in on the festivities. More on this later.
Now that we’re down to the end of the season, SPEED’s pre-race show (NCWTS Setup) is much more nuts and bolts like than it has been. Yes, Voda still hosts the pre-race show from pit road like always, but there aren’t any features on there like earlier in the season. Just interviews and pre-race analysis. Although I will admit here that SPEED interviewed more drivers (and a more diverse group at that) than ESPN did for either the Nationwide or Cup races on Sunday.
The race coverage was your usual stuff that we’ve seen this season from SPEED. I should note that even though Darrell was in the booth, there was no “Boogity Boogity Boogity.” Pressed about that fact later in the race, Darrell claimed that it’s not his show, even referring to himself as an “interloper.” Now, you guys know that its generally not good to have four people in the booth because it results in people having to cut others off to get their points in. Add a fifth person, and someone has to switch out. Literally. SPEED only has four headsets in the booth, so when super special guest Bobby Allison showed up, Darrell had to relinquish his headset to Bobby for the guest appearance.
There was another back to back commercial break sequence in the second half of the race Friday night. This was the third week in a row that this has happened and it never fails to annoy me. What is the point of that? Are there not enough cautions for you?
Post-race coverage was relatively short for the amount of time that SPEED had to work with. Before any of the post-race interviews were conducted, SPEED cut to Steve Byrnes at the SPEED stage in order to plug Trackside, which started at 10:30 p.m. Not really necessary, since commercials plugging it had been airing all day on SPEED. After the unnecessary cut away to Byrnes, SPEED interviewed race winner (and championship truck owner) Kevin Harvick, champion Ron Hornaday and runner-up Matt Crafton. There was also the trophy presentation ceremony, post-race analysis, a final points check and the unofficial results. After that was finished, SPEED left the air 10 minutes early and went to the final segment of an episode of NASCAR Smarts from Charlotte in May.
This is obviously not the best way to cap off a season, to be honest. Although, SPEED has generally done well with the trucks this season, and I don’t think there will be any changes for 2010. Just fix the back to back commercials issue and make sure that if the race ends earlier than expected that the time slot is still filled at the track, and I’ll be a happy camper.
On Saturday, the Nationwide Series held their season finale, the Ford 300, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Kyle Busch merely needed to start his engine and creep forward a few inches on pit road in order to clinch the title, but that doesn’t mean that ESPN still couldn’t focus their pre-race show on the points standings.
During the pre-race show, there was plenty of talk about points positions. A little about Kyle Busch (including a short interview) and Carl Edwards, a little about the race for fifth, which seemed to be focused on Mike Bliss, and a little on the race for 10th (which focused on Michael Annett). Other than the points, there was quite a lot of focus on the budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski and how Hamlin all but mentioned retribution in a post-race interview in Phoenix.
I’m also wondering why they didn’t show which cars had in-car cameras before the race started. Admittedly, I was half asleep at the time because I had to get up early on Saturday and go into work, returning home just in time for the start of the race, but I did notice it on Saturday and checked the DVR just to be sure of myself.
I’m generally not sure whether ESPN really needed to show a split screen of the race and Tim Brewer in the Craftsman Tech Garage on lap 16 just to give a quick talk about the kill switch. Not to be mean to Tim Brewer, but this was simple enough that Andy Petree probably could have done that from the booth and we could have had a full screen on the racing. The second caution was thrown for Blake Koch‘s (No. 81 Dodge for MacDonald Motorsports) side window flying out of the car. Apparently, ESPN had no footage of this happening, even though Edwards may or may not have hit it, bending in his front valence in the process. ESPN never commented on whether they had the footage or not. I guess with them, if they don’t mention anything about footage on air, then they don’t have it. Not really a fan of that, to be honest. I’ve mentioned it before on here. If you don’t have the footage (even though you have 60-something cameras on the property), admit it, and save yourself some face.
However, ESPN did show footage of the debris off of the No. 10 of Justin Marks that caused the fourth caution. Kudos to them.
As for Hamlin’s retribution, I’ll admit right here that when I saw it live, I said “Revenge!” out loud. Kinda like the episode of Robot Chicken where “Montezuma’s Revenge” is referenced. On there, after Montezuma is killed, his spirit returns to enact his “revenge.” Of course, what Hamlin did here is nowhere near as embarrassing as what Montezuma’s Revenge was on Robot Chicken (I’m not going to get into what it is here, so use your imagination). On the broadcast, Andy Petree said of Hamlin, “He didn’t get it done good enough” in regards to him dumping Keselowski, as in he meant to put him in the wall. He more or less sided with Keselowski in the incident and had a good laugh about it. Having a laugh about something like this is OK if nobody hits anything, but he should be mindful of his words if something like this happens again in the future.
Post-race coverage was, like SPEED’s post-race on Friday night, focused on the championship for the most part. There were two interviews with Kyle Busch (one for the series championship trophy and one because he also won the race), and interviews with car owner Joe Gibbs and crew chief Jason Radcliff. Other than the Gibbs No. 18 team, the only other drivers to be interviewed by ESPN were Hamlin and Keselowski. Of course, the main topic there was Denny’s Revenge.
It’s been a tough year for ESPN. I’m not 100% sure whether there will be any major changes for the Nationwide coverage for next year. One thing we know for sure is that backup pit reporter Jack Arute will not be back next year. Now, on the surface, this may not be big since he wasn’t on air every week, but Arute has been with ESPN since at least 1984. Also of note is the fact that Shannon Spake is currently seven months pregnant with twins (yes, this was announced in a press release by ESPN back on Sept. 25). They are due to make their grand entrance to life in January. This creates a conundrum. It is possible that Shannon could take a maternity leave for the first couple of months of the 2010 season. If that were to happen, it is unclear who would take over her role temporarily on pit road in her absence. Mike Massaro is a possibility, as is Rick DeBruhl. We’ll hear more about this in the coming months.
On Sunday, there was wall-to-wall NASCAR programming, including two competing pre-race shows. This is where the beauty of the mighty DVR comes into play. I watched the gigantic three-hour long edition of NASCAR RaceDay live on SPEED, then went back and watched ESPN’s special SportsCenter from Homestead after the race ended. I’ll admit that if you watch that much pre-race programming, it drives you nuts regardless of who’s doing it.
On SPEED, there were a total of 10 on-air personalities on three separate sets during the broadcast. On the regular stage was John Roberts, Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace. At a special desk behind the pits was Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty, while Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds were on a beach set. In addition, Hermie Sadler and Wendy Venturini were reporting from the garage. Quite busy, to be honest. Even with the extra hour of time, there were only a few interviews, far fewer than normal (five over the three hours). Brian France stopped by the main desk and talked for a few minutes. He didn’t really have all that much to say (to be honest), but quite a few fans online ripped him for looking slovenly, unkempt and unprofessional. Personally, I couldn’t care less about attire, especially at a NASCAR race, but he looked a little worn out.
Robin Braig, President of Daytona International Speedway was also on site to effectively promote the Daytona 500. During his interview (on the beach set), Braig’s microphone died on air, an unfortunate circumstance. The only interviews of team personalities were of Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday, Chad Knaus and Mark Martin. There was also a feature on what the drivers were going to do in the offseason which I liked. It reminded me of the kind of thing that you would see on NCWTS Setup early in the season. Wendy Venturini’s Real Deal interview was with Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick, which was quite interesting. The show closed out with an essay from Ken Squier about champions, which was, in his usual style, well pointed and appropriate.
What made up the rest of the three hours? A lot of analysis. I’ll admit that I got a little tired of the analysis and was beginning to tune out before Spencer went on his rant on how many of the drivers in the Cup Series are boring. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. Truth is, we really don’t know because they rarely get on TV unless they wreck. I’m not really sure what Spencer wants these drivers (like Reed Sorenson, David Ragan, etc.) to be in public, but it’s difficult for many to figure out how to act and what to say on TV. Billy Tanner, a driver in the ARCA Re/Max Series, made the mistake at Talladega in October 2007 of ranting about “Rich Kids” in an interview on SPEED after he got wrecked (Note: A clip of the aforementioned crash can be found online. We haven’t heard from him since. Had he kept his mouth shut, he could be S&P’ing the No. 02 in the Nationwide Series for Stott Classic Racing (which Tanner was driving for at Talladega) right now, at least. As much as I don’t like the start-and-park phenomenon, he could be getting exposure from it.
ESPN aired a special 90-minute edition of SportsCenter from Homestead which was hosted by Allen Bestwick from the Infield Studio. Brad Daugherty, Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham joined him in the booth. Now, I’ll admit right now that this show was incredibly biased towards the No. 48 team. It was over an hour before anyone was interviewed on air (not counting the features) that was not involved with the No. 48 team. Dave Burns was charged with following Johnson and Chad Knaus around for most of the weekend, including an interview early in the show. This was technically his sit down information gathering chat with Knaus, which I described back in my behind-the-scenes article as where stories are often generated. Obviously, the on-camera interview ended before the questions were posed that could be used in Burns’s pit-road work during the race (didn’t want to pre-empt Burns).
On-air interviews included Johnson, the aforementioned transporter lounge interview with Knaus, Ron Matec (Johnson’s car chief), Greg Ives (Johnson’s race engineer) and John Boydston (Johnson’s engine tuner) in the first half of the show. After the one-hour mark, there were interviews with Mark Martin, Edwards and Clint Bowyer, and Gary Johnson, Jimmie’s father.
Features included a Side-by-Side interview with Johnson and Knaus about their relationship with each other, and a sit-down interview (conducted by Marty Smith) with Tony Stewart. I’ll admit that the one I liked best was the one on how the track came together after the town was almost wiped off the map in August 1992 by the infamous Hurricane Andrew. For those of you who don’t recall, the track was first proposed by Ralph Sanchez literally a month or so after the hurricane blew through town as a way to help revitalize the area. That feature should be available on ESPN’s website, but it is currently not.
Other features included a bit where analyst Dale Jarrett took Mike Rowe (Grand Marshal of the Ford 400, voiceover artist, and grand master of the Dirty Jobs) for a ride around the track in the Ford Taurus SHO Pace car, similar to what I did at Watkins Glen in August. I didn’t get to sit up front next to Brett Bodine, though. One of SceneDaily.com’s writers got there before I could. Another feature covered the ascendancy of 19-year-old Joey Logano into the Cup Series. Finally, there was a feature about post-race celebratory donuts. Personally, I could care less about that, but I know (and so does ESPN) that many fans cannot get enough of it.
In and around all the features, there was plenty of analysis from the infield studio. I’ll admit that I got a little tired of all the constant analysis after a while, especially after watching the three-hour NASCAR RaceDay show.
Do I think ESPN should have aired this show? Definitely. However, I think they needed to make it more inclusive. Most of the lead up to Sunday’s race was centered upon Johnson as it stands. There wasn’t even a mention of Jeff Gordon or Kurt Busch in the entire 90-minute show, regardless of the fact that they were battling for third in points. This is definitely something that can be improved for the future.
After ESPN ran the 90-minute special Edition of SportsCenter, they continued on with NASCAR Countdown on ABC. The network pre-race show was also designed around Johnson’s drive for four in a row and Hendrick Motorsports in general. There was a feature on the level of teamwork that Hendrick Motorsports has exhibited over the years, and how that was relatively difficult to come about at first. I found this interesting, if only because I’m a nut for historical goodies (the feature contained clips of Tim Richmond and Harry Hyde together, amongst others.).
There was another feature on Johnson and Knaus on ABC, which makes for three just on Sunday between NASCAR Countdown, the SportsCenter special and NASCAR RaceDay, which is overkill in my opinion. I thought that Wendy’s on SPEED was the best of the three, to be honest. There was also a feature on Martin’s season so far.
As for interviews, they were few and far between. Only Johnson and Martin were interviewed on air. Everyone else seemingly didn’t matter.
Once the race started, I noticed a couple of things. One, it appeared that there was a little more commentary being done from the Infield Studio by Allen Bestwick, Brad Daugherty, Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham. I’m not sure whether it was really more than normal, or if I just thought it was. This will only give the faction of fans that want Dr. Punch removed from the booth more ammunition.
Another fact was how the final full-time start for Michael Waltrip was almost completely ignored. Dr. Punch made a brief mention of it with three laps to go and that was the only time that it was mentioned all day. Weak. Waltrip’s been full-time in the series since 1986 and that’s the sort of farewell he gets? He deserves better than that.
Post-race coverage was focused on the championship celebration for the most part, but thankfully, that didn’t mean that everyone else got ignored. In addition to interviews with Johnson, Knaus and Jimmie’s father Gary, there were interviews with championship runner-up Martin and race winner Hamlin. In addition, there were interviews with Logano (Rookie of the Year), Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton.
Well, that’s the end of the 2009 season. But, don’t worry. I’ll be back in February to begin year No. 2 of critique NASCAR’s telecasts. It’s been an interesting year and I’ve learned a lot.
ESPN has struggled in their portion of the 2009 Cup season. I’ve written multiple times about how Dr. Punch doesn’t seem enthusiastic in the booth. I’ve learned that ESPN toned him down as a result of a meeting after the 2007 season. However, based on what I’ve seen out on Dr. Punch on the broadcasts, he’s interpreted the ruling as basically de-emphasizing himself and that needs to change. For the future, he needs to find a more happy balance between proper commentary and not drowning out the analysts. I think he can do this.
Jarrett and Petree have been holding their own in the booth, often carrying broadcasts due to Dr. Punch’s decision to seemingly de-emphasize himself. For next year, they need to allow Dr. Punch, or the new guy if Punch is replaced, take his rightful place as the alpha dog. Their analysis is generally fine though. I generally don’t cover the pit reporters all that much, but I do think that new methods of questioning or phrasing wouldn’t be a bad idea for them to consider. Stuff that makes them look more informed on air (and believe me, they are, but it doesn’t always come off that way).
For the 2010 season, there have not been any major changes that have been announced as of yet. On the FOX side, there may a slight curtailment of Digger, to which I say thank goodness. He’ll still be around though. For TNT, the main question is who will be in the booth doing the Play-by-Play. Weber won’t be back, and veteran Ralph Sheheen did an admirable job filling in. I wouldn’t mind him doing it full-time, but there still hasn’t been any word about whether its permanent or not. I’ve already mentioned some of the questions about ESPN’s coverage above for next year.
If anything notable pertaining to the broadcasts comes down the pipe during the winter months, we’ll be sure to bring it to you here on Frontstretch.
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 ESPN or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:
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 politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.
About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.
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