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.