Monday, March 19, 2007

SPEED: Inside NEXTEL Cup - Atlanta

Two cars is what the Cup race in Atlanta came down to. Two is also the number of other NASCAR races that weekend. Finally, Monday night on SPEED there were two conversations going on. At the same time. On the same show.

The new driver panel featuring Greg Biffle in addition to regulars Kenny Schrader and Michael Waltrip are clearly feeling their oats. Biffle fit in almost immediately, and his tough racer mentality and solid knowledge of cars and mechanical issues has forged a strong alliance on the set. These three drivers are clearly ready for the rest of the season together, and they are going to make it fun again.

Left out of the alliance, as was Brian Vickers last year, is series host Dave Despain. Time-and-time again Despain interjected into on-going conversations between the drivers, only to be completely ignored. The NASCAR inside jokes and references were flying just like the show during its heyday on SpeedVision. All the host needed to do was step aside and let it roll. It didn't happen.

Fans had already seen the highlights countless times on SPEED Channel alone, and there was absolutely no urgency to "keep things on track" as Despain continues to say. That is the fundamental aspect of this show that makes it great. Getting three smart and funny NASCAR drivers together almost guarantees that things will never stay "on track." The things viewers love come not from watching day-old highlights, but from the comments about Michael's hair, Kenny lack of a thumb, or Greg Biffle getting bashed by the Pizza Car.

This show did not stay on the air as a fan favorite for ten years because of Dave Despain, or for that matter because of original host Alan Bestwick. It stayed because Bestwick knew when to shut-up and Despain simply does not. His interjections work perfectly on WindTunnel when the person talking is Bob in Idaho who had a few beverages and believes Jimmy Johnson is Satan. But Despain is over-matched by three millionaires who flew in on their private planes and are stopping by to "play on TV" before heading for their multi-million dollar homes for some rest. This episode was fun because the ghost of TV chaos poked his head in to test the waters. It was fun because no one paid attention to the host, as usual. It was fun because the video highlights always lead to discussions that have absolutely nothing to do with....the video highlights! That's what this show is, and that is what it can be again with the cooperation of the SPEED Channel production team and NASCAR Images. Good times for the network and this program can be on the horizon if someone in charge can just say..."let them play."

SPEED: The Curious Case of Dave Despain

This past Sunday evening, Dave Despain hosted a WindTunnel show that featured updates on the weekend racing activities. Bob Varsha and Steve Matchett stopped by to host a Formula-1 discussion and take live viewer questions. Tony George stopped by to talk about a wide variety of activities in his world, including the possible addition of MotoGP to the Indianapolis Speedway line-up.

With his diverse experience, Despain is best at dealing with a wide-ranging program that requires an experienced and controlling presence as host. Despain loves to talk about F-1, the IndyCars, and anything racing on two wheels. What he does not love, and makes no bones about it, is stock car racing.

NASCAR requires a full time commitment from both teams and announcers as the sport now runs from January testing through November's final race. This type of dedication is seen from the hardcore NASCAR announcers like Alan Bestwick, Wendy Venturini, John Roberts, and Matt Yocum. Other faces who have hosted NASCAR specific programs include Ralph Shaheen, Steve Byrnes, and Krista Voda. When you look at those seven talented announcers, and then consider Despain, you can see the problem. His priorities are elsewhere.

Tonight, Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing will once again take-up an hour of our time. It used to be the "can't miss" show on SPEED that was the talk of the water-cooler at work. Between Michael Waltrip's antics, Kenny Schrader's sense of humor, and Johnny Benson's "straight guy" routine, it was a TV classic. What put the cherry on top was the ultimate understanding of host Alan Bestwick that he had only one duty for the entire hour. Get out of the way. As the current host, Despain simply cannot follow the same path.

Bestwick's perceived inability to "harness" the cast to insert a commercial or show a highlight was the best part of the entire show. It worked because Bestwick gets NASCAR. He gets the culture, he lives the lifestyle. And no matter what his apparent level of frustration, it was clear that he was having fun with friends. It was part of the show, and it worked.

Now, over a year later, the series is in trouble. Last season, an inexperienced Brian Vickers was forcibly inserted into the "expert panel" with horrible results. He showed the lack of experience needed to deal with the variety of topics included in the hour show. To their credit, SPEED has now replaced Vickers with Greg Biffle. Finally, a veteran driver has rounded out the trio once again, and poised the show for a comeback. But, one problem remains and its clear to all involved...his name is Dave Despain.

In some situations in life, one person may indeed have the "skill set" to perform a certain task. Unfortunately, if that task is not being performed alone, that "skill set" might not be enough to get the job done. This is the case with Despain. Even with the best broadcast teams, sometimes changes are needed to get a good mix and find the right "chemistry."

It is time for a change on Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing. With the panel set, its time to audition some hosts by allowing them to "guest host" an episode. This would give the audience a reason to tune-in once again. Right now, with the other SPEED review shows on the air, there is absolutely no reason to watch INCR. It is time to give Dave Despain a break, and let him continue to serve SPEED and the motorsports community with his many talents.

This series used to be the "anchor" for an entire evening of NASCAR-related programming. It was perfect timing for fans who had just watched the races over the weekend. On Mondays they wanted some additional info, some insight, and some humor. Simply changing the host of this series can be the foundation to re-building the strong Monday Night line-up that the network used to enjoy. SPEED would do well to heed this advice as ESPN2 continues to eye a bigger piece of the NASCAR pie with several new projects in the works.