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(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Couch Potato Tuesday: Is FOX Production Making NASCAR Seem Boring?

Kansas Speedway has always been a tough go for NASCAR since the track got a second date in 2011. It’s even worse that the race is held on Saturday night of Mother’s Day weekend. Certainly, Mother’s Day would be a difficult sell, but the time leads to a reduced television audience and a difficult position for FOX to market and build momentum for the sport.

KC Masterpiece 400

We’re getting into the time of year in which race broadcasts can also be affected by FOX Sports’ coverage of Major League Baseball. Sure enough, the Washington Nationals-Arizona Diamondbacks game ran long by about 23 minutes. As a result, NASCAR RaceDay was cut down significantly.

The biggest question mark that continues on NASCAR RaceDay is why you never really see FOX Sports’ pit reporters talking to anyone during the show. There might be a feature that one of the reporters will anchor (Ex: Jamie Little’s recent interview at the polo match with Kurt and Ashley Busch), but other than that, you don’t see them.

Perhaps they’re off getting last-minute tidbits for the broadcast at that time, but they were doing that in past seasons. For some reason, this change means that Michael Waltrip ends up being the primary interviewer during pre-race coverage. Why? He might be the least professional guy on the staff. He doesn’t bring any questions of substance to these interviews. The Grid Walk stuff continues to not really inform the viewer while regular interviews are ho-hum at the best of times. I’m all for having fun at the track, but viewers would rather learn something. It’s like someone should sit Waltrip down, have him watch Martin Brundle do Grid Walks on ESPN2 and tell him to match that style.

The interviews done by Chris Myers are more enjoyable. Waltrip, by comparison seems to go out of his way to be goofy. By all indications, that is just the way he is in general and has been for decades. It is not an act. As a result, it’s a little hard to see if he’s taking things seriously at times.

In NASCAR, the biggest storyline of the week was the news of the France family seeking guidance about potentially selling some or all of their stake in NASCAR. In my opinion, this news couldn’t have come at a worse time. It gives the idea that the people running the sport are abandoning ship instead of actually doing something to fix it.

The story was discussed on the show and a couple of examples of potential suitors were noted. Disney, which is trying to acquire FOX as of this writing, was listed as a possible buyer. Darrell Waltrip thought it might wind up being a company like Comcast (owner of NBC, among other properties).

It’s notable that this topic even got a discussion at all. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but Comcast is technically the competition to FOX right now. DW being allowed to even reference them at all is interesting. Ultimately, the price tag is realistically high enough that no one company could buy the sanctioning body by themselves and gain full control.

For much of the first 350 miles, viewers had a calm race on their hands. Not a whole lot went on. The race more or less flew by without much happening until Daniel Suárez hit the wall exiting turn 2 and collided with Alex Bowman.

It was at that point that the action certifiably picked up. But looking back at the race, it seems FOX Sports isn’t doing the best job at showing viewers the action throughout the field. As a result, everyone comes off as jaded at times. It’s not a great look.

Yes, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson dominated the action, leading 270 of the 400 miles between themselves, but they’re not the only guys out there. I constantly stress covering all the stories out on-track as opposed to just a couple. You’ll find plenty of aspects of the race to keep you occupied.

Instead, it’s as if the action that viewers see on television is all that the commentators see. In instances where commentators are calling events they’re not physically at, it’s understandable. A lot of the tape-delayed race coverage can fall into that category. Car & Driver Magazine interviewed Rick Benjamin for a piece on that back in late 2008 in which he talked about watching the whole [Hooters ProCup Series] race multiple times, then doing the commentary. The key there was apparently to “sound surprised.”

But limited vision does not apply here. FOX’s commentators are all on site for MENCS races and bring plenty of knowledge to the table. Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon have a variety of monitors at their disposal (in addition to simply looking out the window). They have production staff in the TV Compound with every camera on the premises to choose from.

At times, there seems to be a disconnect and an inability to take that “extra step” and follow the action for, say, 20th place. If there’s a side-by-side battle on the track, start there and squeeze the most out of a race you’re covering. Production, the booth and the pit reporters must all come together to showcase a better product.

Post-race coverage was somewhat short due to the fact that the late yellows put the race right up against the end of the timeslot. Viewers got interviews with three of the top finishers (Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Larson) along with a check of the points. That was about it.

The Larson interview did cause some consternation amongst our staff. Matt McLaughlin felt that it might have been inappropriate to ask Larson about the rear window issue on his No. 42 after the race. Granted, Larson was likely upset that he and his team had blown a chance to win. However, seeing as the issue was obvious to anyone watching, FOX Sports 1 would have been doing a disservice if they didn’t ask about it. The window was basically the gorilla in the room.

For what it’s worth, Larson stated he thought the damage came as the result of his bumping match with Ryan Blaney in the tri-oval (the result of that bumping was a cut right front tire that put Blaney in the wall). While yes, there was visible damage on Larson’s car, it is unlikely that the brace was broken due to the contact. In fact, it appears that the brace was already broken and the window slumping before the incident. FOX Sports 1 actually spent time talking about the rear window issue during the race itself. They knew it was a problem and everyone watching probably knew as well.

Had Larson won the race, you would likely have one of those instances where he wouldn’t get the benefits of the win (or, as Joey Logano often referred to it last year, “cucumbered”). The Penalty Report comes out on Wednesday and NASCAR sent Larson’s car to the R&D Center, so stay tuned.

37 Kind Days 250

Friday night saw the Camping World Truck Series take on Kansas Speedway for their longest race of the season. It sure didn’t seem like it, though.

As you may remember, ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes basically had this race won last year. Then, the engine turned traitor on him in the final 10 laps because a bolt went through the grille.

FOX Sports 1 sat down with members of the then-No. 27 team (now No. 41) to relieve the night.

Rhodes talks about his feelings from that night, along with crew chief Eddie Troconis. As you would expect, he was crushed. Even Kyle Busch knew that he had been vanquished that night.

Ultimately, the whole situation was a learning experience for the Louisville native. It would be interesting to inquire about what happened to the bolt. Last year at Charlotte, Rhodes had it around his neck. Maybe he still has it. Perhaps it hit the trash can after Rhodes won in Las Vegas last year.

This was an interesting piece to watch. The piece showed just how a race that got away could increase the confidence of a young driver. After Kansas, Rhodes had four consecutive top 10 finishes that put him into the top five in points. Losing Kansas didn’t keep Rhodes out of the playoffs, but may have made him stronger in them.

That race in particular was one where Rhodes earned a lot of respect from his peers. Ultimately, it led to a friendly conversation with Busch, likely the first time that Rhodes had ever had such a talk with the Cup and XFINITY Series champion.

As compared to the Cup race, the truck race seemed to be a little more competitive. Even though Noah Gragson led 128 laps Friday night, there was still a good amount of competitive action.

FOX Sports 1 had a number of issues with their scoring pylon during the race. This has been an ongoing issue for much of the season off and on, but it was as if the GPS was broken early on. It displayed everyone except leader Matt Crafton as being two laps down. That might make sense if this were 1986 when Dale Earnhardt lapped the field at Atlanta. Not so much four laps into a present-day Truck race. Not sure what’s up with that. Hopefully, the glitches are worked out prior to this weekend in Charlotte.

Speaking of glitches, the telemetry was off all night as well. Longtime race fans can tell that the Ilmor engines (which are effectively the Ilmor 396 power plants developed for ARCA) don’t turn as many RPMs as a traditional “open” motor can. I’m pretty dang sure these Ilmor engines aren’t turning 8700 RPMs. They turn less RPMs than the 9.5:1 compression ratio engines used in the now-XFINITY Series in the mid to late-1990s.

At times, I found some of the commentary annoying. Radio chatter from Johnny Sauter‘s truck was played on-air, indicating that Sauter was struggling with a lack of grip. Michael Waltrip then exclaimed about Sauter’s lack of grip as if we didn’t just hear his radio feed.

There are a couple of reasons why that happened. One is that Michael Waltrip didn’t know that the producers had played Sauter’s radio on-air. This happens from time-to-time since there are a number of people on the headsets at any given time. The other reason is that Michael did it so that he would be heard. My guess is the former occurred, but that it looked like the latter.

The race ended way ahead of schedule, meaning that there could have been 25 minutes or more of post-race coverage. That wasn’t to be. Viewers got interviews with the top three finishers (Gragson, Busch and Stewart Friesen) and winning crew chief Rudy Fugle before leaving for MLB Whiparound early.

Shortened post-race coverage can make sense if you’re running late. Not filling your timeslot makes less sense. It sounds like you’re stiffing people intentionally. It’s not like Hermie Sadler or Alan Cavanna couldn’t come with a couple of more drivers to talk to do.

During post-race coverage, Busch indicated that he was rather unhappy with Friesen for a move he made on lap 145 in the tri-oval. The instance, which occurred during a side-by-side commercial break, saw Friesen get held up by Norm Benning, giving Busch a chance at the spot. Friesen tried to block, but underestimated Busch’s run. The result was that contact was made and Busch clipped the grass.

Afterwards, Friesen reportedly exited a radio interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang and immediately apologized to Busch. Busch refused to accept the apology.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is All-Star Weekend for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The points are set aside as teams race for $1 million. The Camping World Truck Series will race as primary support. Outside of Charlotte, Verizon IndyCar Series teams will be on-track all week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparations for qualifying. With 35 entries, there will be a couple of teams that will go home unhappy.

In addition, the ARCA Racing Series has a home game of their own Sunday at Toledo Speedway. Finally, Pirelli World Challenge has their third Sprint weekend of the season for the GT and GTS classes at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. Listings are under the Television tab.

We will provide critiques of the All-Star festivities and the Camping World Truck Series North Carolina Education Lottery 200 from Charlotte in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday.

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. 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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About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
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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12 comments

  1. I’d really like to see Jeff Gordon and Steve Letart teamed but overall my problem isn’t so much with the announcers as it is with the production itself. There is almost always some racing going on somewhere in the pack….show it! Don’t switch cameras so damn frequently. Many times something starts to happen but somebody with a bank of screens in front of them that probably knows nothing about racing to begin with has them switch to another view and we don’t see the result of what was happening in the first place. Get rid of the specialty cams….they’re useless and we want to to see the racing. Quit following a broken car (no matter who it is) off the track, down pit road and all the way into the garage….we want to see the race – and he ain’t in it any more! What sense is there in showing a bunch of crewmen peering inside the engine bay of a car on pit road. Simply put, show us the racing.

    • You hit the nail on the head, Tom. Every single damned week, multiple times, I see something developing on the track (3 wide pass, lead change, accident) and then we get thrown to another camera showing something completely different… only to have Fox interrupt the live coverage moments later to show us what they stupidly missed the first time. I swear the director in the trailer must be suffering from the worst case of ADD ever seen, as he/she can’t seem stick with one single camera shot for more than 3 seconds at a time. It’s awful.

      Don’t even get me started on the excessively zoomed shots that cut out so much of the action and perspective…

  2. You have to question exactly who makes the decision on on air broadcasters. I wonder how many others such as myself find themselves not cheering or screaming at the racing but screaming for DW, Mikey, Adam Alexander, to just shut up, thats right, yelling at a broadcast team to shut up. It should be against nature for people to have that much talking inside them. Wait, do you think they get paid by the word? DW has a reply for every comment Mike or Jeff says, non-stop, just shut up. Mikey has ruined the truck series races for me, just shut up. Fox doesn’t need to join Disney it’s already a cartoon show minus the humor.

  3. Let’s face it NASCAR is getting so boring. Stage racing means nothing. I was talking to a friend and we to the same thing, watch the start, go shopping, chores etc. then watch the end of the race.
    What NASCAR needs to do is use a Motocross format. 3 45 min segments. Lowest aggregate score wins the overall. Then you will see drivers digging for top 5 finishes.
    This will cut time and each segment matters for each race and not a total for the end of the season.

  4. DW has always had a hard time knowing when it’s over and time to go. That huge ego forced him to race his last 8 years without earning a win while looking like a has been and not even knowing it. Same thing is taking place now. Go home DW, spend time with your family or go fishing or whatever, but just go.

  5. I agree with your article completely! I have long stated, that TV coverage should be showing any car passing another car on the track, not just the top 2 or 3 runners. Also, keep the cameras on the track covering racing, don’t cut away to show everybody’s freaking pit stops! People don’t gp to a race to watch pit stops, why subject the TV audience to that?

  6. “In NASCAR, the biggest storyline of the week was the news of the France family seeking guidance about potentially selling some or all of their stake in NASCAR. In my opinion, this news couldn’t have come at a worse time. It gives the idea that the people running the sport are abandoning ship instead of actually doing something to fix it.”

    I don’t think it just an “idea”. I think it’s the reality. NASCAR has been losing value daily for how many years now? How many years? I’d say eight to ten years.

    It cannot be fixed. The attendance at the local, weekly races have been hemorrhaging fans for years. And, this is where most NASCAR big league fans were “born”. It is attrition, not the product, that is to “blame” for declining ratings and attendance. That is the root of the problem. Any “fix” that does not do something to increase interest at the local level cannot pull a rabbit out of the hat and make it better for the big three touring series, Truck, Xfinity, and Cup.

    At the championship dinner in Las Vegas, Brian introduced Junior and could not get off the stage fast enough. His heart is not in it. Why should he keep flushing his dollars down the drain? Day by day, drop by drop, NASCAR is losing value. He want’s to cut his losses and run.

  7. No, it is not FOX that is the problem; it is the lack of racing. How do I know? I never watch the pre-race features and I use the Mute Button on 95% of the broadcast, preferring NASCAR’s timing and scoring for more up-to-date and relevant data.

    And I would take Mikey in a heartbeat over Darrell. Mikey knows he is the class clown and plays the role to perfection. And NASCAR desperately needs a class clown, because there is no entertainment on the track itself. Darrell thinks he is the greatest driver (and possibly the greatest human) ever to inhabit the earth. And he is at least 20 years out of touch with what’s happening on the track. The best thing about DW’s tenure in the booth is that only the very elderly will remember him for anything he did as a driver and will only think of his as that “moron in the booth who never shuts up.” He is destroying his own legacy and I love it! Plus he is too stupid to even realize he is doing it.

  8. update the television tab and maybe we can tell what the heck all is going on this weekend besides the soon-to-be-disaster that used to be the Winston….

  9. Go back and watch videos of Inside Winston Cup shows – Mikey acted the same way then as he does now, but at least on that show, there was Allen Bestwick & Ken Schrader to keep him in check to a certain degree. Then it was amusing, now MW’s presence is a reason for me to NEVER watch anything that has him on it. I’d watch truck racing IF he wasn’t in the booth and I have the remote with the mute button handy for whenever I see him appear on the TV.

    IMO you are correct about the way that ALL of the tv partners broadcast the races causing an issue with making it boring for fans. Wide shots, pay attention & broadcast the action in the race, not just the leaders or single car shots or all of the gimmicky camera views. Show the race – maybe people would then think that the racing is interesting enough to buy a ticket & go to a race – where you can watch all of it.

    The France family – namely Brian – took a sport that was in a great position and managed to run it into the ground. The TV $ is the only thing saving them right now and I agree with you that the “for sale” sign certainly doesn’t look good. If some company does buy it, then the whole France family should have to go. Things under Big Bill and Bill Jr were all on the upswing but the current family members just want the $.

  10. I always figured that Michael Waltrip’s grid walk was just to make fun of Peter Windsor with the horrible grid walk segments on SPEED. The F1 crowd totally dissed Windsor, at least the NASCAR guys play along.

    It was funny for the first few races but like all things FOX and Waltrip, it gets old.

  11. I found out a guy that I know is a big NASCAR fan. He especially likes the trucks. I told him flat out I would really like the trucks, but for me at least, I can’t because of MW. Nails on chalkboard.
    You mention that someone could actually sit down with Michael and get him to be more serious? Please. How one can expect that, he wasn’t a serious driver like is brother and he certainly didn’t take owning a NASCAR team seriously. It is nice that you try to help him though. But I’ve been of this sport a very long time, so I am not nice about it.
    Always like this column.