Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: ORP Good, IMS Bad as ESPN Jumps Back Into Double-Duty

I know that the beginning of this week’s title sounds like something out of the 2001 movie Zoolander, starring Ben Stiller (Martial Arts good; Prime Minister bad), but it essentially drives home my point in this critique. Indianapolis is likely the biggest race weekend for NASCAR in the second half of the season. As a result, the pressure is on everyone to put on a good show even more than normal. That goes all the way from the teams at the racetracks to the TV people and the tracks themselves.

Of course, anything could have been better than last year’s insanity caused by the tires at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but just because the tires could last longer than it takes the average person to drink a soda doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that could be better.

This past weekend, IMS played host to the Cup Series for the 16th running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Meanwhile, the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series raced a few miles away at O’Reilly Raceway Park on their .686-mile oval. Were these telecasts up to snuff? It appears that the answer is yes and no – as always.

On Friday night (July 24), SPEED televised the Truck Series’ AAA Insurance 200 presented by JD Byrider (which, as far as I know, is a chain of used car dealerships). Of course, this wasn’t noted on the broadcast, because SPEED had their own presenting sponsor for their telecast. Personally, I hate this trend. I think it’s ludicrous and basically undercuts the companies that are already ponying up the big bucks (with the threat of a whammy) to put their names on the races.

I especially hate how its effectively been written into NASCAR’s TV deals since 2001 that in order for the name of your companies’ race to be mentioned on air, you have to purchase a certain amount of commercial airtime. This doesn’t make sense if the race sponsor is anything but a national company. It does not make sense for regional companies (We’ll use Food City, the sponsor of the spring race at Bristol as an example here) to pony up for national commercials if they have a relatively small base.

In the past, I remember CBS constantly referring to the Michigan race they did every year as the Michigan 400, when in reality, it was the Miller Genuine Draft 400 or Miller Time 400, etc. They didn’t refer to the race by its actual name until Miller Brewing Company dropped their sponsorship of the event and Kmart took over. In this case, I’m fairly certain that it was censorship on the part of CBS or Ken Squier. One of the two.

Back to the Truck race. It was generally a good effort all around. Good action on the track, good camera work. All in all, a pleasurable watch. However, I do have some thoughts. At the end of the race, it seemed drivers like Aric Almirola and Dennis Setzer literally came out of nowhere. They likely focused way too much on the battle up front at the expense of the action further back.

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

Had they shown a little more footage from further back, maybe we could have seen how Matt Crafton drifted back to his 16th-place finish (I’m fairly sure it had something to do with his older tires, but Ron Hornaday’s were just as old and he won). Crafton likely got the boot from someone at some point and ended up almost at the end of the lead lap. The race, despite not attracting a full field (35 trucks started), attracted seven first-time drivers.

I liked how SPEED used their SPEED Spotlight to help fans get to know these new drivers, although I will admit that seeing Caitlin Shaw in the No. 1 for Red Horse Racing made me think back to the Jim Sauter-Robin McCall switch up in the Cup Series back in 1982 (yes, from before I was born). I think that will work out better than the situation with JD Stacy’s No. 5 team in 1982, but I was just thinking out loud and writing on Twitter at the same time. Waltrip did have a little fun with Brandon Duchscherer’s last name, but that seemed to be all in fun.

Saturday night (July 25) brought the Nationwide Series’ Kroger 200 from ORP. This was an excellent race to watch on television and more than likely was an excellent race to see live at the track. Of course, I’ve never been there before, but the place definitely seems small enough that you can see everything.

The action was fast and furious and ESPN’s commentators (Marty Reid, Randy LaJoie and Rusty Wallace) were definitely into the racing. Reid in particular had several moments where his voice went up in pitch in reaction to the racing. I actually find this interesting. I think I’ll refer to this as “Going up an octave” for the rest of the season.

However, there were a couple of issues that I had during the broadcast. On the sixth and final caution, there was no reference as to who got the Free Pass (referred to on ESPN as the Aaron’s Lucky Dog Free Pass). In addition, while a good chunk of the field pitted under that caution, there were a bunch of cars (including drivers like Almirola and Morgan Shepherd) that didn’t pit and took the wave-around. These drivers were never mentioned on air (there were roughly seven of them, most of which were re-lapped before the race ended.) I would have liked to know who took advantage of the wave-around.

Also, the fifth caution, which was thrown for Chase Austin’s crash; I don’t remember ESPN even mentioning it during their broadcast. The crash occurred during a commercial break, and when ESPN returned, the leaders were coming onto pit road, so naturally, ESPN covered those first. Afterwards, there was all but no mention of what caused the yellow. I was under the opinion that this was a debris caution until I looked it up this afternoon and saw that Austin had crashed (he ended up finishing 32nd, 21 laps down).

Prior to that wreck, Austin was actually running well in the No. 07 but had gotten no mention at all on the broadcast. Since David Green abandoned SK Motorsports earlier this year and the team dropped Toyotas in favor of Chevrolets, the team has struggled mightily, running what appeared to be repainted No. 84s that Mike Harmon had unsuccessfully campaigned earlier in the season. It seems that the Xxxtreme Motorsports partnership has improved the outfit and brought in much-needed sponsorship.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Kroger 200 at IRP

Overall, the issues that I mentioned above did not really detract much from the rest of the on-track action. The race was a joy to watch and I wish Nationwide (and Truck) races were like this more often. I fear that the purses that both series command today have completely priced them out of almost every short track in the country, with the exception of those run by ISC and SMI. If true, then that’s a shame, since people are being deprived of good racing.

Before I go on to the Cup telecast, I must make reference to ESPN’s announcement on Friday about the telecast of the Carfax 250 at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 15. ESPN has announced that the Nationwide race will be done with “Backseat Driver Coverage.” There will be no play-by-play man in the booth (meaning Marty Reid basically gets to take the weekend off). Instead, there will be five analysts commentating on the action. Tim Brewer will command his usual position in the Tech center while Ray Evernham, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree will be in the booth.

In execution, this will probably look like the Nationwide race last year in which Ned Jarrett was invited up to the booth as a guest. Evernham, who is essentially the fourth man up there, will have issues getting in anything edgewise (like Ned did last year), while Dale Jarrett will basically be the play-by-play guy. Wallace and Petree will basically occupy their normal roles in the telecast. On paper, this sounds interesting. I think it might end up being painful to watch, though.

On Sunday, ESPN returned to the Cup Series. The “A squad” of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were on hand at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to broadcast the 16th running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Or, as ESPN referred to it, the Brickyard 400 presented by Golden Corral. Personally, I wish that Golden Corral would have decided to sponsor the No. 28 for more races instead of going this route, but I’m not in charge of marketing for a chain of buffets, so I can’t make those decisions. I’m sure Allstate is spending extortion to sponsor the race, but they only received a total of four mentions on ESPN Sunday.

That’s actually one better than how it used to be. If I remember correctly, the previous TV deal (2001-2006) allowed for three (I believe) race sponsor mentions per race if they didn’t cough up the cash for the commercial package. Now, I think that may have been eliminated in the discussions that resulted in the current TV deal, but I’m not 100% sure on that. This also extends (for some reason) to SportsCenter highlights as well.

Most of us race fans were wondering if some of the issues that Dr. Jerry Punch has had this year while doing Nationwide races would just be confined to the lower series, or if they would pop up on Cup telecasts once Indy came around. Unfortunately, they did arise. I’ve gone on about this multiple times already this season about how Dr. Punch just doesn’t seem to be into a lot of the races. Maybe he’s just a fickle race fan and finds it hard to watch (and in this case, commentate on) races if they’re not exciting.

Many readers of my critique here are probably the same way. I don’t know what it is, but this stuff has got to stop. My general thoughts on this are as follows:

I’m pretty sure that Dr. Punch likes motorsports, NASCAR in particular. If a race doesn’t really “do it” for the average person, they can walk away, maybe click on the IndyCar race on Versus (from Edmonton on Sunday), or go veg out somewhere. Dr. Punch doesn’t have that option. It is Dr. Punch’s job to make the race exciting. Speaking in a dull monotone on a race telecast kills even the most exciting telecast of a race.

For a not-so-exciting race, it makes it interminable. I think Dr. Punch would make for a terrible teacher based on what I’ve seen over the past couple of years. If Dr. Punch cannot change his tone, then something should be done. I’d argue that it’s ultimatum time now.

I’m sure Dr. Punch thinks that he’s up to the task, but he’s yet to show it so far this season. Do I think I could do better? Probably not. I’ve never done anything on TV before except for answering a couple of questions on camera for WTEN here in the Albany area (ABC affiliate, Albany, N.Y.). As far as I know, neither of those comments on camera actually made air. In addition, I’m also not the best at extemporaneous speaking and I tend to ramble. In the booth, I’d probably be like Weber, only friendlier and much more nervous.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, I can pick the brains of some of ESPN’s commentators while I’m at Watkins Glen and get an idea of what they perceive their style to be, and how they prepare for the telecasts.

John Daly at The Daly Planet on Sunday claims that Punch is miscast and advocated a “trade” in which Allen Bestwick would be sent straight up to the booth to do play-by-play while Dr. Punch would head up the infield studio. Could this be done? Yes, it probably could. However, I don’t think Dr. Punch would be willing to do it because it is what amounts to a demotion.

At this point, it almost seems like Punch is clamoring to return to college football play-by-play, which he did while ESPN was without NASCAR. ESPN shows an insane number of college football games each season (I think it’s somewhere between 200 and 300 games between ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU). Punch could definitely fit in on one of those broadcasts. I think I’ve heard him do college basketball before as well.

However, I cannot say that ESPN’s broadcast from IMS was all bad. They were actually able to get an interview with Kyle Busch after his wall contact on lap 58. Kyle more or less answered Shannon Spake’s questions during the short chat in the garage area, which is unusual. Often times, Kyle will not answer questions posed to him, apparently because he considers them to be too obvious. I could argue that Kyle’s slight change in attitude could be attributed to another great aspect of the broadcast.

See also
Voice of Vito: Kyle Busch - Who Else Is Sick & Tired of His Act Besides Me?

That other aspect was a 1-on-1 interview in the Pagoda (aired during the pre-race show) where Busch talked with ESPN’s Marty Smith. During the interview, Smith brought up the issues of arrogance on Kyle’s part over the past year or so. It was a very candid and interesting talk and I hope ESPN can do more of this content in the future. Our own Cami Starr hypothesized in our Live Blog that Shannon Spake watched this interview during the pre-race show (or before it) and adjusted her questioning style to better suit Kyle.

ESPN also decided to show the driver introductions live on the broadcast. I think this was a first for a NASCAR race, but more or less par for the course for Indianapolis. ESPN has been doing this for the past year for the Indianapolis 500 telecasts on ABC. Still, very interesting. If they absolutely have to have an hour of pre-race programming before the race starts, then please include this for the rest of the season. Heck, even add it to the Nationwide Series race broadcasts starting with Iowa this weekend.

It’s kind of sad that the telecast for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, which is what amounts to ESPN’s signature race for their portion of the season, peaked during the pre-race show. I’ll admit right here that no race needs a 90-minute pre-race show. Heck, the Daytona 500 didn’t have a 90-minute pre-race show. However, it definitely looked like they were prepared for it. The actual race, not so much.

ESPN was hyping the amount of technology that they had at the track, which amounted to 76 cameras, including something called the “Bat Cam.” In reality, the race telecast didn’t look all that different from last year’s, which probably didn’t have 76 cameras, but it still had a dozen on air people. ESPN has also been maligned for overuse of in car cameras and tight shots this year and outside of the lap or so after restarts and after commercials, this was definitely the case on Sunday.

I don’t really know what ESPN can do to improve their Cup broadcasts, but I do suggest that they listen to fan input. The fans know what they want to see, and when it comes down to it, ESPN exists to quench the thirst of fans. Without them, there’s no ad revenue and without ad revenue, there’s no network.

Since the race ended relatively early, there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. ESPN gave fans 10 interviews with nine drivers, and the winning crew chief (Chad Knaus). Generally, this isn’t bad, especially compared to normal races. However, ESPN still left the air 15 minutes early so that they could get to SportsCenter. I don’t really understand why this happened. Did they run out of stuff to talk about? Perhaps.

That is all for this week. Next week is another one of those multiple site race weekends where the ability for Cup drivers to do multiple races is strained. The Cup Series is back in Long Pond, Pa. for the Pennsylvania 500 on Sunday afternoon (Aug. 2). Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will be in Newton, Iowa Saturday afternoon (Aug. 1) for the inaugural U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway. That promises to be a very interesting race. The race will be live on ESPN at 4:30 p.m. ET.

A couple of hours after the Nationwide Series race finish, the Truck Series’ Toyota Tundra 200 will be run at Nashville Superspeedway at 8 p.m. ET and air on SPEED. I will critique all three of these races. In addition (like always), if anything else piques my interest, I’ll comment on 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. Also, if you would like to follow me via Twitter, you can go to my Twitter page HERE.

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.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via