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.
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