Saturday, May 19, 2007

SPEED Hits An All-Star Home Run

Legendary promoter Humpy Wheeler uses the hours before a race to build the excitement at Lowes Motor Speedway. Over the years, he has hosted concerts, run celebrity races, and jumped school buses into cars just for fun. One year, he re-enacted the invasion of Grenada complete with commandos sliding down ropes from helicopters. That was a good one.

This year, SPEED Channel took its first crack at telecasting NASCAR's mid-season all-star race at the same speedway. As if they learned from Humpy, SPEED used the day leading up to the race itself to build the excitement. Let me be the first to tell you, it worked.

SPEED started the morning with a series of All-Star Spotlight shows that focused on one All-Star weekend per show. It was followed by a wonderful edition of Wind Tunnel that featured a tremendous cast-of-characters talking about the history of the event. Despain led a solid discussion that actually covered a wide variety of topics about the sport, and featured a good interview with Rick Hendrick about his history and business beliefs.

NASCAR Images does its best work in post-produced programs, and features former members of the NFL Films crew who guide the productions. They always leave their "NFL Films" mark on shows with lots of slow-motion, tremendous video editing, and a booming announcer voice building the drama. For the All-Star Memories program, it worked. They wisely added in a large chunk of "sound bites" from almost everyone under the sun, including drivers, owners, and TV announcers. This one hour show was a big undertaking for NASCAR Images, and was worth the effort.

Then, Trackside came along for an hour discussion about real racing, and featured guests Scott Riggs and Joe Nemechek. This show still has too many "voices," but Steve Byrnes is an expert at directing traffic in this crowd. Both Riggs and Nemechek proved to be exactly what SPEED needed in terms of exposing the fans to who these two likable guys really are. If you were not a fan of Riggs after that interview, you probably had the sound down.

NASCAR Live is a thirty minute show hosted by Steve Byrnes. This week Darrell Waltrip dropped by to talk specifics about the All-Star Race history. Kudos to SPEED for also asking veteran broadcaster Randy Pemberton to appear on the show. Pemberton is the primary host for DirecTV's "Hot Pass," and his personality and knowledge lend themselves to shows like NASCAR Live. Between the three veterans the memories flowed, and that is what fans wanted to see from this network. Byrnes keeps the pace quick, and this one show had tons of great content.

In my day, the Pit Crew Championship was held at Rockingham, NC in front of wives and other pit crew members. It took a long time, and made watching the grass grow in the infield a very viable option after the first hour. It was taped for broadcast, and aired the following week after most of the sheer boredom was edited out. Well, things have changed. This year's Championship was a well-structured even held in an indoor Charlotte arena in front of a full house.

With the pit crews now totally separate from the "shop guys," it was fun to watch these true athletes compete without the drivers to divert the attention. The competition was fun, and SPEED has the opportunity to continue to build this event into something that can generate additional sponsorship and content. Some more promotion, including some of the pit guys on other SPEED shows, should have been done. But, that can be a learning experience for next year's event.

For me, the surprise of the day was Tradin' Paint. This show is hosted by the versatile John Roberts, and features Kyle Petty as "the driver" and a weekly national journalist as "the reporter." This week, SPEED stepped outside the box and subbed Humpy Wheeler in the journalist spot. At first, Humpy re-visited his antics before the All-Star race and how he decided to light the Lowes Motor Speedway. Then, John Roberts addressed some serious subjects, and Kyle and Humpy were fascinating.

The years of diverse NASCAR experience on the panel made their insight something viewers do not normally see. Roberts addressed the AT&T battle, sponsor exclusivity, and re-paving NASCAR racetracks. Then, the panel addressed the engine issues in the sport, and what the DEI and RCR partnership will mean for Chevy power. Kyle respectfully suggested that the engine builders wield a lot of power by deciding who gets what engine. His message was clear, does technology determine who wins?

Wheeler addressed the Earnhardt story, including the impact of Senior's death on the sport. Roberts asked why a superstar like Junior has an "amateur" sports agent like his sister Kelly doing the negotiating on a new contract. There was no clear-cut answer, which points out one of the key weaknesses of the sport. Every driver ultimately winds-up doing "their own" freelance contract. This show ran the gamut of topics for race fans, and pointed out why this series needs to be expanded to one hour next season and also add a third panelist. If SPEED plays their cards right, this show could go from a minor "support" program to a major player.

NASCAR fans know that the superstar for SPEED is RaceDay. John Roberts, Kenny Wallace, and Jimmy Spencer have worked very hard to help establish this very popular franchise for the network. However, the heart and soul of this show is Wendy Venturini. This former producer came out in-front of the camera with great results. Unfortunately, in this expanded three hour version of the show, SPEED chose to put Wendy in a second anchor position in the infield. That was a shame, because her strength is walking and talking the fans through the garage and doing interviews in the middle of the action.

Over the three hours, SPEED threw everything but the kitchen sink at viewers. From serious in-depth interviews with Humpy Wheeler to celebrity crew chief races, it was certainly interesting. John Roberts was clearly running out of gas toward the end, and its a shame that SPEED did not bring in another anchor to host an hour of this show. Viewers saw Juan Pablo Montoya continue to mellow-out and be a "NASCAR" guy when chatting with Kenny Wallace. They saw the TV guys and the NASCAR guys build a playground for charity. They even saw Hermie Sadler spin the "SPEED 1" camera car during his "hot laps" and track description segment. That was great.

The Sirius Satellite Radio experience that Tony Stewart has been getting from his weekly show has certainly helped him with his on-air presence. Tony did a super interview with Kenny Wallace and really laid out his issues with his car, the race, and the competition for the All-Star event. Tony seems to be grasping the concept that everything is not an absolute, and life is always going to be full of compromises. I wonder if we will see Tony on some additional TV programs before the year is out. His up-coming pay-per-view charity race is going to be exciting.

Finally, the familiar voice of Krista Voda welcomed viewers to the All-Star race itself. Voda has been put through the wringer in TV land, and has bounced back to become a shining star for SPEED. While she is currently the pre-race host for the Craftsman Truck Series, this All-Star race may be her highest profile TV exposure yet. Voda dealt well with the ebb-and-flow of this unique event, and showed her knowledge of the sport, and the egos involved.

The NASCAR on Fox announcing crew pitched in with a strong performance, including another focused and interesting effort from Darrell Waltrip. With only two races left on Fox, DW seems to have found his groove. One advantage of Mike Joy on events like this is his large body of racing knowledge. Joy constantly added information about racing families and personalities that we don't get a chance to hear on normal race broadcasts. It was just what the doctor ordered for this sport, someone in charge who "really knows" racing.

Taken as a whole, this was exactly the type of day SPEED needed to re-establish itself as a "NASCAR network." With the cancellation of several NASCAR shows, and the problems with Inside NEXTEL Cup, the network needed to re-connect with the fans. Hopefully, this solid performance will energize the SPEED gang to consider additional NASCAR programming in the future, including this type of "theme day" coverage. With ESPN continuing to struggle with NASCAR Now and their pre-race show, it could be a great time for SPEED to step-up and see what the future can hold after this strong peformance.

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Vroom! said...

Excellent day for Speed...Krista Voda is a vroomer!

Anonymous said...

....SPEED may have scored the hit they needed but what about all the the fans the DO NOT have the SPEED channel? In my area, in order to get the SPEED channel I must either upgrade to a $150 per month subscription or go to a satellite dish.
NASCAR is constantly seeking approval as a big league sport. Until NASACR gets over it's greed factor it will always be just a niche market.
The major sports, football, baseball and basketball televise their "All Star" events to the largest markets available. If NASCAR wants to showcase their stars then cut a deal with NBC, CBS or ABC. Then they would have viewers from all walks of life and continue to build a NEW fan base.
Once again another France family bush league move.

Scott said...

yeah , right...speed knocked most of the loyal nascar fans right out of the and all my friends were relegated to listening to the race on the radio because we don't get the speed channel....thanks a lot fox and speed.....37 year nascar fan here....will it be 38 years? doubtful right now....

Anonymous said...

Gosh, all this sounds great....except I too don't have Speed-and the other 3 people I know who enjoy watching racing don't have it. I listened to the end on the radio, and they just didn't see it or listen to it.

Way to NASCAR, or whoever is responsible for this. We have extended cable, but not digital or satellite. I won't pay for it unless I get HD TV. And that is quite a few dollars down the road. So if this continues, there are many former loyal sets of eyeballs racing has lost-again. More than they are losing with the Hendrick shut-outs in the COT races. As someone said to me, "why watch?".

In the meantime I grow further and further away from the sport I've followed since I was a young boy growing up in Charlotte in the 60s.

How can this happen? I think this is the first Winston, or All Star Race I have not seen in 20 years. Why would a sport looking for more exposure go the route of the NHL on OLN/VS? I assumed the race would be on a channel most people get, not some niche channel. I was stunned to learn the race would not be on a channel I could see. I still am shaking my head in amazement.

And everytime NASCAR does something like this happens, I realize...I missed nothing. I just got to bed earlier and sw some highlights....I'll just look forward to college football.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on not having SPEED channel, NA$CAR made a big mistake with this. I can't imagine SPEED generated the audience that a network broadcast would have. Makes no sense to me that NA$CAR would choose a cable provider with limited access by its fan base to broadcast this event. Brian

Anonymous said...

I've been a nascar fan for 17 years and i go to races every year. And now i get shut out from watchin a race. I cant believe nascar would do something like that to it's loyal fans,but they want to move forward. I think they just fell behind with some fans. It maybe good for the speed channel, but it was'nt the greatest move by nascar. So i hope the grass root fans will speakout.

B.Tanner said...

Excellent analysis of SPEED"s coverage. About the only thing I missed in your article was the addition of Opie (Carl Edwards) to the reporting crew. Yeah, he missed a couple of cues and gave up the microphone early but he on-air demeanor was good. His ability to do an interview, making the interviewee, not the interviewer the focus reminded me of Benny Parsons when he first took up a mike.

mark said...

Krista Voda was a home run in an otherwise very, very boring race. If you're going to bunch the cars up, make them shoot it out at the end. But overall, Krista was the best thing about watching this so-called "all-star" event.

Jeremiah in Indiana said...

While I love the speed channel, and the production they create, I find it to be severly lacking in video quality! Speed needs to be broadcasting in HDTV. There are only two Nextel Cup events per year that are not available in HD. The twins at Daytona and the All Star race!

I recieve Speed on Dish Network (Nascar Team Sponsor) and it is not available in any sort of HD...ESPN had highlights in HD, but the race itself is in standard def! Very Dissapointed fan here...At least Speed should reach an agreement with HDNET to simulcast this event.

SPEED needs to pull out all of the stops for the 2008 season.

Anonymous said...

I thought SPEED would finally step up and be allowed to present a NASCAR event in their own terms and with their own sense of whats right. But, NOOOOOOOOO! Of course the Geniuses at FOX mandate that SPEED use the FOX crew et al. So we get FOX on SPEED. WOWIE, what a thrill......NOT
Kristin Voda is hardly an editorial differentiation.
The sport and its coverage is losing me, and I've been an avid fan for 30 years

SonicAD said...

Note to everyone, since someone mentioned it: the All-Star race will be re-aired in HD on HDNet at 9PM Thursday night, with a repeat at 1AM Friday morning.

Anonymous said...

Voda was great but no HD very sad Speed has to get its axt together and soon

Anonymous said...

I glanced at the TV guide and found no ALL STAR race!

I thought it was some sort of error...

and indeed it was..Nascar's


Elm Grove, WI.