Hello everyone, and welcome to our weekly feature about the motorsports-based programming that is made available for your viewing pleasure. Last weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were both racing at Darlington Raceway. Also this week, I’m going to cover the changes that have been made to NASCAR Smarts for this season and give my thoughts on it.
However, before we get into the races, there are three things that must be covered.
First off, I have a slight correction from last week’s critique. In the Richmond edition, I stated that Allen Bestwick was in the booth for the first time since his hockey injury in 2004. That was not true. Back in 2007, Bestwick served as the play-by-play man for Busch Series standalone races for ESPN (ex: Nashville, Milwaukee, etc.) in place of Dr. Jerry Punch. I’m sorry about that screw-up.
Also, some TV news has broken in the past week. It appears that Jimmy Spencer’s show, What’s the Deal?, has been canceled. The show has been taken off the schedule. and a slightly revamped Monday night sees Sounds of NASCAR take its place at 10:30 p.m. Truthfully, I was never the biggest fan of the show, but I’m sure that there some fans that will be sad to see it go. It is unclear in what capacity that Spencer will be used on SPEED, but co-host Ray Dunlap will retain his pit road responsibilities for SPEED’s Camping World Truck Series telecasts.
Also, on Monday (May 10) SPEED announced the creation of a new Authenticated Broadband Channel, dubbed SPEED2. SPEED2 will be available to anyone who can currently receive regular SPEED at home. It will carry live programming and video-on-demand programming as well. Currently confirmed to be included on the channel will be coverage of DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters), the British Touring Car Championship, the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring, Formula 2 and more.
In addition, shows that have been pushed off of the network in recent years, like Behind the Headlights, Victory by Design and Motorsports Mundial will be available for viewing. SPEED plans to beta test the channel next month, with a full launch scheduled for July.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think that this move is great for motorsports. People can enjoy overseas racing more often without having to wait until January to watch at odd hours, and there’ll be a wider, more diverse amount of programming available for fans of racing of all types.
Moving on, let’s get into the actual critique for this week.
As you may remember from when I looked at the show last season, NASCAR Smarts, now in its second year, was brought in to replace Tradin’ Paint, a show where Kyle Petty went toe-to-toe against a guest writer of the week in a highly opinionated program. Kyle Petty was retained, but thrown into a trivia show with a format that seemed to change every week.
This year, the setup of the show is similar, but there have been a couple of changes. The most notable of these changes is that fans are no longer paired up with the SPEED personalities (Kyle and Rutledge, typically). Now, it is the two fans up against Kyle and Rutledge (or, in the case of last weekend, Rutledge and Hermie).
I’m not really sure if this makes the show any better, to be honest. It just means that the SPEED personalities don’t get to snipe at each other anymore. Petty has told me in the past, hanging out with himself and Rutledge is part of the fun of the show, but I still feel like this element has been squashed a little bit.
Also, the Media Center segment with clips from drivers was scrapped last year. This change is a good thing. It was replaced with a “Mystery Driver” segment, where a silhouette of a driver is shown, along with a couple of facts about that driver. Contestants must guess who the driver is for 30 points. This is OK – certainly better than what it replaced. In the Lightning round, the number of questions has also been reduced from 10 to eight. It’s a slight adjustment, but not necessarily for the better.
Finally, the White Flag Question is no longer based upon a fan poll. It could be argued that doing it based on fan response was unfair to the show participants. Now, it is more like a normal Final Jeopardy. Each team gets a different question to answer and they wager points before the question is asked.
To be really honest with you guys, this show just does not capture my attention. It comes off as being quite boring to me and this is coming from someone who is a history and trivia nut. It’s even more surprising considering shows with audience participation are the ones that work best on the SPEED Stage. Even the detestable Fast Track to Fame might work better on the SPEED Stage than NASCAR Smarts does.
But as I’ve watched the series unfold, I’ve found a show like NASCAR Smarts is hurt by audience participation, because they could do things like give away answers. Game shows in general just work better in studios as compared to on a portable stage. I don’t think that this show is going to see 2011, mainly because very few people watch it at the track. I’m not sure what the show’s ratings are like, but they’re probably not stellar.
Royal Purple 200
On Friday night, the Nationwide Series held the Royal Purple 200 at Darlington Raceway. Coverage was provided by ESPN2 with Marty Reid, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree in the broadcast booth. Dave Burns, Dr. Jerry Punch and Jamie Little were on pit road.
NASCAR Countdown was a typical Friday night affair. There were five interviews during the show, and plenty of pre-race analysis from the Infield Studio. There was also a brief update on Larry Pearson‘s condition after his massive hit during March’s Scotts EZ Seed Showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway. Granted, the mention was actually a teaser to a sit-down conservation with Dr. Jerry Punch that will air Wednesday on NASCAR Now‘s “Wayback Wednesdays,” but it was still nice to see how Larry is doing.
Additional features included a brief montage of quotes from drivers about driving at Darlington and a Craftsman Tech Garage feature about hitting the wall and the effects that can result from it.
Also of note, ESPN made a slightly unusual choice for their In-Race Reporter on Friday night. Most of the time these days, ESPN will have one of the double-duty drivers serve in the role. Friday night, they had Jason Keller take over, which I found interesting. The selection also comes with an in-car camera, the first time that a TriStar Motorsports car carried one since 1996. It appears that ESPN is finally on board with the idea of trying to promote the series’ standalone drivers better, which is great to see.
The race coverage that we were provided was quite good. There was a lot of enthusiasm in the broadcast booth, and I’m happy to see that. However, I think that there was a little too much focus on the Gibbs teammates (Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch) that dominated the race.
Split-screen usage was up this week, allowing fans to see multiple races for position on the telecast. I still do not know why we cannot get replays in a split-screen, like what SPEED has done in the past for Camping World Truck Series races.
With the nine cautions on Friday night, post-race coverage was relatively short. Still, ESPN did give fans a decent amount of coverage in the time that they had. There were interviews with the winning crew chief (Kevin Kidd), as well as the top-five finishers (Hamlin, Busch, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Jason Leffler).
Overall, this was a fairly good telecast to watch. ESPN has raised their game this season and is finally producing a good final product. However, the shuffling of personalities around this season seems to be a lot more frequent than usual. As a result, when Sprint Cup returns to the ESPN family of networks in July, the primary crew might not have as much time together as they have in the past. Hopefully, time apart won’t become an issue.
Showtime Southern 500
Finally, we come to the Sprint Cup Series’ Showtime Southern 500 on Saturday night. Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds had the call in the booth for FOX. Krista Voda, Steve Byrnes, Dick Berggren and Matt Yocum were on pit road.
Pre-race coverage was standard fare for a shortened show. There was no “A Slice of Pizzi” feature, like I mentioned would be the case last week, thankfully. There was the typical amount of analysis from the Hollywood Hotel with Chris Myers, Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip. There was discussion of the matchups for the DirecTV Head2Head Knockout, which was in the Final Four last weekend.
I’m already on the record as not really caring about it, but they have to justify it, I guess. This week also resulted in a new caveat in regards to the Head2Head drivers during the race. In the scroll, FOX highlighted those drivers still in the competition by putting a blue background around their name at certain times during the race, similar to what ESPN does in the run up to, and during the Chase.
I know that Saturday’s pre-race coverage resulted in the live coverage of Yankees-Red Sox being moved to FX at 7:00 p.m. ET. However, I think that FOX was reminding us of that way too much. Living here in the Northeast, basically equidistant from the two cities means that I put up with Yankees-Red Sox stupidity year-round. I’ll admit to being a baseball fan, but I stay out of that rivalry. I swear, though, that we couldn’t go two minutes without seeing some kind of update on the game. Why? I don’t think there is a whole lot of carryover fan-wise between baseball and NASCAR.
Early on in the race, there was some discussion on our Live Blog that FOX wasn’t making any reference to the fact that Showtime was sponsoring the race. I paid special attention to this during a rewatch of the race and discovered that they did make reference to the race’s name, as per the TV contract. However, the terms of the deal involving race name mentioning strikes me as weird. I think that getting your race’s full name mentioned on-air more than once an hour should be included in the cost of buying the title sponsorship for the race.
I don’t know why, but it appears that as time goes by, Mike Joy seems to give himself a lesser role on the broadcasts and allows Waltrip and McReynolds to take center stage. Admittedly, they are more well-known (PL, at least Darrell is considered to be more well-known) than Mike, but Darrell and Larry are officially considered to be analysts, not play-by-play commentators.
I feel that Darrell oversteps his bounds from time to time in the booth. Mike had said on the record that if Darrell or Larry are in the middle of something, he will generally let them finish their thought before jumping in. This is polite and all, but at times, it is not necessarily the best strategy.
I liked the looks back through the field that FOX did Saturday night, something that has been done a couple of times this year during long runs. It doesn’t have a fancy title like TNT does with “Through the Field” or ESPN with “Up to Speed,” nor does it really involve the pit reporters very much, but it gets the job done. It reminds me more of what ESPN used to do in the 1990s during long runs, where they would just look back through the field and Jenkins and the gang in the booth would talk about drivers whenever the camera got back to them.
Since the race ended a little late, there was very little time for post-race coverage. A clear cut sign of cutting things short is when FOX shows the courtesy screen of backers before airing any interviews. FOX did end up talking with winner Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, McMurray and Kurt Busch, as well as going through the unofficial results and the points standings before leaving the air. There was no additional post-race coverage on SPEED due to live coverage of AMA Supercross from Las Vegas on Saturday night, so what was listed above was all the post-race coverage that fans got.
When I watch a FOX broadcast, there is just simply a different feel to them as opposed to anything from ESPN, SPEED or TNT. It’s not that it isn’t professional, although I do admit that the “boogitys” get on my nerves from time to time. There’s just something I don’t like about what FOX is putting out this season. It’s probably too late to see any noticeable changes in their coverage for this season, since they have only two more point races to cover, along with the Sprint All-Star Race on May 22.
Hopefully for next year, there are some changes made to the overall feel of the broadcast in order to bring it back to a more traditional one. No one needs to be replaced or moved around for that to happen, but perhaps a new thought process for the broadcasts is needed.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, all three of NASCAR’s major series are back in action at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. The Camping World Truck Series races Friday evening, while the Nationwide Series is scheduled to go on Saturday afternoon. Finally, the Sprint Cup Series will race Sunday afternoon. In addition, the Formula 1 World Championship will be in Monte Carlo for the glitzy Grand Prix of Monaco.
But first, today is the Grand Opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. SPEED will be there to provide live coverage of the opening.
I will provide critiques of all three NASCAR races from Dover in next week’s Newsletter. Believe me, there will be a rant about tape-delaying the Truck telecast in there. I currently do not plan on covering Monaco in a critique. For this week’s edition of the Critic’s Annex, I will be covering Wind Tunnel, A SPEED favorite, with a look at NASCAR Victory Lane scheduled for next Thursday.
Editor’s Note: The Annex can be found inside our free newsletter.
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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