Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: FOX “Back of the Pack” Battles No Laughing Matter for Fans

Hello, race fans. I don’t know about you guys, but I was real scared watching that wreck that Carl Edwards had Sunday at the end of the Aaron’s 499. Not so much for Edwards – but for the fans themselves. After the race ended, I thought back and realized that the crash looked a little like the late Neil Bonnett’s wreck in the DieHard 500 in July 1993 as opposed to the infamous Bobby Allison one from 1987 that was referenced on FOX.

But in the end, it didn’t matter which wreck was the worst; they were all bad, giving the catchfence a serious test that could have led to a devastating loss of life. Thank goodness everything held up and no one was seriously hurt in Sunday’s last-lap mess.

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OK, time for the usual TV review. Since I generally like things to be in chronological order, we’ll start with the coverage of Friday afternoon’s ARCA Re/MAX 250 aired live on the SPEED Channel. The first thing I noticed was that the field was already on the pace laps when the network came on the air for race coverage. This is similar to the race at Talladega last fall, but with one major difference: the event was actually live this year.

Last fall, the race aired on a roughly five minute delay, so you could see the pace laps beginning while SPEED was still airing NASCAR Live! This time, when SPEED officially started the ARCA coverage at 5:00 p.m. that evening, the cars were on pit road and an interview or two was shown before they quickly took to the track.

A couple of other things I noticed were that SPEED misspelled Troy Wangerin’s last name on the scroll at the top of the screen for the entire race (they spelled it “Wagner” instead). Also, during the first caution of the race (caused by the No. 4 of Ken Weaver blowing an engine in spectacular fashion), the No. 0 of Butch Jarvis and the No. 00 of Ed Kennedy collided behind Weaver. No footage was shown of this collision or any footage of the cars in the garage afterwards, however.

But other than those early hiccups, the telecast was actually OK. Rick Allen, Phil Parsons and Ken Schrader generally did fine in the booth. On air, Schrader stayed on topic in regards to the ARCA Re/Max Series and had a short discussion (before the green flag) about his plight in the Carolina 200 the previous week. Yes, Schrader, like Harvick at Rockingham, had a vested interest in the race (Bill Baird), but he didn’t do anything on air to display favoritism towards his driver in the field. How refreshing.

Saturday brought ESPN2’s coverage of the Nationwide Series’ Aaron’s 312. Talladega is one of the handful (typically six) races a year aired on ABC instead of ESPN2. This, to me, would mean that the crew should be at their best with the increased exposure from ABC. Did they step up their game?

The short answer is yes, they did.

Now, I did have a few issues with the coverage on ABC. One was with the new leader graphic. ABC’s usage of this was effectively what you would get if you combined ESPN/ABC’s current scroll bar with the New Leader graphic that NBC/TNT used for the last two years (or so) that they collaborated together for coverage of the Nextel Cup and Busch series. It’s not the best way to go about doing this, for it is only the lead changes at the start/finish line that are considered official.

By all means, the network should be allowed to keep an unofficial count of the total lead changes; but since lead changes are not officially recognized unless there is a new leader at the stripe, don’t change the graphic unless this happens. FOX had a relatively good graphic for this back in 2005 or 2006, which even recognized which number lead change it was. Of course, since it’s a restrictor-plate race, having a graphic on the screen nearly at all times showing fans which driver is leading may not be the best idea anyway because the leader is almost always on screen somewhere because of the large packs.

There was also a small sound glitch coming out of a commercial before the race started. I’m assuming that either Allen Bestwick or Dr. Jerry Punch was saying something before throwing it to some kind of montage, but we (the viewers) didn’t hear anything. Knowing the complexity of the on-site production facilities (from the aforementioned NASCAR on ESPN Media Kit that I have), who knows what caused that issue. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intentional, though.

Since the race actually ended fairly quick for a 312-mile Nationwide Series event at Talladega, ABC had plenty of post-race coverage to pad out the end of their broadcast. Interviews were conducted with eight of the top-10 finishers, in addition to David Ragan’s crew chief (Mike Kelley) and father (Ken). It was a fairly good way to cap off the network’s debut with NASCAR for the year.

In contrast, there was nowhere near as much focus on Edwards and Kyle Busch as there infamously was at Phoenix, which is definitely a good thing. However (and I will expand on this a little more below), it’s fairly easy to do this at Talladega. Pretty much, it boils down to the fact that Edwards and Kyle Busch are more than likely to be surrounded by other competitors.

And now, last but not least comes Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, aired on FOX. Phoenix was potentially a new low for FOX’s coverage, but did they improve at Talladega? I think that they did, but there were a couple of things I noted here.

As I mentioned in the closing for last week’s critique, I’m not really a fan of expanded pre-race shows. Also, that expansion of FOX’s pre-race show results in a half-hour overlap of NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED with FOX’s pre-race. But then again, it’s Talladega, so a certain amount of hyping should be noted for one of the series’ most popular races.

As it stands, the pre-race show mainly had features with certain drivers, like Edwards and Kyle Busch, in addition to regular interviews with drivers like Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. Didn’t really draw my attention very much.

The Digger cartoon was another re-run this week (the one where Digger is trying to shoot a commercial to please his sponsor), but I knew it would air due to the fact that FOX had an expanded pre-race (Got to fill that space, somehow). At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for him, at least not from Chris Myers, who may see him for what he is.

As for the weekly Digger count, I counted 47 appearances this week. 29 of them were still shots and 14 were animated. The rest were assorted appearances (commercials, shots of guys in Digger suits, and the cartoon). I should note that this includes the pre-race show. The Jayski count typically does not include the pre-race.

One thing that really caught my eye was when FOX outright missed the restart on lap 35 after the second caution. At the time of the actual green flag, FOX was in a commercial. When the break ended, FOX showed the restart as if it was live, then immediately cut back to the live feed of the cars on the backstretch. I have never seen this move before by a network, but it was painfully obvious that the restart wasn’t live after that cut. It was even more so for me since I was doing our Live Blog during Sunday’s race and we had representatives at the track. By TV standards, this would be considered a very choppy cut/edit.

It makes me want to pose a question. Are companies assigned a specific spot for when their ads air during race broadcasts when they pay FOX for the privilege, and this cannot be changed, or do they simply buy time and FOX chooses where they want to put the ads in the broadcast? If it is the second scenario, then FOX could realistically make sure that no restarts are missed due to commercials. People involved with the broadcasts probably have the specs on all the national commercials that are scheduled to air, and can reshuffle them accordingly.

A slightly annoying thing that was included in Sunday’s broadcast was when Mike Joy, seemingly in reference to complaints from fans about how FOX doesn’t normally show racing from back in the field, threw it back to a “battle” for 37th place between Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon. At the time, both cars, which had crashed in the first big wreck on lap 7, were 56 laps down. This was complete with a “Battle for 37th” graphic in the lower-left corner of the screen.

My thought on this is as follows: It is well known that people that work on NASCAR telecasts read the online critiques of their broadcasts. I know, because I’ve spoken to some of them via email already this season (in all honesty, I’m surprised no one representing any of NASCAR’s TV partners contacted me about last week’s whopper of a review). Joy himself has probably seen a countless number of these aforementioned complaints, either from me, John Daly at The Daly Planet, the sports TV critique writer at USA Today and from commenters on those aforementioned articles.

However, Talladega is simply not the place to attempt to make a point of it. With the cars so close together in the large packs these days, most of the teams are going to be relatively close to the front, and thus, inside of the normal scope of the cameras. It is fairly rare these days at Talladega that a pack of cars can break away from the rest of the field without help from a round (or rounds) of green-flag pit stops or a gigantic wreck to weed people out of the lead pack.

Now, 10 years ago, it was definitely possible. In the DieHard 500 in April 1999, a group of eight or so broke out to a six- or seven-second lead over a six-car “Chase pack.”

Mike, if you really want to make a point to the fans about this, Richmond, this Saturday night, is the time to do it. Collaborate with the production staff to take great pains to show the racing back in the pack in addition to the action up front. In the end, I think you’ll get a better reaction from the fanbase that way than you will from yesterday’s actions. On the surface, what you did yesterday could be construed as basically joking about the matter (when it’s an actual, ongoing issue).

I’m not saying this to be mean to the much-experienced Joy, who has been doing play-by-play for Cup races longer than I’ve been alive, but it’s just what came to my mind yesterday when I was watching.

There was some talk in our Live Blog yesterday about Darrell Waltrip cheerleading for his younger brother Michael Waltrip a little too much. This mainly came up after Waltrip’s lurid slide on lap 43 through the tri-oval grass and paved apron (which, prior to 1995, used to be grass as well). Waltrip has to be careful not to cross the line. As an analyst, Darrell must be objective, and simply cannot show favoritism towards his brother. Sure, it’s fine to want him to do well, but he has to watch himself.

I also wasn’t really a fan of the ad shown on lap 71 for X-Men Origins: Wolverine in the lower left corner of the screen. Kind of reminded me how ads are shown on TNT during the limited interruptions at the Coke Zero 400. However, this interruption occurred during regular coverage. It is one thing to have the people behind the movie (20th Century FOX) sponsor the scroll, or air a commercial for the movie during a commercial break, but it’s quite another to interrupt commentary to show a movie preview. In the future, I’d prefer FOX to not do this again.

As for post-race coverage, I believe that FOX could have done a better job of reporting about the fans that were injured in the stands after Edwards’s crash on the last lap. Looking back to the infamous Allison crash in 1987, ESPN interviewed not only Allison but even his spotter got an interview. I know it’s only a little information, but maybe putting a spotter on air with a short interview either in person or on the radio wouldn’t be a bad idea in that scenario.

It was probably the result of the wreck happening on the last lap, and the fact that FOX was nearly up against the end of their time slot that we didn’t get any information about fan injuries during the FOX broadcast, either. I know Sunday night is a relatively important night for FOX with their “Animation Domination” block, but I think that they should have extended post-race a little more just so that we could get some preliminary reports about the fans before they went off-air.

I personally did not find out about the fan injuries until I turned on ESPNEWS about an hour after the race ended. I would have looked online, but we had some cable issues here in the Albany area. We lost our internet and phone for a chunk of Sunday morning (although, it came back just in time for me to participate in the Live Blog), then they both went out again about 30 minutes after the race ended and didn’t come back until this morning. I’m actually surprised that I was able to watch the race yesterday and even see that report on ESPNEWS since we have one of those all-in-one things from Time Warner (cable, Internet and phone).

Finally, I’ll finish off this week with the Camping World Truck Series’ O’Reilly 250 from Kansas Speedway. This race started late Saturday afternoon, but due to constant rain and mist, the race didn’t finish until after 4 p.m. on Monday. Under normal circumstances, this coverage, including the half-hour NCWTS Setup that precedes truck broadcasts, would have taken a shade over two hours and 35 minutes. However, with all the rain delays, SPEED was on the air from Kansas for at least double that. When that happens, they simply run out of things to say.

I did notice that SPEED introduced a slight update to their scroll this week. They still haven’t come up with number graphics for all the full-time teams as of yet. There are a couple of full-time teams (No. 23 GunBroker.com Dodge, No. 85 Ford for example) that don’t have the graphics, period. This scroll is a little easier to read than the old one was, though, so that’s good.

When the red flag first came out on Saturday, SPEED interviewed a good number of the drivers in the hour or so before NASCAR postponed the event to Monday morning. When the coverage resumed on Monday, the track was still wet from an early morning rain. As a result, SPEED showed some on site interviews, then went to alternate programming (NASCAR Victory Lane from Sunday, a repeat of NCWTS Setup and the first 52 laps of the race from Saturday, then Drag Race High and Wind Tunnel) before the race restarted nearly four hours behind schedule.

The only real gripe I had with the coverage was that SPEED missed the restart from the sixth caution on lap 76. They came out of the break a lap after green and admitted that they missed it, instead of basically contriving the whole thing like FOX did yesterday.

Nice touch by SPEED with showing the radar and the racing on a split screen late in the going before the race was red flagged. I liked it. It’s what amounts to an admission that weather could be threatening the race. Back in Daytona, FOX seemingly didn’t talk about the oncoming rain during the Daytona 500 until it was on top of the track. Mike Joy gave me the explanation that they didn’t want to jinx the proceedings back then, but the commentators have accountability to the TV audience on this issue.

By the time the race was finally called off around 4:30 p.m. ET, SPEED was basically running out of things to say about the race and out of drivers to interview. It’s at that point that it started to get a little silly. Ray Dunlap was talking about how cold it had gotten at the track, while standing there “chattering.” OK, I can understand it getting cooler since a cold front had passed through the area before the race started, but I think he may have been overstating it.

According to the radar (which had temperature readings included on it for some reason), it was roughly 50 degrees at the track. That weather, while far from ideal, is not out of the question for northeast Kansas or upstate New York (where I’m writing this from) this time of year. Of course, it was 88 degrees here today, but that’s not important. Looking at Dunlap made me think it was 25 degrees outside there instead of 50.

Well, that’s all for this week. Richmond is next, a short track where the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series are racing. I will be bringing you critiques of the Lipton Tea 250 and the Crown Royal Presents the Russ Friedman 400 in next Tuesday’s edition. In addition, I will include my critique of ESPN’s NASCAR Now that I have been holding back for the past few weeks.

Can FOX and ESPN continue to improve on their broadcasts over what we saw this weekend at Talladega? We’ll just have to see what they throw at us next.

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. Thank you 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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