Saturday, October 13, 2007
Punch Struggling In NASCAR Booth
Most of the talk about the ABC coverage continues to be about the missed restarts and the infamous "draft lock," but there is something else that just can't be ignored.
On Friday night in the Busch Series race, the leader Clint Bowyer was trying very hard on old tires to hold off the charging Greg Biffle. Suddenly, Bowyer's car broke loose, spun in front of Biffle, and the entire race field was suddenly heading for two spinning cars in a dangerous part of the Lowe's Motor Speedway.
This was the commentary from Dr. Jerry Punch in the ESPN2 announce booth:
"Whoa, the 2 car around...right in front of the 16."
As the field came down on both cars, TV analysts Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree jumped-in and tried to fill-in the details that Punch did not deliver. Cars were in the grass, spinning across the track, and continuing to crash in the back of the pack.
Two or three other cars had also crashed on the track and were now sliding across the start-finish line. The caution was out and the track was a mess. Cars were trying to drive away, others were stopped on the track, and several could not continue.
Jerry Punch is the play-by-play announcer for both ESPN and ABC on their NASCAR coverage. He is the voice of the sport, and adds the excitement and the descriptive narration to one of the fastest and most viewer-friendly sports in the world.
From the time Punch finished saying "in front of the 16" as the crash began, he said absolutely nothing at all for thirty seconds. Let me repeat that. The play-by-play announcer on ESPN said nothing for thirty seconds as a high speed crash unfolded live on national TV in primetime during a NASCAR race.
As the cameras panned around, they found several cars sitting damaged on the track. Viewers had absolutely no idea why they were there, or where they came from. When ESPN replayed the crash, Wallace and Petree again filled-in the details of the incident.
The Busch Series season began with great expectation for ESPN. Jerry Punch was back in NASCAR, and fans were loving it. With Bob Jenkins, John Kernan, and Jack Arute long gone, Punch was the only tie-in for many fans to the old ESPN NASCAR days.
Expectations were higher for Punch than his booth-mates Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree. Wallace had practiced his TV skills on the IndyCar package, but this was his first full season on the NASCAR beat. Petree was a total TV rookie. It was Punch who was the consummate TV pro, and who had decided to remain loyal to ESPN and continue there once the NASCAR TV package moved on.
Now, rewarded for his loyalty, Punch was put in the highest profile position of his career. His previous experience with play-by-play on ESPN's Craftsman Truck Series was not a positive one, but his work as a reporter for college football and other sports continued to show TV viewers his true strength, which is news reporting.
As the Busch Series wore on, the big NEXTEL Cup TV package on ABC was rapidly approaching. ESPN had many long days on the Busch beat, and Punch was often the only voice heard in the booth for hours. When Punch went on vacation, Marty Reid and Allen Bestwick both stepped into the play-by-play role with outstanding reviews. Now, TV viewers had a new level of expectation for Punch upon his return.
When he came back, Punch actually appeared to be weary of his assigned role of adding "the excitement" to the telecast. When fans think of current NASCAR announcers who "get it," the list is a short one. Mike Joy, Allen Bestwick, Barney Hall, Dave Moody, Mark Garrow, and maybe a few others can make fans sit-up and take notice instantly with the inflections in their voice and their choice of words.
These veterans can make things in a race go from boring to totally exciting in the blink of an eye. This is the experience that play-by-play announcers in TV sports bring to the viewer. When something is happening, be it a long touchdown pass, the final strike of a no-hitter, or a jump shot at the buzzer to win the game, it leaves a lasting memory. Sometimes, the call of a just a single moment in sports can be remembered for a lifetime. There have been no such memories this season with Jerry Punch.
As the ESPN on ABC season winds-down, there certainly have to be discussions underway about next year. This first effort from ESPN has been huge, with millions of dollars in manpower, facilities, and logistics. The pictures have been great, the sound has been fantastic, and the technical end of the telecasts has been first-rate from the graphics to the High Definition technology.
Unfortunately, the ESPN issues with the NASCAR on-air personnel have been on display for everyone to see. Kolber "in" and Bestwick "out" of the Infield Studio. Daugherty struggling to define for us why is he is on national TV. Dale Jarrett structuring his "retirement" year around the ESPN race package. Wallace struggling under the pressure of "draft trackers" and his son's continuing on-track woes. Jamie Little unable to locate her personal volume button...and turn it down. And, there is one more item being discussed.
The message boards and chat rooms across the Internet reflect the viewer's confusion about Jerry Punch. Most fans, like myself, have fond memories of his hard work and his wonderful personality. Newer fans, however, chide him for often being the last one to spot an incident and seemingly being unable to muster-up any sort of excitement during a race telecast.
As we have discussed before at The Daly Planet, Punch was great as a reporter. He earned our trust whether it was on IndyCars, college sports, or NASCAR. Seeing Jerry Punch with Bob Ley on a high-profile ESPN news program seemed to be natural. Jerry Punch is a reporter at heart, and we like that about him. As they say in the business, it seemed that he had a nose for news.
As ABC and ESPN close out the season, it will be interesting to see if they allow Punch to step-back and look at his struggles with an unbiased eye. Punch could easily step into the shoes of Suzy Kolber on NASCAR Countdown or host the ESPN2 daily series NASCAR Now. No one would begrudge him a change.
One thing is for sure, when Punch looks back at 2007, it will be one of the longest years of his life. Beginning with the January production meetings, Punch has been working on the NASCAR beat for ten months with only a few small breaks. Now, there is light at the end of the tunnel and only one question remains. In what direction will he turn when this season's NASCAR journey is over? Only one person can answer that question.
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