As some of you may know, my NASCAR weekends begin on YouTube where I produce videos that introduce the starting lineup for each Cup race. In Grid No. 1, I set the field for the 50th Daytona 500, using a format similar to the grids from old CBS broadcasts as I tried my hand at impersonating Ken Squier.
Even though the four-minute slide-show was my first attempt into video editing, the positive response I received from viewers took me aback. Not just what they were saying in each comment, but who was saying them. I had hoped my videos would attract older fans who remembered Squier’s booming calls, but I was surprised that they mostly struck a chord with younger fans, some of whom were half my age. In the two-and-a-half years since, these younger fans have not only been tremendously supportive of my work, but have kept me honest, verifying my statistics and historical references. It is because of them that “Brock’s Starting Grid Network,” or BSGN, has grown.
As it turns out, contrary to whoever came up with Digger, NASCAR’s young fanbase not only has tremendous respect for our sport’s history, but knows a heck of a lot more about it than many of us believe. In the Internet age, there’s really not much difference between a conversation one has with a Cale Yarborough fan or a Tony Stewart fan. Message boards and statistical databases are filled with just as many discussions about classic races as today’s. Sites like this one likely owe many of their hits to younger viewers. And YouTube’s racing community has flourished as these same race fans have shared their collections of classic race broadcasts from the pre-“Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” era.
But the fact that race fans are particularly attracted to classic racing clips on YouTube should furrow some brows at the NASCAR Media Group, who jealously hold NASCAR’s footage rights. Not from a legal standpoint, but from a critical one. Because the fact that fans young and old have had to take the initiative and make racing history available for everyone to enjoy points to a complete failure on NASCAR Media’s behalf to do the same.
Had it not been for fans’ herculean efforts on YouTube, many would be left with what little NASCAR Media, through the networks, has released to the public. Aside from what few races the organization has made available, the footage fans do get from them is flawed in three glaring ways:
1) THERE ARE NO UNIMPORTANT LAPS
One of the biggest gripes I have about aired re-broadcasts of classic races is how heavily condensed they are. It’s borderline hypocritical for NASCAR to demand fans watch every lap of this year’s schedule, but be satisfied with just 1-2 hour re-airs of historic races. It’s like abridging a great novel: what an editor may find trivial, a fan may find important.
For example, as pleased as I was that I could download the 1989 Southern 500 onto my iPhone from NASCAR’s website, I could not help but be disappointed that Darrell Waltrip’s failed bid at the Winston Million was almost completely edited out of the 45-minute clip. Even the old ESPN intro – the one where DW is found in a safe, saying “I’ve always wanted to know what a million dollars looked like,” is dubbed-over.
Such abridging also makes fans miss out on interesting in-race segments. Hidden among my own collection of classic races are a plethora of fascinating features. A clip of Alabama’s “Richard Petty Fans” music video was played during a long green-flag run in the 1992 DieHard 500 at Talladega, ESPN’s Larry Nuber gave a great summary of the restrictor-plate controversy during the first caution of the 1988 Winston 500 at Talladega, and the career of a young Dave Blaney was discussed in-depth during his Cup debut in the 1992 AC-Delco 500 at Rockingham.
Not to mention all those great 20-minute no-nonsense introductions that ESPN, TNN, ABC and the other networks hammered-out through the mid-90s. Want to see the ESPN crew send a hollowed-out VW Bug tumbling down the banks at Bristol? Watch the opening minutes of the 1988 Valleydale Meats 500!
Not only should NASCAR Media make these full broadcasts available, but they should strive to find footage that fans haven’t seen yet. I know from browsing YouTube that there exist “Wild Feeds” of classic races, unedited broadcasts that don’t miss a single lap, complete with the back-and-forth between the guys in the booth during commercial breaks. It saddens me thinking of all the piles of cobweb-riddled spools of such broadcasts that NASCAR Media has in its safes, waiting to be enjoyed once more.
2) EARNHARDT AND PETTY DIDN’T WIN ALL THE BEST RACES
Equally-frustrating is how selective NASCAR Media is in what races get re-broadcast. In an age where Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans supposedly outnumber everyone else’s 10 to 1, NASCAR Media seems to be under the mistaken impression that fans only want to watch races The Intimidator won or, failing that, some of the 200 triumphs of Richard Petty.
Although the importance of Dale Earnhardt and Petty to NASCAR history cannot be overstated, they can be overexposed. Outside of those 276 combined victories, several other colorful drivers helped define this sport in their own special way: figures like Neil Bonnett, Morgan Shepherd and Ricky Rudd.
To its credit, ESPN Classic has come the closest to rising out of this rut, offering re-broadcasts of such races as Dave Marcis’s last win at Richmond in 1982 and the legendary roller-coaster ride that was the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta. However, on top of being condensed with the classic “SpeedWorld” intros almost invariably removed, ESPN Classic sets aside very little time for NASCAR in their broadcasts. When they do show a race, the network is often indifferent to some of the sport’s lesser-known but equally great races.
Consider, if you will, the 1992 Goody’s 500 at Martinsville. No, not the “Mr. September” race of 1991, but the same fall race run the following year. One week after Alan Kulwicki crashed at Dover, dropping him 278 points out of the championship lead, it was in this race that “Special K” started to claw his way back into contention. Kulwicki finished fifth that day while points leader Bill Elliott’s engine failure trapped him in 30th. Rusty Wallace led for much of the race, but Geoff Bodine took the checkered flag, fending off brother Brett Bodine in the closing stages. But the best storyline belonged to polesitter Kyle Petty, whose fleet Mello Yello Pontiac spun twice, stalled on pit road, yet still made up three laps to finish fourth. It was a race stuffed with great racing and great stories as well.
But I guess I can see why the networks don’t pay it much mind. Following an engine failure that day, Earnhardt scored one of his three last-place finishes of 1992.
3) LESS IS MORE
With the economy being what it is, NASCAR Media may argue that it would cost too much to merely take a peek inside their broadcast vault and click that “Upload” button on YouTube. But much of this concern stems from a third irksome and costly trend in how both NASCAR Media and the networks present NASCAR history: the persistent use of extra sound effects, extra graphics and other editing techniques to already-produced broadcasts of past races.
I’m looking at you, SPEED Channel. Over the years, SPEED has hammered together some good documentaries on NASCAR history: this year’s series on the Hall of Fame inductees was particularly well-produced. However, when it comes to showing highlights from old races during these documentaries, SPEED seems a little too eager to bring in the foley artists. A clip of Earnhardt and Elliott trading paint after the 1987 Winston is emphasized with the sound of a metal door closing while cartoonish tire squeals are dropped onto every short-track clip. It’s at least, peculiar, and at most ridiculous for people involved in a sport with its own sound effects to think more are needed – it distracts fans from the experience.
This is probably the most intrusive problem of all because today’s race broadcasts are utterly consumed by sound effects and flashy graphics. In the last decade, we’ve gone from the simple “boop-boop-boop” FOX used when the green flag dropped to the overly-elaborate whooshing graphics and synthetic air wrench bursts of the “new” ESPN. There seems to be a movement afoot to desensitize fans to such excessiveness so that we don’t notice them being dropped into a black-and-white replay of the inaugural Daytona 500. Even Dale Jr., whose respect for NASCAR history is well-known, couldn’t keep his editing staff from throwing all those annoying “pop-up” messages into his “Back in the Day” series.
But it wasn’t always that way, and that appears to be part of why YouTube fans love seeing these old clips in their purest form. Watch any unedited Cup broadcast from before 2001 and you’ll find that when catchy original theme music wasn’t leading you into or out of a commercial, you were left to enjoy the simple pleasure of the cars whizzing by and the enthused play-by-play of the broadcasters. It was simple then, both relaxing and exciting, and you’ll find that comment after comment is posted online wondering why today’s broadcasts don’t follow suit.
In the end, when fans live in a world where even Dale Jr. can’t get a copy of his dad’s first Cup win at Bristol in 1979, NASCAR Media needs to change its business model. I fail to see why a group which has good quality, unedited broadcasts of every race ever filmed – some of which fans haven’t seen in decades, if ever – would not be more proactive about using these resources to bring attention back to the sport.
With much of this footage already produced for television in the past, graphics, sound effects and editing are unnecessary. As a result, it would not only cost little to post NASCAR Media’s archives on YouTube, but the organization could earn income through ad space, benefitting NASCAR along with its fans.
But most importantly, making NASCAR footage accessible will attract fans of all ages and experiences. Just like the Hall of Fame, such videos have the potential of keeping our sport’s history alive, both for the enjoyment of its older fans and for the curiosity of its newer ones.