Greetings, race fans. Last weekend was a very interesting and tiring time at Pocono Raceway. As you can imagine, the primary source of discussion in TV land was the drivers-only broadcast of Saturday’s Pocono Green 250.
Since this event was such a big deal, I will be focusing solely on that broadcast. Don’t worry, I will still have critiques of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the wreckfests in Texas later this week. As a quick preview of my Cup review, almost no one liked the 3 p.m. start time, including officials that work for Pocono Raceway.
As a quick reminder, the broadcast had Kevin Harvick on play-by-play with Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano as booth analysts. Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. worked the pits. Finally, Denny Hamlin and Danica Patrick were in the Hollywood Hotel.
I’ll admit going into the broadcast that I underestimated when the drivers would actually get to their posts. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Happy Hour ran right up against NASCAR RaceDay – XFINITY Edition. As a result, the drivers on the broadcast spent most of the show getting changed. I should actually apologize for that since it is something that I should have noticed when I first saw the TV schedule for the weekend.
With the ringers being indisposed, the regulars more or less ran the show here while actively promoting the Drivers Only broadcast. Shannon Spake described her and Larry McReynolds’ role as that of “warmup announcers.” I’m not particularly a fan of all the promotion because it made it fairly difficult to properly preview the race.
Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip was described as a “coach” by Adam Alexander. I don’t know how to feel about that.
At first, I wanted to compare him to NBA coaches Bill Fitch or Dick Motta, but they both won championships (Fitch with the Boston Celtics in 1981, Motta with the then-Washington Bullets in 1978). Waltrip never came close to one (he never even finished in the top 10 in Cup points). They both have a buttload of losses on their resumes, but mainly due to seniority.
As a result, I’d compare Waltrip to Byron Scott, who made two NBA Finals as head coach of the then-New Jersey Nets (2002-2003). However, according to Basketball-reference.com, Scott has the worst winning percentage all-time (.412) of any NBA coach who has coached more than 1000 games.
I think that some of the positive opinions about the drivers’ broadcast were based on the fact that Waltrip wasn’t on the broadcast. Judging by the vast majority of comments I’ve received over the past eight years, it is fair to say that a lot of you are not Waltrip fans.
In and around the drivers-only hype, a sit-down interview that Spake conducted with Darrell Wallace Jr. was aired. Here, Spake asked Wallace about his then-upcoming debut, his preparation, the parking of the No. 6 and the implications of Wallace being the first African-American racer in Cup since 2006. I don’t think I learned all that much from the piece, but I thought it was very well put together. Wallace is a very honest interview subject and he generally comes off as interesting. Admittedly, Wallace felt the same way about his Cup debut after the race on Sunday as he did about the No. 6 shutting down in this interview.
Kenny Wallace went to the production meeting to get an idea about the preparations. The idea here was to see how the drivers are getting used to their roles. The main takeaway seemed to be that they were excited, but they seemed a little nervous. The regulars were all shadowing their driver replacements all weekend. That more or less means that Jamie Little, Chris Neville and Matt Yocum collected all the notes that Blaney, Jones and Stenhouse were given for the race.
This meeting was held in the wives’ lounge in the infield, literally two doors down from the Media Center. I can tell you that it is every bit as gaudy-looking as you saw on the broadcast.
In the Media Center, thoughts on the pit reporters at the beginning of the race centered on Stenhouse seemingly reading a prompter. He came off as stilted at the beginning of the race. That never really changed during the race. Also, they thought Patrick’s “Boom Goes the Dynamite” was funny. I couldn’t even hear it when it originally aired.
Jones was likely the best of the bunch down there. He had good lines of questioning and brought a fair amount of competence to his work. As the race went on, he became more and more comfortable with his duties. Blaney was fairly decent as well. Still a lot of ums, though.
Admittedly, the pit reporters were the big unknown for the drivers-only broadcast since none of them had a scrap of experience coming in. That said, there was at least one moment in which the reporters directly contradicted each other. It was in regards to Justin Allgaier’s final pit stop (Stenhouse said that Allgaier was on two tires, while Blaney stated that he was on four).
The booth kind of sort of decided to pick on Jones a little. Jones has a bit of a mullet going, so they had to make light of it. Stenhouse used to have one as well (described as a “Mississippi Mudflap”), but apparently Patrick said heck to the no to that.
As the race continued on, everyone seemed to gel into their roles. It was a bit rough early on, but it developed into something decent to watch.
By the end of the race, I thought that Hamlin and Patrick were the weak links of the broadcast. That’s about the only aspect of the broadcast that I was realistically able to predict. Patrick’s never struck me as the most congenial person out there and she’s always struck me as incredibly boring. Perhaps she was in a bad mood.
Let’s face it, the Hollywood Hotel really doesn’t have that big of a role during the races. The most important time for Spake and McReynolds is typically before the race during NASCAR RaceDay – XFINITY Edition. Due to the schedule at Pocono, neither driver showed up until the closing minutes of pre-race. As a result, they missed out on most of their gig.
In Patrick’s case, I’d argue the most memorable thing she did was to say, “Boom Goes the Dynamite” at the beginning of the race. Hamlin was almost invisible. I just don’t think that Hamlin and/or Patrick were comfortable in the Hollywood Hotel. Given the circumstances, that’s understandable.
Post-race coverage was somewhat typical, but with the drivers-only twist. Blaney interviewed race winner Brad Keselowski, which I think threw Keselowski just a bit. Stenhouse had Allgaier and Jones had Kyle Larson. Afterwards, we got some post-race analysis from the booth.
Ultimately, working on a race broadcast, much like many things in life, takes some getting used to. Once everyone got situated in their roles, things started going better after a rough start. Grade-wise, this was definitely not an A-rated broadcast by any means. I’d give it a B-, but I would grade it more leniently than normal given the lack of experience. It would be a lower grade if all the regulars were working like normal.
Did the drivers-only broadcast make Saturday’s Pocono Green 250 more exciting to watch? That depends on who you ask. I’m about neutral on it since I would have watched anyway, but I’m sure that it would have given others reason to press their luck on a Saturday afternoon. Ratings are more or less flat with last year for the race, so it didn’t hurt anything.
Would I be cool with another drivers-only broadcast? I suppose, but I’d want some changes. For one, it would have to be on a weekend in which Happy Hour for Cup isn’t right up against pre-race coverage. That would allow the drivers to actually work the full telecast, which didn’t happen on Saturday. That’s easily accomplished. Just throw in a half-hour edition of NASCAR RaceHub Weekend Edition prior to NASCAR RaceDay – XFINITY Edition and we’re good to go.
Second, I think I want those involved to get a little more training. It was good to have the regulars helping the drivers along. Couldn’t imagine the kind of mess this broadcast would have been otherwise.
What’s the end game here? I wouldn’t be shocked if we start seeing more part-time drivers with TV roles on race broadcasts. The model here is Parker Kligerman, who just so happened to be in Pocono as a writer on Sunday. Kligerman more or less got pressed into duty last year and worked out pretty well in the role. I’m not sure who could end up with such a role at FOX Sports. Perhaps there was more to this drivers only thing than just a publicity stunt?
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY Series will both be in action at Michigan. Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck Series will have a standalone show at Gateway Motorsports Park. Finally, the mother of all endurance races, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will roll off Saturday morning in France. TV Listings are in the tab above.
I will bring you critiques of the Cup and XFINITY races from Michigan, along with the Truck race from Gateway for next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch.
Later this week, I’ll have critiques of the Axalta Presents the Pocono 400 and the wreckfests from Texas, likely as part of multiple editions of the Critic’s Annex in the Newsletter.
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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.