Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Backseat Drivers Bring Different Feel to ESPN’s Booth at Michigan

Hello, race fans. This past weekend, we had two races end with slightly unexpected outcomes at Michigan International Speedway. The Nationwide Series event ended with Brad Keselowski winning after Brian Vickers forced Kyle Busch down to the apron at the white-flag lap, hurting both cars’ momentum enough for his No. 88 to pull alongside.

Meanwhile, the Sprint Cup Series race saw Vickers win his second career race after Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel with slightly more than two laps to go. The races themselves were not the best affairs, however, filled with a dearth of actual racing for position. But how did ESPN’s TV telecasts hold up this week? Let’s find out.

Saturday (Aug. 15) brought the Nationwide Series to Michigan International Speedway for the CARFAX 250, a race that has historically been quite boring. Before it was lengthened to 250 miles, it was a one-stop event with teams effectively competing to see who could go the furthest on a tank of gas.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 CARFAX 250 at Michigan

But what the TV booth brought to the table was far from “same old, same old.” The ESPN coverage for this race was a long-planned experiment known as “Backseat Drivers,” where there was no actual Play-by-Play man in the booth. Instead, four analysts (Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree, Ray Evernham and Rusty Wallace) were crowded upstairs to lead a “group discussion” about the race being run. Tim Brewer also did features from the Craftsman Tech Garage on-site while Allen Bestwick, from the infield studio, effectively acted as the host of the telecast and did all of the promos.

The outcome that many viewers (and John Daly) assumed would happen under this format was that Dale Jarrett would effectively become the de facto play-by-play man with Petree, Wallace and Evernham serving as his minions. However, the truth was probably a little more spread out than that, with each person taking at least one stab at it over the course of 250 miles.

Now, I understand that the idea of this telecast is basically a giant “What if?” In this case, that “what if” is, “What if we got a bunch of analysts together and had them watch a race together? What would it sound like?” After watching, I will say this much about the changes: it definitely gave a new feel to the broadcast. There was a general feeling of happiness in the booth with a sense of camaraderie between them. Even Dr. Punch, when I talked to him at Watkins Glen, sounded amped up about the Backseat Drivers idea – something he thought was going to be really neat – and he wasn’t even part of the show.

But the drawback to having all analysts in the booth is that viewers miss out on a lot of the things that we have been expecting on an ESPN broadcast of the Nationwide Series. One example of what got ignored was actually being notified when people drop out of the races. This really made me miss Marty Reid on Saturday, as he usually does a great job acknowledging every driver in the field who drops out.

In contrast, none of the four analysts kept track on Saturday and as a result, the only people who actually warranted a mention were Carl Edwards (because of his early-race crash with Trevor Bayne) and Scott Wimmer once his engine expired. Of course, both of these drivers’ incidents caused yellow flags, so the analysts really had no choice but to mention these cars and what they did to bring out the caution.

But other than that, no one else even got so much as a mention that they had pulled in and headed towards the garage. It is notable, though, that all of those other cars were considered to be outside of the “Top 24” teams at the track that weekend. Why do I make this distinction, you ask? Well, you’ll have to come back Thursday to find out (more on that feature in a bit).

So while backmarkers exiting the race went ignored, there was also a fairly extensive focus on the top 10 on Saturday – far more than normal. With the exception of RWI’s two cars, (Brendan Gaughan and Steve Wallace), barely anyone outside of that top 10 got all that much of a mention in the race. And while we’re on that topic… I think this quartet needed to cut down on the constant references to Rusty’s own cars unless it’s necessary to the normal flow of conversation. It screams of a conflict of interest otherwise.

Some new graphics should also be introduced in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup telecasts for the future. One of these should be an informational box showing which cars have to drop to the back at the beginning of the race and why. The other informational box should show who gets the Lucky Dog and the wave around at each caution. I’m requesting this box because the “Backseat Drivers” ignored the Lucky Dog cars for a couple of the caution periods.

I think that such a simple dropdown would be beneficial for the viewers in the long term, no matter which broadcasters wind up in the booth each week. It’s another recommendation based upon TNT’s broadcasts that I thought worked fairly well for them.

I did like the extended Up to Speed for the Nationwide Series that covered everyone on the lead lap at the time just past the race’s halfway point. Admittedly, this was similar to what TNT did back at Pocono in June, a good way to keep most viewers informed as to how their favorite drivers are running. I was very positive about it back then and this addition needs to be continued in the Nationwide Series telecasts for the foreseeable future – especially as it often covers the Nationwide-only drivers buried deeper in the field during races when there are 10 to 12 crossovers from the Cup Series running in front of them.

Something along these lines needs to be instituted in the Sprint Cup telecasts, too, sooner rather than later.

At the end of Saturday’s race, while Keselowski was off doing his victory donuts at the start/finish line, Busch got busy confronting Vickers on pit road. In what amounted to a split-second decision, ESPN had to prioritize which was more important to the viewer. In the end, they decided to switch back and forth in a bit of confusion, probably giving the confrontation more on-screen time – but not by much. This method likely minimized Keselowski’s victory a little as a result.

Some people on The Daly Planet were aghast at Rusty Wallace for saying that he wondered whether Busch and Vickers were going to fight. Knowing that Rusty has done that on air at least once before (Watkins Glen, 2007), I know that ESPN doesn’t have an issue with it. As long as he’s not actually advocating fighting, then to me I think that type of comment is fine.

There’s a subtle but important difference there; for example, I’d have issues with what he said if the exact words were something along the lines of “I hope they fight right here.” Yeah, maybe Rusty was thinking that, but the bottom line was he knew that he couldn’t say it on air and made the right call to censor himself to a certain degree.

What are my thoughts on the Backseat Drivers broadcast? I feel that the changes gave a completely different feel to covering the main event. All the commentators were definitely into the race and liked working together. I’m not really sure about Brewer’s role in the broadcast, though. ESPN hinted at a slightly expanded role for him, but I couldn’t really see it, to be honest. It looked like Brewer was still in his typical role, which he does fairly well.

Despite the good chemistry, though, I still think there were just too many cooks in the kitchen when all was said and done. I’ve said this at least twice before, but it stands to be repeated here once again: please don’t put more than three people in a booth. Once that fourth person is added, pure chaos breaks loose.

Speaking of chaos, the following day (Aug. 16) ESPN returned to MIS for the broadcast of the CARFAX 400. They constantly drove home the point that the race was not going to be rain-delayed during the pre-race show, expecting fans could take solace that there would not be yet another race held on a Monday.

Well, instead it rained again, and the sudden change in the weather really seemed to throw ESPN for a loop. They kept claiming on the broadcast that there was no chance at all of rain or less than a 10% chance, yet it rained five laps into the race and caused a brief (19 minutes) red flag. Do I think they really believed that there was no chance of rain? To an extent, yes. But do I think that someone at ESPN knew about the chances (estimated to be at 30-40% before the race started) and didn’t want to mention it? You betcha.

You see, the jinx that Mike Joy told me about after Daytona that many readers thought was a complete lie is alive and well with ESPN employees (mentioned to me multiple times during my tour of the TV compound at Watkins Glen). The specific thought was that they believe that if rain is not even mentioned at all, it won’t show up. Well, in my opinion I thought this sounded insane at the time (still do) and it’s not really a good way to go about it.

Now, I don’t blame ESPN for not wanting rain to fall on their parade – just the rebooking of hotel rooms for everyone is both a financial and logistical nightmare in itself. But there needs to be more of a journalistic view taken on this issue. ESPN has to mention weather because it is their duty to be completely honest to the fans. As the drivers joked around during the rain delay, meteorologists don’t always have to be right… but if they’re wrong, the TV broadcast shouldn’t act like it’s the last one to know that showers are just a mile or two from the racetrack.

But weather wasn’t the only important story missed on ESPN’s NASCAR Countdown show this week. While their features were strong, the network used them at the expense of covering some of the more important news and notes from the weekend. A major omission was from Saturday’s CARFAX 250, which ended with Busch confronting Vickers on pit road, claiming that Vickers cost him the victory. Vickers responded by saying that he “…didn’t realize that it was the Kyle Busch Show.”

See also
Fan's View: Trying to Crash the Kyle Busch Show? Good Luck

Their argument was the talk of fans and news shows everywhere for the next 24 hours, but this basically didn’t get a mention during Countdown, which is a real shame. Usually, an incident like this is overblown on ESPN instead of underreported, with each of the analysts getting a fair chance to give their opinion on what went down. Instead, there weren’t even any pre-race interviews with the combatants as the network pretended like yesterday’s ending simply didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, the issue of Mike Bliss driving the No. 09 for Phoenix Racing at Michigan would not have been all that big of a story most of the year, since Bliss had already made six starts this season in the No. 09. However, this car is owned by James Finch, the same owner who fired Bliss from his No. 1 car in the Nationwide Series after Iowa. I have a good reason why this issue wasn’t covered in the pre-race show (or at all by ESPN), but it will have to wait for Thursday.

Probably the biggest story ignored from pre-race was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s comments about how the races are substandard with the Car of Tomorrow, pointed criticism in which he claimed races were “very poor” before the introduction of double-file restarts in June.

Now, I’m thinking that Earnhardt Jr. might have gotten more press (and thus, warrant a mention on NASCAR Countdown) had he come out and said this months ago when he still had a chance to salvage his season and potentially get into the Chase. By the time Junior came out and gave an opinion, he was 25th in points and simply attempting to limp through the rest of 2009 with his dignity intact. But while he may not be the story on the track, anything he says off it continues to make waves due to his overwhelming popularity. It’s something that should have merited at least a brief mention and discussion by the analysts.

Having said that, the features that they did show on the pre-race show (the feature on Keselowski, which was teased on Saturday and shown in full Sunday, as well as the piece about fuel mileage) were both appropriate and handled well. I found the Keselowski piece to be quite interesting and really put a human angle to Brad (and to a lesser extent, his older brother Brian).

As for the fuel-mileage piece, it appeared at the surface to be a montage of clips, not necessarily from Michigan, where races came down to fuel mileage. I recognized Dale Earnhardt running out in the 1986 Daytona 500, as well as Harry Gant winning the 1992 edition of Sunday’s race for his final victory. Yet the rest of the feature was a discussion of how often fuel mileage comes into play at the 2-mile oval, especially after Mark Martin won in the spring because the two guys in front of him (Johnson and Greg Biffle) ran dry before the end of the race.

See also
Mark Martin Wins 2009 Lifelock 400 at Michigan, Thanks to Fuel Mileage

The piece on the manufacturers was also partially repeated from Saturday, with Sprint Cup-specific content replacing the quotes concerning the Nationwide Series. This definitely came off as a little “cut happy” in my opinion, something that became too choppy of a piece both days.

Moving on to the race coverage, it was relatively typical for what we’ve seen so far this season on ESPN. Yes, it can improved. No, I probably can’t do anything to improve it on my own.

I will say the post-race coverage was very short, indeed. I recognized this while I was watching it, but not before I checked my on-screen guide to see when the time slot for the race ended. It was supposed to finish by 5:30 p.m. and it was already well past that by the time the race concluded.

As a result, there was only a chance to squeeze in five quick interviews (with Ryan Pemberton (Vickers’s crew chief), Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Vickers, in that order) before leaving the air. It’s always a clear-cut sign, by the way, that ESPN is cutting it close time-wise when they show the upcoming schedule before they even show the winner’s interview.

Usually, victory lane is set up for TV and there is often a commercial break before the winning driver emerges from his car and does the interview. That was not so on Sunday, as Vickers was already out of the car by the time the victory lane interview started. Since ESPN was in what amounted to a hurry up to get off the air and throw it to SportsCenter, the victory-lane interview was quite short, nowhere near enough for Vickers to really savor the win for himself and his fans.

It especially wasn’t enough for the Red Bull Racing Team, either, who were celebrating their maiden win in just their third season running in the Cup Series. There also was no time for a recap of the points standings, which is really inexcusable. I mean, come on now, that stuff is important – especially since there are now only three more races before the infamous Chase begins. That cannot happen again.

Alright, that’s all for this week’s critique. This week, NASCAR’s three main series are at the Bristol Motor Speedway for the infamous night races that everyone looks forward to. This year, there’s a new wrinkle as well, with the NASCAR Whelen Modified Series making their inaugural visit to Bristol Wednesday night (Aug. 19) for the UNOH Perfect Storm 150. Race time is 6:15 p.m. and will be televised live on SPEED.

Right after that race concludes, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series follows with the O’Reilly 200 Presented by Valvoline. This race will also be televised live on SPEED.

On Friday (Aug. 21), the Nationwide Series has their one-day show at Bristol, culminating with the Food City 250 Friday night. Race coverage starts at 8 p.m. on ESPN2, with NASCAR Countdown starting at 7:30. Saturday night (Aug. 22) then brings the Sprint Cup Series and a recently announced sellout crowd of 160,000 for the Sharpie 500. The race telecast starts at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN, with pre-race coverage (NASCAR Countdown) starting at 6:30. I will provide critiques of all four of these telecasts.

In addition, you may have noticed me holding back a little in my thoughts earlier in the critique. There is a reason for that, as I didn’t want to pre-empt myself for an upcoming feature story. While I was in Watkins Glen, I conducted sitdown interviews with ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch, Allen Bestwick and Shannon Spake. In addition, I took a tour through ESPN’s portable TV compound. I will be taking my findings from these interviews and the tour and weaving them, along with my own thoughts, into a long piece that will be posted on Frontstretch this Thursday.

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 ones 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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