Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Lack of Focus Hurts ESPN Broadcasts

Hello, race fans. First off, I’m sorry that it’s Thursday and you’re just getting the chance to read this critique. The rainout on Sunday (Aug. 2) has played havoc with our typical weekly schedule here at Frontstretch, with articles having their days switched up and some pieces being swapped between the website and the newsletter and vice versa. Therefore, I’m sorry if this information seems late to you guys.

However, before I start, I must make an apology. In last week’s critique, I stated that ESPN did not mention Allstate’s sponsorship of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at all, instead referring to the race as the Brickyard 400 presented by Golden Corral. This was not true. Last week, NASCAR’s own PR man, Ramsey Poston, contacted the site to refute this point, proving four examples in which Dr. Punch referred to the race as the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

However, I stand by my previous statements in that I believe that the terms of the TV deal – one which requires race sponsors, no matter how big they are, to purchase a minimum amount of air time in order for their race names to be used on air more than a couple of times per race – is ludicrous. I have thought this since 2001, and it continues to remain the television equivalent of a check-in or bag fee.

With that said, let’s get on with this weekend’s thoughts on the telecasts.

Last weekend, there were four major races on the stock car racing calendar. The Sprint Cup Series and the ARCA Re/Max Series were at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series was in Newton, Iowa on Saturday (Aug. 1) for the inaugural US Cellular 250, which was a rousing success. In addition, the Camping World Truck Series was in Nashville for the Toyota Tundra 200 at Nashville Superspeedway.

Due to the weekend setup, I’m going to start with the Nationwide race from Iowa Speedway first. And, man, did I enjoy the action on Saturday.

On Saturday afternoon, the Nationwide Series ran the US Cellular 250 presented by Northland Oil and TMC Trucking at Iowa Speedway. The pre-race show was a typical effort from ESPN, but I liked that ESPN had Joe Balash, the Nationwide Series Director, in the booth during the pre-race show to talk about the track and how much they liked it (which was quite a bit).

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 US Cellular 250 at Iowa

Once the race started, you could tell that ESPN had two main focuses in their broadcast. One of them was Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick having to start at the rear of the field because they had other drivers qualify their cars (Jeremy Clements, Auggie Vidovich and Cale Gale, respectively). Of course, this was a repeat story from ORP, one that needed to be tracked but not overly reported. The other was basically the race for the lead… there was no in-between. As a result, there were quite a few lost stories during the race.

At least Marty Reid took it upon himself to give shout-outs to the teams that were running well on Saturday that weren’t getting that coverage that they really deserved. Those cars included the No. 72 of Benny Gordon, the No. 26 of Michael McDowell, the No. 28 of Kenny Wallace and the No. 10 of Kelly Bires amongst others. While that’s nice and all, that does not really give those teams the coverage that they rightly deserved during the non-caution segments.

On the plus side, I did like the explanation given for Kyle Busch (I think)’s pit selection. This was because it was next to the No. 49 of Mark Green in the second Jay Robinson Racing Chevrolet. It was noted on air that there were no tires in the pit stall and, at best, a skeleton crew. They may have been non-existent – I couldn’t quite tell if there was a crew in the stall at all based on the view. All I could see was a relatively small rolling tool chest.

From what I’ve seen, a lot of viewers had issues with loss of perception of what was going on at the track due to constant tight shots and in-car views. In-car views are very cool, but they’re not what they once were. Unfortunately, the in-car view that many of us grew up with is effectively no more. This is mainly due to the design of today’s racecars making those shots impossible now. The seat designs of today make it impossible for a panning camera in a traditional location to see much of the driver, as additional rollbars and the headrest block much of the view.

I’m fairly sure panning technology for in-car cameras is still around; however, the days of fast-panning cameras, like what Dale Jarrett had in the 1988 Budweiser 400k at Riverside (recently aired on ESPN Classic) are long over. They actually irritated some drivers, like Dale Earnhardt, back in the day with their usage.

In their place are the tight shots that people seem to have so many problems with appear to be typical of ESPN. It’s “their thing,” if you will. In my opinion, though, it’s not the best way to go about broadcasting a NASCAR event – I don’t care which event it is. In the future, I’d like to have ESPN use more wide shots in their broadcasts. They help viewers get an overall view of what’s really going on. Yet it seems like the only way that fans really get this on an ESPN broadcast today is the rare appearance of the blimp (or helicopter) view. That view rarely appears outside of outros from commercial breaks, though.

Also, ESPN missed a couple of incidents on track. The first of these was Aric Almirola’s wall contact, which brought out the fourth caution of the race. ESPN showed the No. 40 Westerman Companies Chevrolet after Aric pulled it onto pit road and into the garage area, but there was no replay at all of the crash. There was also no interview with Almirola. Now, it’s possible that Almirola may have declined to be interviewed. That’s life. It happens, but the public needs to be notified of that.

As far as talent, what I have seen over the past few weeks is that the group of Reid, LaJoie and Wallace is possibly the best possible combination of booth commentators for the Nationwide Series right now. Reid is definitely into the series, and his enthusiasm is contagious. LaJoie and Wallace are also solid together. In the case of Rusty, it’s a far cry from the shakiness that he displayed while doing the IndyCar telecasts in 2006, or his first year doing NASCAR on ESPN in 2007.

Later that evening, SPEED broadcast live coverage of the Camping World Truck Series Toyota Tundra 200. The first thing that viewers noticed about this race was the four-man booth. Since the race was run at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon (really Gladville), Tenn., Darrell Waltrip decided to make an appearance. This resulted in a busy booth, very similar to the race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last year when Ned Jarrett dropped by. Comparing the two, the control of traffic was probably better on SPEED Saturday night than it was on ESPN last year.

Granted, Darrell decided to add in his “Boogity Boogity Boogity” to the call of the beginning of the race. I expected it, to be honest. I have no real opinion of it showing up, though, as it had been a while (about two months) since I heard it. I don’t necessarily pine for it. I probably pine for it about as often as dead birds pine for the fjords. But, I can put up with it much more easily than I can put up with Digger.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 Toyota Tundra 200 at Nashville

Generally, I thought this was not all that bad of a telecast. I do think that SPEED may have been trying to play up Ron Hornaday’s accomplishment as being bigger than it was. SPEED was equating Hornaday’s five in a row with the five in a row streaks by Richard Petty and Bobby Isaac in 1971. In my opinion, the feat is undoubtedly incredible. However, this is the CWTS, not the Sprint Cup Series. If Hornaday or someone else accomplished this in the Sprint Cup Series, then it would be that much more significant.

Now, we come to the action at Pocono Raceway. The reason why I designed this critique in this fashion was so that I would not have to jump from Pocono to another track and back to Pocono.

Before the Nationwide race ran on Saturday, SPEED provided live coverage of the ARCA Re/Max Series’ Pocono ARCA 200. Steve Byrnes was joined in the booth by special guest Kyle Petty for the race. Petty continued his now normal routine of commentating while tweeting, an idea that’s become popular with many fans watching the telecasts. In addition, Rutledge Wood was also there (although never heard on air) and posted some pictures from inside the booth during the race. This was pretty cool, to be honest. Gotta love that scoring screen that the commentators have at their disposal. It’s the size of the TV I use to watch the races here at my house.

Kyle is probably the most brutally honest commentator in all of stock car racing at the moment. When asked why he wanted to become a stock car racer as a kid, he gave two answers. One (the so-called PC answer) was that he came from a rural area (Randleman/Level Cross, N.C.) where kids often followed in the footsteps of their parents. He specifically mentioned that there are third- and fourth-generation farmers in his hometown. The non-PC answer was simply “I was too lazy to do anything else.”

The TV coverage also brought some new tidbits of knowledge out. For example, Tim George Jr. (No. 2 Ruby Tuesday Toyota) was sent to the rear of the field for indexing his steering wheel. This is commonplace in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, but it is against the rules to stop after leaving pit road to do it in the ARCA Re/Max Series. I think it’s a strange rule, to be honest.

It’s probably also rooted in the fact that the ARCA Re/Max Series races on a lot more short tracks than NASCAR’s top-three series do, so it’s more of a precaution than anything else (due to track width). Remember, this series used to race at places like Anderson Speedway in Anderson, Ind. That place is small and narrow. Still a quirky rule, though.

Something that I often notice in ARCA telecasts in weekends where they share the track with one of NASCAR’s big-three series is that the ARCA telecast seems to miss some stuff, as if they either turn some cameras off for the race or put some less experienced operators on the camera platforms. I’m definitely voting for the former here. As a result, a couple of the incidents did not have the best camera shots.

The crash on lap 2 involving Chris Lafferty (No. 89 Chevrolet) was only caught in a shot that missed why he had gone high in the first place. The other incident was when Dakoda Armstrong’s No. 4 Dodge burst into flames on the frontstretch. Byrnes and Petty assumed that something from the previous dig in and wheelie caused that fire, but the cameras missed the car bursting into flames.

I also do not understand the tape delaying of the race. Yes, it’s not by much (seven to eight minutes, if I remember right), but it’s noticeable. Why do they do it? Is the race start time not dictated by the media, so SPEED has to slightly delay it so they can fit in an interview or two before the engines crank?

With that said, I value any ARCA Re/Max Series coverage these days and overall, this was a pretty good telecast to watch. I fear what is going to happen TV-wise to the series next year, especially since Re/Max is pulling back their sponsorship due to the housing slump.

On Sunday, the Cup Series was supposed to go off for 500 miles of action at Pocono Raceway. However, heavy rains the morning of the race, dreaded weepers and more showers in the afternoon conspired to delay the race to Monday (Aug. 3).

Sunday’s telecast turned into a series of interviews with drivers (I think they interviewed half of the starting field, including drivers that don’t usually get interviewed, like Scott Speed.) There were reminiscences of prior races and even some good-natured ribbing from Rusty Wallace at Dr. Punch, Petree and Jarrett’s decision to all wear purple ties. It was an enjoyable way to spend a lost Sunday. Of course, I’m saying that after watching no less than seven races on Sunday online in order to fill the void.

One of those races was the 1990 AC Spark Plug 500 from Pocono, which aired on ESPN. This is an underrated race that ESPN Classic should air at some point. However, the fact that Earnhardt didn’t win it may hurt the ratings. It amped me up for a good race on Monday, and Monday’s action did not disappoint for once. But, did the telecast hold up?

Due to my work schedule on Monday, I could not watch the pre-race material. This was because I was en route home from work to participate in the Live Blog. From what Mike Lovecchio tells me, there was a brief introduction to the broadcast, then the opening ceremonies and an expanded interview (meaning more than two or three questions) with the In-Race Reporter, Edwards. I arrived home at the tail end of this interview with Edwards, but in time for the race.

I was not pleased with the coverage almost completely focusing on the top 10 in the first 30 laps of the race, with Tony Stewart and his issues being the only exception. I don’t like that. There is plenty of racing for position throughout the field, but it appeared that early on, ESPN had an agenda that they were following to a T.

I will admit that I found it notable that Dr. Punch took the time to mention that Mike Wallace’s No. 64 was not just black-flagged, but parked by NASCAR for not having a pit crew, like Joe Ruttman was at Rockingham in Feb. 2004. However, NASCAR let Wallace race at the back of the field for 30 miles before they gave him the heave ho, unlike Ruttman, who was parked after a lap or so.

I think that ESPN’s commentators maybe should have taken issue with the caution thrown (No. 2) for the tire carcass from Paul Menard’s No. 98. It came to rest on the inside of turn 3, next to the inside wall. That yellow did not need to be thrown – simple as that – especially since it was right around time for green-flag pit stops.

I was happy with the action later in the race, but the shots needed to be a little bit wider so that viewers could see a little bit more of the action. In addition, those wider shots would allow viewers to better see how these swooping moves are setup. A good version of a “swooping move” caught from an in-car camera can be found at the beginning of this clip from 1987. The camera there was located in the middle of the car, but could be swiveled around 360 degrees. I miss those.

Something that definitely should not have been missed by ESPN was the bump under caution that got Robby Gordon a five-lap penalty following his second spin out. They should have had a camera following him all over the track under that caution, to be honest. Kudos should be given for ESPN playing the audio on air where Robby claimed that he was going to take out David Stremme. The resulting second spinout was definitely intentional on Stremme’s part, but due to the pictures given to us viewers by ESPN, I have no clue why he retaliated.

See also
Bubble Breakdown: Tempers Flare Between David Stremme and Robby Gordon at Pocono

I’m forced to assume that Robby’s threat was relayed to Stremme over the radio, and David acted accordingly. I kind of doubt that. My guess is that the bump happened under the previous caution, and then NASCAR decided to punish him after the fact… which is not right.

I think that ESPN also spent too much time dissecting the whole Jimmie Johnson story later in the race at the expense of other teams that probably could have used the coverage. Shannon Spake had an interview with Chad Knaus, where Knaus told Spake that they had fixed the problem. However, Knaus never mentioned what the problem was. I wish Spake could have asked Knaus what the problem was so that we viewers could have heard it (I’m assuming at this point that it was a bad spark plug). After the race, when Johnson was interviewed, he claimed to not know what was wrong with the car.

Another example of reporting which could have been better was that until Wednesday, I had heard nothing about Reed Sorenson’s carbon monoxide issues. I wish this could have been discussed on the broadcast.

The lack of excitement in the last 30 laps was also quite stirring, to be honest. I think my mom even noticed this and she’s not a race fan. She probably doesn’t understand why I started following NASCAR back in the early 1990s, but never discouraged me from following it, even quenching my thirst for more. That’s all I’m going to say about this issue for now.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series will be at Watkins Glen International in the town of Dix, N.Y. (seriously, it’s not officially in Watkins Glen, but it does have a Watkins Glen mailing address) for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen and Zippo 200, respectively. However, I will not be critiquing these races. Why not? I will be representing Frontstretch on the premises, so I won’t have the ability to do it. I plan on having a substitute critique the broadcasts for next week.

However, while I’m there, I am going to have a couple of one-on-one interviews with ESPN on-air personalities. With the tone of some of the critiques I’ve written so far this season, this is a bit of a coup for me. This will result in a written piece or two here on Frontstretch in the next week or so.

As of this writing, I am already confirmed to have a sitdown interview with Allen Bestwick on Friday afternoon right before pole qualifying (that will get in this year, thank God). In addition, I plan on talking with Shannon Spake, and the Holy Grail interview with Dr. Jerry Punch is likely in the cards (that’s right). However, I do fear a Bissinger-Leitch like affair potentially occurring in the Punch interview since I’ve been quite hard on him this season.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the aforementioned confrontation, it occurred on an episode of Costas Now last year on HBO. The subject was New Media, specifically blogs, and their impact on sports journalism. I don’t think it’s going to happen, because I think Dr. Punch is professional enough to not let feelings like that get in the way, but it’s going to be at the back of my head.

These interviews and a tour through ESPN’s on-site production facilities (during the Pole Qualifying session on Friday) are designed to give me a higher understanding of what goes on during a broadcast. I hope these opportunities will be a benefit for my column.

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.

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