Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Craftsman Trucks Are Happy On SPEED
Newspapers, magazines, and Internet websites have been littered this year with the amazing problems encountered by the "new" NASCAR TV partners.
Fox refused to show any car finishing but the winner. TNT refused to stop showing commercials and promos long enough to actually glimpse the race. ESPN has been struggling with their production philosophy since their first Cup race.
Very quietly, NASCAR's third national touring series is gearing up for another fantastic finish. Without a convoluted "reset" of points, without the hype of Monday Night Football liveshots, and without the need for a "Tech Center" or an Infield Studio, the Craftsman Truck Series has been outstanding on TV this season.
There is no doubt it has been because of the commitment of SPEED Channel's veteran production team to create simple and yet compelling sports TV. From the start of a Truck Series telecast, there is no doubt in the mind of the viewer that they are there for a race. Bells and whistles are in short supply.
Krista Voda anchors the pre-race thirty minute show, called The Set-Up, from the starting grid. No, literally from the starting grid. The SPEED set is rolled-out once the trucks are lined-up, and quickly rolled away once the show is done so the race can start.
Throughout the program, right over her shoulder, are the pole-sitting trucks and the rest of the field. You may recall Brent Musburger recently relocating to the same position for the ABC races. What a coincidence.
Earlier this season, at a short track, Voda abandoned this set and hosted the pre-race show from the bed of a pick-up truck in the infield surrounded by fans. Now, that was a lot of fun and just the right thing to show her versatility, and the flexibility of the network to permit it.
Voda's "no nonsense" approach is a tribute to her Iowa heritage, and her continual desire to let the people and the event tell the story. Like any good TV sports host, her job is to direct traffic and then get out of the way.
Voda began the season freezing on pit road in Daytona with Mark Martin freezing alongside as her guest. They did not go inside, did not do the "TV thing" and complain, but they made the best of a bad situation and hosted the entire thirty minutes from pit road. For me, this set the tone for the SPEED coverage and moved Voda up another notch on my "TV respect" scale.
There is no doubt that her hard work and single-minded dedication to this series will eventually pay-off with bigger assignments, but for right now NASCAR fans are very lucky to have her around. She is currently anchoring SPEED's mid-week Homestead coverage. Enjoy her unique style and on-air presence while you still can.
No one has epitomized the Truck Series more than Phil Parsons. This veteran racer is so good at being low-key fans have just come to expect completely accurate and up-to-date information from him in every telecast. Parsons has become an outstanding color announcer, and has hit his stride when he was matched with his current partner, Rick Allen.
The story of how Allen wound-up on this series is very interesting, but not for this column. Needless to say, he has made the most of an opportunity that came his way out of the blue, and continues to increase his commitment to NASCAR TV with his announcing of the DirectTV Hot Pass package.
Allen was rough at first, but has now learned through trial and error when to step-back and let Parsons fill-in the blanks, and when to get up on the microphone and let it fly with top intensity and volume. He has put the racing back in racing TV, and only Mike Joy has been as consistent in his performance in the TV booth.
Ask anyone about the Truck Series, and they always say the same thing. What is up with that Ray Dunlap guy? Over the years, this Bowling Green State University graduate has been a racing fixture. Dunlap was the PR Director for ARCA before joining ESPN in 1997. He was used in all kinds of roles with that network, before transitioning to SPEED and becoming so highly identified with the Craftsman Trucks.
Dunlap is outspoken, has a great sense of humor, and sometimes can have a bit too much fun away from the track. Many fans remember Dunlaps's attempt at humor on a live SPEED talk show resulted in a one week suspension and a public apology. Then, just a short time ago, SPEED confirmed that Dunlap had been once again suspended and would only be returning to the series when it arrived in Texas.
The funny thing is, this colorful character is exactly what SPEED and the Truck Series needed. Looking around at the overall quality of the pit reporters currently on TV, Dunlap is absolutely one of the best. Love his style or hate it, he can poke his nose in on any situation and knows the Truck Series inside and out. Could Ray Dunlap be the Tony Stewart of pit reporters?
Rounding out the SPEED coverage has been the solid Adam Alexander and the fascinating Michael Waltrip. Alexander has been a great addition to SPEED, and his low-key and factual reporting works well to balance the enthusiastic and over-the-top style of Dunlap.
Michael Waltrip continues to be a mystery this season in many ways. Is there anyone recently in NASCAR who has experienced the highs and lows this man has in one year? The worst part is that he did it all publicly. Removed from Tradin' Paint on SPEED and with bad memories of several other SPEED programs in which he appeared, the Truck Series has been his salvation.
On the air, Waltrip actually gets to talk about racing. Even on Inside NEXTEL Cup, he is only able to respond to the painfully scripted questions of host Dave Despain. Here, Rick Allen and Phil Parsons give Waltrip plenty of room to talk about the action on the track.
Both Parsons and Allen were working this series before Waltrip arrived as the third man in the booth, and one gets the opinion they will both be there long after Waltrip has moved on. To Parsons and Allen, Waltrip is the excitable little brother who makes things more interesting and humorous, regardless of his level of accuracy. Parsons slowly and patiently helps Waltrip when he drifts from the center line.
The final part of this column is directed to the production staff at SPEED who have helped to maintain a consistency with the trucks that has failed to materialize in the other two NASCAR national touring series. Just two little words...thank you.
It is refreshing to see the racing and have everything else be pushed aside. There are no "sports updates," no one needs to offer opinions from the infield on-camera, and absolutely never will we see exciting racing action on the track without exciting racing commentary from the booth.
As the exciting Craftsman Truck Series finale approaches this Friday night, SPEED will once again have an opportunity to close-out the season with a barn-burner of a race. Voda opens the show at 7:30PM Eastern Time, and then the action gets underway to decide another championship. If you have not taken the time to check-out the Trucks on SPEED, you might be missing the best NASCAR racing on TV.
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