This weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway marks a new beginning … sort of. This weekend, NBC will take over the broadcast for NASCAR races as the Cup race will be held on NBC and the NASCAR Xfinity race will be shown on NBCSN. It’s sort of a strange situation.
Usually when the transition takes place, the network that takes over does so for the remainder of the year. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, things have changed, and NBC will cover Indianapolis with FOX returning for the next two races at Kentucky and the All-Star race at Bristol Motor Speedway. After that, it goes back to NBC for good.
While it will be an unusual situation, it gives us the perfect time for a debate. Which network has the better broadcast? Is it FOX, which is led by veteran broadcaster Mike Joy? Or is it NBC led by lead announcer Rick Allen. Vito Pugliese thinks it’s NBC while Adam Cheek prefers FOX. Let the debate begin.
Peacocking with Team Slide Job
This weekend’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (please just call it the Brickyard 400 again…) marks a pivotal moment in the NASCAR season. Not that each week hasn’t felt like a watershed moment in its own right. From making national headlines and becoming a bigger part of the political landscape than the “NASCAR Dads” demographic of 15 years ago, each week has brought to the surface a topic of legitimate interest and discussion, be it night racing at Martinsville, the gamut of emotions and fallout from Talladega (beyond another photo finish), to the suggestion that perhaps we go IMSA at Pocono and run all three series at once to knock out a doubleheader weekend quicker. The typical blasé summer stretch has suddenly jump started NASCAR back into the headlines on a weekly basis. This weekend brings the annual transition from FOX to NBC. Each has a different flavor, and like Coke versus Pepsi, or Chevrolet versus Ford, most are equally passionate about their coverage.
Across the American sporting landscape, there are broadcast teams that like bands, sometimes stay together a little too long, and lose the magic they had from those first couple of albums. On the FOX Sports side of the booth, the dynamics between Darrell Waltrip, Michael Waltrip, Chris Myers, Mike Joy, and Jeff Gordon started to get a bit clunky. When Darrell stepped aside at the end of last year, it seemed to free things up a bit for Jeff Gordon to impart some more recent and practical racing knowledge, both with the machines and the personalities running up front contending for the wins. FOX presents a solid product, but sometimes does feel a bit bland.
Which brings us to the Peacock Network, which I always feel has been criminally underrated.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to retire from racing in the Cup Series, his transition to the booth was an instant success. Barely one race in, he already coined his signature foreshadowing call of “Slide Job!” calling the race as a fan as much as he was a broadcasting professional. The dynamic with Junior and Steve Letarte is also a unique one, with Letarte finally able to revive his career and bring himself back to prominence, as well as help him personally become a more engaged and engaging individual. They won a Daytona 500 together and make solid driver/crew chief combination to call races and discuss race strategy. NBC has always done a preview lap of each track in their own car, with former driver Jeff Burton explaining the nuances of each track and what to look out for. NBC also seems to get a bit more involved with the drivers and preparing some special segments each week, such as in 2017 at the Southern 500, they had cars from four different eras with Kyle Petty, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin making laps and telling stories as they drove around in formation.
No offense to Michael Waltrip and the grid walk, but this kind of stuff to me has a bit more substance and helps tell the story of the track – and the sport – a bit more creatively than impromptu one liners and drone views.
That’s not to say that NBC doesn’t have room for improvement. During the race when emotions and ambient volume running high, it can be hard to distinguish between Burton yelling and Earnhardt Jr. yelling with the excitement level goes up. I guess 40 years combined of driving 850-horsepower racecars with no mufflers can lead to a bit of tinnitus and hearing loss. Rick Allen has been NBC’s lead in the booth, replacing Allen Beckwick who – as far as I’m concerned – set the gold standard for calling races with the 2001 Pepsi 400 finish, won by Earnhardt Jr. Those are mighty big shoes to fill, and given the strong driver dynamic in the booth, Allen does a fairly good job of not dominating the broadcast and knowing when to yield to Burton, Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte. Marty Snider’s voice from the pits reminds me of peak-MRN broadcasts in the late 1990s, along with Dave Burns who has been covering racing since the early days of the Truck Series on ESPN, and is as familiar a voice in motorsports as there has been in the last 20 years.
The tracks that the NBC crew has to start their portion of the year with can be a challenge as well – Indy, Texas and Kansas – can be feast or famine when it comes to on track action and passing. Indianapolis can get pretty spread out, and passing is at a premium on restarts. Then it settles in to single-file lap logging, which leaves the broadcast team with the responsibility of retaining viewers and keeping them engaged (i.e., awake) for three hours solely. Or it can devolve into a series of track blocking wrecks like it did in 2017. Their usual Summer Stretch run used to include some painful Pocono events and Michigan races that would inevitably turn into a fuel mileage event or beating a thunderstorm. To be able to maintain the momentum as they historically have is a testament to the broadcast and productions teams alike.
This weekend might be a bit of a challenge for teams and the broadcast crew alike, with no practice or support series laying down rubber, and as Rodney Childers expressed on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Tuesday, there’s concern for when the competition caution will be – perhaps as early as 10 laps if not sooner to check for tire wear. If we have another 2008 Brickyard 400 situation, the team in the booth will have the unenviable task of having to explain what’s happening and comparing it to the same situation they endured a decade earlier. Having three principles on hand to do so adds additional credibility should such a situation occur, and one more reason why NASCAR on NBC gets my nod as best in the business. Although, in all fairness to FOX, they have stepped up their game considerably this year, and took the point in promoting iRacing during their early season schedule, keeping NASCAR at the forefront of sports and entertainment, and setting the stage for a return that saw the sport elevated to a platform that many probably never thought it would. – Vito Pugliese
Focus in on FOX
Nineteen years. Thirteen Emmys.
That’s how long FOX has presented NASCAR broadcasts, followed by how many awards they’ve accumulated over that time period.
FOX is in its 20th season of airing the biggest brand of motorsports in the United States. They currently air roughly the first half of the season before NBC takes over after Sonoma. This is, of course, different for 2020 but the principle is the same.
There are many similarities between FOX’s and NBC’s coverage of NASCAR, mostly due to the fact that there’s really only so many ways you can present a race before those parallels become evident. Regardless, the two have their own unique styles of presenting races to the viewers and bring a lot to the table … but FOX continues to be the premier leader in airing races.
Kicking off the season every year is the Daytona 500, of course, and FOX always airs the crown jewel race. Additionally, the network airs the Clash, both Duel races, the Truck Series event and Xfinity Series opener at Daytona. There’s no better prestige for a network than to air the biggest event of the year.
As for race presentation, the running order ticker was also adjusted in the past few years. FOX moved it to the side of the screen rather than at the top. Placement issues are prevalent, sure, but the running order is much more visible – the top 16 are on the screen at all times, no matter what, and the next four are either positions 17-20 or cycle all the way through 40th. NBC’s broadcasts have the sleek numbers and top three displayed on their ticker at the top of the screen, but wondering where your favorite driver is might take an eternity. If they had problems and dropped to 30th, it might be a near-full cycle of the ticker – it’s almost there, and then the broadcast cuts to commercial… and the cycle starts all over again when the race returns from the break — before you find out where they’re at.
Consistency in broadcast personalities benefits FOX as well. Mike Joy, to me, is one of the best lead broadcasters in sports today, and he and Jeff Gordon have a solid rapport as a duo in the booth. Joy has been calling races for FOX since 2001, is also in his 20th season up there for the station and has one of the best voices in motorsports broadcasting. Gordon was a great addition to the booth and the now-two-person booth settled in quite nicely after Darrell Waltrip departed last year.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Larry McReynolds, too. Larry Mac was one of the lead trio of broadcasters (with Joy and DW) and sort of faded back into an analyst role once Gordon arrived, but still gets plenty of airtime. That consistency is sort of wonderful with broadcasting – it’s like Al Michaels calling Sunday Night Football games every week or Joe Buck on the air for the World Series every single year.
Admittedly, FOX is not without fault, and the best example spanned both Talladega races for the Cup Series last year. Both events featured a car upside down – Kyle Larson barrel rolled down the backstretch in the spring race, while Brendan Gaughan did a full 360 in the air in the fall, landing on all fours.
FOX’s cameras were too focused on the “battle for the lead” in the spring – which wasn’t all that competitive – between Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, and no cameras caught the full extent and violence of Larson’s tumble. A shot from across the track of his car showed part of it, and the camera that could capture the entirety of the backstretch instead panned away as Larson’s car began to roll. That oddity left fans without a clear view of the crash, at least until a fan’s video hit Twitter and showed more of the incident.
NBC’s coverage of Gaughan’s wild ride had about five or six great angles and some spectacular slow-motion replays, arguably the video shot of the year in regards to the races.
Otherwise, FOX has done a stellar job over the years with their coverage and ability to capture the on-track action, especially in the Cup Series. I wouldn’t trade listening to Mike Joy call races for anything, and I look forward to the rest of their broadcasts this year and beyond. – Adam Cheek