by Phil Allaway
Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where we take an additional look at motorsports-related programming. In between wreckfests at Martinsville this past weekend, SPEED aired tape-delayed coverage of the SEF Small Engine Fuels 200, the marquee race for the Big Block Modifieds in the Super DirtCar Series.
For this critique, I can bring in plenty of outside knowledge for two reasons. One, I was at the race and can add a bunch of things to this piece about what was cut from the broadcast. Two, I’m used to covering Big Block Modifieds because it is the headlining class at nearby (to me) Lebanon Valley Speedway. Lebanon Valley’s track champion, Kenny Tremont, Jr., finished eighth in the race after starting 39th.
With that said, let’s go.
SPEED had Ralph Sheheen and Tommy Baldwin, Jr. in the booth for their telecast. Neither of them were actually at the race, and they basically stated that they weren’t there. I’m not sure, but I don’t think you’re supposed to do that for races that you’re commenting on in post-production back in Charlotte. It’s one thing if you’re commenting on a race that you actually raced in, like Scott Sutherland did on occasion when he raced in the then-USAR Hooters ProCup Series, but quite another if you didn’t.
Baldwin is also a co-owner of Jimmy Phelps’ No. 98h Modified (it’s fielded by Hancke Baldwin Racing and uses a logo very similar to Baldwin’s own Sprint Cup team). Baldwin referenced this fact during the event, but did not focus on it very much. This was the first time I’d seen Baldwin as an analyst and my thoughts were that he was bland, quiet and really didn’t add all that much to the broadcast. A Whelen Modified Tour race might be more in his wheelhouse. Last year, Kenny Wallace was in Baldwin’s role. Despite his nuttiness, you got informative information since Kenny does all of his racing on dirt in his spare time. Definite downgrade.
Pre-race coverage consisted of highlights of the Nationwide 150, a 150 lap race held on October 8th for drivers in the Mr. Dirt 358 Modified Championship. Billy Decker won that race and led 119 laps in doing it. Basically, he was almost unassailable. There were also pre-race interviews with Decker and defending SEF Small Engine Fuels 200 winner Stewart Friesen.
Once the race got underway, I quickly noticed that this was not a garden-variety SPEED production. Firstly, SPEED chose to use the old-style scroll that had more or less been discarded in News Corp.’s attempt to streamline FOX Sports’ graphic packages. Second, there was a jumbotron that was placed effectively right across from where I was sitting. Based on what I saw, the images shown on SPEED’s broadcast were the same ones shown on the jumbotron. This effectively means that this was not a SPEED production, but one from DirtCar itself. I don’t think that will be the case this weekend for the Lowes Foods World Finals.
Coverage was really all over the place. The field was somewhat fairly represented. There was a lot of coverage of the leaders (Decker, Friesen, etc.), but there really wasn’t all that much coverage away from the top-3 or so. Tim Fuller, who finished fourth after winning the Last Chance Qualifier and starting 37th, wasn’t even mentioned at all until after the race ended.
It should also be noted that approximately 60 laps of the race were cut out for time constraints (this race took almost three hours to run and had 15 cautions and one red flag). The aforementioned red flag happened on Lap 108 after Larry Wight spun off of Turn 4 and was hit hard by outside pole-sitter Billy Dunn.
What did you miss in SPEED’s telecast? A fair amount. Stuff that would have made some of actually made air make a little more sense. For example, you hear Sheheen talking about Ronnie Johnson putting pressure on Dunn for position around Lap 30, then he’s never heard from again. What happened? Johnson blew an engine on Lap 69 and dropped out of the race. That caused the fourth caution of the race. SPEED’s coverage resumed on the Lap 88 restart after the sixth caution, which flew for a crash involving Australian Peter Britten and New Jersey racer Rich Scagliotta.
The second section of the race cut-out was from Laps 120-149. This cut out some decent racing between Decker and Ryan Godown. However, it also cut what really put Matt Sheppard out of the race. Viewers saw Sheheen react to Sheppard’s No. 9 going into the garage and dropping out of the race. What actually happened is that just before the three-quarters mark of the race, Sheppard spun out in Turn 1 out of approximately eighth. While trying to catch back up with the field, the left-front tire came off of the car. This was accompanied by a gasp from the large crowd assembled. Sheppard had to drive nearly a complete lap with the hub dragging on the ground. The damage could not legitimately be repaired and after a couple of laps on-track, Sheppard was forced to retire.
In other unseen facts, Kenny Tremont, Jr. was busted for speeding on pit road during the mass of teams making their final stops on Lap 152 under yellow. He entered the pits in eighth and managed to exit fourth. The penalty forced Tremont to restart around 20th. In the final 48 laps of the race, he raced back to eighth.
There was the appropriate amount of enthusiasm from Sheheen in the booth at the end of the race, but there was something clearly wrong with how the race ended. The audio feed for the commentators was roughly 5-10 seconds behind the picture, creating a situation where it was horribly out of sync. I’ve never seen anything quite like that on an original broadcast before. Now, there are two things that could cause this. One, Sheheen wasn’t talking fast enough and got that far behind on his own. That is not something that Sheheen would do. He’s got over 20 years seniority (much like Buford T. Justice). What happened here has to have been a production error at SPEED’s headquarters in Charlotte. Regardless, it made Sheheen look bad when he wasn’t bad. That is inexcusable.
Post-race coverage was not horrible for a race of this scope. There were interviews with the repeat winner Friesen, Decker, the aforementioned ghost of Fuller (who got his first mention of the day right before his interview) and Godown, who seemed to run out of gas on the final lap (he finished 16th, but he was in line to finish fourth). There were also checks of the Super DirtCar Series points and the unofficial results.
Right before Sheheen signed off, he informed the viewers of a technical infraction found on Friesen’s winning No. 44 in post-race inspection. Friesen was fined $25,000 for the illegal part, which was not described in detail on the telecast. Want to know what that was? It was an illegal fuel cell. That’s serious stuff. A $25,000 fine (half of Friesen’s winning share) is very serious money in the Super DirtCar Series, where most races are worth between $4000-6000 to win. It should have gotten more play, especially since Friesen’s record fuel run from last year (he won after running the final 134 laps on a tank of fuel) necessitated a rule change that forced everyone to make a pit stop between laps 150-175 and jack the car up.
This year’s broadcast was definitely a step back from 2010. Baldwin seemed to bring down the commentary due to his inexperience. The camera angles were somewhat limited and not as good. For example, there was no in-car camera in use at all. Last year, Jimmy Phelps had one. Unfortunately, there aren’t any sustained shots from that in-car camera that I can link to here. However, “this view”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUngO3XyC64/ from Brian Berger’s Modified at Lebanon Valley from last year can give you an idea of what it would look like. There were only a couple of incidents that the cameras were able to catch as they happened. Only the end of the big Wight-Dunn crash was caught on camera. I saw a little bit more of the crash from my seat than was caught on-air.
I hope you liked this look back at SPEED’s telecast of the SEF Small Engine Fuels 200. Next week, be sure to check out the Annex, for we will be talking about the Lowes Foods World Finals from the Dirt Track at Charlotte. Hopefully this time, it won’t rain out on Saturday night. Until then, have a great weekend and enjoy the action in Texas.
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