Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Race Coverage at Fontana Improves… But Digger Still Lurks in the Shadows

After the pomp and circumstance that is typical of the Daytona 500, NASCAR teams moved on to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. for a tripleheader weekend.

Before we begin, as you may remember I was quite critical of FOX’s broadcast of the Daytona 500 – most notably the lack of any mention of rain up until seemingly lap 85 or so. Well, I’ve had an email exchange with Mike Joy since then, and Joy’s take on the issue was that they didn’t want to jump to conclusions too quickly. In Joy’s own words, he said that the announcing booth “…weren’t trying to jinx ourselves with ‘what-ifs.’ [as to what might happen if the rain would shorten the race].”

While not all fans might agree with that take, it’s definitely a plausible explanation that makes sense. Also, Joy reassured me there was no gag order on the weather information imposed by anybody – a fact always notable for those NASCAR fans insistent on conspiracy theories to understand.

Now, on to this week’s programming.

On Saturday, FOX televised the Camping World Truck Series race from ACS: the San Bernardino County 200. Many Truck Series fans online had expressed concern in the week leading up to the race that a bunch of the issues from the Daytona 500 telecast would permeate into the Truck show, putting a damper on the sport’s one series which appears to be rapidly increasing in popularity.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 San Bernardino County 200 at Fontana

For the most part, their fears were never recognized this weekend. The broadcast itself was highly professional in feel, just like FOX’s typical Cup broadcasts, and they did a solid job covering the race overall. The most notable change from a typical Truck race broadcast was the fact that the SPEED broadcast crew was not used. Instead, the normal FOX broadcast crew of Joy, Waltrip and McReynolds commentated on the race for FOX.

Phil Parsons, who is normally in the booth for Truck races on SPEED, shared the Hollywood Hotel with Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond. I’m not sure who decided to do that, to be honest. I’m guessing that it was a stipulation of the deal that allowed FOX to televise the Truck race, but Parsons in a hosting role didn’t seem to make much sense.

FOX’s biggest problem with coverage is simply that Digger came along for the ride on this one, even though he’s supposed to be simply a Cup Series gimmick. One of the most criticized parts of the broadcast this season, Digger no longer comes in only an animated form for television viewers. This weekend, FOX debuted a still graphic of Digger that they will likely use most of the time during green-flag racing when they cut to the Digger Cam(s). A new, slightly less annoying animation of this thing debuted on Saturday. It was used just four times, but in my opinion that was still four times too many.

At least the commentators didn’t seem to pay anywhere near as much attention to Digger this weekend as opposed to at Daytona – which is obviously a good thing. I’d argue that this is because we’re getting into the meat of the 2009 regular season, and the Daytona 500 attracts many viewers that wouldn’t ordinarily watch a Sprint Cup race on television – giving life to an extended push to put the gopher front and center throughout the broadcast. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion on this issue, but that’s my take.

A couple of other things from the Truck race that I noticed were that, despite Waltrip being in the booth, there was no “Boogity Boogity Boogity!” from Darrell. After hearing that quote hundreds of times since early 2001 (I forget how many, but it’s definitely around 200 and change), it’s a change not to hear it this time of year on FOX, but a welcomed one. Just don’t get used to it. The only way you’re not going to hear it during a Sprint Cup race on FOX is if Darrell misses a race for some reason or if he comes down with a case of laryngitis.

I also noticed a lot more commercial breaks. The breaks didn’t seem any longer than normal for Cup races on FOX, but it just seemed like there were a lot more of them. It’s similar to watching In Living Color, a sketch comedy that aired on FOX starting in 1990. My dad has the first season on DVD; I tried watching it, and noticed that each episode seemed to be something like 17-18 minutes long for what was supposed to be a half-hour show. Now, some of the episodes were slightly edited on that DVD set, but the rest were full length, showing you how much of the telecast was eaten up by commercial breaks each week.

This was the feeling I got while watching the Saturday’s race on FOX – commercials were battling for as much airtime as the trucks themselves. I guess that’s the price fans have to pay to get the series on network television, though.

On the technical side of things, there was just one real quick glitch to report on lap 54. Mike Joy threw it over to Krista Voda for a pit report and the screen went to the split screen as if they were going to show a replay. Of course, since there was no replay cued up, it went to black. Voda’s soundbite was heard over this awkward video exchange. However, this mistake was fixed in about a second, so in the overall swing of things, it was a “blink and you missed it” moment.

Saturday night brought on ESPN2’s coverage of the Nationwide Series’ Stater Brothers 300. ESPN2’s coverage of the Nationwide Series is generally OK this season, but I do have some issues that I’d like to point out.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Stater Brothers 300 at Fontana

One issue I had was that they never gave the audience much of a clue as to how many cars were on the lead lap. This is something fans could always rely on ESPN to do back in the Jenkins-Parsons-Jarrett era. Typically, Ned would inform the viewers that “__________ just put _________ a lap down. _________ is running in the x position, so there’s (x-1) cars on the lead lap.” I liked that. Coming from a former education student, I implore ESPN2 to remember this attention to detail. Remember, not everyone is a visual learner – people like to hear someone say something as well as notice it on the ticker on top of the screen.

On Saturday night, this issue was particularly noticeable, as the number of cars left on the lead lap were not mentioned until the first caution came out on lap 51 for Michael McDowell’s fiery crash. By this point, there were only 14 cars left on the lead lap because Kyle Busch just ran away from the field – but I would have liked to have known this information a little bit earlier in the race.

Another thing I really don’t like is “Going Full Throttle” on restarts. This appears to be ESPN’s equivalent of FOX’s “Crank it Up.” However, unlike Crank it Up, Full Throttle is a mess of sound. Viewers are treated to what seems like 10 different people talking over each other during restarts on the radio – with no indication of who they are – for over a full two laps. Compared to FOX’s straight up sound of the engines around the racetrack, I just don’t like ESPN’s segment that much. Since everyone’s talking over each other, I can barely make out what anybody’s saying, giving the segment no rhythm, flow or direction.

A third thing that I took issue with was the length of the pre-race show. The coverage started at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN Classic, due to the Utah State-St. Mary’s men’s college basketball game going a little long. But considering what followed was about 75 minutes of pre-race coverage, they could have waited until the game was over on ESPN2. The green flag didn’t fall for this race until around 8:30 ET. 8:30! That amount of time for a pre-race show is just too long – especially for a Nationwide Series race.

And once again, in a consistent theme for the networks a 75-minute pre-race show was followed by a post-race segment that wound up getting cut short. It could be argued that if the race started earlier, then there could have been more post-race coverage before going off to the Bassmasters. However, there is a scale of importance in ESPN’s properties, and I would have imagined that the Nationwide Series would be ahead of tape-delayed coverage of the Bassmasters in the pecking order.

Perhaps not; but whatever the case, the interviews with Busch and Carl Edwards, then a peek at the schedule before switching to fishing is substandard at best – unacceptable at worst. I think the Nationwide Series deserves better than that.

And now, on to the Sprint Cup telecast.

Sunday brought the discovery that Digger now has a voice. Well, there goes the comparison to Jerry… this thing is definitely more like Screwy Screwball. But, voice or no, it doesn’t take away the fact this gopher is still kinda annoying. I don’t know what they’re spending developing this Digger character – but the money could probably be used somewhere else.

FOX went the extra mile with the Digger on screen graphics during this race, introducing another new animated graphic with Digger and his buddies that was put on the screen a couple of times during the 500-miler. Whenever FOX cut to the Digger Cam, there’s now a slew of different animations and still shots with the gopher for the network to choose from, It’s giving a whole new meaning to what was once only a still camera shot underneath the track.

This whole thing is getting to be a bit much. Last week, Digger had approximately 19 appearances on the telecast. On Sunday, it was 44. 29 of these appearances were in the aforementioned still shots, 13 of them were animated ones (only a couple included his buddies), the pre-race cartoon, and a shot of a guy in a Digger costume in Souvenir Alley. This is insane and has to stop.

Where’s the network’s integrity? FOX Sports Chairman David Hill even admits that Digger is “…a tawdry attempt to develop another revenue stream [for us].” Apparently, this is seen as a positive – despite the tawdriness. At least the commentators weren’t constantly referencing Digger this week, as I mentioned in the Truck Series review above – although they had their chance early on when the cameras caught a small mound of dirt in the infield while going to a commercial.

Another thing I didn’t really understand was why FOX felt the need to show Angie Harmon raising her arms up in the air in the flagstand like a complete moron when the field came by for the first four laps of the race. I thought it was kinda stupid. Makes me wonder if Angie saw this on TV when she got home and what she thought of herself up there in the flagstand. As for explaining the rush Angie was feeling, let’s just say Darrell covered that base very well the first time by. Well enough that they didn’t need to show it three more times.

On the flip side of things, a new FOX idea that I actually really like is the FedEx trends feature that Larry McReynolds does during the pace laps. Being a historical nut, precedent is important to me, to a point. Larry presents this race information – like the average number of cautions, longest green-flag run, etc. – in a concise fashion that’s easy for the viewer to stomach. This will definitely be something to look forward to in future races.

Another new feature was the top 10 being displayed on the top of the screen on the final lap. Last year, FOX either ran the scroll featuring the top 10 only at certain points of the race, or displayed the top 10 in the area above the scroll where the lap counter usually is. At first glance, this new ticker looked a little similar to graphics from NBC/TNT prior to 2004, to be honest. It’s probably designed to be a modern version of ESPN/ABC’s top-10 pylon, used from late 1995 to the inaugural Las Vegas 400 in 1998. Definitely a nice graphic, but I don’t think it’ll catch on with the general public.

Lastly, there was an audio issue right before the victory lane interview aired on FOX. This made it very clear to viewers that the interview was not live; in fact, it appeared to be delayed by about 15 seconds. This means that viewers (at least on the HD feed, I’m not sure about the standard definition feed) could hear the end of Kenseth’s interview with Dick Berggren before they could see the beginning of it on the screen. Yet after that technical issue, the interview was still aired as it was supposed to. Very weird. No explanation was given for this by the commentary crew, but I’m sure the production staff will make sure that this won’t happen again at Las Vegas.

Next week is the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. FOX, ESPN2 and SPEED will be out there taping shows and doing races, and I will be here in North Greenbush, N.Y., taking notes on their programming. I plan on covering the Shelby 427 and Sam’s Town 300 races, and also will give my opinions of News Corporation’s NASCAR pre-race shows (the pre-race show on FOX and NASCAR RaceDay on the SPEED Channel).

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio.

As always, if you choose to contact the networks by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions in a courteous manner than emails full of rants and vitriol.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

About the author

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 the Super DIRTcar Series.

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