Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Classic ESPN Speed World Links Past Success, Failure With Present Coverage

Despite all of the resources and talent ESPN possesses, its 2008 NASCAR coverage has been less than spectacular at best. Some moves made in preparation for and during the season – like replacing Rusty Wallace with Dale Jarrett in the booth – have proven to be ingenius, especially since Wallace seems to fit in well with his new role down in the Pit Studio. But other moves, like choosing to keep Dr. Jerry Punch as the play-by-play man, show that the network does not have a full grasp yet on all the moves it needs to make.

With that said, Sunday’s New Hampshire race did not contain many errors on ESPN’s part. The telecast was clearly solid; but there were no great improvements, either. The most notable offender for me was Punch, who continued to prove that he belongs in the pit road reporter gang instead of upstairs with Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett.

With ratings down and fans asking for better these days, where can the network figure out how to learn from its mistakes? The answer is exceedingly simple – look at their own little slice of history.

Recent talk of all the ups and downs of today’s NASCAR coverage permeated my mind during a couple of ESPN Classic reruns of Speed World races from the early-to-mid 1990s. In the past couple of weeks, ESPN Classic aired the 1996 Pontiac Excitement 400 from Richmond, as well as the 1993 Hooters 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Not only was the mid-pack racing better in this era, which is more than can be said for racing at the front of the pack then, but the television coverage had some noticeable bright spots.

Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons were among the former driver color commentators in the broadcasts. Though Parsons was never extremely polished at calling the racing action, sometimes acting too quickly to diagnose problems with racecars or crashes, he and Jarrett quite obviously had a keen understanding of the sport and did not try to over-manufacture excitement.

But truth be told, excitement mongering is a big fault of today’s ESPN NASCAR coverage. Examples of this include the hasty reporting of the Ron Hornaday-testosterone story, prematurely breaking news that Martin Truex Jr. and Bobby Labonte had signed contracts for 2009, and over-focusing on the Chase. Today’s culture has this type of coverage to blame for its misunderstanding of situations and its short attention span.

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During both of these classic races, each of which took place in the latter months of their respective seasons, the race announcers calmly mentioned Silly Season developments and announcements that they had learned or heard rumors of in the garage, giving viewers the impression that they were garage insiders. But today’s coverage is chock full of one-liners and prepared statements, making the announcers seem more distant than the race callers of the past.

The producers of older race broadcasts took part in one practice in particular that seems to be lost on the networks of today. In both of these earlier ESPN shows, Dr. Jerry Punch interviewed drivers who crashed out of races or had engine failures in the garage, regardless of their notoriety or previous place in the running order. The last time that ESPN took a substantial amount of time to do that this year was during the Watkins Glen red flag, since all of the racing action was put on hold.

But despite the bright spots in the ESPN Speed World broadcasts, the classic races made me appreciate the modern conveniences of today. In the older coverage, the running order ticker only flashed a few times during the race, instead of continuously – like in the ones of recent years. The ticker makes it much easier to keep tabs on your favorite driver, especially when the network is not. Other modern conveniences, like satellite telemetry, also are taken for granted in today’s coverage.

A current group of pit-road reporters on any network has approximately four people. In ESPN’s older coverage, Dr. Jerry Punch handled most of the pit-road interviewing by himself, with occasional help from Kernan. The lack of warm bodies reporting on pit road in the older races meant some storylines fell through the cracks – but also left you with less voices you heard throughout the course of the broadcast overall.

In the past couple of seasons, networks have gone out of their way to include driver audio. This feature on broadcasts gives viewers a glimpse into the raw, uncut, unpolished emotion of NASCAR drivers. But older broadcasts did not often have much of this audio, another element that would have added a facet of understanding to the action on the track.

Overall, the advancements in technology and technique in today’s NASCAR broadcasts make tracking a driver’s progress much easier for the fans to do. But as good as some of the 21st-century bells and whistles are, beating the style of broadcasting from the likes of Ned Jarrett, Benny Parsons, Dr. Jerry Punch (on pit road) and others is nearly impossible. They are the gold standard.

Here are some other observations from NASCAR TV this week:

  • Breaking news stories are what many networks live for; and as a traffic reporter, I understand the adrenaline rush that overcomes someone when they get their hands on a juicy fact. The revelation of Hornaday’s testosterone usage broken by Shaun Assael of ESPN the Magazine is an example of such breaking news. When a news outlet chooses to break a story, breaking it before others do is key to the process. In doing that, though, the theater of news can arise. ESPN broke the story of Hornaday’s testosterone use and the headlines on the story failed to mention that Hornaday had a legitimate reason to use the steroid, because he has Graves’ Disease. Most people that saw the headline on SportsCenter last week immediately thought that Hornaday was yet another corrupt athlete. Yet many likely still think that Hornaday falls into that category, because they are not NASCAR fans and did not follow up on the issues. To make a long story short, this is another example of a story that ESPN has broken which has only turned out to be partially true. The aforementioned “excitement factor” is great to pursue; but its pursuit can be costly when chased and reported recklessly.
  • Marty Smith is a good NASCAR reporter. He writes some of the best columns on the Internet and his connections in the garage and throughout the sport are enviable at the least – and downright useful and remarkable at the most. But Smith’s transition to the television realm of NASCAR has been awkward, and his appearances on post-race episodes of NASCAR Now are prime proof. During Sunday night’s program, Nicole Manske tossed to Smith naturally, but Smith responded in a scripted manner instead of having a conversation with her. Smith could make his portion of the show much more smooth if he spoke “off the cuff” with the host and then recorded his script and packaged interviews following the opening, much like field reporters do on news shows. Fortunately, his NASCAR wisdom makes up for the television stumbles.

The Cup Series returns to Dover next week for round 2 of the Chase. Turn here for an update on ESPN’s attempted improvements in its broadcast of the race.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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