Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Grading NASCAR Smarts on SPEED… With This Week in NASCAR Thrown In

Greetings, race fans, and welcome to this week’s TV critique. Unfortunately, all three of NASCAR’s major touring series took the week off last weekend. This leaves me to give my opinions on some of the magazine shows on television. However, the buildup to the NCAA basketball tournaments (men’s and women’s) has gotten in the way of rendering any kind of opinion on ESPN2’s NASCAR Now.

This is because the show did not air in its normal time slot all week due to preemptions for live games. As a result, the critique of NASCAR Now will have to be pushed back – possibly to Easter Weekend. With that said, I still have some things to say about some of the other NASCAR-themed shows that have cropped up this season on SPEED Channel.

First of all, there’s NASCAR Smarts, the trivia show that SPEED tapes at the track during race weekends. I talked briefly about the show back during the first critique of Speedweeks at Daytona, then mentioned that I was going to give a full review of the show in the post-Daytona 500 critique. Well, if any of you readers saw what I wrote for the Daytona 500 weekend, you would understand why it got pushed back.

By the time I finished going on about the race telecasts and their flaws, the critique was almost 3,000 words long and I needed to cap it off. Besides, critiquing a game show would not have fit in all that well with the race telecasts anyway. Considering the telecast I had seen was kinda rough, I thought at the time that it would be worth it to give the show a couple weeks before passing judgment. Had I gone ahead with the critique a month ago, it might have been ugly.

To refresh you guys on the format, NASCAR Smarts is a competition between two fans, randomly selected from a list of people who sign up for the show at the SPEED Stage. Each fan is paired up with either Kyle Petty or Rutledge Wood. Petty and Wood serve as teammates and essentially coaches for the fans. John Roberts hosts the show.

Game play is split into five rounds. Round one is known as the “Practice Round.” Questions here are multiple-choice questions with four choices. Teams are given 10 seconds to select an answer. If correct, the team earns 10 points. There is no penalty for incorrect answers. Usually, these questions are about racing at whatever track the show is being shot at that week.

Round two is known as the “Qualifying Round.” This round generally features questions about drivers. The points are doubled here, but there’s still no penalty for if you give a wrong answer. More time is given for the contestants to answer the question, as well.

Round three is the Media Center Round. Here, clips are shown where drivers, team owners and even Kyle Petty at times ask questions to each team. The contestants then have a choice. If they know the answer outright, or feel like pressing their luck, then they can answer the question right there and then. If they do so, they get 30 points. If they like, they can have choices, but that cuts the points back down to 10.

Round four is the Lightning Round. Host Roberts reads a series of 10 questions rapid fire-style to the contestants. These are typically true-false questions, and there is a one-minute time limit per contestant to answer them all. Each correct answer is worth 10 points. The round ends either when time runs out, or when all 10 questions have been read. Passes are allowed, and Roberts will go back to them at the end if time allows. There is a different set of 10 questions for each contestant.

The final round is like Final Jeopardy!, in which the duos confer amongst themselves to come up with a wager of at least half their points for the final question. Here, if you answer the question correctly, you get the points you wagered added to your score; but if you’re wrong, those points are deducted. The team with the most points at the end of the five rounds wins.

Unfortunately, my thoughts on this show have not really changed much since Daytona. It’s still a bit of a mess. There are some technical aspects that I think should be modified. At the very least, I think it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for SPEED to invest in some scoreboards to put on the tables where the teams are. As of now, there is an on screen display that pops up every now and then to show the score. It kinda gives a feel similar to watching a New York Knicks game on MSG back around 1984.

Having Kyle Petty ask questions during round three (on tape) while also being a part of the show as a helper is a conflict of interest, in my opinion. That should not happen. Granted, he was asking a question to Rutledge’s team, but still, it just doesn’t sit right with me.

Another thing I noticed is that the questions have gotten harder since Daytona. Maybe it’s because the production crew is getting more used to writing questions for the show, or that the contestants are not the most knowledgeable fans out there, but there have been a lot of missed questions recently.

The thing I’ve noticed about the show the most, though, are little technical things not working, like the sound effects the show uses to figure out if an answer is right or wrong, etc. This caused confusion in one of the episodes when the incorrect effect was played. Also, the sounds are too quiet, so the contestants (and Rutledge and Kyle, for that matter) cannot hear them very well and react accordingly.

As for the prizes, NASCAR Smarts claims that both contestants would be receiving prizes for being on the show – but they never mention what they are. In fact, there has never been any mention of money being awarded. I’m under the assumption that they’re giving away some officially licensed NASCAR merchandise, and, potentially, some SPEED swag as well. Maybe someone can clarify that for me. But no matter what the answer is, on TV they should tell us what the contestants are playing for. I’m pretty sure it’s for a little bit more than just fun.

Now, on to one of the network’s more popular shows. Monday evenings, SPEED airs This Week in NASCAR, the spiritual successor of Inside Winston Cup and Inside NEXTEL Cup. I’m kind of unclear as to whether this is actually considered to be the 13th season of Inside Winston Cup, or if that run ended as a result of the name change.

The format for the show is relatively similar to how the original one, Inside Winston Cup Racing, launched back in 1996 on Speedvision (long before the Feb. 2002 name change). At the time, there was a squabble over the name, which had previously been used for a half-hour show on TNN hosted by Ned Jarrett. That show became Inside NASCAR after this one premiered.

Anyways, the idea of the show is generally unchanged – although the personalities have. The host, Steve Byrnes, is essentially a ringleader, guiding the driver panel through recaps of the major NASCAR events for that weekend. The expert panel, led by Michael Waltrip, helps out the discussion and brings in inside information that would otherwise not be known by the audience (Greg Biffle and Chad Knaus joined Waltrip on the show last week).

For example, Michael might talk about how his car was absolutely evil to drive (this happened on last week’s show, when they were reviewing the Kobalt Tools 500), which might not have been mentioned on the race broadcast. After discussion and review, the panel also previews the next race on the schedule for the Cup Series (meaning Bristol this weekend).

If one of the series takes the weekend off, then the show might run some kind of feature. Last week, a feature aired about Biffle’s rise up through the ranks of racing in the Northwest, and the influence of his father on his career. It was a very interesting feature to watch, and well produced.

SPEED promises on their website that “each episode tells the stories of that track, region, drivers and offers team perspectives, as well as memorable historical races from the track with both past and present drivers on hand.” Based on what I saw, I’m not sure that the show lives up to that – but it isn’t horrible.

In fact, I really enjoy this program. It’s a nice way to wrap up the race weekend, and everyone seems to be having a good time there. However, it is hard to look at the show and not think back to the time when it was Allen Bestwick hosting, with Johnny Benson and Ken Schrader joining Michael Waltrip on the drivers’ panel. Those four guys did the show together for something like eight or nine years, and whenever a group of people stay together on one show for that long, they kind of grow on you.

But don’t take that to mean I’m saying anything bad about Byrnes, the current host. He’s a very capable man with years of experience in covering NASCAR. He knows his stuff. He’s just got big shoes to fill and it’s the same thing with whoever joins Waltrip on the Expert Panel.

For a behind-the-scenes look at how this show works, I definitely recommend Schrader’s book, Gotta Race! One of the chapters in the book details the inner workings of the broadcast from back when it was Inside NEXTEL Cup with Dave DeSpain hosting. For example, Schrader mentions that there was no designated “changing area.” When the guests would arrive at the studio, there would be clothing hanging out there for the panel and guests to put on, and they would have to go backstage and do it… apparently, it’s not exactly a multi-million dollar set they’re working with over there!

That’s all for this week. Next weekend is the spring race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, featuring the Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 and the Scotts 300 for the Nationwide Series. In addition, the UARA Late Models will have a 100-lap event (not televised) right after the Nationwide race and a special “Saturday Night Special” 50-lap race for retired legends. I will critique the Food City 500 telecast on FOX and the race coverage on Saturday on ESPN2. This includes the Scotts 300 and the Saturday Night Special, which will be televised at 6 p.m.

As for additional critiques of non-race telecast programming, they will be integrated into future columns.

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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