Race Weekend Central

Talking NASCAR TV: Losing Focus in the Midst of Making History for FOX & Co.

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where dissection of race telecasts is our game. Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. It was a very long weekend of action; Sunday, especially. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide series were in action at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend, while the Izod IndyCar Series raced in their only real crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500.

Before we start, in somewhat random TV news that much of my readeshipr probably doesn’t care about, NASCAR on FOX’s Mike Joy joined Twitter late last week. If you wish to ask him a question personally and it fits within the 140 character limit, you can here. Remember that the same rules apply for asking questions of TV personalities as I’ve been preaching for contacting the networks.

Having said that, on to the critique.

Indianapolis 500

Leading up to Indianapolis, ESPN had been celebrating the history of the Indianapolis 500 with clips from older races, a marathon of classic Indianapolis 500’s on the now fairly difficult-to-find ESPN Classic, and features on SportsCenter. I kind of expected more of the same on the pre-race show, entitled The Indianapolis 500: A Centennial Celebration. I was wrong.

About the only part of pre-race coverage that was historically based at all was the intro. William Fitchner (recent winner of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race in Long Beach) narrated a historic look at the 2.5-mile rectangle and its great races while footage of historic cars ran along with him while he was walking around the track. It was quite interesting.

The rest of pre-race was solely based in the present. There was a feature about Charlie Kimball and driving with diabetes. It was an interesting look at a little-known rookie driver in the series. They also mentioned that they would have access to Kimball’s blood sugar readings during the race and would use them on the broadcast. I can’t remember it being mentioned more than just once in passing.

There was a feature where Chris Connelly interviewed Dario Franchitti about his upbringing in Scotland and how it helped mold him into the man that he is today (along with some words from his wife, Ashley Judd). Granted, the feature was very good (Connelly is probably one of the best people that ESPN has for these type of features), it was a repeat. The whole thing aired on SportsCenter last week, so I had already seen it by the time Sunday came around (May 29).

There were also features surrounding Sam Schmidt, the owner of the pole-winning car (Alex Tagliani) and Danica Patrick. These were decent, but really nothing to write home about (although Patrick’s featured a Katy Perry soundtrack and what looked like Patrick on the catwalk).

Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear were joined in the booth for Indianapolis by Eddie Cheever, the 1998 winner. Cheever is pretty boring in the booth, so he basically added nothing to the broadcast. I guess that’s why he’s only there once a year.

ESPN also used the Indianapolis 500 to debut a new graphics package. The package puts ESPN’s motorsports coverage in line with the rest of ESPN’s offerings. Like FOX before them, the changeover came about a year late. Regardless of tardiness, the new graphics look clean. I like them. If you’re wondering when they will be coming to ESPN’s NASCAR coverage, according to ESPN’s Andy Hall, they will debut Brickyard 400 weekend, the first weekend of ESPN’s Sprint Cup coverage.

There was heavy usage of Side-by-Side during the broadcast. At least 11 of these breaks were taken under green-flag action, including two of them basically back-to-back towards the end of the race separated by Brent Musberger talking for something like two sentences. It got to be a bit much at times. For those of you who want to know, there was only one regular commercial break taken during green-flag action.

With their 62 cameras, ESPN had almost everything pretty much covered on Sunday. However, they missed a pass for the lead live just eight laps into the race because they were distracted. They didn’t cut back to the leaders for three-quarters of a lap, where they simply stated that Tagliani had gotten back in front of Scott Dixon. Then, they showed a replay of the pass, which happened on the frontstretch effectively right in front of the booth. Granted, Indianapolis Motor Speedway has one of the worst broadcast booth placements of any oval in America, but this was pretty bad.

Race coverage was very much centered upon the front of the field. ESPN needs to remember in their IndyCar coverage (and for that matter, their NASCAR coverage as well) that every team has some type of story. I’ll use the example of Bertrand Baguette, who drove the No. 30 to a seventh-place finish (and led late before having to pit for fuel). I heard nothing about Baguette until he took the lead when Patrick pitted with 10 laps to go. Then, ESPN focused on the No. 30 as if Baguette were the only driver on the track. Its ridiculous. It was worse when Patrick was leading.

See also
Frontstretch Breakdown: 2011 Indianapolis 500

Despite running over the race’s time slot, ESPN provided pretty good post-race coverage. There were interviews with six drivers (winner Dan Wheldon, JR Hildebrand, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Patrick and Franchitti), and interviews with three owners. There was also a check of the unofficial results, but no check of the points before they left the air.

The telecast suffered from a lot of the front-running issues that ESPN has struggled with in their NASCAR coverage. Yes, there are some similarities in personnel between the NASCAR and IndyCar telecasts for ESPN (Reid being the most notable). Instilling a front-running philosophy for covering the biggest open-wheel race in the United States is a terrible idea, especially since Sunday might be the only time that much of the audience watches an Izod IndyCar Series race all year.

Just for kicks, what if Baguette had enough fuel and actually ended up winning? It would have been a substantial upset, sure. ESPN would have interviewed him in victory lane, along with team owner Bobby Rahal (who they interviewed anyway because he’s Graham’s father). That’s a given. Where would they have gone from there? They basically would have had to introduce Baguette to the audience at home.

The No. 30 team strikes me as one of those squads that would have fallen into the 25-plus bunch in ESPN’s NASCAR coverage that Shannon Spake explained in this piece back in 2009, especially since they’re not a full-time Izod IndyCar Series team (Rahal-Letterman Racing is BMW’s factory team for the BMW M3 and races primarily in the American Le Mans Series).

In their defense, they did mention that Baguette had been training on simulators provided by Dallara all season since he lost his ride with Conquest Racing at the end of last year. If that’s all they had on the team and Baguette, it could have been quite rough.

Top Gear 300

On Saturday, the Nationwide Series returned to action at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Since ESPN was also providing coverage from Indianapolis last weekend, roughly the same group that covered the proceedings in Iowa was on-air in Charlotte, including Allen Bestwick in the booth.

NASCAR Countdown was not removed from the Indianapolis feel. They played an excerpt from the fairly non-descript Patrick feature that I mentioned in the Indianapolis 500 section, minus the flashy background used in the actual feature. In addition, there was a preview of the Indianapolis 500 with Reid, Goodyear and Cheever. Granted, the Indianapolis 500 is big, but I don’t know if that was really necessary, especially the Patrick thing. Yes, she’s part-time in NASCAR, but not right now.

The vast majority of pre-race was spent in the Pit Studio discussing the upcoming race. A lot of “dap” was bestowed upon Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who managed to snap the Nationwide regulars’ 0-for-44 streak in Iowa. However, since we were back to a normal weekend, there was plenty of coverage given to the Cup interlopers as well.

In the race, the main focus was once again on the Cup drivers. Since Stenhouse showed that he could beat them, he got increased coverage as well. Kimi Raikkonen also got a substantial amount of coverage since he was making his Nationwide Series debut in the Perky Jerky Toyota. However, I debate whether they were giving the viewers the whole story about Raikkonen’s day.

Jalopnik pasted together a series of quotes that SBNation’s Jeff Gluck transposed from Raikkonen’s radio transmission on Saturday. ESPN talked about Raikkonen’s car handling OK, but Raikkonen was singing a different tune, tinged with profanity and water bottle complaints. Take that however you want to. Also, he described hitting Jeremy Clements‘s splitter as if he hit a hunk of wood. I found that amusing.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Top Gear 300 at Charlotte

Post-race coverage was OK. There were seven post-race interviews with drivers, plus an interview with Trevor Bayne, who was atop Matt Kenseth‘s toolbox. The unofficial results made a rare appearance outside of the scroll, while the points were covered as well. There was also post-race analysis in the Pit Studio and broadcast booth before ESPN left the air.

The telecast was simply far too focused upon the frontrunners, just like Sunday’s Indianapolis coverage. Admittedly, I really don’t care much about Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kenseth in a Nationwide race, but they were the main principals on Saturday. I’d like to have seen a bit more coverage further down the pack. A little more than just lip service being given to Cole Whitt, who made his third career Nationwide Series start for Pastrana-Waltrip, would have been well-deserved, and some words about the rest of the drivers in the field who don’t have a World Drivers’ Championship trophy at home.

Coca-Cola 600

Finally, the Sprint Cup Series returned with their annual 600-mile marathon. To think I actually thought that it was possible to run the event in under four hours! Of course that wasn’t in the cards.

Since it was Memorial Day weekend, the entire pre-race show (with one notable exception) was focused on that fact. Jeff Hammond took a tour of a military base and was shown some special equipment by a Quartermaster. Afterwards, they went to the “Fox Sports Skybox” for drinks, where they were met inexplicably by Chris Myers. It should be noted that the aforementioned Skybox is in a classified location in Southwest Asia (seriously, it is). It was opened up last year and was designed to resemble one of the FOX Sports Grill places (I guess).

There was also a feature where various drivers, car owners and crew chiefs thanked either veterans or current members of the US military for their service. Darrell Waltrip spent his weekly “Revved Up” segment thanking the veterans as well. That’s just fine and all.

Then, it got a little weird. Michael Waltrip joined his brother Darrell, Hammond and Myers at the FOX Desk to announce that his book, In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day that Changed Everything, has been optioned by Columbia Pictures to be made into a motion picture. Crikey. Michael claims that its going to be an uplifting story and all that, but the book ends on a really down note. I have no clue how that will translate to the big screen.

See also
No Longer "Intimidating:" In the Blink of an Eye Further Devaluation of NASCAR's Past & Present

Finally, there was a really annoying feature with Darrell and Larry the Cable Guy. Yep. You know where this went even if you skipped pre-race. Dueling catch phrases and stupidity. Oh man, that was terrible. Yes, it was designed to advertise Cars 2, which both men have roles in. I get enough catch phrases each week with the Boogitys. I don’t need any “Git-R-Done’s” in my NASCAR coverage, thank you very much. Please don’t do that again. It is annoying and makes all of FOX Sports look bad.

Late in the race, FOX broke out the as-yet still unnamed Side-by-Side commercial with 33 laps to go. Nice touch, although nothing really of note actually happened during that break. I guess it could be seen as another experiment (this break ran approximately two minutes in length), however, there is no way that representatives from FOX Sports did not see the positive comments that came out of the Dover experiment.

One of the major stories early on in the race was the fact that Greg Biffle was having issues with his Koolbox (note that the spelling used here is the official spelling). Hammond showed off the Koolbox in a technical segment (via split-screen), but it should be noted that FOX wouldn’t spring for a current system. I know that some teams, notably Furniture Row Racing, prefer to use the Koolbox V for their AC.

FRR General Manager Joe Garone said last year in Watkins Glen that the team “…preferred to go with a proven product” over the then-new and more expensive Koolbox VI, which Roush Fenway Racing was likely using Sunday evening. Hammond broke out a Koolbox IV, two generations (and probably five or six years) old. I’m sure that there are significant differences between that system and the one that was giving Biffle fits. Therefore, it might not have been representative of Biffle’s issues. However, I understand that those systems aren’t cheap (I’ve seen used Koolbox III’s going for $3,000-$3,500).

Late in the race, Jimmie Johnson blew his engine to bring out the 14th and final caution. FOX aired uncensored radio chatter that included Chad Knaus using the f-bomb. Now, Mike Joy immediately apologized for the f-bomb and I’m sure was probably a bit upset that it even reached air at all.

I look at it a different way. I’ve long since reached the point where I don’t care if someone swears like a sailor on TV, especially if its 10:45 p.m. on a Sunday night. I don’t feel that Joy needs to apologize for that. Also, for those of you who think NASCAR might fine Knaus for that, it could be in the cards, but it won’t go down like Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s infamous “S-Word Heard ‘Round the World” at Talladega in 2004.

Since 2004, the constant fines that the FCC were throwing around in response to the Janet Jackson incident have been ruled unconstitutional. NASCAR forced Earnhardt Jr. to pay the FCC fine ($27,000) himself back then, then kicked him while he was down with the points penalty. Today, I don’t think they’ll be anywhere near as strict with Knaus.

Of course, stuff like Earnhardt Jr.’s slip of the tongue led to races being delayed for the “protection of the general public.” I don’t believe in that garbage. People can handle profanity on the television. Heck, parents could even use it as a learning tool for their children without the sanctioning body punishing Knaus. For example, I went to a Seton Hall-Connecticut women’s basketball game when I was still in college.

Early on, legendary UConn head coach Geno Auriemma started cursing the refs up and down, eventually drawing a technical foul. Behind me was a father at the game with his young daughter. She asked him, “Daddy, what did he say?” Her father simply responded with “Something that you shouldn’t say.” I don’t recall him telling the little girl what Geno’s words meant. The point is this. Media partners should not have to perform the role of self-censors.

Also, the final lap highlighted two more issues. First off, FOX zoomed their cameras way the heck too close to Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap. As a result, it was very difficult for viewers to make out that Earnhardt Jr. was out of gas (and completely impossible to tell that Denny Hamlin was out as well). Often times, NASCAR’s TV partners like to show off their HD technology on their telecasts. ESPN producer James Shiftan actually told me as such back at Watkins Glen the same weekend that I interviewed Spake. Unfortunately, showing off your wares is not always beneficial for viewers. We miss out on the whole story.

The other factor was the anger-inducing bias towards Earnhardt Jr. that Darrell Waltrip showed in his commentary on the last lap. Bias is the dreaded fourth factor that I did not mention in my Nashville critique. Recently, Darrell has been accused of being incredibly biased towards Kyle Busch. That was not a problem Sunday evening.

However, Darrell appears to have a soft spot for Earnhardt Jr. as well. I know that a lot of people want to see Earnhardt Jr. break his three year winless streak, but you can’t just basically admit that you were cheering for him on-air. What Darrell did Sunday night was wrong, and combined with the not-so-good camera work mentioned above, made a rather substandard situation worse. Not a good show.

Post-race coverage, despite the fact that FOX was right up against the end of the time slot when the race ended, was OK. FOX gave viewers five driver interviews, plus checks of the unofficial results and points standings. There was also post-race wrap-up discussion before FOX left the air after nearly six hours of coverage.

The race telecast was OK, but there are definitely things that need to be worked on. Darrell needs to be monitored in order to see whether he’s maintaining his objectivity. I wish that didn’t have to happen, but it’s an ongoing concern for me and my readers. The cameras need to show all the action, not just isolate people. What’s the benefit of isolating people when you need to show the full story of what’s going on? I’m not in the grandstands in Charlotte. I can’t see 87% of the track from my seat. Throw me a bone here.

That’s all for this week. The Memorial Day weekend dissipates just a little in the first week of June. However, we’ve got a split weekend coming up. The Sprint Cup Series will be at Kansas Speedway for their inaugural spring race, while the Camping World Truck Series will join them as the main support. The Truck Series used to race at Kansas as the main support for the Izod IndyCar Series.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series will be at Chicagoland Speedway for a standalone race on Saturday night with the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards as support. Note that Patrick is scheduled to be back in the No. 7 at Chicagoland Saturday night. You’ve been warned. Here’s your listings:

Friday, June 3
Time Telecast Network
12:30 – 1:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Practice SPEED
1:30 – 3:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Practice SPEED
3:00 – 4:30 p.m. Camping World Truck Series Happy Hour SPEED
4:30 – 6:00 p.m. Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour SPEED

Saturday, June 4
Time Telecast Network
11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.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 O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 SPEED
4:30 – 5:30 p.m. Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN2
4:30 – 8:30 p.m. Rolex Sports Car Series Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen SPEED%
7:30 – 8:00 p.m. NASCAR Countdown ESPN
8:00 – 10:30 p.m. Nationwide Series STP 300 ESPN
11:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. Sunday ARCA Racing Series Messina Wildlife Animal Stopper 150 SPEED*

Sunday, June 5
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 – 4:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series STP 400 FOX
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. SPEED Center SPEED
8:00 – 9:00 p.m. NASCAR Victory Lane Fueled by Sunoco SPEED
9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Wind Tunnel SPEED

*- Tape-delayed
%- Joined in Progress

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series events from Kansas Speedway in next Tuesday’s critique here at Frontstretch. Later this weekend, I will cover Carb Day in the Critic’s Annex. For the June 9 edition of the Critic’s Annex, I will cover the Messina Wildlife Animal Stopper 150 for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards.

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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