Sunday, July 15, 2007
The Curious Case Of Michael Waltrip In Kentucky
Saturday night, the Craftsman Truck Series put on a great show at the Kentucky Speedway in front of a good crowd. As usual, the top-notch SPEED Channel production team was on hand to telecast the event. SPEED is the exclusive provider of Craftsman Truck racing, and has been a tremendous help for the series as a whole
Krista Voda anchors the pre-race show, and this week she was on the small set on pit road forced to hold a hand-held microphone. She did her best to keep things flowing until she was joined on the set by NEXTEL Cup owner Michael Waltrip. Then, things got a bit off-balance and remained that way. This often seems to happen when Waltrip is given free reign to take-over a telecast.
SPEED has a love and hate relationship with Waltrip, who has been a staple on the network for more than ten years. In many ways, the exposure that Waltrip gained from his participation in the original Inside Winston Cup Racing show helped to raise his profile and make his career. For a long while, Waltrip was an after-thought who was strong in the Busch Series, but struggled in the longer Cup events.
Since that time, Waltrip has been on a ton of SPEED programs that are no longer on the air. He is a favorite son of the network, despite shake-ups in senior management that resulted in other drivers losing their television jobs. For some reason, Waltrip is allowed to be a free spirit even when his antics are out of place.
This season, The Daly Planet wrote a column entitled "Michael Waltrip's Free Ride" that spoke about the way in which TV networks ignored a lot of Waltrip's issues while he continued to do work for them and also generated millions of dollars in TV advertising with his NAPA and Aaron's sponsors. His "free pass" has been true for both ESPN and SPEED.
Saturday in Kentucky, SPEED had a broadcast crew together that is fully capable of putting on a solid TV telecast. The former driver in the booth is Phil Parsons, who is the voice of the Truck Series and has been for many years. His extensive personal knowledge of the behind-the-scenes activity in this series shows on the air.
After appearing in the pre-race show to "hype" the event in his own over-the-top way, Waltrip assumed the role of the "second driver" in the booth, and proceeded to talk a whole lot about what was going on during the race. The problem was, when Michael talked, no one else could.
Sometimes, Waltrip would call the action and describe what was going on in great and excited detail. That is called play-by-play, and is done by Rick Allen, who was also in the booth. Other times, Waltrip would offer his analysis of events and describe what was being replayed on the telecast. That is called being the color announcer, and that has been done for years by Parsons. When Waltrip talks, they are forced to listen.
Both Parsons and Allen treat Waltrip with kid gloves, and for good reason. Like it or not, Michael Waltrip has a great deal of clout at SPEED. He is deeply involved with the network's Programming and Production teams, and continues to be the "king" of Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing, which still airs on Monday nights.
The big issue for fans is that Waltrip made a conscious decision to take a new path in his life that most would consider to be full time. That path was as an owner of a multi-car team racing in both the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series. Waltrip was, for many months this season, the public face of Toyota in NASCAR.
How is it then that an owner, fully invested in one brand, several sponsors, and several drivers, is allowed to comment as both a journalist and a reporter on a national network? Waltrip suddenly removes the hat that most owners work full time just to keep on their head, and immediately fans should understand that he is offering commentary and insight now as a TV announcer?
Earlier this season, SPEED quietly replaced Waltrip on their Tradin' Paint program with Kyle Petty. Waltrip had been the "designated driver" on that show for a long time, and it had been a good platform for his views. But, like the other shows that he continues to participate in, it was hard to understand that viewers should be able to just "flip a switch" and grasp that now....he was a journalist.
Waltrip is a smart man who is enamoured with TV. But, he made a decision to become an owner, and should have separated himself from the media when he took that role. The story of his up-and-down season is a nightmare, but regardless of his personal success in the owner's role, this TV issue is real. He routinely forces conversations back to his sponsors, and then plugs things in a joking manner when it serves him. Joyce Julius must have a crew that is assigned only to him.
The sponsor mentions that Waltrip does on the air are worth thousands of dollars every time. In the Saturday truck race, they were plentiful and obvious. He often assumed the play-by-play role to make these plugs, taking "the air" away from Allen until he was done, and then giving it back so the regular telecast could continue.
If SPEED can deal with the Toyota, NAPA, Aaron's, Goodyear, and other baggage that Waltrip brings with him to these telecasts, then we will continue to see him on the Truck Series shows. The network will let the fans decide if they are hearing information from the owner, the pitchman, the driver, or the TV announcer. Then the fans themselves will decide what to believe...is true.
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