Saturday, March 24, 2007

ESPN on ABC: The Boys Are Back In Town

One of our favorite sayings is, "there is just something about Bristol." The race weekends at Bristol, TN are always something to behold. In my day, it was the homespun hospitality of the locals, and the fact that people parked in the junkyard across from the track. Today, the "happening" that Bristol has become served to usher in the "coming of age" party for Jerry Punch and his ESPN "Punch Bunch." It served as a confirmation of the biggest challenge on the network's plate. ESPN is now ready for live NEXTEL Cup coverage. The boys are back in town.

Jerry Punch set the table with a dynamic on-camera segment with his partners Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree. Rusty was just jumping out of his shoes, partly because his young son Steven sat on the race pole. When Rusty is pumped up, things happen. Petree is the perfect compliment for Wallace, because his dry sense of humor fits well with Rusty's over-the-top enthusiasm. There were doubts about this threesome when the season started, but Bristol was proof that ESPN's broadcast booth is outstanding.

Rarely has one race had so much talent in the pits. Not the crews, drivers, or celebrities, but the ESPN pit reporters. This diverse group included the formerly goofy Dave Burns doing a great job...who knew? Ironman Mike Massaro continues to reap the rewards of his dedication to the sport and the network during the lean years without racing. He may have a future upstairs if ESPN adds any additional NASCAR product, and would be a good representative of the sport in the play-by-play role. Shannon Spake continues to fly under-the-radar while providing solid reporting for various media outlets. NASCAR newcomer Jamie Little has proven her mettle so far this season, and her friendly relationship with Juan Montoya has allowed viewers to grow fond of the new Colombian driver. I guess something good does come from "open wheel" land.

ESPN shares a lot of the TV components at races with the networks who produce practice, qualifying, and the other races. This does result in some very un-original event coverage, especially on a small track like Bristol. The answer to this dilemma is exactly what ESPN did on Saturday...hustle. The Director and Producer proved to be flexible and knowledgeable about this fast-paced bull ring. Rarely were the cameras behind the action, or the viewer confused about what cars on the track to watch. ESPN has proven to be more flexible in leaving the leaders and covering the action than Fox Sports, and also provides a live scoring graphic as the cars finish the race. This has been noticeably lacking from the Fox NEXTEL Cup coverage.

ESPN continues to provide solid event coverage out in the field. Perhaps, these same standards and level of commitment could be applied to NASCAR Now, a series with tremendous potential. But, one thing is certain. The excellent mix of announcers and production staff have put the NASCAR Busch Series on solid ground for the rest of the season. The boys really are back in town.