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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Things You Don’t See On Television During a Race

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy says that if you’re watching races on TV, you’re not getting a clear picture because you’re missing some key items.

1. Most of the action.

Watch a race broadcast these days and you’ll see a lot of one thing: the race leaders. To a degree, that’s expected, especially as the laps wind down. But when the action up front is limited and there’s hard racing going on in the pack, that’s a different story. Take this weekend’s race at Martinsville. I can’t recall a single lap where there wasn’t someone racing for position. It might have been for first, fifth, 10th or 20th, but there were battles all day long. Drivers with fast cars worked the field, others fought hard to maintain. But that was what I saw from the press box and what fans saw from the stands. Fans watching at home weren’t treated to that.

No wonder fans limited to television think the racing is boring. It isn’t, but the television broadcast makes it that way.

In fact, this week the broadcast didn’t even feel it was necessary to cover a car on fire in the pits. Austin Dillon‘s car burst into flames, and apparently fans at home saw none of it despite the billowing smoke that was thick at the track.

While not every track can boast racing every single lap, most have considerably more action than fans at home get to see. For the fan in the stands, the eye is drawn to the action… so why aren’t the TV cameras? There should be more wide-angle, stationary shots that show as many cars as possible. Racing should be an authentic experience, and the snippets that the networks choose to show makes it anything but.

2. Most of the drivers.

Most race broadcasts have driver coverage broken up roughly as follows: the leader and a few ultra-popular drivers get the lion’s share of the airtime, the middle tier gets a little and some of the smaller teams get none. While, to a degree, a large percentage of fans follow a handful of drivers, and a little extra coverage is part of that, there’s no excuse for an entire race broadcast where some drivers are not mentioned once, even if they are involved in an incident or have some sort of problem. This lack of mention includes times when those drivers are racing for position, sometimes more towards the front of the field than the back.

Radio broadcasts are much more balanced, going through the entire field several times throughout an event and taking the time to mention a driver who’s doing something unexpected. But for the fans watching on TV, the coverage is so limited to a handful of drivers that it’s easy to see one reason why the ratings are taking a hit; fans will find it hard to find a reason to tune in if they feel they’ll be lucky to see their favorite driver once or twice.

3. Debris and other assorted flotsam.

Debris cautions are always the subject of debate, and sure, some of those cautions are there to tighten up the field. But most of the time that’s not the case, and it would be easy to put an end to most of the conspiracy theories if the networks instructed their cameramen to make a concerted effort to find and show the debris.

Would that solve all? No. Sometimes the debris in question turns out to be something innocuous, like tape or a spring rubber. NASCAR does (and should) err on the side of caution when it comes to safety, and sometimes they’re going to throw a flag for something that turns out to be nothing. But if that something is shown, even if it turns out to be a piece of duct tape, fans know NASCAR was acting in the drivers’ best interest and not by some random desire to change up something on track.

4. What happens after a crash.

How many times has it happened: there’s a crash, drivers are taken to infield care, and we can only assume they’re okay because they’re never mentioned again? Every once in a while, if it’s a front-running driver or an especially scary-looking crash, there will be an interview with the driver when they are released from the care center. Sometimes there’s a mention that a driver was treated and released, but it’s not consistent.

Nobody wants to see a driver get hurt, and a few seconds to mention that a driver is unhurt goes a long way with fans. During most races, there’s plenty of time to give a short update and show a brief interview with a driver without missing out on major on-track excitement. Race fans care about the drivers and a reassurance that someone is at least relatively unhurt after hitting the wall is important. It should happen every time, without exception.

5. Anything else someone decides you don’t need to see.

The networks’ job should be to bring fans the most authentic coverage they can. That means finding a balance between the big names and storylines and the smaller ones. Fans, to an extent, drive what’s covered on a race broadcast; the more popular drivers do (and arguably should) get more attention than others. It would be impossible to give 43 teams equal time, but that’s not necessary.

However, there are also times when the media is driving stories forward with fans, in essence telling them what’s important, and while sometimes that’s part of responsible journalism (in the case of breaking news, for example), there’s a line that gets crossed when what fans are given is what a network executive wants them to think is important rather than what’s actually important to many viewers. It can be a difficult balance as not every fan wants the same things. What’s a fluff piece to one person might be a nice human interest story to others. What crosses the line is when there’s too much of one type of storyline and not enough of others.

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18 thoughts on “The Frontstretch 5: Things You Don’t See On Television During a Race”

  1. Beautifully stated. The TV networks have the means to show action on the track, wherever it is. And they can show us that while verbally sticking to their “storylines” if they simply must. Several weeks ago Mike Joy tried desperately to tell us about racing for 8th to 11th at Phoenix, an event that needed all the action that could be shown. But no, we had to follow Harvick for the final two laps, though we knew that barring a disaster the win was his. With a few exceptions, these days the booth folks only watch the monitors and are genuinely shocked at developments that happen off-screen. In the Speedvision era, their F1 team watched the feed from a Charlotte studio and did a spectacular job. Save for DW’s “talking to Rick Hendrick” anecdotes, the Fox team minus Joy could be offsite too.

    • I know Ned couldn’t do it forever, but his appearance in the booth the weekend of his hall of fame selection showed he still had it, and it would be great to see him do even one race per year. I didn’t think much of Parsons as a broadcaster, but alongside the Waltrips, he looks like Chris Economaki.

  2. well done article, Amy. Once upon a time (as most fairy tales begin), the tv broadcasts covered the race as it unfolded. Now it is a series of commercials, interspersed with whatever info a sponsor has paid for — Goodyear, Sunoco and then of course the teams.

    Sometimes the racing really IS boring, but sometimes it is simply a matter of presentation or lack of it.

  3. Bravo! You summed it up beautifully. Having attended races, I know that not every race is a barn burner. However, there is usually something worth watching It may be a driver in 18th place gaining on the 17th place car. That’s much more interesting than seeing single cars running by themselves. More and more the networks dictate what viewers see, not what is actually happening on the track. It’s a shame. Maybe the reason so many fans look back on ‘the good old days’ as being more exciting, even when the leader was 2 laps ahead, is that they were then treated to watching all the other drivers in the field who were still racing for position. Presentation is everything.

  4. I doubt you will get much arguement, the TV coverage is terrible. Identical aero dependent cars with gelded engines running nose to tail for four hours on 1.5 mile tracks IS boring. Even the best of coverage cannot change that.

  5. They could use more zoomed out shots that show more of the action. Instead of tight zoomed in shots of guys running by their lonesome while I curse the action I can almost see in the corner of the screen.

  6. This style of televising an event is working its way into many other sports. Watching a football game between downs you get to see a coach talking into a clipboard or if you are really lucky you get to see a player spitting or scratching himself. Suddenly they flash to the ball being snapped and the viewer has no idea how many players were substituted or what formation they are in. Baseball is pretty much the same. Between pitches you can be lucky enough to see a player spitting tobacco. The viewer misses much of the action.

  7. When FOX took over the broadcast, a concerted effort was made to incorporate the broadcast team as part of the entertainment, rather than moderators over the racing. (Much like the WWE model.) All 3 guys in the booth are constantly talking over each other. It’s so distracting. This is the fatal flaw that they still struggle with. “Crank It Up” is now my favorite part of the show. And I agree, most of the coverage should be with wide angle and aerial shots.

  8. The lack of full field coverage has become one of my most consistent gripes; when I first became interested in Nascar the televised coverage was much more evenhanded. There was always a few times they went “through the field” usually with some anecdotal info about some lesser team or driver; within the first year I could probably name the first 30-35 drivers,the crew chief, their team #, who they drove for and their major sponsor. In todays world I would probably be lucky to name 15-20 and only those that have been around for a while whom I have followed for years. I also miss the scroll which ran showing seconds behind the leader, that way, even if they weren’t covering all the action, I could keep up if there were drivers moving forward or backward. It almost feels as though they are trying to kill interest.

  9. What does it say about our tv broadcasts that mid race reports, crank it up, and the “move of the race” get more airtime than a car on fire on pit road? I hope NBC is taking note of how NOT to do their broadcasts when they start their coverage this summer.

  10. When I was young Nascar was much more exciting
    as they showed more of what was happening. Now it is to much sponsorship, announcing and commercials .Now they mostly focus on front runners too. Hence, Nascar has become boring for the fans. These days for me it is Drag racing! I watch both, however, drag racing is much more exciting and there is more fan interaction.and more information about the car and driver and crew is provided.

  11. I often wonder if the lack of coverage for the whole field directly impacts the teams who don’t get their name mentioned on these lame broadcasts. I have to think it does have a huge impact and Nascar and the programmers are shooting themselves in the foot by not giving coverage to the lesser known drivers and teams.

  12. brian france and nascar sold the souls of the race fans when they made the TV deal. nascar has no say in how their product is broadcast, thus we get the scripted story lines week after week, etc. That whirring sound you hear are the Bill’s spinning in their graves.

    @Tim S, wasn’t that amazing how the F1 races were broadcast? Yet, we have guys in the booth at the track missing the action. But, if it isn’t in the script…..

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