Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Grading FOX’s 2009 Season & What’s Stopping the Scrolls?

Greetings, readers. The three races held at Dover International Speedway were quite interesting in their own ways. I enjoyed them all, though – especially that race to the finish between Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart on Sunday. Sunday also marked the 13th and final points race on FOX’s schedule for the season, a milestone that comes as a sigh of relief to more than a few of you out there. Since Sunday was FOX’s last NASCAR go-around for the season, I’d figure that I would give them a grade for the season after I finish the Sprint Cup race telecast critique.

Now, as many of you have come accustomed to since I took over this critique full-time from Doug Turnbull at the beginning of the season, I like to keep the critique in chronological order. I just find it easier that way. This would have meant that the Camping World Truck Series race would be first today; however, since the Truck race was postponed to Saturday evening due to rain, it will come after the Nationwide race critique.

However, this week, I’d like to start with some thoughts from Sprint Cup pole qualifying on Friday. While the broadcast itself was rather run-of-the-mill, my issue is that I shouldn’t be seeing issues with the scroll within a minute of turning the TV on.

This is something that really plagued the entire weekend, not just on SPEED. During the session, Robby Gordon’s No. 7 was listed in both 31st and 32nd position, while Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 1 was listed in 17th and 34th. In addition with Truex, both entries showed no speed (when lap speeds were shown on the scroll). Technical issues also plagued the lap-timing graphic during Joe Nemechek’s qualifying run.

Larry McReynolds didn’t notice this at first, but Mike Joy realized what was up after the graphic was removed and notified the viewers of the issue in an honest matter. I’m happy with that treatment of the issue, but this really shouldn’t be happening after these crews have been following the series for nearly four months.

By the way, look for SPEED to continue to provide coverage of qualifying and practices for the Cup Series during the TNT portion of the schedule.

Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, the Heluva Good! 200, was one of the approximately five Nationwide events that will air on ABC this season. As a result, there was slightly more commercial interruption than normal events on ESPN2. It appeared that Dr. Punch put a little more emotion into his broadcast this week, but it still wasn’t the greatest effort. Unlike the FOX broadcast crew, the Punchmeister still has more than 20 race weekends to come into form. Although in all honesty, he should be there by now.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Heluva Good! 200 at Dover

As for the race itself, I’m still not satisfied with the relaying of some information to the viewing audience. In the past, I’ve gone on about how the networks need to tell the viewers certain things that they really haven’t done a good job of so far this year. Notifying viewers of why teams go to the garage is one of them. It’s one thing to give a somewhat passive mention of when a car like the No. 90 of Johnny Chapman goes to the garage (and really, the truck) nine laps into the race.

It is quite another thing that there is little or no mention at all of teams like the No. 28 Border Patrol Chevrolet (driven by our own Kenny Wallace for Jay Robinson Racing) going behind the wall because of various issues (according to the results, it was a blown engine, which was never mentioned on air).

Now, we know the No. 28 team is not an S&P team. No one has ever tried to make that argument. And, in all honesty, if anyone tries to, they’re insane. But, this team, and many other full-time Nationwide only teams are treated like they’re nothing, and this needs to stop. Kenny Wallace is currently 14th in points in the Nationwide Series, yet toils in near complete anonymity. Out of the non-Cup affiliated teams (this excludes JR Motorsports), it seems that the only ones that get any real exposure on the broadcasts are Braun Racing, Baker-Curb Racing to a point and RWI (because Rusty Wallace owns it).

R3 Motorsports (No. 23) and RAB Racing (No. 09) might get in-car cameras because of their sponsors (Aaron’s and Zaxby’s, respectively) every now and then, but they’re rarely used. All the teams that run full-time deserve to get their airtime. The lack of airtime for some teams, like the Johnny Davis Motorsports No. 01, Specialty Racing No. 61 and other smaller teams is debatably hurting those teams’ chances of increasing their competitiveness. By that, I mean that the lack of exposure for those teams in particular hurts their chances of attracting more sponsorship.

The other thing that continues to bug me is the failure to notify viewers of who is the recipient of the “free pass” or “Lucky Dog,” or whatever they want to call it this week. In ESPN’s case, I guess they want to keep the mentions of it to a minimum since they decided to go and get Aaron’s to sponsor it on air. FOX also has problems with notifying viewers of the free pass recipient this season. I made reference to this in the critique after Richmond.

Historically, SPEED has been the best at actually doing this during their Truck Series broadcasts. I don’t know if it’s just because they actually care about it or if it’s just because Michael Waltrip is typically in the booth for the truck races (and we know how much he likes to plug sponsors of his or his race teams).

As for post-race coverage on ABC, there basically wasn’t any. Reasoning? Since the race was on ABC and it ran long because of all of the cautions, ABC had to quickly do the post-race so that they could get off the air. To that end, ABC provided interviews with only the top-two finishers (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano), Carl Edwards (who finished fifth), and Keselowski’s car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., ABC was obviously dying to interview Kyle Busch after his latest last-minute snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory, but Busch obviously was not going to grant them that opportunity.

Heck, there wasn’t even a look at the points standings before ABC left the air Saturday. They simply mentioned that Edwards was 40 points behind Kyle Busch after Busch finished 17th. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if Busch’s tire was flat on that restart, or if it went down when he hit the wall coming off turn 2. ABC never showed that part of the replay on air. I just happened to catch it on SportsCenter after the race and had one of those “A-ha!” moments (not the ‘80s group).

After the Nationwide telecast ended around 5:10 p.m., the grandstands were emptied out to make way for the crowd for the rescheduled Truck Series’ AAA Insurance 200. The thoughts about clearing everyone out like that are for another article, to be honest. Granted, the official attendance for the Nationwide race was about 35,000, but the track seats at least 140,000. Truck attendance was 28,000 and I’m sure that there were some people that had tickets to both races.

SPEED did their typical pre-race show (NCWTS Setup), which recapped the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 from Lowe’s Motor Speedway, interviews with three drivers and a feature on Tiwi, the company that makes the GPS devices/Black Boxes used in the three major NASCAR series, and a sponsor for Chad McCumbee’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

This season, the SPEED broadcasts of the Truck Series have been the best of the three major NASCAR series, despite having a situation where some races do not have full fields, and up to six or seven trucks every week S&P. They are the only one of the three major series to post ratings gains this year as compared to 2008. In regards to the Nationwide and Cup series, the Nationwide Series is roughly flat, ratings-wise, while the Sprint Cup Series is down 13%.

Why is this so? My best guess is that there aren’t as many gimmicks in a Truck broadcast as in the other two series, the commentators (including Michael Waltrip) seem to pay more attention to the on-track action and actually act professional most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, I want the booth commentators to have fun and enjoy themselves up there, but they have a job to do.

Also, SPEED does have some production cards up their sleeves as well. On Saturday, they stuck a camera in the undercarriage of Mike Skinner’s No. 5 Toyota (it appeared to be right about in the middle of the car, looking back towards the rear end). The idea behind this was to show the stress that the trucks are under at the concrete 1-mile oval. First, they showed it during a caution to provide a baseline under relatively “tranquil” conditions.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 AAA Insurance 200 at Dover

As far as I’m concerned, 50 mph behind the pace car under yellow is about as tranquil as NASCAR gets during a race. Even then, you could feel some of the bumps on the track. Later, they returned to the view under green to show what kind of stress the truck was under during regular racing conditions. Viewers could see the right-rear spring in action, doing its job. The only thing I wish could have been there was a shot of the No. 5 running on the track in a small inset picture in the lower-right corner of the screen. That would have been perfect.

The only other thing that I wished that SPEED showed more of were the tires that came off trucks that had not blown tires. Reasoning for this? I wanted to see what these tires looked like before they blew out. ABC showed one of these during their broadcast and it looks like cords were showing on the outside shoulder of the tire. I don’t know if this was repeated during the Truck race, however, because they only showed tires that had either blown out or been cut down.

Despite the fact that the race ran long (due to 10 cautions and countless blown tires), SPEED managed to give the fans comprehensive post-race coverage, unlike ABC. I think it says something about some of the TV coverage that the SPEED crew almost managed to fit in as many interviews in their post-race coverage as FOX and ESPN/ABC did combined.

And, now, for the Cup Series’ Autism Speaks 400, presented by Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips and Cheeses.

As many of us are well aware, FOX likes to play some stuff up and essentially create something out of nothing. The whole argument between David Reutimann and Stewart, which was really basically nothing at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, got kicked up a notch when Stewart called Dwayne Bigger, Reutimann’s crew member, the now-infamous “Billy Bad Butt” name. Now, “Billy Bad Butt” is famous, since he got a bunch of media attention over the past week, and FOX felt the need to run a feature on him during the pre-race show.

Pre-race also saw the introduction of the FOX Cup, a small trophy given to the driver who is leading the points at the end of FOX’s slate. Krista Voda showed off the trophy to Jeff Gordon during an interview. Gordon didn’t seem all that enthused about it, to be honest. And Stewart, who actually received the trophy at the end of the race? He made it sound like he was happy to get it, but watching that telecast made me think he probably chucked it in the trash as soon as he got back to his motorcoach. Yes, Tony was happy that he took the points lead, but was probably also bummed out that Johnson got him for the victory.

The Gas-n-Go segment, usually a highlight of FOX’s pre-race show, was given the weird treatment Sunday. Instead, the Hollywood Hotel was transported to Homestead the day after the Ford 400. That was weird enough… the clothing made it weirder. Jeff Hammond was dressed up like Don Johnson on Miami Vice in the mid-1980s, while Darrell was dressed up like someone looking to go fishing.

The topics discussed were mainly potential occurrences in the past tense. I’m fine with discussing the future, but it needs to be discussed in the present tense. Discussing things that have not happened yet as if they already did just looks weird. I would not recommend that FOX do that again.

As for Digger, Sunday will be the last time that most race fans will see him this season. And that’s good. Yes, that means I have one less thing to go on about in these critiques, but getting material to write about should not be a problem for me. FOX did decide to air a Digger cartoon, which was yet another re-run. Of course, if you want to watch the Digger shorts, FOX Sports maintains a Digger channel on both YouTube and Hulu, so you can go there to get your gopher fix.

As for the official Digger count for Dover, there were 49 Digger appearances that I counted. 32 of those were of the still shot variety, while 10 more were of the animated fashion (not counting the cartoon). Good cripes, I’m happy to see that dude go. Hopefully, Digger and his friends and family won’t be back next year. They should go the way of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Out. Never to return.

Meanwhile, the scroll issues that started on SPEED on Friday continued on Sunday. This started almost immediately at the beginning of the race, where when the scroll first came up, it showed Nemechek, who started 38th, as the leader of the race, followed by Dave Blaney. This was quickly taken care of.

What wasn’t quickly fixed was the scroll after the final caution. The result was that the final 25 laps ran scroll-less. FOX inserted a “Laps to go” graphic, ala ESPN in early 1995 to replace the scroll. I think that’s the second time that I can remember FOX doing that since they started covering NASCAR in 2001. The other time was during the Busch Series’ Aaron’s 312 at Talladega in 2002. Of course, that was in the middle of a race where most of the contenders were taken out in a gigantic crash on lap 15. It was fixed by the end of the day.

I remember discussing the scroll with my dad last year during the Aaron’s 499. He thought it was unwieldy and that it shouldn’t be used all the time. He continued to say that it made the screen too busy. What did he suggest to replace it? Essentially, the pylon that ESPN and ABC used from late 1995 to Las Vegas in 1998, with periodic full field summaries. I’d like to get some feedback about what you think about that. Should FOX (and for that matter, the other broadcast partners) simplify their on-screen graphics, making it less claustrophobic, or keep it the same as it is now?

In addition, FOX also inserted intervals between the top-five cars. Kinda made for an old-school feel, albeit unintentionally. Mike Joy apologized to the viewers multiple times for this issue. Personally, I didn’t mind, but I’m sure that some viewers that are used to the scroll might have been thrown for a loop.

There was also a slight sound issue (at least on my end) early on when FOX was going to commercial. As you may remember, FOX often plays these little pointless skits on the way to commercials. Never really understood the point of them, to be honest, but it’s not like they’re going away anytime soon. Here, the sound cut out at the beginning of the little vignette, so I couldn’t hear anything until the commercials started. Annoying.

FOX did focus quite a bit of their coverage on Earnhardt Jr. and his adjustment to new crew chief Lance McGrew. I think they might have devoted a little too much coverage to Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday, but FOX would try to explain it by mentioning how popular Junior is to the general public. Hooray.

There was some coverage of racing back in the field during the race on Sunday, but simply not enough. The only time that this action seems to get coverage is either if it looks like there’s about to be a big ‘ol wreck or the Lucky Dog is involved.

The post-race coverage was really thin, to be honest. FOX had interviews with only four drivers (the top-three finishers and Earnhardt Jr.), showed the final rundown, a pre-recorded clip where the on-air crew thanked the fans for watching NASCAR on FOX this year, the points standings, then ended their coverage. I would have liked a little more coverage, to be honest, but due to what is now a traditional event on the day of the spring race at Dover, I wouldn’t know if they were over their slot or not.

Here in the Albany, N.Y. market, our FOX affiliate (WXXA) pre-empted the race in favor of a telethon to benefit the Children’s Miracle Network (a charity). This is the third consecutive year that this has happened. This telethon has been done this particular Sunday for years, long before NASCAR even came to FOX. Previous to the current TV contract, this race aired on FX, so it wasn’t a problem. As a result, the race was moved to a combination of WXXA’s second channel and TW3 (a local access channel only available to Time Warner Cable subscribers).

According to the on-screen guide, the time slot for this race went up to 7 p.m., but FOX left the air long before that. I’m guessing that their slot was actually up at 6 p.m. but I cannot know for sure.

Since Sunday was FOX’s last NASCAR broadcast of the year, I feel that it is my duty to give the crew a grade for their Cup coverage. Let’s just say that it’s been a tough season for them. Issues with who gets coverage during races, technical issues, accountability, ridiculous stunts and objectivity have really hurt their overall product.

This year also brought the blatant pimping of Digger and his friends, which David Hill, President of FOX Sports, even admitted back in February was nothing more than a way to create a revenue stream in the spirit of 1980s cartoons (Transformers, anyone?). And, to top everything off, the ratings on FOX, which historically have had the highest ratings for NASCAR telecasts since 2001, are down approximately 13% from last season.

However, there was some good that came out of these telecasts. As a result, I cannot claim that this season was a complete failure for FOX. I’m thinking that, at the very best, NASCAR on FOX deserves a C-. It’s probably really a D+. The stuff that I have listed above are some of the factors that FOX needs to fix for next season. I’m not advocating firing anybody. That’s not me. I prefer working with people to fix issues in order to make the broadcast be as good as possible. It will be only then that FOX will regain its position as the premiere broadcast partner for NASCAR.

Of course, I am not the end-all for grading FOX’s season performance. I would like to hear what you readers think about this as well by posting in the comments section below or sending an email to me at phil.allaway@frontstretch.com.

That is all for this week. Next week begins the toughest stretch of the season. Well, the toughest for those drivers who drive in multiple series anyway. All three major NASCAR series are racing next weekend, but at separate venues. The Cup Series has the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, which also happens to be the first of six races to be carried on TNT this season. The Nationwide Series has a standalone race, the Federated Auto Parts 300, from Nashville Superspeedway on Saturday night on ESPN2.

And on Friday night, the Truck Series races the WinStar World Casino 400k. That race will be televised by SPEED. I will critique all three of those events.

In addition, the ARCA Re/Max Series serves its traditional role (at least, since 1983) as the support series for Sprint Cup at Pocono. That race will be shown on SPEED via tape delay at 4 p.m. I will critique this event as well. It will be a pretty full slate, but if anything else catches my eye, I’ll include that as well.

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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