Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: FOX Unveils New Look, But Old Issues Must Be Solved For ’11

Hello, race fans. We’re back for another full season of critiquing, complimenting, ranting and suggesting here at Talking NASCAR TV. If only new races could bring perfect health; at the moment, I’m not feeling 100% since I’ve come down with a slight cold. It’s bad enough I’m spending winter with the flu; what’s worse was the headache I got from watching the farce known as the Budweiser Shootout on FOX. I know you’re thinking that the telecast gave me a headache… it did not. In all actuality, the racing did; so why did the television network escape blame? Read on to find out.

FOX Changes

Friday’s coverage of Budweiser Shootout practice brought with it the introduction of a new graphics package that will be used throughout the FOX portion of the season. As expected, it is a match to the new graphics set unveiled for the NFL on FOX in August. The scroll is still there, but heavily redesigned in a way I find to be a little easier to read than the old setup. The numbers for each driver are definitely a lot larger, and for those drivers whose graphical packages have been completed, their names will be surrounded by a color background that matches their car.

That makes things easy to follow, highly legible with one exception: those drivers whose names have a red background. The color just doesn’t work, even with an HD television.

Above the scroll is the revamped lap counter, which depending on track conditions will either light up in green, yellow or red. Also easier to read, the “pop up” represents another step up in both quality and clarity from its 2010 version. However, just because the scroll has been revamped doesn’t mean that FOX can simply use it as a crutch.

The individual driver graphics continue to be a work in progress at the moment. From Friday, the most notable example of a team whose graphics were not loaded in was the JTG-Daugherty Racing No. 47 for Bobby Labonte. Other teams that did not have their graphics complete included the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9, the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 and a lot of the smaller, part-time teams like the MaxQ Motorsports No. 64, Rusty Wallace Racing’s No. 77 and the K-Automotive No. 92 driven by Brian Keselowski.

I mention it because generic looks can make things a little confusing – hard to follow a color system where some of the colors don’t match – but I expect that the remainder of the outstanding graphic packages will likely be completed in time for the Gatorade Duels on Thursday. If not? Then definitely by Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Note there will be no real difference between FOX’s graphics and SPEED’s graphics for their Sprint Cup coverage, at least during the FOX portion of the season which means the smaller network gets a major revamp and their most readable package since starting to cover the sport. I cannot speak for after Kansas, though, once the main broadcaster changes hands to TNT. Meanwhile, the ARCA graphics are the same as last year, at least for now. That could change by the time they hit the track at Talladega in April… we’ll see.

Also, Saturday night marked the debut of the official FOX Sports theme music (formerly just the NFL on FOX theme) for NASCAR on FOX, replacing the “Let’s Go Racin’, Boys!” version that has been used over the last couple of years. I am already on record as saying that it feels odd outside of a football telecast. However, FOX Sports President Eric Shanks loves it, is looking for consistency across all broadcasts and won’t accept anything different; it’s as simple as that. I guess I’ll just have to get used to it… as will you.

Two more FOX innovations were unveiled during the weekend. One was a new in-car camera shot that was only used during practice on Friday, as it was not approved for use during the Shootout by NASCAR. Described by Mike Joy as the “elbow out the window cam,” the camera was placed on the drivers’ window sill of Regan Smith’s car and looked over to the left. The camera also had panning ability. I thought it was nice, but in my opinion? It had more or less been done before. In practice, such a shot is similar to what Benny Parsons referred to as the “Dog Cam” back in the early 1990s on ESPN.

Second, during FOX’s coverage of Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying, FOX introduced the Ghost Cam, which allowed them to overlay qualifying laps on top of each other to show where Dale Earnhardt Jr. would gain time on his rivals. Interesting concept, although I think FOX may have used it one too many times. However, it comes off as a one-time thing to me. I’d be surprised to see it in Phoenix.

OK, enough of the innovations and graphical doohickeys. On to the actual races.

Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200

We’ll get right into it. Shootout day at Daytona has traditionally been combined with ARCA’s season-opener, and 2011 was no exception. For the kickoff event, FOX’s Darrell Waltrip joined Rick Allen and Phil Parsons in the broadcast booth. Waltrip joining in was somewhat surprising since it was posted on the Facebook page representing Ken Schrader and his race team last Tuesday that Schrader would be in the booth for the race. The plan changed at some point, for unknown reasons prior to press time but one thing’s for certain: Schrader was nowhere to be found near that telecast.

Compared to the Shootout later Saturday night, the ARCA pre-race show was nonexistent. SPEED simply got right to the coverage. The command to start engines came before they even finished their opening, and because of the quick start, there were no driver interviews.

The race coverage was heavily focused on the front of the pack, regardless of whether there was actually any action going on. And if you saw the race on Saturday, then you noticed that there simply was not that much action up front. There were two lead changes in the entire 80-lap race: one was at the start, when Kyle Fowler got a better start than Ty Dillon, and the other was when Bobby Gerhart took over the point on lap 20, when Fowler pitted. That was it.

Most of the action up front was single-file. Quite boring, to be honest. There was some more action further back, but we only saw a little of it. Why skimp on that side-by-side competition, then, in favor of drivers and teams simply biding their time until the finish? Passing and excitement is what I watch a race for; show it to me.

Another gripe that I had was that there wasn’t enough interviews with drivers that suffered from misfortune during the race. In SPEED’s defense, they did get an interview with full-timer Chad Hackenbracht after his nasty crash on lap 44. However, I would have liked to have seen additional interviews with drivers that had gotten caught up in the Big One, like Steve Arpin, Hal Martin, Steve Blackburn or Milka Duno. Anyone would do, since eight separate drivers were eliminated in the crash. In the end, only Maryeve Dufault ended up being interviewed.

Darrell Waltrip, true to his form in cases where he is clearly the third man in the booth, took a backseat during portions of the broadcast. That effectively meant that there was no “Boogity” refrain at the beginning of the race, and at times, he let Allen do his job. But you can only contain Waltrip for so long, and as the race wore on a bit he made it difficult for Parsons to get in edgewise at times. Unfortunately, interrupting seems to be par for the course with Waltrip, a habit that’s seemed to worsen over time instead of improve.

Since the race ran long, there was very little post-race coverage. There was an interview with race winner Gerhart and with second-place finisher Chris Buescher, but after that, SPEED quickly left the air so that they could get to NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot. SPEED even failed to show the unofficial results before leaving. Pre-race show aside, ARCA deserved quite a bit more post-race coverage than that.

Budweiser Shootout

Later Saturday night, both FOX and NASCAR returned with their first broadcast race of the season. The entire crew was back for 187.5 miles of action.

The telecast started off with some pre-race analysis from FOX’s portable studio before showing some taped footage of Laura Bell Bundy’s pre-race concert (which I could honestly care less about). There was only one quick interview, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the actual race coverage began.

The coverage itself saw almost all of FOX’s hallmarks from 2010 return. Some of these were good… and some were bad. Most notably, on the bad side there was a lot of bumper cam usage that made no sense within the general context of the broadcast. Now, anyone who saw the race Saturday knows about the two-car drafts and how often they were used. It’s important to explain them … to a degree. But those shots gave fans an up close and personal look at, say Joey Logano’s front end, and not much else. FOX could probably have used that shot once, maybe twice and been done with it. Instead, we saw it multiple times throughout both segments. Not cool.

On lap 36, FOX insisted on showing a full screen replay of pit stops that had occurred under the previous caution (for the big crash). As a result, they actually missed the contact that caused the Kyle BuschMark Martin incident in turn 1. I don’t understand why FOX couldn’t have shown those pit stops during the caution itself, either live or on tape before the restart. If that wasn’t possible, then a split-screen setup would have definitely been desirable; the network should strive to show us live action whenever possible.

I’m confident that the broadcast booth didn’t exactly expect the Shootout to be 75 laps of two-car drafts. We knew they would play a role… just not for the entire race. As a result, there was this sense of wonder and excitement throughout much of the event, emanating from the booth that’s not always evident in race broadcasts these days. Sure, it’s there all the time (with the possible exception of ESPN’s broadcast of the 2009 AMP Energy 500 at Talladega), but rarely does it show so well.

Post-race coverage was somewhat typical to what we’ve seen from FOX in the past. There were four post-race interviews with the four drivers involved in the run to the finish. A check of the unofficial results followed, along with some post-race analysis before FOX left the air.

In addition to the excessive use of the bumper cams, there was a substantial focus on whoever was at the absolute front of the field, like in the ARCA race. My best guess is that since the same camera crew shot both races, there could be a chance that they were under the same instructions for both events. With the sheer amount of attrition early in the 50-lap segment, showing the full field was not really an issue towards the end of the race. But early on, only the top eight or so cars got any real air time while everyone else simply existed… a pattern I hope does not become the hallmark of FOX coverage entering 2011.

That’s all for this edition. Next weekend, we’ve got NASCAR’s Big Three starting off their championship seasons at Daytona. The Camping World Truck Series races in the NextEra Energy 250 on Friday night, while the Nationwide Series races Saturday afternoon in the DRIVE4COPD 300. Finally, there is the big kahuna, the Daytona 500 on Sunday. And that’s only the beginning of your motorsport programming options. Here’s your listings for the week.

Tuesday, February 15
Time Telecast Network
2:00 – 2:30 p.m. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Preview ESPN2
2:30 – 3:00 p.m. NASCAR Nationwide Series Preview ESPN2

Wednesday, February 16
Time Telecast Network
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel Practice #1 SPEED
1:30 – 3:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel Practice #2 SPEED
4:30 – 7:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Practice SPEED
9:00 – 9:30 p.m. Inside NASCAR Showtime

Thursday, February 17
Time Telecast Network
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Nationwide Series Practice ESPN2
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Happy Hour SPEED
1:00 – 2:00 p.m. NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
2:00 – 5:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duels SPEED
5:30 – 6:30 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED^
6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED

Friday, February 18
Time Telecast Network
11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 Practice #1 SPEED
12:30 – 2:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 Practice #2 SPEED
4:00 – 6:00 p.m. Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN2
7:00 – 7:30 p.m. NCWTS Setup SPEED
7:30 – 10:00 p.m. Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 SPEED

Saturday, February 19
Time Telecast Network
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 Happy Hour SPEED
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. NASCAR Countdown ESPN2
1:00 – 4:00 p.m. Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 ESPN2
10:00 – 10:30 p.m. SPEED Center SPEED

Sunday, February 20
Time Telecast Network
8:30 – 9:00 a.m. SPEED Center, Morning Edition SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 a.m. NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. FOX Pre-Race FOX
1:00 – 5:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 FOX
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. SPEED Center, Post-Race SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 p.m. NASCAR Now, Post-Race ESPN2
9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Wind Tunnel SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Wendell Scott: A Race Story ESPN

As you can see, it’s going to be a very busy week TV-wise. I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series races in next week’s critique here on Frontstretch. In addition, other tidbits that I feel warrant additional mention will also be talked about. I will also cover ESPN’s new documentary, Wendell Scott: A Race Story in a future edition of The Critic’s Annex.

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 the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

FOX
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 politely rather than ones 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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