With all due apologies to Sebastian Junger, last weekend might have offered up the perfect storm for gearheads. Going into the weekend, it all looked great on paper, anyway. NASCAR was running a triple-header at Bristol, culminating with Saturday evenings “Night Race,” one of the most anticipated events of the season. Meanwhile out on the Left Coast, the Monterey historic car week was in full swing with some cars changing hands at figures higher than the annual budget of the two-traffic-light town I call home. (Well, one might argue that a particularly choice Pontiac Aztek with a rod knock could also eclipse that figure.) The Mecum Daytime auction was to be broadcast live Saturday and tape-delayed Sunday. And to top it all off the IndyCar race was slated for 3 PM on Sunday. Why 3 PM in the heart of the Eastern Time Zone? I’m not sure. Perhaps Indycar wanted to prove they can be just as ludicrous and arbitrary as NASCAR. Both of next year’s Cup races in Mount Pocono will start at 3 PM ET. Good tickets are still avaialable….and will be right up to and past the start of those races.
All of this automotive Nirvana was set to air on the (highly dysfunctional) NBC family of networks. That didn’t leave a lot of jiggle room on the schedule with the highly touted if not highly rated Olympics hanging over the car-related events like the Sword of Damocles. I’m a car guy. At the risk of being labeled unpatriotic or having a wall built across the end of my dirt driveway to keep me from getting to the Wawa, I don’t really care much about the Olympics and have only seen the couple minutes of highlights shown on the nightly news. I’ve carefully avoided seeing any of the water polo events out of fear of seeing the poor horses drown. It already struck me a bit odd that the suits in the NBC mothership were pitting the Monterey auction against the IndyCar race, but there’s only so many hours of daylight to work with I suppose. Barring any hitches it could have all come together if everything ran right on time after years of practice and design….. After all, what could go wrong? Well as it turned out this weekend featured more hitches than a full season of Bonanza. After a hot but relatively benign start to the summer (ironically the Poconos have been in a drought this summer, though race fans might be forgiven for not believing that) Mother Nature apparently felt fit to send a reminder: “Paybacks are a bitch and the bitch is back.”
It started with the rain Saturday night at Bristol. Mother Nature was in an impish mood, reducing the proceedings to a meteorological game of musical chairs. The start of the race was delayed by rain, but after considerable effort the track was dried, the drivers saddled up and racing commenced albeit briefly. More rain fell and the race had to be red-flagged on or about lap 48. The shower was brief but not brief enough to avoid the normal stupidity networks offer up to burn time during a rain delay in a race. We got to watch a drunken Toyota executive call Denny Hamlin his favorite Cup driver much to the entirely feigned annoyance of Matt Kenseth. We got to watch AJ Allmendinger violate the first rule of TV racing broadcast interviews. Unable to hear the question posed to him because of the jet-dryers, Allmendinger admitted as much….big mistake! Proper technique involves ignoring completely the question that was asked even if you had heard it clearly and prattling on about one’s own agenda mentioning sponsors’ names and espousing baseless optimism on one’s chances at a solid run or win in the event. Or at very least making the interviewer look foolish. To date the best rain delay quote of all time goes to former crew-chief Ray Evernham. When asked how rain “changed” a race car Evernham responded “It gets them wet.” We got to see Matt DiBenedetto…..well I’m not sure exactly what it is we saw him do, but it involved a blonde wig and probably warranted a three race suspension and a hefty fine if not a flogging. Again a fundamental rule was broken. There is no situation so dire, intolerable and unpleasant it can’t be made worse by introducing Taylor Swift into the equation. A better theme song seems so obvious given his last name: Benny and the Jets.
If there is a silver lining to rain delay race coverage it is that a bunch of the lesser name drivers with the smaller teams get some air time too. Unfortunately in many instances they reveal they don’t have much to say. That begs the question: do these drivers not have better results because they are not with the better teams or are they not with the better teams because they’re not better spoken outside the car? I think it was the late Bobby Hamilton, Sr. who once said the best stock car racer ever born was likely to be driving a tow truck in some southern hamlet because he couldn’t talk fancy enough for the new era of NASCAR.
Once the track was dry, the drivers returned to their cars and the cars returned to the track. NASCAR and track officials were doing some last minute mopping up attempts on pit road when the rain returned and that time it returned in earnest. After some more attempts to keep ahead of the rain and save the track lightning was spotted in the area and fans in the grandstands were told to seek shelter. The clock was approaching the witching hour when NASCAR finally decided, “OK, this is stupid, everybody go home.” That left me (admittedly as a big fan of Mecum auction broadcasts) scratching my head wondering why the 2014 Firecracker 400 was allowed to restart around midnight and go on til a quarter to three.
As per custom, the Cup race was rescheduled for Sunday. What wasn’t typical was the rescheduled start time. The race was to resume at 1 PM ET while most rain delayed races start before noon and sometimes as early as 10 AM. In this particular case the race was rescheduled to air at 1 PM and switch to CNBC, a channel so obscure even our own intrepid Phil Allaway had to put on a pith helmet to find it. Unfortunately the Monterey Auction (admittedly tape delayed) was scheduled to run on that same network at 1:30 PM ET. Classic car auctions I should note run rain or shine. The only real danger there is the owner of some classic Ferrari might have a myocardial infarction watching his play-pretty get wet. In the current era where unrestored “survivor” quality cars demand a premium, this weekend featured a 14-million-dollar Cobra and a 21 million dollar Jaguar D-type, both of which looked like they’d be ridden hard and put away wet. To compound the absurdity of the entire situation, meanwhile, on another network, the Little League World Series was in rain delay and it was pouring in the Poconos as race time approached. Ultimately Pocono was delayed until Monday right as the broadcast was scheduled to begin. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for NASCAR? As for Pocono, you can’t help but feel sorry for track management. Having three major races delayed for 24 hours in one year?
So what did CNBC choose to do at 1:30 with heavy rain falling at Bristol and no letup with the weather in the forecast? Bless their pointed little heads; they decided to re-air Friday night’s NXS race while flashing an occasional programming alert that the Cup race was in a weather delay. There wasn’t so much as a mention of what was going on for fans of classic cars tuning in to watch the auction. MSNBC was still hanging with the Olympics, presumably broadcasting a tiddlywinks game between Estonia and Antarctica or the new synchronized four-man restroom vandalism relay. As the afternoon dragged on those waiting for either the race or the auction on CNBC were even subjected to reruns of highlight shows. Had the rain gone on much longer, we might have been watching CNBC execs home movies or watching the booth crew play Pokemon Go.
Things were even worse north of the border, according to some folks who contacted me. Their CNBC is different than ours for reasons that may or may not have to do with their currency which is officially Monopoly money, and any sports programming on that channel is blacked out. Instead they have TSN, in the form of TSNs 1 through 5. And as the race at Bristol resumed, three of the TSN’s were showing the same horse race and the other two were blacking out NASCAR coverage until 6 PM ET when they finally joined the race in progress allegedly due to contractual issues. I’m not sure how cable TV works in Canada. It’s probably cheap because it’s government subsidized but not very good.
NBC has had rain issues with races previously this year. In what I think was an unprecedented move when Pocono was finally officially postponed for Sunday NBCSN went ahead and aired an Indycar race that was supposed to be shown later than day via tape-delay live. Only they didn’t tell anyone they were going to do that. And they missed the first bunch of laps anyway.
The Cup race finally resumed around 5. The action was typical of Bristol with what was alternately referred to as “sealer” or “resin” in the bottom lane adding a bit of intrigue. (Whatever the stuff was, it was not a VHT product typically used at drag strips though I am sure that corporation greatly enjoyed people thinking it was.) Whatever the gooey stuff was, it seemed to work splendidly in the truck race and for the first half of the NXS race though it was by and large worn away by that point. The fact NASCAR or the track decided to try improving that lower lane without even giving the teams a chance to try out the enhanced track surface prior to this weekend is without precedent at least in my memory. And while the move seemed to enhance the racing this weekend during those brief periods when it wasn’t raining such experiments have potential pitfalls as well. Recall the ISC (read the France family) bought Martinsville midway through 2004. The Earles family had always sealed portions of the track prior to Cup weekends at the facility. The ISC did so as well prior to that year’s Martinsville fall race but they used a different sort of sealer. (Probably because it was cheaper.) The track fell apart during the race resulting in 17 caution flags for 125 laps total.
As the 24 Hours of Bristol lurched towards its conclusion, the inevitable happened. It began raining again. If you looked at the weather radar for the area, it seemed impossible. There were no cells within eight miles of the track, but it went ahead and rained anyway despite the Super-Doppler Qua-jillion-watts-of-power double-sweep radar that said that couldn’t be the case. As it stands written in the Book of Bobby, “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
When it comes to automotive themed programming, NBC has almost an embarrassment of riches. They’ve got the Formula One races for as long as they remain off of pay-per-view, most of the IndyCar schedule, and the second half of the Cup and NXS seasons. They’ve got all the Mecum auto auctions, Jay Leno’s Garage, other racing shoulder programming and the usual crap with teams turning derelicts into show cars within a week, the ultimate unreality TV programming that would make the Kardashians blush. Meanwhile NBCSN (and the former auto only channels) continue their quixotic obsession with making soccer fans out of Americans who by and large have little to no interest in the sport. Personally I can’t watch soccer. It involves a bunch of running around to very little purpose.
With all the automotive programming they’ve paid dearly for, perhaps it’s time for NBC to start an all automotive channel along the lines of the old SPEED and Velocity channels. They could call it NBCars, as in “nothing but cars.” In addition to race fans I’m sure the classic car hobbyists would welcome such a channel. Since the Mecum auctions moved to NBCSN, there’s been a dearth of live broadcasts (compared to the marathons of old), a preponderance of awkwardly timed re-airs and near constant conflicts with other sporting events even before the Olympics. CNBC is hardly a workable solution. I can’t be the only one uneasy about all the ads appealing to those with health problems related to asbestos, BeeGees albums and talcum powder investing their “big cash awards” into gold and silver futures and freeze-dried MRE prepper rations before the upcoming economic Armageddon they’re all predicting. I think the world is a pretty scary place for people who watch too much cable TV, which might help explain D….OK, I won’t go there. I’m not a network programming expert. To be frank I don’t even particularly care for TV and I seldom watch it except to see the news, races and car auctions of course. But it would seem to me that if I had my fingers on the big red button this weekend I’d have gone with original (even if it was tape-delayed) programming rather than reruns. NASCAR fans have long since come to terms with the fact FOX and NBC thinks we’re all a bunch of idiots ready as sheep to be led to the slaughter on the altar of their sponsors. Now it would appear those same fine folks don’t love us old car hobbyists anymore either. Or Canadians.
(For those of you into the classic car auctions, MSNBC will air the Mecum Monterey auction from 7 PM ET to 1 AM ET this coming Wednesday unless they’re overwhelmed by petitions from fans demanding to see Friday’s NXS race for a fourth time.)
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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