Saturday, August 11, 2007
Saturday At Watkins Glen Was The Real Disney Marathon
Once a year, Disney hosts athletes that run around Disney World for over four hours. They have chosen to run the marathon, chosen to endure the pain, and know the reward at the end is not glory or praise. They have their own reasons to be there.
Saturday at Watkins Glen, ESPN stayed on the air from 11:30 AM through the end of the Busch Series race. There was no break, there was no pause, and there was no mercy.
Finally, at the end of this TV marathon, all the crew got to face was the drive to the hotel and the opinions of The Daly Planet.
All day long on Saturday, the ESPN Infield Studio gang was led by Allen Bestwick. Perhaps, I might have missed a memo, but I thought that Suzy Kolber was going to take over both the Busch and Cup editions of Countdown.
That aside, Bestwick led the network through a very long day that included practice, Busch qualifying, Cup happy hour, and then the Busch race.
Dr. Jerry Punch was struggling with providing the play-by-play alone hour-after-hour for the network and then having to call a full Busch Series race. ESPN would have been better off using Bestwick to give Punch a break during Cup happy hour. By the time the Busch race came around, it was clear Punch was done. It was now 3:30PM, and Punch had been on-the-air constantly since 11:30AM with no break.
This week pit reporter Jamie Little was everywhere, with mixed results. Little is fearless, but sometimes pushes interviews a little further than NASCAR fans are used to seeing. For some reason, the pit reporters were focused on controversy rather than reality. It was all about Montoya vs. Pruett and Gordon vs. Ambrose. This naive approach really left a lot of information from the garage on the table.
Even veteran Mike Massaro got a face-full of Dale Junior in an annoying interview that Massaro would not end. Sometimes, ESPN just needs to get the hint that the diplomatic thing to do would be walk away. Junior was not having anything Massaro was trying to sell, and it looked like the TV crew was interfering in the garage.
In Countdown, Tim Brewer finally appeared and viewers wondered where he had been for the previous three and a half hours? ESPN is still working on the Tech Center, and desperately needs a Steadicam in this facility instead of the normal shoulder-mounted hand-held. Almost all of Brewer's features involved low-angle camera shots, which would be better served by the smooth transition of the Steadicam.
Bestwick brought-out the best in Brad Daugherty, and again focused his role on TV as the voice of the fans. Daugherty is a nice guy, he has good points, and he asks good questions. The problem often is, the person he has to ask is Bestwick.
Daugherty's comments do not work unless there is an expert analyst on-set and ready to answer them. How hard would it be to walk Brewer over to the set, just like the NASCAR on Fox gang does with Jeff Hammond?
As the race progressed, Bestwick and Daugherty began to offer comments from the Infield Studio and talk with the booth announce crew. Including these voices is a good idea, and takes some pressure off Petree and Wallace, who often times did not agree on racing items during this telecast. The long season is starting to grate on announcers as well as drivers. The happy faces of Daytona in February have turned to the tired eyes of Watkins Glen in August.
Petree is clearly the experienced guy when it comes to strategy, and he was head and shoulders above Wallace in terms of suggesting and understanding road course tactics. Petree, much like Larry McReynolds, tracks the on-going stories of the race and stays up-to-date with the actions of the entire field, not just the leaders.
Punch was working hard to keep his wits about him and used the pit reporters, the Infield Studio gang, and his analysts much more than he normally would. One had to feel for the fact that he had no relief, and had an entire NEXTEL Cup race on-tap for Sunday. For the good doctor, this was going to be a weekend to remember.
With SPEED taking over practice and qualifying activities beginning with Michigan, this was ESPN's last Saturday for a while to cover everything on the track. Instead of staggering their on-air crews, and providing some relief announcers, the network just began at 11:30AM and kept everyone going all day until the end of the Busch race. Give it to the talent and production staff, they hung-in there.
Rusty has become a pro at dealing with the situations his son Steven encounters seemingly every week in the Busch Series. This week, a solo spin at a part of the track where he should have been paying a little more attention was the culprit. Rusty was honest in his comments about his son's learning curve, and the fact he was looking forward to the second half of the season.
ESPN presented this race the old-fashioned way. There were no music videos, no hip-hop or pop music queens gyrating, and no interruptions to green flag coverage. It was very refreshing and paid-off for the viewers with almost every incident covered quickly, and almost all the on-going stories in the field shown thoroughly.
The difference between this presentation of the Busch Series and the previous weekend's NEXTEL Cup race was striking. This time, the star of the show was the race. There were no movie stars, no mid-race recaps, no studio chat sessions under green, and no features rolled in the middle of racing.
ESPN followed the stories, let all their announcers talk freely, and openly asked questions of their co-workers when they did not know the answer. Despite the relative boredom of a road course race on TV, the network stayed aggressive in their coverage, and again presented great HD pictures and good sound.
After the race, there is no doubt that a tired TV crew had a post-race meeting and then staggered to the hotel for some sleep. Hopefully, they will be dreaming of presenting Sunday's NEXTEL Cup race in the same clear and concise way to the NASCAR fans. That would make a clean sweep of Watkins Glen for ESPN, and put the network back on-track for the rest of the season.
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