Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: NBC Sports Started Strong, But Petered Out

We’ve reached the end of the 2020 season.  This year, my 12th as the resident TV critic at Frontstretch, has been the most difficult of all.  The reasoning is quite obvious.  Honestly, knowing what’s going on right now, we’re lucky the season finished at all.

Before we get into today’s overall look at NBC Sports’ 2020 season, we’ve got some more news surrounding FOX and it’s not good.  Matt Yocum is out after 20 years in the pits.

This move leaves FOX Sports’ NASCAR coverage with only three regular pit reporters on staff for three different series (Jamie Little, Regan Smith and Vince Welch).  Basically, they have no bench.  The Wikipedia article for NASCAR on FOX lists Jamie Howe as a fourth pit reporter, but I’m unsure how often she would be on-site knowing that she primarily works on NHRA broadcasts and that there are a lot of conflicts.  If anything adverse happens, don’t be shocked if FOX Sports has to turn to Katie Osborne for pit reporting duties.

If you’re reading this column, then you probably know what Yocum brings to a race broadcast.  Knowledge, professionalism and respect.  You’re going to see a fairly big difference next year in FOX Sports’ Cup broadcasts, especially with Clint Bowyer being in the booth full-time.

Honestly, adding Bowyer and losing Yocum is likely not a net positive for FOX Sports.  They’re going to miss some things in 2021 that viewers depend on to get a proper feel for what’s going on.

As for what Yocum’s going to do next year, I’m not sure.  There is the possibility of him doing something for the new Superstar Racing Experience on CBS next summer.  He is at least friendly with Tony Stewart, so you never know.

That said, onto the main topic of today’s column, NBC Sports.  Like everyone else, they had to deal with the insanity of 2020.  They went about things differently from how FOX Sports did for the final two months of their portion of the schedule.

With the exception of the standalone Xfinity race at Road America, NBC race broadcasts through Talladega were done remotely from Charlotte Motor Speedway.  The track allowed NBC Sports to make use of multiple booths so that Rick Allen, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte could safely do the broadcast.  This isn’t really that different from the two booth setup that they have previously used at CMS.  In 2018, I spent time up there during one of the practice sessions as part of a number of pieces about NBC Sports’ broadcasts.  It was stuffy and had a very low ceiling (seven-ish feet, I think), but it got the job done.  I’m assuming that if the booth I was in was in use, the air conditioning would be on.

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For the ROVAL weekend at Charlotte, they maintained that booth setup and had the commentators call the race on-site.  The final four weekends of the season saw the booth travel to the races.

Admittedly, a lot of NBC could do with their broadcasts was dependent on what NASCAR allowed.  Compared to other sanctioning bodies, they were quite a bit more strict.  INDYCAR allowed bullpen sessions for the media and allowed the use of media centers.  IMSA was a little closer to NASCAR rules, but still had full-length race weekends and opened the paddock to the media late in the season.  NASCAR more or less sequestered the media to the press box and didn’t allow them to do anything else.

NASCAR severely limited who could be in the infield for the races (as of this writing, they still plan to do so in 2021, but it’s unclear as to what degree).  It was exceptionally strict during the FOX portion of the season, as FOX could only have one pit reporter for many races.  By the time the NBC portion of the season started in July, it wasn’t quite as bad, but it was still tough at times.

Early on in the NBC portion of the season, getting information wasn’t too bad.  I didn’t feel as lost as I did during the FOX races (the worst of those for information were the events in which Regan Smith was the sole pit reporter).

The playoffs brought what I felt was an unnecessary narrowing of focus towards a small group of drivers.  I know that they wanted to promote the playoff drivers, but it effectively compromised the whole effort.  I stated multiple times over the final few weeks of the season that the laser focus on playoff contenders was likely to hurt the sport in the long run.  This would be true under normal circumstances, but it’s even more so now because the TV broadcasts are currently the only way that sponsors can realistically activate their sponsorships.  There’s a reason why the chaps at Keen Parts/Corvette Parts cut back to one race for 2021.  Not being able to be at the track means that it’s simply not worth it to them.  If your car isn’t being shown or referenced to in any way, then there’s no return.  It’s even worse if fans can’t be there.

While I did enjoy the first 10 or so races of NBC Sports’ run, I was getting more and more frustrated by the end of the season.  It didn’t help that there were some questionable moments as well, like Allen’s reference to Marissa Briscoe’s miscarriages as something for Chase to overcome during the playoffs during the Xfinity Series season finale in Phoenix.  That was in bad taste.

The booth commentators became somewhat stir-crazy from being completely unable to fully experience the race.  As a result, NBC added a roving reporter role that rotated.  Letarte served in the role a couple of times, as did Brad Daugherty.

Speaking of Daugherty, he joined NBC Sports at the end of July after being away from television for almost four years.  His role was designed primarily around the pre and post-race shows in the Charlotte studio with Krista Voda and Kyle Petty.  This was similar to what he did in ESPN’s Pit Studio, but seemingly a bit more subdued.  There were no giant forks this time.

Daugherty also got some more chances in the broadcast booth, something that I can only recall him doing once or twice on ESPN race broadcasts.  He struck me as excitable back then.  Much like in the studio, he’s more subdued here, but is able to bring more to the broadcast.  ESPN never allowed him to get more booth reps during his time on their NASCAR broadcasts, so we only have a couple of glimpses as to how he could have been there.

For 2021, the only move of note that’s been announced is that Krista Voda will not be back.  As I stated a couple of weeks ago after Phoenix, she didn’t have much to do after the weekday editions of NASCAR America were nixed.  I have no idea where she’s going to be next year, but I wish her the best.

For now, that’s the only negative move that was made after the season.  For 2021, the season will start a little earlier for NBC with the Nashville weekend in June currently scheduled to be the first Cup weekend of the year for them.  What that will look like is anyone’s guess.  That’s going to depend on so many factors and I think you probably know what they are.  Hopefully by mid-June, it’ll be safe enough that NBC Sports would be able to operate under something as close to normal circumstances as possible.

Unlike FOX Sports, there really aren’t many on-air personality changes for 2021 (and no changes in the booth or on pit road), so they’ll have something to build on.  My advice is to make sure you don’t cut your focus.  You are the primary method in which fans and sponsors are going to experience NASCAR.  You have to act like it.  Maintaining a wide focus will allow you to pick up on more happenings, while at the same time, the broadcasts won’t be as boring.

As of right now, my plan is to be back for a 13th year of race broadcast critiquing here at Frontstretch and in the Frontstretch Newsletter.  It’s truly crazy when you think about it.  We’ve come a long way from counting Digger references in broadcasts and ranting about getting Digger when purchasing a classic race on DVD (yes, that happened).  Hopefully, the 13th year is a better year where we won’t happen to worry about everything having to do with the virus so much.  I don’t have much of that happening during the FOX Sports portion of the season, though.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below.  Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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As always, if you choose to contact a 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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