Saturday, March 24, 2007

ESPN on ABC: Pre-Race Show On The Mend

In this first year of returning to NASCAR, ESPN has experienced the normal highs and lows of producing a high volume of programming originating from across North America. With both Mexico and Canada on the docket, the Busch Series gang will have covered a lot of territory come November.

This week, Brent Musburger calmed down. Perhaps, the absence of Chris Fowler helped Musburger, who likes control and is good at it. Right off the top of the pre-race show, a "whip-a-round" of the pit reporters showed off the solid TV skills of this diverse group. It really helped to establish the credibility of the broadcast, and things only got better. Kudos to Jamie Little, as the new kid on the NASCAR block, for holding her own with the veterans.

When Rusty Wallace appears in the trackside studio, ESPN rises to a new level. This show was no exception. Things really got interesting when Ray Evernham was again asked to be a panelist. Between Ray and Rusty, there is enough experience to allow Brent Musburger to get out of the way and let the boys talk. Finally, after several very difficult races, things on the pre-race show were smooth and informative.

What a surprise it was for veteran NASCAR fans to see vintage footage of Bob Jenkins, the late Larry Nuber, and a youthful Bob Varsha roll a VW down the Bristol banking. The original ESPN days were just classic NASCAR TV.

Fan favorite Shannon Spake presented what this author has been calling for since Daytona, pre-produced feature pieces that focus on one NASCAR topic. This week, Brett Bodine and his "Car of Tomorrow" project was shown in detail, using Bodine himself to explain the hows and whys of this new program. What a wonderful opportunity to continue this commitment to one feature in each pre-race show. In a strange twist, Musburger thanked EA Sports for production assistance in the feature, without noting what they provided.

Perhaps, ESPN has decided to have Rusty trackside for a part of the program, and also to bring in some help for Brad Daugherty. Ray Evernham is great on-camera, and works well with Rusty and Brent Musburger. This begs the one question that has been a hot topic on this site for two months now, what to do with Brad? I would suggest that he be given the opportunity to provide the show's feature piece, just as Shannon Spake did this week. Daugherty is smart, savvy, and has a perspective that is not held by others on the panel. Doesn't he deserve a chance to shine?

This was ESPN's best pre-race show to date, and contained hard news, a solid feature, experienced analysts, and good driver interviews. The only hilarious moment each race is good old Tim Brewer. Whenever Musburger introduces him, Brewer looks squarely into the camera and says...."thank you Brett." Somethings are just destined to become instant classics.