(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Memorial Day Weekend Racing TV Overload

One of the biggest racing weekends of the year is now complete.  I don’t know about all of you reading this column, but I’m pretty exhausted.  I’ve still got you covered, though after what turned out to be the busiest racing TV Sunday we’ve seen in 2016.

Coca-Cola 600

Sunday night brought a bit of a rush job for the Sprint Cup Series coverage from Charlotte.  Luckily, rain was never much of an issue but how did FOX do with a dominant race?

Pre-race coverage was effectively whittled down to nearly nothing of note on FOX.  My only takeaway there is that Michael Waltrip actually seemed to take his Grid Walk seriously for once.  It didn’t appear like anyone wanted to ignore him.  Shocking.

Prior to FOX NASCAR Sunday, Kenny Wallace conducted a sitdown interview with Tony Stewart.

Here, topics included what it means to be a “racer” and topics that Stewart liked in high school.  Turned out that what Stewart liked back then were the topics necessary for understanding race cars.  He just didn’t know it at the time.  I found it interesting because it was a look at another side of Stewart.  Yes, he’s been all about racing since finishing high school, but it’s another look at what makes him tick.

As you all know by now, Martin Truex, Jr. kicked some butt Sunday night.  It is actually not the most dominant Cup Series performance ever at Charlotte, but it’s close.  It’s the second most.  Ernie Irvan’s win in the 1993 Mello Yello 500 while leading all but six laps in a race with two yellows is the most dominant Charlotte race in history.  Truex’s performance was the most dominant in the history of the Coca-Cola 600, though.

Given that storyline, FOX would need to take some steps in order to make the race broadcast exciting.  After all, you can’t just show Truex running away from everyone all night.

Truth is, I think FOX could have done a little more to expand their focus, especially earlier in the race.  There were quite a few races for position out there. Early on, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick seemed to spend 200 miles battling for position.  We saw some of that action.  We would see action in random places during the green flag runs.

Later in the race, FOX would do these dropbacks where they would update the drivers on the lead lap.  On paper, it sounds like ESPN’s old Up to Speed or NBC’s Through the Field, but not really.  There’s only so much you can say about this type of command performance.

Speaking of dominance, when someone kicks as much butt as Truex did, the slightest wiggles get amplified.  For example, Darrell Waltrip was freaking out over Truex getting loose about ten laps before a pit stop.  He was convinced that Truex had a tire going down.  In reality, the tires were just going away.  The reaction was ridiculous and over the top.

In addition to watching the races on TV and taking notes, I also keep tabs on what other fans write about the broadcasts on the internet.  A couple of things stand out here.  One was Mike Joy having to defend FOX from accusations that they’re in the pocket of Nationwide because of the Inside Rides and Dale Jr. Performance Updates.

It does seem awkward at times, but they’re not designed to favor Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  It sounds like Nationwide is a big sponsor of the broadcasts and in addition to commercials, that’s how they’ve chosen to spend their money.

Finally, back in 2009, ESPN did this special broadcast of the then-Nationwide Series Carfax 250 at Michigan International Speedway called the Backseat Drivers edition.  There, ESPN put four analysts in the booth to discuss the race like you’re watching with friends at someone’s house (back then, it was Rusty Wallace, Andy Petree, Brad Daugherty and Dale Jarrett). I interviewed Dr. Jerry Punch the weekend before that broadcast and he seemed really excited about it despite the fact that he wouldn’t be involved.  Here’s the finish of that race:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNs9_JFg3Ag

It seems like FOX’s regular broadcasts are more or less evolving into that type of feel to me with the analysts seemingly dominating the commentary at the expense of Mike Joy.  I’m personally not in favor of that.  However, I want to hear what you have to say.  Feel free to chime in down in the comments section….

Since the race was run at record pace, there was plenty of time for post-race coverage.  However, FOX did not make full use of it.  We got a standard amount of interviews, with added emphasis to Truex’s Victory Lane time given what he and Sherry Pollex have been through over the past couple of years.

Overall, I thought that the broadcast was just OK.  Nothing really special.  If anything, I think the broadcast made the race more boring than it really was.  That’s why you ended up with such divergent opinions of the race on shows such as Sirius Speedway (audio clips of which were aired on Monday’s edition of NASCAR RaceHub on FOX Sports 1. Inclusiveness is a must going forward.  I keep saying it, but I believe it.

Indianapolis 500

For the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis 500 is basically a showcase for the entire open-wheel division.  It’s not like more people watch Indy than watch the rest of the season, but it’s arguable that this one race is bigger than the rest of the season combined with the possible exception of Long Beach.  Therefore, ESPN has to get the broadcast right.

One of the big stories going into the day was the fact that the race was a complete sellout.  Roads onto the property were at a complete standstill before sunrise.  There were plenty of references to that fact throughout the broadcast.  That view of the Snake Pit just seemed crazy to me.

During pre-race coverage, two pieces stood out.  One was about James Hinchcliffe and his recovery from the huge practice crash last year.  I want to say that NBCSN had a similar piece a few months ago.  Here, we got accounts of the situation from many different sources.  These included camera crews that were at the track that day, Hinchcliffe’s parents, his doctor at IU Health Methodist Hospital, and so on.  With those sources, you got a solid, encompassing idea of the situation, which was quite a bit direr than many people were led to believe.  It was informative, yet uplifting at the same time.

The other notable piece was where Allen Bestwick interviewed the three four-time Indianapolis 500 winners (A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser) about their time at Indianapolis.  It’s always interesting to get those firsthand accounts.  Here, Foyt admitted that he was actually scared the first time he competed in the race back in 1958.  That says a lot because Foyt is not exactly one to scare easily.

During the race itself, ESPN went all-out.  12 of the 33 starters had in-car cameras, and if you were so inclined, you could stream them on WatchESPN (I personally didn’t, but it’s good to know that it was available).  They had a butt load of cameras on site.  I thought that Bestwick did a good job in his play-by-play role, while Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever were about average.

I’ll fully note here that I am not a fan of Cheever as an analyst.  He’s effectively a black hole when it comes to discussion.  It ends with him.  However, he can make good points.  For example, he did have some good insights when asked about the difficulties of being an owner/driver in INDYCAR (which Cheever was for a number of years) in reference to the Lazier Partners Racing effort.

The action that we did see on Sunday was actually quite good.  There was a lot of slicing and dicing, along with drafting and side-by-side action.  Anyone who watched the race probably would have been satisfied with the competition.

Problem is that most of the coverage was focused at the very front of the field.  While yes, that meant that you didn’t miss much when it came to lead changes (unless they occurred during commercials), you did miss a couple of other important aspects of the race.

For example, it was rather difficult to follow drivers as they were moving up and down the order.  Sage Karam started 23rd and was right up in the hunt before he crashed.  Karam seemed to come out of nowhere to put himself squarely in the conversation.  Then, he put himself in no man’s land and that was it.

Another issue I had was that it was impossible to figure out what happened to people that fell off the lead lap.  There were a host of teams that had some kind of mechanical issues during the race that ESPN all but did not report on.  The only report along those lines that I can recall was when they aired a pit report late in the race that indicated Simon Pagenaud had a misfire in his engine.  Since Pagenaud had one of the 12 in-car cameras, that was pretty easily confirmed.

Other drivers who had issues included past winner Buddy Lazier, who was laps down before the race really got going for reasons that I honestly couldn’t tell you.  (Editor’s Note: It was a throttle issue.) I know why he ended up retiring from the race (the left front wheel came off after a pit stop, bringing out a yellow) but nothing else before that.  Same thing with Ed Carpenter, a relatively recent two-time pole sitter and often a contender in this race.  The team itself didn’t seem to know what was up either, to be honest.

The box score says Carpenter dropped out due to an oxygen sensor issue.  Didn’t find that out until after the race.  ESPN, you must keep the fans updated on those types of issues.  You can’t just ignore it.

Stefan Wilson got a fair amount of airtime leading up to the main event.  ESPN did a SC Featured piece on Stefan racing in the memory of his older brother, Justin which was well done.

Stefan was also interviewed during pre-race coverage.  And that was it.  You didn’t hear anything about him for the rest of the race.  I looked up at the still-too-small scroll and saw that he was 30 laps down.  What happened?  Thankfully, Stefan explained what went down on Twitter after the race.

Post-race coverage was fairly substantial, but really didn’t cover that many stories.  Viewers saw interviews with the top four finishers (Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan), along with the winning co-car owners (Bryan Herta and Michael Andretti).  There was also plenty of atmosphere as well.

The on-track action that we did see was quite good.  However, I felt that ESPN didn’t do the small things required to make the telecast truly great.  Having spent most of the past week watching wall-to-wall classic Indianapolis 500’s on a combination of ESPN Classic and YouTube, I feel that ABC did a better job back in the 1990s of being more inclusive than ESPN does today, even with all the improvements in technology.  There’s more than six drivers that could be major stories in the race.

Even though he used pit strategy to lead laps, Rossi seemed like a forgotten soul on the track.  The commentators should have made note of the fact that he definitely had the speed to contend.  He led 14 laps on Sunday and was able to outrun the main contenders when the others on his pit schedule just couldn’t quite hang.

Before the pit stops even began, Rossi was running in seventh.  He had a legitimately good car. Rossi won because he pressed his luck and hit the Big Bucks square. Regardless of how he did it, the rookie hit pay dirt.  Even Munoz, who finished second and had the best car late, barely got any coverage on Sunday.  Focus is always a big thing to me with race broadcasts and ESPN’s focus on Sunday was too narrow.

Hisense 4K TV 300

Saturday, the XFINITY Series returned to Charlotte Motor Speedway for a tricky 300-miler.  Track temperatures were up around 140 degrees, which led to a series of incidents.

Ultimately, we got a crazy race to watch.  The cars were all over the place.  That gives viewers some pretty good racing.  FOX Sports 1 did a decent job bringing that competition to viewers.

Not everything was perfect, though.  The incident that involved Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Elliott Sadler is an example of where things could go wrong.  The reaction when that wreck happened was “Oh no!”  I generally don’t like that because it breeds accusations of favoritism.  Seeing as this came from guest analyst Clint Bowyer, it might be unfounded, but it’s still not a good look.

The incident was broken down fairly well, though.  We got replays that showed fluid on some of the roof cams, including Erik Jones’.  There was also fluid on the track in what appeared to be two thin stripes.  Problem is that no one knew where it came from.  Looking at the results seems to implicate Ray Black, Jr.’s No. 07 since he dropped out around that time with oil line issues.  Others seemed to think that Mike Harmon’s car may have been responsible.  No one reported any smoke around the time of the incident.

There were some other issues that I do want to address.  For example, the first yellow flew for a spin involving Cody Ware during the commercial break.  The booth acknowledged that it occurred just as they were coming back from the break.  Bowyer stated that he didn’t see the wreck and was waiting for a replay.  That replay never came.  Weak.  He was left to infer that Ware simply lost control exiting turn 4 and hit the inside wall based on the tire marks on the track.

Later, during another yellow, Martin Roy (who had spun to cause said yellow) blew a tire on the backstretch.  Even though this issue was shown live on the broadcast, the booth ignored it.  I watched this sequence and thought to myself, “Adam, you’re seeing this right?  And you’re not going to acknowledge it?  That’s not right.”

Speaking of Bowyer, I felt that he did bring some good insights to the broadcast.  He does seem to take a backseat to Michael Waltrip at times, but he’s informative.

Post-race coverage was extremely limited.  However, that’s a given knowing that the race finished about 40 minutes later than expected.  There were just a couple of interviews and a check of the points before FOX Sports 1 left the air.

Overall, I found the coverage of actual racing for position to be pretty good on Saturday.  The focus on some of the commentary was a bit lacking at times.  However, FOX Sports 1 did seem to realize that the track itself was the story early on and couched some of their commentary within that notion.

That’s all for this week.  After the Memorial Day weekend extravaganza, we’re right back to it this weekend with a tripleheader in Pocono and three more races in Detroit.  Listings can be found in the TV Schedule tab.

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, XFINITY and ARCA races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch.  The Chevrolet Duals at Detroit will be covered in the Critic’s Annex next week.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below.  Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments and I’m happy with the increased number of comments so far this year. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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As always, if you choose to contact a network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

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5 comments

  1. Avatar

    It would have been nice to see what you thought of the coverage of the Monaco GP. Imho the broadcast team there is. Head and shoulders better then the competition. But perhaps I’m just prejudiced.

    • Avatar

      I agree 100 percent Russ the f1 broadcast team is always a joy to listen sometimes last year they added Hobbs and machet to the Indy car on nbc and they are great there too

      • Avatar

        David and Dteve have been a team for Years. slong with, used to be, Mike Joy. Diffey’s good, but That was a Great crew.

        • Avatar

          Now they were at there best when bob varsha was with them I don’t remember them with mike joy

  2. Avatar

    Amazing how well they can call a race when they aren’t at the track, and have no control over what is shown. Yet you get to see action from all competitors on the track. Perhaps the F1 world feed can give some tips to Fox as to how to keep watching a race exciting, even when the leader runs away with it?