Roughly 24 hours after Sunday’s (April 3) NASCAR Cup Series event at Richmond Raceway, there was one lasting image from the first short track race of the season.
It wasn’t Denny Hamlin celebrating atop his No. 11 Toyota after scoring his first win of 2022.
It was…..Clint Howard?
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) April 3, 2022
More specifically, it was Clint Howard (or someone who looks a lot like the younger brother of famous film director Ron Howard) dressed up as… a bean? A peanut? A morning vitamin?
Wait… a watermelon seed?
Oh, that’s right. When Chastain earned his first NASCAR Cup win last weekend at COTA and did his traditional celebration of smashing a watermelon, at one point a watermelon seed was stuck to the corner of his mouth.
Apparently, someone at Fox Sports noticed. They then wrote, cast and produced a skit about said watermelon seed as if that was one of the most talked about things in NASCAR in the last seven days.
But wait, there’s more!
Not long after that, it was time to trot out another “fun” bit that did nothing to educate or enlighten anyone who was waiting to watch a NASCAR race.
This time, it was a parody of the song Rich Girl by Hall & Oates.
All this came weeks after another pre-race skit before the Las Vegas Motor Speedway event. That one involved two people dressed in costumes representing Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson as they hashed out their beef from Auto Club Speedway.
How did we get here?
How did we arrive at the point where huge chunks of a 90-minute NASCAR pre-race show are devoted to attempts at comedy rather than substantial effort to get the audience hyped and properly informed for a sporting event?
For my money, it started early on in Fox’s 21-year tenure covering NASCAR. (Yes, it’s been longer than ESPN’s original timeline covering the sport (1981-2000)). Yet if Fox dropped its NASCAR coverage today, it would likely be met with the complete opposite reaction to ESPN’s departure.
When did opinions on Fox begin to sour?
“Digger,” back in 2008, may have been a turning point. What began as a cool camera placed in the corners of racetracks eventually morphed into a CGI-animated gopher character and the mascot of Fox’s coverage.
Then, there was the Darrell Waltrip of it all.
It’s easy to forget, but the three-time Cup champion was a really good analyst in the years after his NASCAR career came to an end. But eventually, as his knowledge became less relevant, the “boogity, boogity, boogity!” took over and Waltrip morphed into a caricature.
With each passing year, the inertia of Waltrip’s continued presence crept into the rest of Fox’s coverage as it tried to match his energy.
Waltrip’s been gone from the broadcast since 2019 (though his brother Michael and the unbearable “Grid Walk” remain) but Fox still seems to be chasing what Waltrip took with him.
The commonality between Digger and Waltrip is a basic part of Fox: It takes something cool and then beats you over the head with it to remind you it’s there. Once you see it for the 1,000th time, it’s no longer exciting or even innovative.
Humorous bits have been part of NASCAR race broadcasts for years. For example, there was the “Austin Powers”-themed intro to CBS’ broadcast of a Michigan race in 1999. That same year, coverage of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona began with a Star Wars intro (The Phantom Menace was released two months before).
Oh. My. Gosh.
The #StarWars Episode 1 themed opening to CBS’ broadcast of the 1999 Pepsi 400.
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) December 20, 2021
But those were just the just one-off intros. That tone wasn’t a defining feature week in and week out, from start to finish.
Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage isn’t an outlier. It’s the same network that has employed comedians Rob Riggle and Frank Caliendo for other sports broadcasts. And Fox isn’t the first network to lean into “entertainment” over sports in an effort to appeal to the mysterious “average viewer.”
Remember the Dennis Miller era on NFL’s Monday Night Football? It isn’t recalled fondly.
Look, I get it. When it comes to pre-race, 90 minutes is a lot of TV time to fill. Let’s start there.
Pre-race shows should be looked at like race lengths.
Outside major NASCAR races – the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, Bristol’s Night Race and the championship event – there shouldn’t be a Cup race 500 miles/laps or longer. Outside those crown jewels, there shouldn’t be a pre-race show that lasts more than 30 minutes.
Ideally, the pre-race programming should be like a lit fuse.
Light it and get out of the way.
ESPN, CBS and TNT’s presentations of NASCAR at the height of its popularity had it down to a science.
The ideal Fox race broadcast:
– Mike Joy intro
– Brings in Bowyer, guest
– Send it down to pit road
– Quick hits on three big stories from reporters
– Command to start engines
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) April 3, 2022
It'd be fun if it was treated like a sport, not a circus and definitely not a church social.
I'm not pals with the drivers and don't need the TV personalities to try and make it look like we could be. They're athletes, I want to watch them compete, not see their snack foods. https://t.co/sQfvYZCrHg
— Pizza Enthusiast 🍕 (@portmantony) April 4, 2022
To be fair, Fox is doing some good right now.
The decision to go with a rotating schedule of guest analysts has been the right one. With the insight of Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and now Chad Knaus, the Cup booth feels fresh and arguably its most informative since the mid-2000s.
If Fox can fix that, they should be able to work up a formula to a compelling pre-race format that leaves you hyped for the race and not cringing in embarrassment.
Fox Sports’ TV coverage of NASCAR needs to respect the sport and respect the fans that are watching.
Those goals really should be considered one and the same.
2022 is Daniel McFadin’s ninth year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his second year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can also be found at SpeedSport.com and FanBuzz.com. And you can hear more from him on his podcast, which is embedded below.
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 7-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He's currently a freelancer and lead reporter and editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR show "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" on YouTube and in podcast form.
You can email him at email@example.com.
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