Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Buckles Down While FOX Gets Ugly at Fontana

Hello, race fans. Its time once again for another look into the race telecasts that we all watch. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were both racing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series raced Sunday afternoon on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

On Sunday (March 27), the Izod IndyCar Series returned from their off-season with an interesting 100-lap race on the streets in St. Petersburg, Fla. ESPN televised the race as part of their five-race deal with the series on ABC. Marty Reid was in the booth once again, along with Scott Goodyear. IndyCar veterans Jamie Little and Vince Welch were in the pits, along with Rick DeBruhl.

Although it was not branded as such, the coverage started with a 25-minute or so pre-race show. Unlike the NASCAR Countdown shows, which have come to be dominated by analysis from the Infield Studio, ESPN brought viewers interviews, news and driver reactions to the various new rules that have come into effect for 2011. It was actually pretty interesting.

One of the bigger stories on Sunday morning was that both of Dale Coyne Racing’s cars were wrecked within seconds of each other in separate crashes in the morning warmup. Sebastien Bourdais‘s No. 19 was a complete write off, forcing the team to withdraw it. Rookie James Jakes was able to start a backup car at the back of the field, but only after a thrash by the team. In ESPN’s NASCAR broadcasts, a team the size of Dale Coyne’s would not get very much coverage, so what we got was good to see.

For 2011, the Izod IndyCar Series has introduced double-file restarts, a move that was originally designed for ovals only, but was confirmed for every race just a couple of weeks ago. We’re only through one race, but it is already very contentious. ESPN shot a piece where they got reactions from certain drivers about it. At the time, they were neutral at best, but willing to give it a try.

After being forced to retire from the race due to contact, Ryan Hunter-Reay blasted double-file restarts, stating more or less that they don’t work with “real racecars.” Take what you want from that. The contact that put Hunter-Reay in the pits and eventually out was not caught on camera. Hunter-Reay actually asked his followers on Twitter after the race if they knew who hit him. ESPN’s Jamie Little replied that it appeared that either JR Hildebrand or Vitor Meira hit him.

The only real changes to ESPN’s Izod IndyCar Series broadcasts for 2011 was the additional of number graphics similar to those used in Sprint Cup and Nationwide series broadcasts. Its a nice touch, but not a dealbreaker for any viewer that isn’t a perfectionist.

Race coverage was heavily centered on the frontrunners throughout. However, when trouble happened, ESPN was able to get shots of what happened if they didn’t catch it live.

There was quite a bit of blimp/helicopter camera usage, which is beneficial for a street race because ground-level structures i.e. buildings, light poles, sculptures and trees can block views. Also, aerial shots can give viewers a better perspective of the action on track.

As for Reid, he is relatively similar covering the Izod IndyCar Series as he is with NASCAR races, for better or worse. Goodyear is a longtime veteran of open-wheel racing, but he has been out of the car for a long time now. He doesn’t really add all that much to the broadcast. He’s only raced on seven of the tracks currently on the schedule (although, four of those seven are the remaining races on the ABC slate), so he can’t bring all that much personal experience at each venue to the telecast. I can’t speak for everyone that reads this critique, but he simply doesn’t do anything for me.

Something that I noticed while writing up the critique was the fact that the race took two hours and one minute to run. Open-wheel series in the past have employed time limits for road races. Formula 1 has a two-hour time limit for their events. CART and Champ Car had time limits as well, ranging from one hour, 45 minutes to two hours, 15 minutes. Champ Car even had a really badly received experiment with timed races on ovals.

Yeah, that was bad. The only reason why I bring it up is that there was no mention at all of a time limit, or the race coming anywhere near a time limit during the broadcast.

Also, another thing that I learned Monday is that two drivers, Ana Beatriz and Justin Wilson, ended up with wrist injuries during the race. Beatriz is scheduled to have surgery on her fractured scaphoid (wrist) bone today. No mention of these injuries (or possible injuries) were made on the broadcast, and I’m in a position of having to guess when they occurred. With Beatriz, my best guess is when she had contact with Graham Rahal, spinning Rahal into the tires on lap 6. Wilson went into a runoff area with five laps to go. Both drivers managed to finish the race with their injuries.

Since the race ran a little long, there was a relatively short post-race show. However, there were quite a few interviews tucked into that time. There were interviews with the top-four finishers (Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Tony Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro), the winning car owner (Chip Ganassi) and de Silvestro’s car owner, Keith Wiggins (mainly because fourth was de Silvestro’s best career finish).

The good news for ESPN is that their IndyCar ratings are up. The race scored a 1.4 overnight rating, the best for a non-Indianapolis 500 for the series since 2007. The problem that they currently have is that they don’t make the race all that exciting to watch. Also, ESPN still gives Danica Patrick too much coverage compared to what she delivers in the series. Still, there are positives. The pre- and post-race coverage was very good. I’m also most definitely in favor of Side-by-Side in telecasts. NASCAR claims to be working on that with advertisers, but they’re not biting on it as of now.

Royal Purple 300

Due to ESPN’s Izod IndyCar Series coverage from St. Petersburg, multiple changes were made to ESPN’s on-air lineup. To the cheers of many readers, Allen Bestwick went upstairs to the broadcast booth. Nicole Briscoe took his place. Also, Dale Jarrett continued his vacation, so Rusty Wallace stayed in the booth for another week. Finally, Shannon Spake and Mike Massaro came off the bench to take the place of the Florida-bound Little and Welch.

Pre-race coverage was once again dominated by analysis. Especially these days, there’s only so much you can analyze. The plot seems to work out almost the same way every week. Of course, most of the field gets lapped pretty quick and one of the Cup interlopers wins.

Outside of the Infield Studio, ESPN provided five pre-race interviews, three of which were with Cup interlopers.

With Bestwick in the broadcast booth, ESPN’s actual race broadcast had a totally different feel. It’s as if Bestwick sat down Wallace and Petree an hour or so before the show started and laid down the law, stating that this was his show (although you’ll still get your time). I say this because the broadcast was more concise than normal.

There was a much more pronounced focus on the race. Thanks to that focus, there was a lot more time to cover more drivers. For instance, Kenny Wallace actually got some mentions in the natural flow of the race for what seems like the first time all season. I know at least one person that’s happy about that.

In addition, ESPN intentionally cut out of a commercial break when the second caution came out for Jennifer Jo Cobb‘s spin. That was nice to see.

Due to the Nationwide race ending so quickly, ESPN had plenty of time to fill for post-race coverage. To their credit, they made full use of the time. There were 13 post-race interviews, along with analysis and checks of the points and unofficial results (in the scroll) before ESPN left the air at the prescribed time.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Royal Purple 300 at Fontana

There was a lot to like here. ESPN presented an easy to follow broadcast that was far more focused than normal. It was especially good to see the Nationwide-only regulars getting more of the spotlight. Too often, they’re seen as background characters, much like veteran voice actors like Frank Welker or Jim Cummings in big-budget films like Shrek.

Auto Club 400

On Sunday, rain was a big story. Overnight rains had washed some of the rubber off of the track. A persistent mist made it very hard to completely dry the track. Also, there was the potential of the dreaded weepers coming out to play, like they did on Friday. There was some discussion of the wet weather at the beginning of pre-race, but not much. However, the outdoor pre-race stage was not used since the track was in its final drying stages at the time.

There was a visual description of track banking early in the first segment that could be best described as ludicrous. Yes, we know that Auto Club Speedway has 14 degrees of banking in the turns and we know that it isn’t all that much compared to say, Talladega. However, you don’t need to tilt the picture 33 degrees and have Hammond, Myers and Waltrip act like morons to prove a point. A simple graphic could have done the job without having them act stupid.

One feature shown was a behind-the-scenes piece with Myers and Jimmie Johnson on the set of the new FOX series Breaking In. On the surface, it’s a long commercial (outside of a break) for the new show, which premieres April 6. In reality, it’s that and a one-on-one interview where Johnson talks a bit about his childhood and the present. It was OK to watch. It should be noted that only part of the interview was aired. The rest is online at foxsports.com. Another brief ad publicized Eutechnyx’s NASCAR 2011: The Game, which comes out in stores today.

There was literally only one regular interview during pre-race and that was with Tony Stewart. The pit reporters seem to have nothing to do anymore during pre-race. They’re a competent bunch. I’d send them out to talk to drivers. That is what they are paid to do (in addition to gathering information about the individual teams).

The race telecast was simply boring to watch. I guess the race itself didn’t really help things much and FOX can only do so much about that when the field spreads out. However, when such a scenario presents itself, FOX should take great pains to show the best racing on track. In a setup like that, they could show the best racing on track and give periodic updates on the goings on up front. They could get away with that since nothing was happening up there.

FOX didn’t really do that Sunday. There was a substantial emphasis on racing at the absolute front of the pack for much of the race. There were some exceptions, but not many.

I also noticed the sheer amount of race coverage that we missed due to commercials. I know that it’s nothing that we can do anything about, since the advertisers help pay for the broadcasts, but I think it’s worth mentioning. During Cup races, I have my iPod Touch handy. Using the stopwatch function on it, I time the commercial breaks during green-flag runs. On Sunday, a full 39 and a half minutes of green-flag action were lost to commercials. Passes for the lead occurred in the first two commercial breaks, which came eight and 21 laps into the race, respectively.

In the graphical department, there were three new graphical nuggets in Sunday’s broadcast. Firstly, cars that are out of the race or off the track are now grayed out in the scroll. Interesting, but I don’t think typical viewers really care all that much. Secondly, there was a new graph used on lap 165 that showed Kevin Harvick‘s move up through the field. I guess it might end up being a replacement for the graphic that lists positions at four different points of the race. Not a bad change. Definitely easier to show progression for visual learners.

Finally, for some reason, FOX felt the need to draw extra attention with FOX Trax when cars exceeded 200 mph. The background around the speed graphic would turn red. Of course, reading white text on a red background is not ideal, and the whole thing came off as sensationalistic. A past example that I can use is the late-Larry Nuber from the 1987 Winston 500. He constantly talked about the high speed like it was going out of style. I’d prefer that FOX not repeat that.

Since the race ended relatively early, there was plenty of time for post-race coverage. FOX delivered a little bit more than normal. There were seven post-race interviews instead of the usual four, along with checks of the unofficial results and points standings. In addition, there was post-race analysis from the broadcast booth and from the Hotel before FOX left the air at 6:30 p.m. ET.

There really isn’t much to say about FOX’s broadcast from Sunday. A lot of the same issues that I’ve already mentioned in earlier critiques popped up once again. I guess I can keep driving the points home, but it doesn’t appear that there is any impetus to change.

That’s all for this week. Next week, the Sprint Cup Series travels the short distance from their hub to Ridgeway, Va., a small hamlet in southern Virginia. Tucked in the back of a small neighborhood is the paperclip, Martinsville Speedway. The Camping World Truck Series returns after taking a couple of weeks off on the undercard. The Nationwide Series takes the weekend off. Here’s your listings.

Friday, April 1
Time Telecast Network
12:30 – 2:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
2:00 – 3:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Practice SPEED
3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED

Saturday, April 2
Time Telecast Network
10:30 – 11:30 a.m. Camping World Truck Series Qualifying SPEED
12:00 – 1:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Qualifying SPEED
1:30 – 2:00 p.m. NCWTS Setup SPEED
2:00 – 4:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Kroger 250 SPEED
7:00 – 7:30 p.m. SPEED Center, Saturday Edition SPEED

Sunday, April 3
Time Telecast Network
9:00 – 10:00 a.m. NASCAR Now, Pre-Race ESPN2
10:00 – 10:30 a.m. SPEED Center, Pre-Race SPEED
10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. NASCAR RaceDay Built by The Home Depot SPEED
12:30 – 1:00 p.m. FOX Pre-Race Delivered by Pizza Hut FOX
1:00 – 5:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 FOX
3:00 – 5:00 p.m. V8 Supercar Championship Series Clipsal 500 SPEED*
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. SPEED Center, Post-Race SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Wind Tunnel SPEED

I will provide critiques of both the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series race telecasts in next week’s column here on Frontstretch. In addition, I will also cover any TV news between today and next Tuesday.

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 any of the TV partners 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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