Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fox Sports: Daytona 500

Every season Fox Sports sets the racing chat boards and forums on fire with their chosen NASCAR philosophy of following the leader...literally. This season's Daytona 500 proved to be another example of how this practice leads to missing the racing action and all the excitement that goes with it. Time and time again, the cameras zoomed-in on the single file leaders, even as the pack battled three wide behind them. Welcome back to NASCAR on Fox.

The broadcast network breaks out all the technical toys, including the new High Definition in-car cameras and 3-D animated replays for Daytona, treating the race with the respect it deserves. Unfortunately, even with the quality announcers, a sold-out speedway, and a beautiful day, things began for 2007 as they had ended in 2006.

The group with whom I watched the race continually yelled "No" at the screen when the director instructed the camera to zoom-in once again on the first and second place cars. Fox continues to be baffled by the fact that leading a NASCAR race means very little until the end, and that is especially true of the Daytona 500. Frustration boiled over during the final twenty laps, when the Fox Director melted down into a confusing series of camera angles and in-car shots that proved to be disorienting for both the viewers and the announcers.

The final lap of the race was a well-deserved climax for Fox as the cameras missed the action, the announcers talked over each other, and for a period of several minutes it was impossible for fans at home to have any understanding of what had just happened. The meltdown was complete. Random shots of crashed cars, drivers walking away, other cars on the back stretch, and even one seemingly parked against the pit wall served to confirm how out-of-control this telecast had become. For one last time, Fox Sports had to roll-back replay after replay to explain to the viewers what they had missed. Only, in this case, "they" refers to the NASCAR on Fox production team...the replay kings.

ESPN Implodes at Daytona

It had all the essential ingredients. Brent Musburger was at the host position, Chris Fowler was on the set, and Brad Daugherty was on-hand to provide the commentary. There was only one problem. This was not Chapel Hill, Providence, or Georgetown. This was Daytona, and no one was playing college basketball. Apparently, this was not a problem for ESPN.

The network decided to move its successful Gameday franchise to Daytona, instead of investing in an original NASCAR-based concept like Raceday on SPEED or the Hollywood Hotel on Fox Sports. ESPN was clearly declaring that the story of Daytona this year was that ESPN had arrived, and then there might be some racing, some cheating, and a whole lot of "good old boys."

Brent Musburger in the NASCAR Fan Zone looked like Rush Limbaugh at a ACLU Meeting. There were no fans in sight, just Brent in his big hat looking as uncomfortable and out-of-place as it is possible for a human being to be. His unfamiliarity with NASCAR was obvious, and his inability to speak in racing terms made his interaction with others on the program embarrassing.

For some reason, good guy Chris Fowler found himself at Daytona surrounded by the likes of Rusty Wallace, Alan Bestwick, Jerry Punch, and Andy Petree. Fowler is a professional, but eventually couldn't stop grinning and chuckling at the antics of both the drivers being interviewed, and his temporary co-host Boris Said. One had the feeling Fowler was going to call his wife later and say "I went to the NASCAR race at Daytona!"

Seeing Alan Bestwick in a firesuit as a pit reporter for ESPN can turn the stomach of any veteran NASCAR fan. Bestwick has more NASCAR knowledge than Musburger, Fowler, Daugherty, and Punch combined. Unfortunately, he has not been on College Gameday, so he is apparently unable to be featured by the network. Only Bestwick could handle a live interview with the volatile Bobby Hamilton Jr. after an incredibly weak taped tribute piece aired by the network about his father.

While strong in her host role at SPEED, Shannon Spake was over-matched in her debut at a live reporter for ESPN. Perhaps, she will gain the technical knowledge and on-air presence associated with live network television over the course of the season. Unfortunately, ESPN did not choose to use her skills in reporting stories, but limited her to brief interviews and introducing pre-produced features.

Finally, the Brad Daugherty issue has to be addressed. While certainly a pleasant and well-spoken television presence, he has little NASCAR experience. That showed in his mis-placed comments about the "danger" of the Daytona Busch Race, and the prediction of ten caution flag periods. Daugherty has never raced a car, never been a crew chief, never been a team member, and never worked as a reporter for any type of NASCAR media. So, what is his role, and why is he there? By the end of the pre-race show, his contributions were limited to thirty second comments prior to commercial. He was not used in any pre-produced features, interviewed no one, and never interacted with any fans or drivers throughout the telecast. If ESPN is going to commit to this classy gentleman as a fulltime Busch telecast regular, they need to step up to the plate and challenge him with feature assignments and interview duties.
Rusty Wallace had a year to cut his teeth on the ESPN/ABC coverage of the little watched IndyCar Series. Other than the Indy 500, Rusty was below the radar trying to analyze the action between Dario, Helio, Marco, and Kosuke. Wallace is so relieved to be back in NASCAR that nothing phases him. He was clearly annoyed with Fowler and Daugherty's amateurish comments in the pre-race show, but corrected them and finally dashed off to the place he longed to be, the broadcast booth. Wallace, with his credibility and outspoken manner, will be ESPN's saving grace during their first season back in the NASCAR world.
ESPN enjoys "feature presentations" like the over-hyped deubut of the Busch Series at Daytona. But, reality has a way of sneaking in when the season is only halfway over, its one hundred degrees, and you are in Memphis, TN. Hopefully, by then ESPN will have realized that NASCAR fans would tune in if the race was on the Lifetime Network between weepy chick flicks. The network needs to bring the content and focus that viewers have become accustomed to, and understand that NASCAR did just fine without them for the past six years.