Editor’s Note: This column is the first of a three-part series Matt’s writing about the pending return of NBC to covering the sport full-time. Come back for Parts II & III Wednesday and Thursday!
Howdy. Welcome back. Has it really been eight years? I know you all must be busy as you get set to take over Cup Series coverage for the year but I thought I’d take a few moments to express some thoughts on behalf of the fans, as a fan myself.
First off, you needn’t be too jittery out of the gate. A lot of fans are ready to welcome you back with open arms. After what we’ve been through this year (and, in fact, the last 14) the general assumption is whatever NASCAR TV coverage you provide simply can’t be worse than FOX. Please don’t prove us wrong.
In fact, that might be a real fine place for all of you to start getting ready over the next few weeks. Watch every NASCAR broadcast that has run on FOX in 2015. Study all the little gimmicks, special segments, and the general level of competence by their color analysts. Study it all and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T DO THAT!
See, y’all are walking back into a very different NASCAR scenario than you knew when you packed your bags back in 2006. Back then, the sport was at the zenith of its popularity with an average of 7.85 million people watching the races every week. Bad news: most of them left. Somewhere around 66% of them have found better things to do on a Sunday afternoon. Most of that can be attributed to the tepid state of racing over the last half-dozen years, but the abject stupidity of race broadcasts in that era hasn’t helped. It’s hard to enjoy a Sunday afternoon of stock car racing when you come away with some nagging feeling the broadcasters and the broadcasting network think you’re an idiot.
Back in the day, to an extent, I suppose you had to cater to newcomers, fans who had just recently begun following the sport. Most of them decided they didn’t like it. What you’re left with, by and large (and your grip on them is a whole lot more tenuous than the folks at NASCAR would have you believe) is the longtime fans who’ve supported the sport through thick and thin, or at least still tune into races as a habit after all those thousands of Sunday afternoons. A percentage of them know more about the about the sport than you do. The rest of them think that they do. That’s your target audience. Use complicated, computer-generated graphics to explain the difference between a loose racecar and a tight one more than once a month and you’ll cause a fusillade of beer bottles thrown through TV screens nationwide. (It’s pretty simple. When a race car is tight, you see what you’re about to hit. When a race car is loose, you don’t.)
We all have pet peeves. I have a menagerie worth of them. Here’s a few that seem to irk my fellow old-timers the worst: “Richard Petty won seven Sprint Cup championships.” The Hell he did! Richard Petty never ran a Sprint Cup race. He ran a whole bunch of Winston Cup races. “Driver X went with two tires.” Well then, he’s going to be going pretty damn slow dragging two brake rotors around the track. Did he think he was on a motorcycle? Now, Driver X might have chosen to go with two fresh tires rather than four like the rest of the pack to gain some track position. And I know damn well what brand of tires the teams installed. You needn’t remind me. If points were awarded right now…then we could turn off the TV for the rest of the season and spend our Sundays more productively. They won’t be awarded “right now.” They will be awarded after the race. Shut up and watch until then. Make the broadcast team throw a buck in a pickle jar every time they violate one of the above rules. We won’t just send a sick kid to Disney World, we’ll buy her the joint.
Since you’ve already watched those FOX tapes (and someone in the legal department is doubtlessly checking to see if they violate the Geneva Convention rules regarding torture) now I want you to choose 10 ESPN races from back in the mid-’90s. You know, back when Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons were calling the shots. That trio were like friends you invited over for the race, guys who sat on the couch beside you and watched the race with you, occasionally pointing out something you hadn’t seen yet or didn’t understand. Jarrett, he was like Radar O’Reilly. He could see a wreck a lap before it happened. That’s opposed to Darrell Waltrip, who might not notice a wreck until a lap after it happened because he had something else he was talking about – usually himself. Watch those ESPN tapes closely. That’s what we old-timers want. That’s what we expect. Do that and you’ll be just fine.
(As an aside, I’d practically forgotten but back in that era when NASCAR threw a caution for debris, the cameras scoured the track until they found it. Nowadays, not so much because there’s often no debris to be located and shown. If that’s the case, report that’s what’s happened. Yeah, some NASCAR officials might be steamed but let’s get things straight from Jump Street. You are not guests that they’ve allowed in the booth out of the kindness of their hearts. You just spent $4.4 billion to be there. By the way, are you nuts?)
If you’re just looking to burn money, feel free to send a few bales of the stuff my way. Anyway, don’t be afraid of those dudes and dudesses in the NASCAR shirts. If the booth feels a ref blew a call in an NFL game, they say so, and the NFL doesn’t yank their credentials. You’re in the dominant position here, not them. I just talked to the folks at the Home And Garden network; they’re not interested. NASCAR is going to have a hell of a time finding some other imbecile… sorry, broadcasting network willing to fork over $4.4 billion. Hold their feet to the fire. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship, but neither should you let them treat you like the school headmaster sending a dumb kid out to recess after a pat on the head. That’s how NASCAR treats the fans. Did I mention about 5 million of them have gone missing? As we approach the last Grateful Dead concert ever (the same weekend you take over NASCAR, as a matter of fact, but I will DVR the race, promise) let’s recall what Uncle Jerry once wrote.
Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track, they’re gone, gone, and nothing’s going to bring them back….