NASCAR’s Cup series took an all-too-rare weekend off this week. The timing seems a bit awkward to me in that I seem to recall the off weekend used to fall as FOX handed off to whatever network was going to broadcast the second half of the season. Perhaps it has something to do with Fathers’ Day, one of the last of those, I’m certain, in this supercharged politically correct era where such gender specific celebrations do active harm to some. We’ll probably end up with “Primary Caregiver Non-Binary Day” but on a brighter note I fully expect to be dead before that occurs. It used to be it was Mother’s Day weekend that was off limits for racing perhaps after Yankee network types endured less than 5,000 people showing up for the second All-Star race at Atlanta that day in 1986. (For the record Bill Elliott won that race. As a side note Chase Elliott didn’t buy his dad a tie that day in that he hadn’t been born yet.) Yep, the network types scratched their puzzlers till their puzzlers were sore and finally concluded, “Yeah, well, you know those rednecks and their mamas” and held that Sunday in May as sacrosanct.
Whatever the case for this off weekend, one thing is almost for certain. Next week’s race at Sonoma will mark the FOX TV network and their pod-channels’ last NASCAR coverage of 2016. (Though I was considering something after rain forced the Texas IRL race to be delayed until August recently. If incredibly bad weather or some sort of political hullaballoo in the Bay Area–and let’s face it; California is notorious for natural disasters that resemble Biblical plagues and Californians are notorious for their hullaballoos–were to delay the Sonoma race beyond Monday or Tuesday who would broadcast it when it eventually did happen, FOX or NBC? The two road courses used to be the Little Stinkers in the deck. When NASCAR divvied up broadcast rights, some network would have to agree to broadcast one of the road courses to get rights to a more popular race. Note that I wrote “used to be.” I have no intent on “actively harming” you road course fans.) Given my druthers, it would be NBC (well actually given my druthers it would be ESPN), because to be frank, I’ve had about as much FOX NASCAR coverage as I can take and combining an additional FOX broadcast with the ongoing political coverage between now and November would likely violate the Geneva convention. Why? Well there’s one main reason. He was born on February 5th, 1947, presumably learned to talk sometime during 1949 and hasn’t shut up since.
Normally I leave the TV related stories to FS’s resident TV critic, Phil Allaway. Phil is a talented young writer and a very nice young man. Even at his most irate though, his criticism tends to be so tempered it resembles being tackled by a biker gang of Smurfs. Me on the other hand? I’m not very young and not at all nice.
In all seriousness, FOX has now had 16 stinking years to get a handle on this NASCAR broadcasting thing. Despite constant experimentation, they haven’t found a way to turn dross into gold. They in fact haven’t found a way to turn dross into silver or even tin. After much effort, they’ve finally been able to turn dross into slightly more dross now presented by Tuck’s Hemorrhoid Wipes. I understand that TV networks have to make money. Ratings are down, so my guess is that advertising cost has dropped significantly. But does it seem that FOX has sold sponsorship to everything but the Invocation and the brand of tires on the pace car?
At least one of third of the FOX broadcast team can’t be blamed for the debacle that FOX NASCAR (and in fact sports) coverage has become. Mike Joy has been doing NASCAR broadcasts since time immemorial. You watch even those first few CBS Daytona 500 broadcasts and there was a (somewhat slimmer) Joy calling the action either from pit road or up in the booth. During the golden era of MRN NASCAR broadcasting, back when most of us counted on MRN to follow the races while we figured out if cable TV was for real or a passing fad and ESPN tried to figure out if they could make money on a “regional” sport, Joy was calling the races. As TV took over, Joy worked for CBS ESPN, TNN, and now FOX. In his early broadcast days, Joy suffered from the same foible many sports broadcasters switching from radio did. On the radio, the job entailed detailing the action he could see but listeners couldn’t. On TV, presuming the cameras were pointed the right way, which wasn’t always the case back then, viewers could see what was happening as well. Over time the various networks got better at what they did. ESPN got the most practice and did the best job as a result. When I look back on tapes (remember those?) of the old races, clearly they didn’t have as many cameras at their disposal and some of the graphics were laughable but the presenting networks did the job of telling the story of the race far better than today’s gimmick, promotion and ego-laden messes posing as sports coverage.
The formula ESPN worked out with Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons was fairly simple. Jenkins did the play by play. As former competitors, Jarrett and Parsons provided their insights. Jenkins might tell the audience it appeared the leader was slowing down several tenths a lap. Parsons would speculate perhaps that driver was trying to stretch his fuel until the end of the race. Jarrett would always know precisely what lap that driver had last pitted on and how far he’d gone between stops earlier in the race. No, Ned Jarrett was no spring chicken even back in that era, but the man had more memory than my first few PCs. That coupled with his ability to see wrecks developing several laps before they happened with Radar O’Reilly-like accuracy made Jarrett a broadcasting legend. Joy has been at this long enough to know how a broadcast should be done but given the jabbering jackass he’s saddled with as a booth-mate it seems he’s simply given up on doing professional race broadcasting and accepted his role as the Ed McMahon straight man on DW’s Comedy Extravaganza. It seems to me lately Joy sounds like he’s having more fun doing the Barrett-Jackson auctions than the FOX broadcasts and I guess I can understand why.
I actually have a huge respect for what Darrell Waltrip accomplished as a driver. 75 wins and three titles are pretty notable accomplishments, even if, as an Elliott fan back in 1985, I still felt DW should be charged with Grand Theft Championship. As a team owner Waltrip was hapless. (Remember the Tabasco fiasco during which Waltrip basically quit his own team?) As a race broadcaster Waltrip has proven himself simply beneath contempt, a narcissistic blowhard with the intellectual abilities of the stuffed plush Digger and Friends toys he used to find so amusing. Well I’m glad somebody did. Given that it’s been 16 years since Waltrip drove a Cup car in anger and going on 25 since he last won a Cup race I can’t comprehend what insights he’s supposed to provide. To put things in perspective, the last time DW won a race he was competing against Richard Petty. Not only had Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney not been born yet, Joey Logano was all of two at the time. There’s been, what, at least three generations of Cup cars I can recall since Waltrip last competed. (Fellow FOX broadcaster Jeff Gordon won a race last year and was in the title hunt until the last race of the season. Perhaps his observations are a bit more up to date?) And just in case you’ve forgotten whose driving the bus, nary a green flag can wave without Waltrip’s signature “Boogity, boogity…..” sendoff. Yeah, on one level I realize it’s only five seconds worth of annoyance. When I watch a race on TV, I simply mute the broadcast until the field reaches the first turn and I’ve trained friends I’ve watched races with to do the same while I dial in WNPV out of Lansdale. On that one level it’s a minor annoyance, but on another it sets the tone for the entire broadcast. Ignore those fast loud cars out on the track. The real star of the show is in the broadcast booth and he’s chock full of pointless stories, ancient reminisces, lame oft-repeated jokes and needless speculation to fill up a three hour time slot. It’s like Waltrip gets paid by the word. His attitude seems to be, “I get paid to be here. I can talk as much as I want. I feel like I have something of value to contribute.” In the words of our old friend Michael Lee Aday, AKA Meat Loaf, “Well, two out of three ain’t bad.” And baby, he can talk all night, though in fact that ain’t getting us nowhere. Ol’ DW loves telling and retelling an old anecdote to his own detriment. As the story goes Waltrip was on his way to a race Cup race track somewhere out in the boondocks and stopped at a convenience store. Seeing the sponsorship logos on his jacket some unwitting clerk asked Waltrip, “Are you with the show?” to which Waltrip replied, “Lady, I am the show.” It’s time for someone to point out the obvious to the old codger. Nobody goes to the circus to see the clowns. They’re there for the lion tamers and high wire artists not the clowns. If you ever in fact “were” the show, the time of your time has come and gone…..
That leaves Jeff Gordon now reaching the conclusion of his first year as a race broadcaster. Along the way Gordon has managed to lose the “deer caught in the headlights” look and tone to his voice replacing them with a less panicked “what the Hell have I gotten myself into” frame of mind. Gordon simply can’t seem to catch a break as he waits patiently for an open space to speak, perhaps having had to raise his hand to ask to be called on. On occasion Gordon will actually contribute an intriguing insight. At which point nearly invariably Waltrip will repeat what Gordon just said almost word for word sometimes the guffawing at his own wit and insight with a sound very much like someone trying to blow a live clam out their nostril. Waltrip makes the same sound when he’s correctly predicted the winner of the race, a feat made less difficult by the fact towards the end of a broadcast DW has picked over half the field to win in any given race. Just once you’d like to see the younger former-champion stand up for himself and say something along the lines of “Isn’t that what I just said? I mean come on, Dude, seriously?” As of this writing Gordon is a leading candidate to become co-host on Kelly Ripa’s morning program. Certainly no failing Gordon has demonstrated in race broadcasting to date is serious enough to warrant such a cruel punishment. It might be just m,e but the sound of that woman’s voice in the morning makes me want to give up, dive cowering back under the covers and down a bottle of Fentanyl and Jack Daniel’s.
Most recently, Gordon has come under fire for alleged bias in the booth. In most professional sports broadcasting organizations that would be an extremely serious charge. But this is FOX Sports and it’s just business as usual, a bit unsavory though it might be. Again reflecting back on the days of yore, anyone else remember a hangdog Ned Jarrett approaching Dale Earnhardt directly to apologize for having shown favoritism towards his son Dale Jarrett during the final laps of a race? (Dale’s response? A smile and a handshake as he reminded Ned he was a daddy as well.) Yes, Gordon seems a bit high on the prospects of Elliott driving a rather familiar looking No. 24 car owned by the same guy who wrote Gordon his paychecks for most of his career. And Brad Keselowski blew a fuse when he correctly pointed out that he’d been penalized for speeding on pit road at Las Vegas not an unapproved body modification during a pit stop as Gordon had stated. Which sounds a whole lot like hollering, “I didn’t get busted for public intoxication. I got busted for DUI!” Even Mile Joy seems a bit overly fond of reminding us what brand of gasoline is being poured into Cup cars as the tire carriers are hip checking the quarter panels. Unless I missed a memo, Joy still owns the Sunoco race fuel distribution franchise in New England. When it comes to such things, I only need to know which brand is being used if teams have alternatives that might affect the outcome of the race. For instance if teams could choose between Goodyear and Firestone tires, and the Goodyears were faster but the Firestones wore better on a long run, that information would be useful to fans. If everyone is stuck with the same tire, the same fuel, or whatever, well, not so much.
But Waltrip not only takes the cake, he held up the bakery at gunpoint and carjacked the delivery vehicle. Recall for years, Waltrip owned truck teams sponsored by Toyota and appeared in television advertisements for them. His favoritism towards that marque has gone from being an irritant to becoming amusing, it’s so blatant. Here’s a hint. If it’s the “Joe Gibbs Toyota” then it is also the “Jack Roush Ford” not the “No. 16 car.” And if we are to refer to Waltrip’s once-upon-a-time team owner and long-term friend as “Mr. Hendrick” then I suppose fairness dictates that we also call them “Mr. Petty” and “Mr. Childress” as well. At least with his younger brother Michael’s team having been disposed of at fire sale prices, we no longer have DW’s blatant cheerleading for a bunch of cars seemingly unable to get out of their own way but garnering more air time (as in Joyce Julius minutes) than a lot of cars running in the top 10. Fans should be thankful FOX wasn’t broadcasting that Richmond fall race when MWR ran afoul of the NASCAR brass for trying to manipulate the race outcome. DW would probably still be telling us it never happened, it wouldn’t have been illegal if it did and everyone else did it too anyway. It’s gotten to the point Waltrip has convinced himself not only do we care what he had for breakfast, but where he went and who paid for the meal.
The TV landscape–heck, the entire entertainment universe–is in turmoil. Increasingly people are watching programs and sporting events on their cell phones. (Which I find incredibly amusing in that having paid the big bucks for a 70 inch high-def television and a sound system that looks like it could launch cruise missiles, people are opting to stare at a tiny cell phone screen and listen to events on a speaker smaller than the ones in transistor radios of yore. People are increasingly cutting the cable to escape huge monthly bills even as the industry steadfastly refuses to adopt “ala carte” pricing allowing consumers to only pay for the channels they actually want to watch. Under my current package just to get FS1 and NBCSN I have dozens of Spanish language channels as well. They’re not of much use to me in that I speak about five words in Spanish and probably mispronounce them all. But it would seem with all this high tech stuff available now race fans ought to be able to alter the broadcast they want to see. Maybe they could have two crews on hand one broadcasting to hard core race fans and another to fat people collapsed in their recliners unable to find the remote and thus willing to watch whatever’s on. As such FOX could borrow a page from their current “Crank It Up” useless gimmick and allow fans to select a “Shut Him Up” option that would replace any segment of DW talking with soothing classic rock selections. Hell if it replaced DW’s constant babbling with the dulcet sounds of kittens being shoved in a food processor I’d consider even that an improvement.
Years ago when FOX first started billing itself as the “New home of NASCAR” (and left us all at home alone with the smoke detectors all bleating in their very first race to cutaway to a rerun of COPS) FOX head sports honcho was told by a reporter that a great deal of race fans genuinely disliked the adventures of Little Digger and his vermin friends. In a reply that would have made Marie Antoinette blush Hill basically said “tough.” Yep, let them eat cake. Well it would seem Mr. Hill that a growing number of one time race fans are no longer visiting your bakery. (And for the record there’s a shady looking fellow in ski mask in a Camry with the number 17 on the side around the corner….) Your move. I don’t know if or how to this you’ve created can be fixed but like a castle in its corner of a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble, but I stay here just the same.
(For my fellow longtime fans borne of the ESPN era, a quick look back to when the racing used to be fun to watch. This is a Bob Jenkins final sendoff from their last broadcast of the Golden Era of NASCAR broadcasting.)
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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