Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: FOX Needs to Stop Following the Leader

Hello, race fans. It’s time for Frontstretch‘s weekly look at the TV telecasts we watch. This past weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were both at Richmond International Raceway near Richmond, Va. Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck Series paired up with the Izod IndyCar Series at Kansas Speedway. The IZOD IndyCar Series race will be covered on Thursday (May 6) in the Critic’s Annex, only in the Frontstretch Newsletter.

However, before I start, I just want to make reference to something that happened during practice coverage on SPEED Friday. The discussion in the broadcast booth was about various pseudonyms that Tony Stewart has either been referred to as in ads, or actually raced under. Some confusion started about the name “Smoke Johnson.” Eventually, none other than our own John Potts was able to email Larry Mac and give him an explanation – one that he then turned around and paraphrased live, on-air, to the audience.

I find this interesting only because it gives some kind of an idea of what commentators can do in the booth during actual sessions. In addition to commentating on the on-track action, they do check emails on laptops or mobile devices. Those people luckily enough to have one of the commentators’ email addresses (which there, unfortunately, are not a lot of) can potentially help broadcasts.

But all fans, to a reasonable degree, should be able to get involved with the race broadcasts. When FOX first started covering NASCAR, they had poll questions for the fans where they could either go to FoxSports.com and vote, or use a Cingular (now AT&T) cell phone by texting 191.

Last year, FOX gave the fans the opportunity to email questions to an Answer Guy at FoxSports.com. This had no impact upon the telecasts themselves (other than a little promotion during them). TNN in the mid-1990s used to have a call-in line where fans could ask questions. That type of thing could be done via emails or even tweets.

I’ve referenced the fact that FOX’s NASCAR coverage does, in fact, have a Twitter feed. I’d suggest that they make use of it and encourage fans to send them tweets and/or emails for use during the broadcast. Heck, ESPN already does with their fan-submitted questions for their In-Race Reporter.

With all that said, on to the critiques:

Bubba Burger 250

On Friday night, the Nationwide Series ran their first race of the year at Richmond International Raceway, the Bubba Burger 250. ESPN2 provided the coverage. The most notable thing about this coverage was with the shakeup of on-air personalities. Normal play-by-play announcer Marty Reid was in Kansas to provide commentary for the IZOD IndyCar Series’ Road Runner Turbo Indy 300, which aired on Saturday afternoon.

As a result, Allen Bestwick, normally the grandmaster of the Infield Studio, filled in the booth. It was the first time that Bestwick called a Nationwide Series race in the booth since 2004 (before the unfortunate broken leg). Bestwick was joined there by Rusty Wallace (in place of a vacationing Dale Jarrett) and Andy Petree. The shift left another opening in the Infield Studio, which was filled by Nicole Briscoe.

Jamie Little and Vince Welch, in addition to their roles as pit reporters on ESPN’s NASCAR coverage, also serve in a similar capacity for ESPN’s five IZOD IndyCar Series races on ABC. So, they were absent for the weekend. Mike Massaro served as a fill-in, leaving ESPN with only three pit reporters for the night. Shannon Spake served as host of NASCAR Now last week, and likely didn’t have the proper prep time that I revealed in last year’s behind-the-scenes piece (remember, covering these races is a seven day-a-week job).

NASCAR Countdown included a montage of the wrecks involving Roush Fenway Racing’s three drivers (Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Carl Edwards and the now-benched Colin Braun), with some discussion about how the team can improve. Wallace shares the opinion of a lot of us here at Frontstretch that the current testing ban is ridiculous and hurts the sport in general.

It’s good to see that someone doesn’t think that this move is benefiting the sport and also not saving money. The larger teams couldn’t save any money if their lives depended on it. Sure, they could make cuts, but they’d spend more somewhere else to make up for it. Pre-race also included four driver interviews and the now-standard recap of the race at Talladega.

Race coverage was actually not all bad on Friday night. There was plenty of action on the track and ESPN made a point to show as much of it as possible, which is definitely good to see. There was some especially good camera work in showing Mike Wallace‘s rear end disintegrating on the restart from the first caution. As a result of the failure, part of Wallace’s driveshaft broke and rear-end grease coated the track. Andy Petree claimed that he hadn’t seen that in quite a while, if ever. It’s a new one for me, to be honest.

Allen Bestwick has a different style in the booth as compared to Marty Reid. By no means is it inappropriate, but just different. I’m fine with it (Bestwick is apparently scheduled to do four more races in the booth when Reid has conflicts), but it will take a little getting used to. For example, Bestwick is not quite as vigilant as Reid is in pointing out those who have gone to the garage. He’ll mention them, but not as quickly as Marty would.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2010 Bubba Burger 250 at Richmond

Bestwick’s strength is in directing traffic. Anyone who was a regular viewer of Inside Winston Cup on Speedvision/SPEED when Johnny Benson, Ken Schrader and Michael Waltrip served as the driver panel would know what I mean here. Those same qualities come to light in the Infield Studio with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. In the booth, Bestwick effectively directed Rusty and Andy around the telecast and it came out nicely. We didn’t see anyone try to “take over the broadcast,” or anything like that.

I also liked the Up to Speed segment where ESPN covered everyone on the lead lap from laps 152-166 (at the time, there were 16 cars on the lead lap). I generally think that ESPN has upped their game this year and that’s good to see. Last year was a bit of a mess, and 2007 and 2008 were effectively spent shuffling people around to find a group that would mesh well. But in 2010, they’ve definitely hit on something.

Post-race coverage was typical of what we’ve seen so far this season. There were interviews with five drivers and the winning crew chief (Paul Wolfe). The unofficial results ran in the scroll during those interviews. There was also a check of the unofficial points standings and a reminder of how you can buy tickets to any of the next 10 Nationwide events (I still think that $50 GA tickets for Road America are quite steep).

Crown Royal Presents the Heath Calhoun 400

On Saturday night, FOX brought us coverage of the Crown Royal Presents the Heath Calhoun 400, that great race in which Crown Royal gives one contest winner the opportunity to have the race named after themselves (this year’s recipient is a double amputee who competes in the Paralympics).

As was the case back at Phoenix three weeks ago, there was only a half-hour pre-race show on FOX as opposed to the full hour we normally get. Of course, a half-hour is still more than enough knowing that prior to that half-hour, there are still the two hours of NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot on SPEED.

The pre-race show consisted of the usual features that would show up in a shortened pre-race production (interviews, analysis with Myers, Hammond and Waltrip in the Hollywood Hotel, Gas-N-Go, etc.). Pizzi didn’t make an appearance and likely won’t return until Dover in two weeks. There was also a fairly interesting one-on-one segment featuring Kasey Kahne and Darrell Waltrip.

This was put together mainly because Kahne was running the Budweiser throwback scheme that was designed to commemorate not Darrell Waltrip‘s championship in 1985 (although it was while running that scheme), but Junior Johnson‘s election to the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Because of the scheme, it seemed like Waltrip was trying to butt in on the fun, which is not really all that nice.

I’ll admit right here that I liked the throwback paint scheme and wish that older schemes could be used more often. However, Vito Pugliese already wrote an article this season about potential throwback schemes that could be used this year a few weeks back, so I won’t pre-empt him.

On a side note, this scheme led to some discussion about Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s No. 3 for Daytona in our Live Blog, where I mentioned that it is based on the scheme Earnhardt ran in 1981 for Rod Osterlund, JD Stacy (after he bought Osterlund’s No. 2) and for Childress after Earnhardt couldn’t put up with Stacy. As a result, it technically has the wrong number font and is, thus, inaccurate. Of course, accuracy of re-creations is a whole ‘nother article altogether.

There was also a brief montage of the on-track incidents of recent weeks involving Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, which also included radio and interview quotes. This is overblown, but I can understand why FOX felt the need to cover it again.

With the race coverage, FOX tended to focus on front-running cars. As a result, fans never really got to see certain drivers moving their way up through the field. For example, Marcos Ambrose slowly moved up the order during the race from his 20th starting position, but never really got a mention on television until the last quarter of the race.

The infamous controversy of showing debris also reared its ugly head once again Saturday night. After a round of green-flag pit stops early on in the race, only nine cars remained on the lead lap. Johnson, running in ninth, was fighting with leader Kyle Busch to stay on the lead lap. Just as Busch got a fender in front of Johnson, the caution came out for debris. No one ever found that debris and showed it to us.

Now, it could be assumed that there was none, meaning that the whole yellow was a sham. Maybe there was some, but they never found it. I don’t know how many cameras FOX had at Richmond last weekend (a bunch, obviously), but they probably should have been able to pick up something. Or, at the very least, notify the audience that you cannot find the debris.

FOX often talked about the “Richmond Break-Down” during the broadcast as a blanket term for brake study. However, there were no brake cams in use on Saturday night (or Friday night, for that matter). Has BSI soured on brake cams after MWR’s trick rotors at New Hampshire last year?

I still wonder about the point of FOX’s Crank It Up segment, which has been a feature of the broadcasts since 2001 but I, personally, have never really cared for. Does it always have to be right after a restart, when there’s plenty of good action for position? Why not put it in the middle of a green-flag run? Also, you could just use the regular cameras instead of cycling through a series of in-car shots.

Another gripe, albeit minor, involves the in-car cameras that FOX uses. I guess I could just assume which cars have them, but FOX does not display who does anymore at the beginning of races. You just figure it out as you go. I don’t like this procedure, to be honest, and believe that the cars that have them should be acknowledged in some way before the race begins.

Post-race coverage on FOX was relatively brief due to the fact that they were extremely close to the end of their time slot. As a result, there were interviews with only the top-four finishers (Kyle Busch, Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton). There was also a check of the unofficial results and the points standings, but there was not a lot of discussion of the fact that Harvick took the points lead over Johnson as a result of his third-place finish.

The extension of post-race coverage on SPEED returned again Saturday night. This coverage featured some more post-race analysis, a second check of the points and interviews with Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Johnson. Of course, FOX and SPEED also failed to promote this switch again.

I think that it’s a good idea to have this extension to the post-race coverage on SPEED if you can’t have it on FOX proper or online, but you have to promote it. Reference it multiple times on air and on SPEED programming as well. Your Twitter feed could also be used to advertise the transition. Maybe it’s too late to institute these methods of promoting this additional post-race programming this year, but I’d strongly recommend doing it for next year’s 13-race slate.

As it stands, the extra post-race coverage from Talladega got a .3 in the Nielsen ratings. It was a 50% increase over the programming that was airing on SPEED at the time (a first-run AMA Supercross Lites race).

O’Reilly Auto Parts 250

On Sunday, the Camping World Truck Series raced in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 at Kansas Speedway. SPEED provided the TV coverage with Rick Allen, Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip in the broadcast booth. Adam Alexander and Ray Dunlap worked pit road.

Due to the Sprint Cup Series being in Richmond on Saturday night, Krista Voda did not make the trip to Kansas. As a result, Rick Allen hosted NCWTS Setup from the broadcast booth. This resulted in a different feel for pre-race coverage, but it worked out just fine. The Setup started off with a recap of the first four races of the year, mainly because NASCAR has the infinite wisdom to spread the first five races of the year over 12 weeks. It had been a month since the truck teams had been at the track.

The Setup also included a nice feature about Brett Butler (and to a lesser extent, his brother, Ken III) and their company, Alpha Dog Training in Georgia. It can be viewed online at this link. Butler talked about training stray and shelter dogs so that they could be adopted by families, and about how they train drug sniffing dogs for law enforcement. Here, Brett was shown mixing together a batch of fake drugs to hide in a locker and have the trainee find. He quipped that NASCAR was going to randomly drug test him every week once it airs, which was a little funny.

Another feature had Rick Allen and Ray Dunlap tagging along with a group of drivers on a flight aboard “Fat Albert,” the transport plane for the Blue Angels that provided the flyover prior to the race. This started with a quick briefing on what was going to happen, then up into the plane.

Most of the footage on the plane consisted of reaction shots of Dunlap and Allen, mainly since it’s… kinda dangerous to have a cameraman standing up and not bracing him/herself on something while the plane is turned at a 60-degree bank. I can understand that.

It definitely seems like Rick liked it, but Ray? Not so much. Maybe it was Ray’s somewhat uncomfortable-looking seating arrangement. I will admit that I could have done without Rick’s Fat Albert impression. If I want to hear that, I’ll watch Family Guy or something else (I will admit that even though it wasn’t bad, SPEED is simply not the place for it).

Race coverage was pretty good, with lots of enthusiasm to go around. Of course, the on-track action helped to make that possible. There was plenty of competition for position throughout the race. Also of note, SPEED’s commentators seem to talk about the action at Kansas a little differently than the commentators on ESPN do. There was a lot of reference to side-by-side action in past races and close competition.

To someone who may have only seen Sprint Cup races at the track in the past, this might come off as a foreign concept, knowing what Sprint Cup races at Kansas Speedway have been like over the past few years.

As you probably have heard by now, the race ended up being red-flagged for a little over a hour and a half due to a thunderstorm that drenched the track with heavy rain and marble-sized hail. During this delay, SPEED had a little fun. Ray Dunlap spent part of the time skipping around in the rain like he was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (again). I only say again because he ended up dressing up like Dorothy for Halloween at Talladega back in 2008. Pretty silly-looking, to be honest.

The rest of the time was mainly spent doing interviews and discussing the race, which I’m fine with. They also took the time to replay the Fat Albert feature from the pre-race show right before the drivers were called back to their trucks.

After the rain, there was the epic battle for the win between Johnny Sauter and Ron Hornaday. Hornaday had to come from the back of the lead lap to challenge Sauter, and they almost wrecked each other in the process while trying to avoid lapped traffic. SPEED seemingly couldn’t get enough of it, even showing a series of full-screen still shots from their replays.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2010 O'Reilly Auto Parts 250 at Kansas

This was definitely not necessary and I hope that SPEED doesn’t do it again. Especially since when they were showing these still shots, there were still five or so laps to go in the race and there were still battles on track for position. As far as I’m concerned, if they really wanted to do that oh so bad, it could have waited until after the race.

Post-race coverage, due to the overall length of the broadcast, was quite brief. There were interviews with the top-three finishers (Sauter, Hornaday Jr. and Todd Bodine), a check of the unofficial results and a check of the points before SPEED left the air. That happens when a race is over an hour overtime, so I’ll live with that.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend sees even more night racing. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide series will be racing at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C. The Nationwide Series races Friday night in the Royal Purple 200, while the Sprint Cup Series races Saturday night in the Showtime Southern 500.

On Sunday, SPEED will air tape-delayed coverage of Round 5 (races nine and 10) of the Australian V8 Supercar Championship, the City of Ipswich 300, from this past weekend at Queensland Raceway in Ipswich, Queensland. If you’re wondering, the now-infamous wreck involving that Mini that cart-wheeled over a tire barrier, through a chainlink fence and into a spectator area actually occurred during a support race for this event.

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series races in next week’s critique. The City of Ipswich 300 will also be covered. With the overall lack of motorsports on television next weekend, the Critic’s Annex will take a second look at NASCAR Smarts. There have been some changes since the last time I wrote about the show, and I will cover them there.

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. And if you would like to contact FOX, ESPN or the SPEED Channel personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage of NASCAR, please click on the following links:


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 politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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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