Saturday, October 6, 2007
Talladega Qualifying "Drama" Unfolds On SPEED
The focus of the weekend at Talladega was clearly on the fact that forty-three drivers would be piloting a COT when the green flag fell. Stories in the media centered on drafting, passing, and even the dreaded restrictor plate.
What most of the print and Internet media failed to mention was the fact that qualifying for this race was going to be a sports moment to be remembered. The words "impound race" are universally hated around the garage, and totally embraced by the NASCAR administration. This simple procedure along with the "top 35" rule has worked to create two entirely different competitions on qualifying day.
With ESPN and ABC stepping aside for both the practice and qualifying at Talladega, the SPEED team of Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond, and Larry McReynolds made the most of this opportunity. These three in the booth for qualifying really show the key weakness of the ESPN broadcast team. The casual and personal approach of SPEED simply cannot be topped by the formal and impersonal format of the ESPN/ABC gang.
When SPEED throws in the experienced Randy Permberton and the very well-connected Wendy Venturini on pit road, viewers cannot help but think of Jamie Little and Dave Burns on ESPN. The tone and approach of Pemberton and Venturini allows the NASCAR personalities to have fun and talk plainly about what is actually going-on at the track.
This season, we have seen several episodes where various NASCAR drivers have felt that ESPN has "violated" the normally good rapport that the TV networks covering the sport have with the drivers, crew chiefs, and owners. SPEED does not have their reporters throw softballs, but they approach issues from an informative rather than tabloid perspective.
As the Talladega qualifying wound down, SPEED could have shown the faces of the drivers and the crew chiefs as their cars were bumped out of the field. They could have shoved the microphone in their faces and said "how do you feel about that?" They did not. What they did instead was keep the focus on the action on the track and interview the personalities involved in the on-going stories of this crazy day.
SPEED's Steve Byrnes has become a very versatile announcer, and his frustration about the qualifying procedures and the "go or go home" cars showed him to still be a fan. Suggestions on changes for next year included heat races and reducing the number of teams guaranteed to race. Byrnes has not been afraid to bring-up topics sensitive to the NASCAR executives, and the SPEED team did that several times.
As the "embarrassing" afternoon of qualifying came to an end, it was clear that this was a moment that needed a veteran perspective and a calm head to explain. Though not a language scholar, Larry McReynolds has proven this year that he is far and away the best NASCAR analyst in the TV business.
Fans watched McReynolds anchor the Fox package, and then single-handedly keep the struggling TNT NASCAR coverage on-track with his insightful comments from the spinning infield stage. Often on TNT, the announcers in the booth would literally seek out McReynolds to "interpret" what was happening in the race.
Saturday on SPEED, McReynolds carefully laid-out for viewers that these normally slow cars were only leading the speed charts because of the impound format and the fact that the top 35 teams were already locked-in. He kept the two different "races" in perspective, and organized for viewers who was on the bubble, even though that driver might be in the top ten in speed. When is the last time that happened?
SPEED deserves credit for calling it like it was, with the "go or go home" cars in qualifying trim and everyone else in their racing configuration. Several veteran teams seemed to purposefully be coasting their way through qualifying, giving further proof to the mistakes in this new system.
In wrapping things up with "pole-sitter" Micheal Waltrip, SPEED's Randy Pemberton kept things in perspective and let Waltrip choose his own words when trying to legitimize the fact that he was fastest on this day. There was no need to try and put Waltrip deeper into a situation that he was already going to be spending a lot of time explaining to the media.
Unfortunately, time constraints did not allow the run of every car to be show, and hopefully this is something that the NASCAR TV partners can address for the 2008 season. As this sport continually changes, it is clear that all of the competitors should be treated equally when it comes to showing NEXTEL Cup qualifying to a national TV audience.
With SPEED Channel now reaching slightly more than seventy million cable homes across the nation, there is a real feeling among fans that the disparity between the SPEED qualifying coverage and that of ESPN may need to be addressed down the road.
It is one of the most popular Internet topics on chat boards and in The Daly Planet email. How can things be so comfortable and casual one week, and so impersonal and over-blown just one week later?
NASCAR fans will have a chance to compare for themselves when qualifying and practice for the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series returns to ESPN next weekend in Charlotte, NC.
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