Saturday, June 16, 2007

TNT and ESPN Need To Watch "The Set-up" On SPEED

For NASCAR fans, one of the key programs for all three of NASCAR's national touring series is the pre-race show. This one hour or thirty minute live show is the best source for fans to get the lastest information on events at the track and in the sport.

Earlier this season, the NASCAR on Fox gang offered up the tired Hollywood Hotel, while ESPN rolled-out NASCAR Countdown. Just last week, TNT began its NASCAR "mini-season" with a one hour "pre-pre-race" show followed by a thirty minute "countdown to green" pre-race show. Ninety minutes is a long time.

As readers of The Daly Planet may recall, Fox struggled to keep a disinterested Chris Myers from ruining the vital link to the fans that the Hollywood Hotel had become. His laughing and goofy "West Coast" personality often times served to paint Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip as "less than intelligent," and he regularly used his biting and arrogant "dry wit" to make sure NASCAR fans knew he was "better" than they were. Then, just like that, Fox was done for the year.

ESPN had great success with their event coverage, but absolutely hit the ground nose first where their pre-race show NASCAR Countdown was concerned. Debuting at Daytona with College Gameday host Chris Fowler at the helm, ESPN quickly found their own credibility being questioned. A verbose and uninformed Brent Musuburger filled the Jack Whittaker role as "telecast host," and former college basketball and NBA veteran Brad Daugherty was cast as the on-set expert analyist. Needless to say, things did not go well.

Almost immediately, ESPN began to scramble to identify the problems with NASCAR Countdown. ESPN had great pit reporters, a good announcing team in the booth, and great technical support. It seemed the the only issues were located on the infield set, and seated in chairs. Fowler was soon gone, and ESPN used Brent Musburger for one show. Musburger may like racing, but his days of high profile anchoring are long gone, and he did not know the Busch Series drivers, the series history, or any NASCAR news items. Needless to say, things did not go well.

Next, the network brought-in NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias. A former ESPN Radio talk show host, Kuselias had a strong following on his Sports Bash program, and his listeners were quite surprised when he left. Kuselias had always been dismissive of NASCAR, never discussed it on his show, and never displayed any interest in the sport. But, here he came to anchor a program all about the Busch Series. Needless to say, things did not go well.

Kuselias was soon back in Bristol, and the network asked pit reporter Allen Bestwick to step-up and host the show. Bestwick is a veteran, and his calm demeanor allowed ESPN to catch its collective breath. The show was calm, the information was good, and Bestwick re-labeled the naive Daugherty as "the voice of the fans."

Then, from out-of-the blue ESPN announced that they had found their host for both the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series pre-race shows. It was Suzy Kolber, the sideline reporter from ESPN's Monday Night NFL Football. In her first show, Kolber used her SportsCenter experience to smoothly anchor the infield set. The only issue was, she knew absolutely nothing about NASCAR. ESPN does not care, and she is in for the season. Needless to say, things might not go well.

During all this excitement, SPEED Channel has been laying low and producing the Craftsman Truck Series. This dynamic group of racers has been consistently putting on the best NASCAR racing of each weekend. Right alongside of the drivers has been The Set-Up, SPEED's thirty minute pre-race show. If there has been a better or more consistently informative and entertaining pre-race show, I have not seen it.

Krista Voda is the regular host, with Ray Dunlap and this week John Roberts filling in. SPEED has made this racing series the success it is, and The Set-Up has been a big part of the reason why. The SPEED set is outdoors, and not climate controlled like ESPN, or totally enclosed in a truck like the Hollywood Hotel. It really allows fans to get a feel of being trackside when the set is positioned at the end of pit road.

This season Voda has been a professional and supportive voice for her NASCAR series, while the Busch Series has often been totally ignored by ESPN in their pre-race show. The Daly Planet has published several columns documenting the hilarious antics of ESPN, who has spent entire Busch pre-race shows talking about the NEXTEL Cup race. It seems that the entire TV crew was auditioning for ESPN's NEXTEL Cup races later in the season at the expense of the poor Busch Series.

As we know, Fox had it's pre-race struggles this season, and TNT had a tough time with the rain delay at Pocono right out of the box. The tension between the gruff Bill Weber and the pre-race host Marc Fein was evident. Weber never even introduced Fein to the national TV audience before his first time on-camera. That's a feel good moment.

Through it all, Voda and her Set-Up gang have cruised with great features, solid interviews, and terrific information promoting the Truck Series. With veteran drivers flocking to the Trucks, its wonderful to see Voda with Mark Martin, Jack Sprague, Ron Hornaday, and Mike Skinner. This show "surrenders" itself to the activities and news of the series, and serves as a conduit for information provided directly to the viewer. By the time the race rolls around, the stage is set.

Voda has been a team player for SPEED for a long time, and viewers have fond memories of her from earlier NASCAR shows on SPEED that are no longer with us. Her calm personality allows her to mesh well with all kinds of guests, and she uses her solid knowledge of racing to her advantage, without letting her ego get in the way. As Fox Sports begins to put together its line-up for 2008, Krista Voda must be on the short list of personalities who might inherit the old Hollywood Hotel.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.


Anonymous said...

In a perfect world, all NASCAR coverage would be on FOX/SPEED. ESPN does not come close and NBC/TNT is ajoke.n

Anonymous said...

I loved seeing john roberts host the pre-race show for SPEED. BUT I MISS KRISTA ...and john was great saying krista will be back. the feature on the hillman's was a tear jerker and one of the best things I have seen in a long time. I have to admit, I had to wipe one away after it was over. kudos to this SPEED production team and the faces and voices of this series...they do such a great job of promoting this series and making enjoyable to watch NASCAR racing again. It feels like the early 90's when racing was just about to explode on to the main stage.
NCTS on SPEED Channel is the best top to bottom.