Saturday, March 24, 2007

ESPN's NASCAR Now: Michael Waltrip's Free Pass

The Friday editions of NASCAR Now are always interesting. They demand a larger coverage of on-track activities, and a higher number of reporters to get the story. In the past we have seen Shannon Spake, Alan Bestwick, Angelique Chengelis, and Marty Smith in a wide variety of reporting roles trackside.

This week, with top stories looming large, ESPN assigned one non-NASCAR "general assignment" reporter named Bob Holtzman to cover the Bristol, TN hard news. Holtzman is a stick-and-ball guy from Cincinnati, OH who came from local news. He provided a shakey Jeff G. interview, various sound bites, and even an on-camera wrap of the track activity. So, where did the NASCAR Now gang go? Where was the team? Holtzman is not even on the ESPN NASCAR Media web pages. Was there a golf outing?

Rusty Wallace stopped by to demonstrate how uncomfortable trying to do a live interview with NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias can be. Kuselias continues to use his confrontational sports radio style, which does not work on television. Rusty was a little miffed at the questions, and the lack of respect from this former lawyer turned announcer. Kuselias cannot end an on-air interview with any style, and is horrible with the mechanics of live two-way video conversations. Rusty experienced problems with both of these elements during his segments, and did not look too happy.

Most curious in this program was the conscious omission of two huge news stories. NASCAR Now had been hounding Mark Martin to drive at Bristol since the first race at Daytona concluded. With Martin surrendering his ride to Regan Smith this weekend, the show should have featured Smith's qualifying attempt and subsequent twelfth place starting spot. In addition, the two troubled cars from Michael Waltrip Racing missed the show. For Toyota, NAPA, and Dominos, this is huge. For pure news, it might have led the show because there were basically no issues with the COT in qualifying.

Unfortunately, in a confirmation that "branding" and "product placement" drive the new ESPN, EA Sports rolled out Tony Stewart. In an interview they could have done during the week, NASCAR Now took five minutes out of this key show to listen to Tony praise a NASCAR licensed driving game. Stewart said the fake drivers are almost real, the fake tracks are almost real, and you can actually almost change the almost real springs and shocks. Unreal.

If NASCAR Now wants to regain any shred of credibility, they have to move these "shill" shots to mid-week, and give the fans some hard news on Fridays. Michael Waltrip should have been interviewed on camera, along with the Toyota executives,about the frustrations of this very expensive and very unsuccessful venture into NASCAR. For a company that has conquered every single motorsports series they have participated in, not to make a Bristol race where the cars were identical points squarely to the Toyota engine.

How does Michael Waltrip get a free pass on this one? Is it possible that Micheal Waltrip Racing: A New Era came into play? This Toyota sponsored series continues to run, even as Toyota continues to falter. In addition, ESPN has solid ties with EA Sports, who Tony Stewart was representing. So, its an easy choice. Give Tony five minutes to promote the game, and let Michael off-the-hook. NASCAR fans will never know the difference...will they?