Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Why, Networks, Do You Embroil in Needless Controversy?

Hello, race fans, and welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where dissection of race broadcasts is the name of our game. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were back in action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

However, before we start, FOX Sports announced Monday that Darrell Waltrip has been signed to a two-year contract extension that will run through the end of 2014. As a result, Waltrip will stay in the broadcast booth for the first 13 races of the season for the next three seasons beyond this year. Financial terms were not released.

In the press release that FOX Sports issued, Waltrip was extremely pleased at continuing in his current position.

“Being part of the NASCAR on FOX team has given me an opportunity to share my passion and love for NASCAR,” Waltrip said. “I never thought there would be anything that could replace the thrill of driving race cars. I was wrong. Bringing that thrill to the fans at home every week is just as exciting!”

Am I surprised at this? Heck no. I’m surprised he wasn’t already signed through 2014 when they started the current TV deal in 2007. To a company like FOX Sports, Waltrip is considered the biggest name in the booth, thus, the biggest draw. Yes, the new deal means that we’ll have to put up with 53 more (at the bare minimum) Boogitys at the beginning of races, but I’ll deal with that. Not like I could have stopped him, anyway.

Also, in the definite good news category, the ratings are up! (Yay!). Overnight ratings from Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 (March 6) have been released and NASCAR is likely all smiles. The quick overnights show a 5.3 rating and an 11 share, which is a 29% increase over last year. The rating is a little below the 5.5 overnight that the race earned in 2009, but it garnered a higher share than in ’09. Full ratings will likely be available later today.

Sam’s Town 300

The Nationwide Series returned to ABC Saturday for the first of four races this season (the others are at Iowa Speedway on All-Star weekend, Charlotte the afternoon before the Coca-Cola 600 and Michigan in June).

NASCAR Countdown was filled with its usual quota of Infield Studio analysis from Brad Daugherty, Allen Bestwick and Dale Jarrett (replacing Rusty Wallace, who had the week off) before getting into their pre-race interviews. To be fair, they actually decided to do interviews with Nationwide Series regulars first before talking to the “whackers” from Sprint Cup, which is a nice change of pace. Often times, the Nationwide regulars get almost no air time in pre-race.

There was a brief feature that saw three of Turner Motorsports’ drivers (Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier and Jason Leffler) take a helicopter ride over the desert. Bit of an interesting feature since a lot of fans don’t really know much about Turner’s drivers (other than the Cup drivers like Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne who show up every now and then to drive).

A brief Craftsman Tech Garage feature saw Tim Brewer talk about the tapered spacers using a cutaway engine. The main purpose of that display was to show the importance of keeping up one’s momentum in the turns at Las Vegas.

I think that Marty Reid is a little slow on his reaction time to some of the incidents on track. For instance, the first caution flew on lap 4 for Josh Wise‘s trip through the grass and wheelie over the quarter-mile track for Legends cars. Now, I know that much of the time, the commentators are looking at monitors in the broadcast booth. However, the broadcast booth is typically right at the start-finish line on the outside of the track (Indianapolis appears to be the exception to that rule these days).

The booth is not soundproof. I’m pretty sure someone would have noticed Wise’s issues before the cameras actually got there. Basically, what I’m saying here is that the commentators should not be complete slaves to the monitors in the booth. Look out the window as well. You might see something that the cameras do not show live.

We also saw a rare cut out of commercial break when Donnie Neuenberger spun for the second time without hitting anything. These days, such a move is welcomed. Good show.

Since the race ended early, there was plenty of post-race time. ABC conducted interviews with Carl Edwards, Martin (and winning crew chief Trent Owens), Danica Patrick, Allgaier, Trevor Bayne and Denny Hamlin. There were also interviews with Todd Gordon (Brad Keselowski‘s crew chief) and Tony Eury Jr. (Patrick’s crew chief). In addition, there was some post-race analysis before ESPN left the air.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Sam's Town 300 at Las Vegas

ABC left the air a couple of minutes early, but apparently sprung the slightly early dismissal on the pit reporters with little notice. As a result, the producers told Jamie Little over her headset to stiff Johnny Benson (Patrick’s driver coach), whom she was in the process of asking a question to. Weak. They should have at least given her the courtesy to ask one question to Benson since she had basically started the line of questioning already.

And before you ask, no, I’m not saying that just because I was a fan of Benson’s when he was driving in the Cup Series (which I do admit to). If that were Rick Crawford or Geoff Bodine, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Buddy Baker or any other driver coach, I would have the same opinion.

Also, a controversy erupted on Twitter after the telecast ended. During post-race coverage, Reid mentioned that ESPN was trying to get an interview with Keselowski, but was unable to. Keselowski countered via his Twitter page that ABC’s pit reporters basically ignored him while he was on his way to his post-race press conference.

Vince Welch then defended himself by claiming that he himself had called Penske’s PR minion on his cellphone to try to setup an interview. Unfortunately, the minion missed the call and time ran out. He did attempt to call Welch back, but Welch failed to pick up at the time. Keselowski went on to accuse ABC of having some kind of bias, a charge that was vehemently denied by both Welch and Bestwick.

The truth is, ABC didn’t do anything wrong here. These types of things happen sometimes. It is true that ABC made an effort to get an interview with Keselowski and when they couldn’t pull it off, did one with Todd Gordon instead. Also, Keselowski didn’t mention what that television crew was doing when he walked them on the way to the media center. I doubt they were twiddling their thumbs, or having popsicles.

The controversy likely overshadowed what was a pretty good broadcast overall from ESPN on ABC. There was an appropriate level of coverage away from the leaders. Unfortunately, the long green-flag runs and the general uncompetitiveness of much of the field made it hard to find good races for position on track, especially towards the end of the race.

I was not a fan of how Little’s last interview went down. If they were so close on time, then they should have told her never to initiate the whole thing with intentions of airing it live. They should have had Little tell Eury and Benson that the interview would be taped and used on something like the 11 a.m. Sunday morning edition of NASCAR Now or on ESPNEWS. As it stands, the producers made Little look bad.

Kobalt Tools 400

Like at Phoenix, FOX went with a half-hour pre-race show. I believe that it will be the norm for the season, although Talladega next month and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte may well be exceptions to the rule.

The main feature of pre-race was a one-on-one interview that Waltrip conducted with recent winner Jeff Gordon. It could be argue that Waltrip shows some strengths in the one-on-one setup. He knows that much of his usual shtick from the actual race broadcasts won’t work in such a setup. It would just irritate whoever he was interviewing at the time. Having said that, I liked the interview.

There was a short piece on Tony Stewart driving a street legal version of his No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet as a cab in Las Vegas during the week as part of a publicity stunt for his sponsor (Mobil 1 uses Las Vegas cabs as a proving ground for their motor oils). Stewart drove what appeared to be a bunch of celebrities (Wayne Newton appeared to be one of them) and at least one Elvis impersonator around town.

It was underwhelming. I wished that they had either had Tony driving around a normal cab (which would have been white and pink, I guess), or picking up normal visitors like Dave Cowens once did during a brief retirement from the Boston Celtics.

Unlike in Phoenix, Revved Up! was more or less combined with the Gas n’ Go segment, which was shortened slightly in order to make room. Waltrip went off on fans that don’t like the new points system. I’ll admit that I didn’t think the change was really necessary (especially since we have a system quite similar to what we already had).

There was a substantial lack of driver interviews during pre-race. Only the Busch brothers were deemed worthy of interviews, and both of those were done via the Portable Infield Desk. I don’t know why FOX chose to go this route. Do they just assume that most of their audience watches NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot on SPEED before FOX’s pre-race show?

FOX seems to be focusing a lot on tight shots and bumper cams early on this season. While nice if you want to show off your wares (technical capabilities), it is unfortunately not the best if you’re trying to cover a big race with 43 drivers in it. Such a tight focus means that Mike Joy has to take a bigger role, or at least, a more prominent role in calling the race. I’m not opposed to Joy having a larger role, but its mainly because of what we can’t see, which is weak.

The most noticeable example of Joy’s strategy came when Robby Gordon spun in turn 4 on lap 9. At the time, FOX was showing a bumper cam from Jamie McMurray‘s No. 1 and Steve Byrnes was giving viewers some information from pit road about McMurray’s early woes (turned out, it was just about the only on-air mention of McMurray the entire day).

Joy had to cut off Byrnes and notify the viewers of the incident. However, it was basically over by the time FOX finally cut to it. In the future, FOX would do well to cut to incidents a little faster. To be fair, FOX did immediately redeem themselves when Andy Lally spun out shortly after the restart. They cut out of a replay of Stewart passing Jeff Gordon for the lead to show that spin.

Truth be told, I’m already getting sick of some of these references to Digger during races. As you guys know, I’m not a fan of the critter and feel he has no place in the broadcasts. Thankfully, we’re not back to the level of having Digger cartoons in the pre-race show, which was an outright travesty in 2009, but I am a little worried now that the ratings are back up.

Once the race stretched out a little more, the issue of tight shots was not so much of a problem, thankfully. Since the field was stretched out, it forced FOX to use some wider shots. Sure, it was by necessity, but it worked.

Fuel filling issues were pronounced during the race, especially on Greg Biffle‘s No. 16. Before the race, FOX pulled out their cutaway car to show how the new system works with the self-venting dump cans. It was quite interesting to look at. Something that I hadn’t thought about prior to the season.

An example of the tight shots actually being good on Sunday was when Biffle’s team was having issues with getting their car full of fuel. The new dump cans, if viewed tight enough, have a visual tell of when the car is full of fuel (you can see air and bubbles in the vent tube) that wasn’t there with the old setup. FOX was able to catch that on-air during one of the late pit stops, and using the X-Mo feature, which seems to get better every week.

The race ended just about when FOX thought it would, so there was the normal amount of post-race coverage. There were interviews with the top-four finishers (Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Stewart and Marcos Ambrose), along with checks of the unofficial results and points standings before they left the air at 6:30 p.m. ET.

The coverage was nothing groundbreaking on Sunday. I think that what we saw will be the typical broadcast we get this year. For the sake of arguing the point, I think that FOX would do well to give a little more exposure to some teams further down the order. I feel as though they only get referenced if certain notables are back there (Jimmie Johnson on Sunday would be an example of that).

That’s all for this week, folks. This upcoming weekend used to be what I liked to call “the off week to end all off weeks.” For the last two seasons, all three of NASCAR’s National series were off and basically nobody else was on track. Luckily, that isn’t the case this year. The Camping World Truck Series will be the main series in action with the Too Tough To Tame 200 from Darlington Raceway.

Unfortunately, that’s the only four-wheeled circuit racing that will be televised next weekend. Formula 1 was supposed to have their season opening Grand Prix of Bahrain this weekend as well, but if you’ve been following world events recently, that’s just not in the cards. Their season will start in Melbourne, Australia on March 27. The Grand Prix of Bahrain will be made up at some point, likely near the end of the season.

There are other forms of racing available for viewing, though. Saturday is the Daytona 200, the climax of Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla. and Sunday is eliminations for the NHRA Tire Kingdom Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. (with special guest Kurt Busch, if he qualifies in the notoriously close Pro Stock class).

Also of note, Daylight Savings Time begins this weekend. Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour before you go to sleep on Saturday night (unless you live in a place like Arizona, where they don’t observe it). Here’s your listings:

Saturday, March 12
Time Telecast Network
1:00  – 3:30 p.m. AMA Daytona SportBike Daytona 200 SPEED
3:30 – 4:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
4:30 – 5:00 p.m. NCWTS Setup SPEED
5:00 – 7:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Too Tough To Tame 200 SPEED
11:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m. AMA Daytona SuperBike Race No. 1 SPEED*

Sunday, March 13
Time Telecast Network
12:00 – 1:30 a.m. NHRA Tire Kingdom Gatornationals Qualifying ESPN2*
12:00 – 1:00 a.m. AMA Daytona SuperBike Race No. 2 SPEED*
3:00 – 4:00 p.m. AMA Grand National, Daytona Flat Track SPEED*
6:00 – 9:00 p.m. NHRA Tire Kingdom Gatornationals Eliminations ESPN2*
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. SPEED Center SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Wind Tunnel SPEED


Note that qualifying for the NHRA Tire Kingdom Gatornationals will be available live on ESPN3.com. Check with your local cable company and/or internet service provider for details.

I will definitely provide a critique for the Camping World Truck Series race in next week’s critique here at Frontstretch. I will also cover SPEED Center, SPEED’s revamping of the former SPEED Report that is hosted by Adam Alexander.

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 the networks personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:


As always, if you choose to contact the network 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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