Sunday, August 12, 2007
What A Difference A Race Makes For ESPN
NASCAR fans who sat through the Pocono race on ESPN were ready for action this week. With the remote in their hands, they were on the lookout for Rihanna, Aerosmith, or any other bizarre music video that somehow has become the standard for ESPN's NASCAR coverage. The mute button was at the ready. Well, what a difference one race makes.
The Watkins Glen coverage transitioned from NASCAR Countdown and resembled the ESPN of old. Straightforward and clean, Jerry Punch led an opening segment free of the non-racing clutter that has plagued ESPN's coverage. Basically, it was a wonderful change for viewers.
Punch, Andy Petree, and Rusty Wallace talked about things that mattered right off the bat, then finally led the network through an organized and respectful opening ceremony. No hip-hop beats were pounding, no guitar riffs were screaming, and the network even showed the fly-over.
During the entire pre-race, things were very different. No hype, no drama, and good information. The pit reporters were on their stories, talking about their drivers, and following the building tension as The Chase approached. Things were focused on racing, and it was great. Did I mention that?
From the drop of the flag, things were stripped-down, and it was all about the on-track action. The HD pictures and audio were again excellent, and that is always a challenge at a road course. Despite the bobble with Montoya on the radio, things were looking good after the network just rolled with the punches.
Since the beginning of the season, The Daly Planet has been complimentary to the ESPN on-track efforts of the booth and pit announcers. This race was no different, although it appears that there are some tired faces among the troops. Their Sunday efforts were even more impressive when you note that most of the crew worked over a twelve hour day on Saturday, including about seven straight hours on-the-air. That is truly a broadcast marathon.
NASCAR star and ESPN centerpiece Rusty Wallace seems to be working hard and paying attention to his early on-air issues. His vocabulary and mannerisms were mostly a thing of the past, and his comments were very candid. This is what fans want from Wallace. He does not need to know everything, just to speak up with his opinion.
Andy Petree continues to do his best Larry McReynolds imitation in terms of understanding and explaining race strategy. Is there anybody better than these two? Petree really helped viewers understand the road course mentality and how the race is actually run backwards by teams in terms of pitting for tires and fuel.
The Infield Studio and Suzy Kolber did not interfere with the racing, and only appeared to offer recaps and occasional commentary. This big change from the promotional heavy use of this group for frequent interruptions of green flag action was a welcome change. They have a place, and they may have finally found it.
The on-track action led to many moments for the production team, who often had to choose between battles for the lead, and great action back in the pack. They worked hard, and while they missed some action live, it was always replayed without delay.
Road course races offer some unique moments, like Harvick and Montoya hand-slapping like twelve year old girls on national TV. ESPN kept it together, followed-up on the story, and then stood-by while things calmed down. Showing the replay quickly to the Harvick camp helped to calm down any suggestion that Montoya dive-bombed the corner.
ESPN was intimately involved in this race just like they used to be back in the old days of their former TV contract. I mean that only as high praise. There was a focus on each lap of green flag racing as being special and telling a story that fans want to see, and understand. This week, racing was not just background for the talking heads.
Good humor was a trademark of ESPN back then, and when a fan decided to approach Matt Kenseth for an autograph in his car under the red flag, they had some good fun with it. I think this moment, in many ways, broke the tension of the race broadcast and put things back in perspective for the crew and the viewers.
The network will be criticized for missing Jeff Gordon's spin live, but he was solo and is such a veteran driver, the Director just guessed who to follow, and missed. The replay was quick, and told the story right away. They did catch Carl Edwards on the last lap, and then did the best thing ESPN has done all year long.
The camera went nice and wide, the live scoring graphic was inserted, and viewers got to watch the top twenty cars race to the finish. ESPN let viewers watch the field finish in a NEXTEL Cup race live. That was a very nice moment, and clearly let fans see their driver cross the line, and read the result.
After a tough Pocono, ESPN put in a marathon on-air effort Saturday and then followed it up with a much improved broadcast on Sunday at The Glen. Anyone who watched the efforts of this crew on both days has to have a good feeling about what the rest of the season will bring on the track. How about that for a comeback?
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