Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 97- Catching Speed

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where we provide additional discussion and critique of motorsports-related programming. Honestly, its been a tough week. Never thought a water bottle would provoke so much conversation and anger.

This year, we really haven’t had all that much in the way of specials to cover like in past seasons. I have all the past Critic’s Annex entries on my laptop and I see (in addition to races I can’t fit in Couch Potato Tuesday) pieces on NASCAR-produced DVD’s, the movie Senna (which I saw in an independent movie house, then went home and wrote about), that one episode of South Park that lampooned NASCAR, Jimmy Spencer’s old show “What’s the Deal?,” that ridiculous Mountain Dew-financed short film “The Legend of Hallow-dega,” and others.

This week, ESPN somewhat quietly premiered Catching Speed to little fanfare on ABC. Here in the Albany, NY market, the show aired at 2:00pm Sunday afternoon prior to the AdvoCare 500. Also, on my cable box, this was listed as simply “NASCAR Special.” Catching Speed only showed up if you clicked on “Info.” According to information put out about the show, it is designed to show viewers how Clint Bowyer’s team prepares to race. How was it? Let’s find out.

Just based on the opening montage, it should be apparent that this was shot in the run-up to the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard in July. Clips of Bowyer driving around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the yard of bricks were right in the opening.

The show starts off with an introduction to Michael Waltrip Racing and their No. 15 team. Footage was shown from the unveiling of the team held last October at Kansas Speedway, and Bowyer’s press conference when they announced the deal. Michael Waltrip and Ty Norris explained their rationale in bringing Bowyer into the fold.

The show then transitioned into a look at the season for the No. 15 team up to date. This was interspersed with sound bites from Bowyer, Norris, Waltrip and crew chief Brian Pattie. Eventually, the season review climaxed with Bowyer’s win in Sonoma.

After the first break, we finally get into the actual car and team preparations. First off is a Director’s meeting on Monday, led by Norris. Here, the higher-ups with the team discuss the upcoming week. Basically, this is setting out everything that has to happen, not just with the car, but with PR, appearances and such.

We see the pit crew meet up and watch tapes of their pit stops and evaluate themselves. MWR has a setup for this type of activity that rivals many Division I colleges. They do the sessions in what looks like a lecture hall with stadium seating. Following the tape session, the crew goes out for what they term “light exercise.” In this case, it means swimming at a local indoor pool in Huntersville, NC.

Next up is the Fabrication department. Here, viewers are given a step-by-step process by which a Sprint Cup chassis is built, starting with basically loose roll bars. After the roll cage is installed, the body is next. The team has their own NASCAR-approved templates that they use in order to make sure that the car is legal. Following nearly a week in fabrication, the car spends a couple of days in the paint and body shop. Once all of the windows and duct work is installed, then “final assembly” takes place. This means engine installation, transmission installation and other crucial parts.

Meanwhile, Bowyer is busy relaxing on his day off by going fishing with a friend. Afterwards, he takes time to race his John Deere Gator vehicle around a dirt oval on his property. It should be noted that John Deere is a sponsor of the program. Hence, their wares show up quite a bit.

Tuesday, we’re treated to a trip to the wind tunnel to gather aerodynamic information on the car Bowyer was scheduled to drive at Indy. Meanwhile, we see the pit crew practicing outside of the shop. We hear from a couple of the crewmembers, plus their coach about how important their practices really are to getting Bowyer back on track as quick as possible.

Wednesday brings on the Pre-Competition meeting, where the crew chiefs and team managers from all three teams meet in order to prepare everyone for what they’re going to see in Indianapolis. Honestly, I don’t think this particular meeting is all that different from an ESPN conference call on Tuesday afternoon. They discuss race trends over multiple years, track conditions, past setups and such just like NASCAR TV personalities do. The only difference is that they’re not planning a telecast, but a race weekend.

The Pit Crew has a usual workout that is admittedly Crossfit-ish. The Gator vehicles are back again (gotta get that product placement!), but they’re being used as exercise devices. Finally, we see a little bit of the truck being packed up to drive to Indianapolis.

Saturday is Practice and Qualifying day at the track. Footage of Bowyer on track is shown, along with radio chatter about how the car is handling. Let’s just say that Bowyer was none too pleased with his car. Frustration then sets in amongst everyone.

Qualifying wasn’t much better than practice, as Bowyer turned in the 33rd fastest time. Afterwards, footage is shown of a post-qualifying meeting in one of the motorcoaches at the track. Members of all three MWR teams are present and take the time to share notes and see if they can help each other out.

Finally, we come to race day. We see footage of ESPN’s Jim Noble interviewing Bowyer in front of his hauler, clearly a bit nervous about the upcoming race. However, before he gets to the race, he has appearances to do. In one of the suites, Bowyer meets with guests from one of his sponsors and signs some autographs.

Meanwhile, the team has a big meeting in the garage to go over setups for the cars and general preparation. Very important for the upcoming race. For the race, there was a mix of radio chatter and race footage, along with various sound bites used in order to describe Bowyer’s run to 15th, including his early wreck.

The show appears to be the natural progression from ESPN’s Racing Shotgun: Kyle Busch show from 2010, and the features that followed individual Chasers around later that season. However, while Racing Shotgun was centered on the somewhat random stuff that Kyle Busch did along with his then-fiancé Samantha prior to the first Chase race, this is far more focused on Bowyer’s team. In fact, while Bowyer does appear in a fair amount of the show, he takes a back seat here.

I did find the constant Gator pimping to be quite annoying and somewhat distracting. Its like they were in every scene. I’d like to think that those vehicles are always around the MWR shop and at the track, but I doubt it. The Gator was being used in Indianapolis in place of a normal golf cart. Got news for you guys. The teams don’t transport those golf carts themselves. An outside vendor does that (same with the pit boxes, although the teams do transport the boxes that are in their garages). I’d argue that using a Gator instead of a normal golf cart might screw things up a little. I’ve done enough races on credential to be able to tell you whether or not I’ve seen teams using them. Believe me, they’re not. Everyone uses regular carts, just some of them have bigger wheels than others.

Looking at the special is just one more reminder of just how much NASCAR has grown over the past 20 years. MWR has a palatial complex in Cornelius, NC for their teams. We’re well past the days of teams prepping Cup cars in outbuildings behind the owner’s house. Of course, “debutant team SS Motorsports”:https://www.facebook.com/pages/SS-Motorsports/205703222775834?ref=ts might dispute that with their maiden effort this weekend at Richmond, but their effort is far from the norm these days.

Since Bowyer wasn’t necessarily the focus of the piece, we got to meet a number of MWR employees at the shop and on the pit crew. Much like NFL players, these important people might as well be ghosts at times. It was great to have them on the show to help explain the goings on with the team. They made the show quite enjoyable to watch.

Honestly, I don’t really believe that most race fans understand why the heck a team needs 200 employees to be even remotely competitive in Sprint Cup (MWR apparently has about 250). With the shear amount of stuff that goes on with the team (including a number of things like CNC machining that didn’t even make the show) at the shops. A show like this can go a long way to showing fans what really goes on behind the scenes. ESPN did a really good job with it, then proceeded to not publicize it very well. If this were the 1970’s, 2:00pm Sunday afternoon on ABC would be an excellent place to premiere the show. Nowadays, not so much. This show needed more promotion so that more people could see it.

That’s all for this week. Next week, we’ll be back with another interesting critique for you to enjoy. Until then, enjoy the racing this weekend from Laguna Seca, Monza and Richmond.

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