Wednesday, March 14, 2007

NASCAR Now: The Doug Banks Era Begins...This should be interesting.

ESPN has added yet another wrinkle to the NASCAR landscape with the addition of hip-hop urban radio host Doug Banks as the new host of NASCAR Now. Banks made no mention of previous host Erik Kuselias, a career lawyer who entered sports radio only a short time ago. Neither Banks nor Kuselias have any previous NASCAR media experience on their resume.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Mr. Banks first show was a disaster from the drop of the green flag. He is clearly more at home in a radio format without a script and teleprompter. But as with Kuselias, ESPN forced Banks into interviewing NASCAR personalities directly. Without any knowledge of the sport, both of these rookies are struggling in their first season.

Its curious as to why ESPN does not pair the host up with an expert, who can step in and help with the specifics of this very hard to understand sport. In the past, NASCAR media veterans like Bob Jenkins, John Kernan, Eli Gold, Ralph Shaheen, Krista Voda, and others would have been considered for this type of high-profile position. But, this is the new ESPN/ABC/Disney.

Gone is the importance of the sport. What is going to be emphasized is that ESPN and ABC are here now. The big guns like Brent Musburger and Chris Fowler, the columnists like Tim Cowlishaw and the experts like Brad Daugherty are here. ESPN has brought their "A" team to town, and one thing is very clear. Their "A" team is completely lost.

The urban hip hop radio show host attempted to interview Regan Smith, who will be stepping into the Ginn ride for Mark Martin at Bristol. Every question he asked Smith pertained to Martin. How do you feel the fans will like you taking over for Martin? Do you think Martin will be in the car if he wins Atlanta? Did Martin give you driving tips? Another horrible scripted interview from ESPN by a host who does not know the first thing about this sport. When will this cycle end?

Unfortunately, Banks brought the hapless Tim Cowlishaw on the show to reprise his Around the Horn persona, and answer questions about NASCAR with complete inaccuracy. Cowlishaw will no doubt be taken to task about his ill-advised comments on Michael Waltrip driving in the Busch Series race in Atlanta, and how Toyota has "gotten nothing" for their money from Waltrip. Cowlishaw likes to shoot from the hip, but in his racing comments, his gun is clearly not loaded.

Give Banks some credit, he is a clean and credible host, with a professional manner on the air. Perhaps, if ESPN would step up and surround him with the kind of regular cast that Banks employs on his radio show, NASCAR Now would emerge from the dark hole it has dug itself since Daytona.

NASCAR Now: Disaster in Bristol

ESPN2's NASCAR Now showed up on Wednesday with a new host. Original host Erik Kuselias was never even mentioned on the program. Doug Banks quickly confirmed the problems in Bristol, CT with his attempt at hosting this show. Kuselias had been the face of this series since Daytona. Why was this change made and where was he? This is a high-profile national sports show, and the viewers deserved an explanation.

Banks was joined by NASCAR "Insider" Boris Said, who is a Connecticut native and a sports car racer. Boris is a NASCAR road course "ringer" who has never been a regular in any NASCAR series, and never developed the level of NASCAR knowledge that should allow him to comment on this sport. Where was Stacy Compton? Tim Brewer? Marty Smith? Alan Bestwick? Rusty Wallace? Andy Petree?

Banks then introduced Michael Waltrip as "the driver" of the 55 car. In fact, Michael is the owner of MWR Motorsports, and the face of Toyota's NASCAR effort in the US. Banks then asked him, from a prepared script, "What is your team going to do to make sure that you make the race this weekend in Atlanta?" Waltrip's answer, "Well, there is nothing you can do to make sure you are going to make it." Mr. Banks question was mind-bending. And it only got worse.

Banks then welcomed series regular Angelique Chengelis by mis-pronouncing her name. He then slowly read prepared questions from a script for Chengelis, who answered them and was immediately asked another scripted question. For ESPN, this was beyond amateur. After several answers that contained no news content, Chengelis disappeared just as awkwardly as she had popped-up.

Banks next led into a taped feature about Jon Wood's first NEXTEL Cup race that had all the bells and whistles ESPN's field production crew is famous for. And then, a classic piece of sports television history unfolded. Jon Wood and his father Eddie appeared live on-camera side-by-side. Throughout the entire disjointed interview, Jon Wood displayed all the mannerisms of a drug addict in need of his medication. He twitched, scratched, made bizarre faces, rocked back and forth, and could not put two thoughts together. Meanwhile, his father beside him barely acknowledged his presence, and seemed to be disappointed in his child as both a driver and a human being. If there was ever a moment where NASCAR should consider a drug test, this was it. For those us of with experience in drug and alcohol addictions, it was frightening.

Finally, this disaster had to come to an end. Banks signed off. There was absolutely no mention of the Busch Race in Atlanta. ESPN spent millions to acquire it, and will spend hundreds of thousands to produce and show it live. No mention of the Truck Race in Atlanta, which SPEED will televise and is often the best Truck race of the year. There was no discussion of anything that remotely resembled the NASCAR news being carried on the racing websites, publications, or radio.

I have had my issues with parts of this series since its inception, but there have always been efforts to right the ship. The Monday show was excellent, and the potential was there to surround the Connecticut-based host with NASCAR experts who could help to restore the network's credibility. Watching this edition of NASCAR Now was mind-boggling. A host who did not know anything about NASCAR, an expert who is not an expert, an interview with a freaked-out twitching problem child, and a question to Michael Waltrip that left him shaking his head. ESPN has a problem, and its serious. When NASCAR figures it out and calls the network, things are just going to go from bad to worse. And frankly, I just don't see how they can be much worse.