Monday, February 12, 2007

SPEED: Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing

One of the most talked-about series on SPEED returned for its ninth year as Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing debuted from Daytona. Created by Bob Scanlon, the original Executive Producer at SpeedVision, this show was an extension of the old Inside Winston Cup show produced at Sunbelt Video in Charlotte, NC. That show featured Ned Jarrett and was hosted by a young Bill Weber, who cut his teeth anchoring and producing the series.

At SpeedVision, the original grouping of Alan Bestwick, Johnny Benson, Michael Waltrip, and Kenny Schrader was an instant hit for the small niche network. With Alan as ringmaster, the rowdy trio of drivers found that they could have fun on the air and enjoy themselves in the context of "just talking racing." The reality of both cable television and NASCAR racing affected the show drastically when SpeedVision was bought by Fox Cable Networks, and Scanlon chose to exit.

The new administration felt that changes needed to be made, and Bestwick and Benson were summarily dismissed. Inserted as host was the bombastic Dave Despain, along with young driver Brian Vickers. Since that time, the show has never regained its stride or momentum, with Despain overpowering the panel and directing a highlight review show that is, at best, awkward. By the conclusion of the 2006 season, Schrader and Waltrip were openly mocking Despain and summarily dismissing the forced comments of Vickers.

Now, as the 2007 season gets underway, Vickers is no where to be found, but Despain continues as host. Unfortunately, Despain still does not understand the NASCAR enthusiasm and humor. The inside jokes of Waltrip and Schrader go whizzing by his head like a Tony Stewart inside pass. The Daytona show featured Mark Martin and David Gilliland, both of whom "got it" and were well-spoken guests. The odd man out is Despain, who addresses the NASCAR "people" as inferior, and simply does not get it. Somewhere, Alan Bestwick is smiling.

This series has the most potential of any show on SPEED, and will only blossom if a change is made at the host position. Despain is wonderful on Wind Tunnel, and even better when expressing his passion for motorcycles. Unfortunately, he is over-matched when dealing with heavy hitters like Waltrip, Martin, and Schrader. Several times in this show, Waltrip took control and asked questions of the guests, expressed opinions that were not on the script, and actually dared to make jokes and have fun.

Simply allowing a new host to "unbundle" the enthusiasm and fun that exists within this bunch would be wonderful. But, in its current form, the tension that built up last year and forced the show to bomb in the ratings seems destined to return. What a shame for SPEED, NASCAR, and the fans.


ESPN is off to the races with NASCAR Now, the new daily series that rose from the ashes of RPM2Night. As the network steps back into the racing world, they have some debts to pay. ESPN SportsCenter, ESPN News, and the company in general purposely avoided NASCAR for years since the network lost to Fox and NBC in a bidding war for programming rights.

It seems as though all is forgotten with the company's large scale commitment to televise all the Busch Series events, the final portion of the Nextel Cup season, and a daily show devoted solely to the sport. ESPN grabbed Rusty Wallace last year as an analyst, and allowed him to experience his rookie season behind the mike with the invisible IndyCar Series, where he gamely hung tough with the like of Dario, Helio, Mario, and Kosuke.

Anchoring NASCAR Now is Erik Kuselias, the former host of ESPN Radio's SportsBash. Kuselias has been struggling this season with one simple equation. Excitement on television does not necessarily originate from increasing the volume level of the host. While very professional, and surprisingly knowledgeable about racing, he is still a sports radio host who "likes to ask the tough question" and "put people on the spot for answers." Needless to say, this elicits eyebrow raises and deep breaths from those around him. He seems like a nice guy, so let's hope a little more television experience settles him down.

The series itself holds great potential for both ESPN and NASCAR. Featuring a diverse cast of characters including basketball great Brad Daugherty and the dynamic Shannon Spake, the show holds the promise of mixing hardcore race information with lifestyle reports and solid opinion. The addition of the controversial Marty Smith from and Tim Cowlishaw from ESPN's own Around the Horn adds a nice slice of professional journalism to the overall picture.

While the early studio shows worked smoothly, the transition to a live on-site environment at Daytona has proven to be problematic. No doubt ESPN is working hard behind the scenes to solve these problems with transitions and camera work, mostly generated by the large number of talent on-camera in the show. The series lacks dynamic theme music, standard in and out transitions, and a signature daily feature, but it appears these items may be sorted out with more on-air time.
At Daytona, ESPN will face-off for the first time with the SPEED Channel heavy hitters, Raceday and Victory Lane. Jimmy Spencer, Kenny Wallace, and John Roberts exhibit a charm and charisma that the NASCAR Now crew has yet to develop, so it will be interesting to see who wins the weekend.