Monday, February 19, 2007

SPEED: Inside Nextel Cup

SPEED brought the studio debut of Inside Nextel Cup to the air Monday night without explaining what had changed since 2006. While host Dave Despain jokingly mentioned the fact that the set had new chairs, he failed to mention why Brian Vickers was no longer on the show, or why Greg Biffle was alongside the nine year regulars Kenny Schrader and Michael Waltrip.

This show has changed everything but Schrader and Waltrip over the better part of the last decade, and the 2007 version appears to be struggling. From the moment the first video of the studio appeared, Waltrip's body language betrayed his disgust with Despain continuing as the host. Michael has made no bones about his displeasure with the demise of Alan Bestwick in mid-season after a change in SPEED Channel management. Original panelist Johnny Benson was also dismissed during that shake-up.

Without Vickers, Despain seems to be the odd man out as he tries to lead a highlight discussion over the course of an entire hour. The three drivers barely even acknowledge his presence on the show, which begs the question of why he is still the host? The series was much better when the drivers were allowed to speak freely without interruption, a concept which Alan Bestwick understood and Mr. Despain cannot conquer. Clearly, the drivers must allow Despain to read his highlights and ask his questions, but the content of the show comes from the interaction between the drivers...period.

From the delightful Wendy Venturini to the noticeably absent Ralph Shaheen, SPEED has many other Charlotte area personalities who could step into a less formal and more cooperative role as the host for this weekly series. With the elimination of Vickers, a change at the host position is the one tweak this series needs to step-up to the level of the fun Raceday and the informative Victory Lane. SPEED needs to pay attention to this franchise, as all the other NASCAR-related programming that used to fill Monday night on the network is gone, a victim of NASCAR Images and SPEED's inability to cooperate for the overall good of the sport.

This is a pivotal year for NASCAR on SPEED, and the senior management needs to sit down and troubleshoot the problems with this former all-star performer.

ESPN: NASCAR Now - Midnight at Daytona

Leave it to Jeff Burton, speaking to reporters at the Media Center, to be the sole voice to discuss the single most pressing issue after the Daytona 500. Why did NASCAR violate their own rules by not putting out the caution flag when cars began spinning on the frontstretch at Daytona?

Regardless of the drivers involved, regardless of the track, and regardless of the race, NASCAR owes it to the integrity of the sport to remain true to their own rulebook. The sanctioning body likes to describe itself as a rival to sports like the NFL. Does any sports fan believe that the NFL would not call a penalty because the final pass of the game was in the air? Would they watch the clock run out but let the final field goal be kicked? This is exactly the type of quandary that NASCAR finds itself in all too often. They chose entertainment over safety, and then put pressure on the media to deflect the topic. And ESPN buckled like a snowman on a hot summer day.

During its last appearance at Daytona, ESPN used Kenny Mayne as the infield studio host, a person who had absolutely no understanding or experience with NASCAR. Now, six years later, the network brings Chris Fowler to Daytona with exactly the same level of NASCAR knowledge. Why? Fowler was a grinning and head-shaking host who occasionally acknowledged his basketball partner Brad Daugherty, who once again interacted with, and interviewed, no one.

ESPN Analyst Rusty Wallace said "there was nothing to gain by throwing the caution" about NASCAR's decision to delay the yellow flag. Luckily, he said that to race winner Kevin Harvick who was seated on ESPN's NASCAR Now set. Perhaps, Mark Martin, Ryan Permberton, Bobby Ginn, and the remainder of the 01 team might have disagreed with Wallace had they been present.

Tim Cowlishaw has worked hard to build-up his TV credibility with his Around the Horn appearances, but during his NASCAR Now post-race segment he avoided any journalistic issues, as if he had been told to tow the company line. Cowlishaw, like Daugherty, has no defined role on this program and never raised one hard news issue during the entire Daytona SpeedWeek.

ESPN has tried to put ten pounds of TV announcers in a five pound bag. Mysterious figures like Angelique Chengelis and Jeremy Shapp appeared from no where, only to report briefly and never be seen again. Who is Ms. Chengelis and why is she a "NASCAR Insider?" Why is former "Insider" Marty Smith now a pit reporter type? What did he do to lose his "Insider" membership status?

Hopefully, ESPN will tone down their on-track presence to a manageable number of experienced anchors and reporters. This sport does not need the TV hype of College Gameday and the high-profile of ESPN anchors. The network needs to concentrate on the reality of the daily grind that ten months of hard work and travel demand from hundreds of NASCAR teams and crew members.

At Daytona, SPEED Channel rolled out their successful Raceday and Victory Lane programs with overwhelming fan response. ESPN is playing catch-up to an established and appreciated SPEED and Fox combination that played a significant role in the current success of NASCAR. No matter how insulated things are in Bristol, Connecticut, ESPN needs to re-tool their NASCAR Now effort prior to the next race in California.