“Hey, Stan, did you see the race yesterday?”
That’s the question tossed casually around at water coolers on Mondays. It can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” perhaps followed by some banter about this driver or that one. Casual fans and diehards alike can commune for a few moments on this patch of common ground.
Did you see the race? At second glance, it’s not quite as simple a question.
Because did you see the race? Did you really see it?
If you’re like most race fans, you saw the race on television. If you’re like a lot of those fans, you’ve probably wondered if the racing is really any better in 2016. On one hand, you read every day how the lower-downforce aero package on the cars has made the racing more exciting. There have been some exciting finishes for sure, with two of four races so far decided by mere inches.
But the racing? It’s appeared to be little different from recent years — a few cars up front running away, and apparently there’s nothing going on behind them.
Except there is. Especially this season, there has been hard racing through the field much of the time. Fans aren’t seeing it, though, because the broadcast isn’t showing it. So they turn away, maybe find something else to do with Sunday afternoons. And all the while, they don’t know what they’re missing.
It’s been the talk of NASCAR recently that TV ratings have fallen steadily in recent years, and fans are quick to blame the quality of the product. And to some extent, they’re right; the racing has been lackluster, and the Chase has taken the prestige of the championship to an unfortunate low.
And there are a few realities of racing that many don’t quite seem to understand: there are some races where one driver dominates up front, leads a zillion laps and wins by a large margin. That’s racing, and it’s gone on for years. There are more cars finishing on the lead lap in a lot of races than there were 40 years ago.
To that end, it’s also true that the leader earns a lot of attention from the broadcast, but there’s only so much to say about a dominant performance, only so much people want to see of that car with a lead so big he’s the only one in the frame.
Television has to perform a balancing act with race broadcasts; the leaders earn the coverage they get by running up front, and some drivers are, like it or not, more popular than others, and the popular ones are going to get some more time as well.
But what about the racing? If there’s racing in the pack but the top few cars are spread out with no imminent battles for position, at some point it’s a disservice to fans to keep showing the cars up front and not the battles behind them.
Fans at the track see the whole race. They naturally focus on their favorite drivers, but the eye is easily drawn to close racing anywhere on the track. Fans at home don’t have that luxury; they can only see what the broadcast is showing them, and if it’s the same handful of cars all day long, well, no wonder they think it’s boring. No wonder they feel like most of the drivers are the same; they don’t see enough of the field to see what most of them are really like. (Ironically, some of those drivers are more outgoing because they’re not as hampered by sponsors—the same reason why they’re struggling for exposure).
It’s the broadcasters’ job to bring the racing—all of it—to fans. It’s also their job to show the race leaders and the popular drivers and to insert a human interest story here and there. Broadcast journalism is a difficult, very technical profession.
But that doesn’t exonerate the networks from doing a thorough job. If a team drops out, is running off the pace or makes an unscheduled stop, that warrants mention. If a driver crashes, it means TV attention, a replay and follow-up once the driver is released from infield care; surely viewers would be interested to hear what happened to a mid-pack driver over seeing the same shots for a couple of laps. If there’s a fierce battle for 10th or 20th position, fans should be able to see that if the front of the pack is stable.
It’s a bit ironic that the same technology that moved race broadcasts forward has also hurt the final product on TV. Extensive graphics and multiple camera angles from multiple high-tech cameras are the tools the networks use in trying to one-up one another’s coverage. But in the process, the older wide-angle shots from stationary cameras have been all but eliminated. It’s cool to see the racing from the track surface or the wall coming off a turn and to have the ability to focus on a driver so clearly fans can see what he’s doing with his hands inside the car. But it’s also cool to just simply see cars on the track, going fast. That’s the part that gets more and more buried under technology, and possibly the part that’s most important to the sport.
We do the sport an injustice when—especially so far this season—we automatically label the races “boring” when there’s been some fantastic racing every week so far. But how are fans to know differently? Every fan can’t be at every race. It’s the television broadcast’s job to make them feel like they are, and that’s what they’re missing. It’s seemingly so very simple, but so often gets lost in the technology overload. Racing is, at its heart, a simple sport. Go fast, turn left.
Sometimes that’s all you need to see.