Thursday, September 13, 2007

Final "NASCAR In Primetime" Sends ABC Out On A High Note

Those of us familiar with NASCAR often cringe when we hear that an entertainment or news production team has decided to "make a show" about the sport. Right away, the Days of Thunder music starts playing in our heads.

This summer, ABC has been airing a collection of five hours of rather eclectic documentary-style NASCAR programming. The series is called NASCAR in Primetime because ABC is showing racing in primetime on a Wednesday for the first time in the history of modern man on the planet earth.

The award-winning ABC News production team was let loose to shoot and produce this series without all the normal interference from the NASCAR brass and the ESPN egos. To ABC's credit, many of the individuals featured in the show work for networks other than ESPN and still others are print and radio journalists.

The show is absolutely aimed at the casual fan, because the actual race stories contained in the series are several months old. Along the way, viewers have seen the strange story of Johnny Sauter, the grim determination of Mark Martin, and the unique partnership of Kevin and Delana Harvick.

In this final episode Sauter, Martin, and The Harvicks were gone. The focus shifted to Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma with Tony Stewart as his "opposing force." Playing against the determination of these two top teams to win was a well-created counterpoint featuring Busch Series driver Stanton Barrett and young go-kart racer Sage Karam.

In its own rough way, ABC let the both the contrasts and similarities of the rich, the poor and the young weave their way way though a cycle of racing competition. Barrett, the Hollywood Stunt Man, pays the way for his under-funded team and continues to put all his effort into what is clearly not a winning organization. Karam chases a go-kart championship and displays an eerie sense of being "older" on the track than he is in real life.

In earlier episodes of this series, ABC struggled with just stepping-back and letting the pictures tell the story. Viewers got a lot of fans, celebrities, and media types "inter-cut MTV style" who added their comments to the mix. It was a little over-the-top and bruised the concept overall.

This final show, however, never surrendered to the hype. It let all the stories play-out and then merge into one big finish. In doing so, the real life sound and fury of racing was captured for that elusive casual fan. At last, there was an episode of this series that may actually motivate non-racing TV viewers to watch a race.

Barrett showed that the struggling teams still can make the show sometimes. Young Sage Karam has talent, but won his championship on a lucky break on the final lap. As Tony Stewart said in this show, the best car and the best driver will never win without luck on their side. His statement proved prophetic.

The climax of the show was Montoya gambling on fuel at Sonoma and winning. Meanwhile, unaware of the reality unfolding in front of him, a confident Tony Stewart was sure the race was his. The resulting frustration was captured for all to see, and immediately brought to mind the young Mr. Karam and his earlier tantrums.

The racing game is for men who are driven, for a wide variety of reasons, to surrender all to this sport. Jeff Hammond, the outstanding Fox and SPEED analyst, said early-on in this program that racing was a drug. It gets in your system and you just can't get rid of it. NASCAR's Jim Hunter said it just plain gets in your blood.

ABC closed this series with two strong episodes, which let the sport show both its good and bad sides to viewers in a very unpolished and raw fashion. This is exactly the type of programming that NASCAR fans miss after SPEED cancelled several NASCAR "reality" series.

Now that NASCAR in Primetime is over, only the outstanding Survival of the Fastest TV series will be serving this purpose over on SPEED. With several areas of NASCAR beginning to struggle a bit, including the TV coverage, this ABC series has been a fun and unexpected diversion.

Hopefully, one effect of NASCAR in Primetime might be to spur ESPN and other networks like Discovery or A&E to invest in this type of NASCAR programming. It would be in the best interest of NASCAR Images to step boldly into this style of show, and expand the reach of NASCAR beyond just two network families.

With the dynamic changes in cable TV networks, and the available on-demand services in the home, NASCAR's non-racing programming should stretch well beyond the limited offerings now available to the fan during the week. If this is not embraced for 2008 look for a wholesale switch to YouTube, Infield Parking, and Rowdy as the dotcom future of NASCAR TV.

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 and leave your opinion.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Daly, I enjoyed reading your great thoughts.

I'm a big fan of this type of NASCAR programming - I have several tapes filled with episodes of the shows like NBS 24/7, Beyond the Wheel, 7 Days, NASCAR Drivers:360, and the ESPN version of NASCAR 360 that was on last fall, NASCAR Drivers Non-Stop.

NASCAR in Primetime was a very well produced show. Yet, as you mention, it was terribly uneven from episode to episode, and my husband and I (ages 27 and 29) have concluded that it was not nearly as enjoyable as the shows I mention above.

I can't explain why. Maybe because a show like NASCAR 360 is concentrated on the driver (and the people around him) and less of the overall NASCAR experience, which was probably the aim of the ABC show.

It may be the simple fact that the other shows feature the drivers in their homes and their local environments, while Primetime (with the exception of a little of Mark Martin at home) was strictly at the racetrack. Only Sauter and Montoya allowed access to lives in their motorcoaches at the track to ABC, from what we saw on the show.

My husband (who also enjoys your blog) points out that the other shows had a "formula" of first part of the program is personal life, second part is racetrack life. We believe that mix is a winning formula and hope to see it again.

I have heard that ESPN, if it so chooses, can continue on with more episodes of NASCAR Drivers Nonstop (which, other than the theme music, was the identical twin of NASCAR 360 in format). Four episodes aired late last season on ESPN2 and they were excellent. I don't know what kind of ratings those shows had; I thought they were poorly promoted and - except for one episode - only aired once per week at 10 pm instead of the repeats that cable viewers expect.

That was completely different from NASCAR Drivers 360 on FX, which originally aired each episode 3-4 times a week, from Friday to Sunday (and also aired multiple episodes during race rain delays and postponements, which was genius!). After FX stopped production on the show, the reruns of the seasons later aired on both Speed and Turner South.

If ESPN is thinking the show won't get good ratings if they produce a new season, I'm here to tell them that they're wrong! Many of us still talk fondly of the scenes from these NASCAR shows -why do you think Kenny Wallace and the Harvicks are so popular? - and would look forward to another season.

The best time to show a new NASCAR Drivers Nonstop season on ESPN2 would probably be summer 2008, so the show can repeat each week a few times before all of the other sports start crowding in and running over on ESPN2. The previous seasons of NASCAR 360 were eight episodes each, which would fit perfectly from July to August.

Thank you for your time, I know you say some big shots read your blog, so I'm hoping they read this and realize how much fans love the NASCAR lifestyle programming. :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree that the show was uneven from episode to episode. However, this last episode was spectacular. If they would take out the "hype" moments with the celebrities, and mixed in the best storylines from the past episodes, what ABC put together would have been a great documentary on racing in America.

Of course, they only had five episodes to pull it off and I have read that many shows take an entire season to fine tune a show to where it becomes great. I guess I can forgive a couple of poor decisions. However, I do think that there was enough positives about this show that it should be viewed as an example of how to portray the sport.

Anonymous said...

After watching the first episode, I commented here that I was not personally impressed, but that the couple that I was visiting at the time, not racing fans, were delighted with the program. The wife really enjoyed the "behind the scenes" back story about racing families. She loved Montoya's wife.

I decided then that perhaps ABC was not trying to impress me, a relatively well informed NASCAR junkie. I already knew how the story would end. However, it was all new to the couple I that I was visiting. They were blown away by the intensity and drama.

As the series progressed, I actually began enjoying the show myself. The last couple of episodes were excellent. They had real drama as opposed to manufactured cliff hangers. I am now sorry to see the series end.

ABC actually created some new casual fans for NASCAR. The couple I was visiting has actually watched a couple of races. The wife has become a Montoya fan because of the show, mostly because she identified with Montoya's wife.

The lesson for me is that, perhaps, we hard core fans are a little bit quick to disparage the pablum that the general viewing public is fed. My friends were introduced to an exiting new sport. NASCAR has two new fans.

Overall, I think ABC did a very good job.

JHD said...

I didn't realize this was the last episode. If ABC could continue in the vein of last Wednesday's show, I wish they'd do a few more episodes later in the year.

I think though this show accomplished what it set out to do - show the drivers in a more human light. I'm not a JPM fan, I think for a rookie, his arrogance is misplaced. When he runs a full season or two, then the arrogance will be justifiable. However, seeing this show makes me dislike him less. It probably has a lot more to do with Connie than Juan, though. He's still arrogant, but it's laced with a sense of humor that I think isn't shown enough in other interviews or stories on him.

Contrast that with Johnny Sauter. I could take him or leave him, it never mattered much to me until he crashed into any one of my drivers, which was a semi-frequent occurrence. But now after seeing the WhineFest he and his fiancee are capable of, there's no way I would ever root for him.

I didn't quite understand why Sage Karam was featured in a NASCAR show, but it was compelling to watch nonetheless. I have the feeling this kid will either implode spectacularly, or will be the next NASCAR Young Gun superstar 10 years from now.

My only criticism of that is that if you're going to feature karting and be nonexclusive to the Cup series, the show probably should have focused on a Busch or Truck racer instead.

Anonymous said...

I liked what I saw of NASCAR in Primetime - I saw three of the shows. It was good though sometimes I couldn't tell where the stories were going with the editing. I came out of it liking Juan Pablo Montoya and his wife a lot.

I also really miss NBS 24/7 and wish it was back on again. But there are so few real Busch teams without Cup support and drivers that I can see why it was cancelled. No team wants to be showcased as struggling every single week and that's the way the last season of NBS 24/7 was shaping up.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first anonymous poster about bringing back NASCAR 360 - or the new version of it - and airing it frequently. I can use myself as the best example.

In 2005, I knew nothing -and I mean nothing - about NASCAR except that Jeff Gordon was the most famous person in it. That's all I knew about it - and I live in North Carolina. NASCAR was not a sport that anyone I knew followed.

One night, I was flipping through the channels and came across a "marathon" of NASCAR 360 on FX. It was four episodes in a row. I was riveted, not only by the personalities (I ended up liking all of the drivers), but by the actual footage of the races and the conversations betweeen the drivers and crews. I was also fascinated that these athletes lived near me, shopped and ate in some of the same places I did, and I'd never heard of them before. They seemed like such regular people, even though it was obvious some of them were extremely wealthy.

In sum, I became a NASCAR fan that night. I bought a book - NASCAR for Dummies - about the sport and started watching the races and the SPEED channel (again, I had NO IDEA this channel existed or was based in Charlotte). My family and friends have attended three races with me so I can root for our favorite driver, Kasey Kahne. It's no coincidence he's my favorite: He was featured on three of the four NASCAR 360 episodes that I saw that evening.

So those shows do draw in the casual fan if they're done correctly. NASCAR in Primetime is a great show now that I know about NASCAR, but I think it would have been hard to keep my attention for that show had I not known about NASCAR beforehand.
Seeing the drivers in everyday life on NASCAR 360 affected me more than what was shown on ABC.

Anonymous said...

I hated NASCAR in Primetime. Thought it was an incredable waste of time. I really don't care what the producers 8 year old kid thinks of darlington, nor do I can what the lady they picked up a homedepot thinks of Mark Martin. Too much irrelavent opinoins and not enough real coverage and facts.

Seiko said...

I honestly thought the last episode was a serious identity crisis.

Was it 2 episodes ago that they were going on and on about how JP Montoya was hitting people and showing them what hes made of? That sort of thing?

Then in this episode thy show the Sonoma race where he bumped and banged every car but the pace car, and don't show a lick of it. It showed him in a much better light, but lets show some consistency of some sort.

The bouncing around between the tracks in one episode following diffrent drivers. I don't think it worked.

That being said, I cant wait for the next series of episodes!

Anonymous said...

New episodes for this show are doubtful. The ratings for NASCAR in Primetime were low to start with and plunged even lower by the final show.

If NASCAR didn't have the new deal with ABC/ESPN, Primetime would have been pulled after the second episode. ABC pulled other shows off the air this summmer with higher ratings than this series.

Sharon said...

I didn't realize that the show had ended. I don't watch TV unless it is something special that gets my attention. I happened to catch the show on when company was here one evening and liked it enough to watch the next few weeks. I only turned the TV on to watch that and then off it went. I just turned it on to watch tonight and found it was over. I'm bummed! Now nothing for me to watch again and back to the computer. I like the reality shows and now, NASCAR.