Wednesday, April 4, 2007

ESPN's NASCAR Now: Welcome Aboard Ryan Burr

Just when we all got ready to whack ESPN for another difficult NASCAR Now show, things took a turn in the right direction. ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr was added as a new co-host, and debuted today with fantastic results. Now, this is ESPN making a move to get back their credibility...and it succeeded.

Burr brought out Shannon Spake who wrapped Richmond tesing up with good solid info and driver sound that backed-up her facts. Spake addressed the pressing issues with the COT, Richmond's night race, and what NASCAR is doing about the on-going new car issues. Today, with no car noise, she also could be heard. Unfortunately, Burr was then saddled with Brad Daugherty, who offered the same info provided by Spake. Daugherty tried to speak about NEXTEL Cup at Texas, but he has no experience with this series. He also tried to suggest that in a different car, Gordon would have spun Johnson at Martinsville. Even the entry level fan knows Gordon is a part-owner of the Lowe's Chevrolet. No sale.

Burr recapped the Martinsville finish once again...three days later, which is strange. Terry Blount and Marty Smith could hardly contain their smirks when answering these "Gordon vs. Johnson feud" questions. Marty is always a good interview, and more of both Marty and Terry would really make this show fun...a commodity in short supply. Hopefully, ESPN2 will drop the sound effects they have just added to NASCAR Now during live interviews. This is a studio show, not a football game, and sound effects just cover the information being reported.

The best part of this show was the fact that Burr handled interviews with Steven Wallace and Bobby Hamiltion Jr. quite well. This time, the scripted questions made sense, and Burr really brought out young Mr. Wallace, no easy task. This might have been one of the best TV interview segments NASCAR Now has enjoyed this entire season. With Wallace on video, and Hamilton on the phone, Burr kept everything in control and made both interviews very interesting.

In just one show, Ryan Burr has gone a long way toward erasing some of the mind-bending moments of NASCAR Now from earlier this season. ESPN may have just found their new host, and if this show is any indicator, co-hosts Erik Kuselias and Doug Banks have their work cut-out for them. This was a clean, interesting, fast-paced show led by a credible on-air talent with solid reporting and a great personality. Let's hope the ESPN brass keeps Burr right where he is and lets him spread his wings. NASCAR Now could use it.

SPEED: Tradin' Paint...The Show That Ain't

Aside from the racing activities, NASCAR and its TV partners have long been locked in a stand-off about free speech. It is the same in the Media Center, where NASCAR VP. Jim Hunter holds court over a group of journalists who have to walk a fine line each and every week. This dance revolves around the need to report what is really going on in the sport, contrasting with the fact that NASCAR can instantly end any reporter's career with the simple denial of a media credential.

The electronic NASCAR partners have mostly been a well-behaved bunch, who relied on the live races and the accurate reporting of on-track activities as their strong point. The issues involving the sport "off-the-track" were not something that the radio and TV networks and stations cared about. They wanted racing.

Today, we find that the internet has changed all this. It offers a wide variety of outlets, like The Daly Planet, to communicate ideas and opinions about NASCAR. On hundreds of websites, fans can read a wide variety of posts about almost any subject relating to the entire sport and industry. This change has caught the TV world completely by surprise, and left the NASCAR TV partners struggling to deal with the difficult issues of stock car racing that might require debate, disagreement, and discussion.

SPEED Channel has attempted to swim in this end of the pool several times over the last ten years, with very little success. Then, along came Pit Bulls, a simple talk show where journalists and even sometimes drivers exchanged opinions about the "not-so-happy" part of NASCAR. Needless to say...all hell broke loose.

Once out of the Media Center, things were being said about NASCAR that were not the "company line," and they did not like it at all. The fans ate it up, even though SPEED did not include them in the show, either live or on tape. It was just some reporters yelling about the bad things that exist in every sport and business. Unfortunately, Pit Bulls was snuffed out after one year of a controversial run. Word is, it was ended by the top NASCAR brass after a single SPEED Channel "meeting."

Now, SPEED has only one program remaining which focuses on NASCAR and deals simply with the issues in the news. That show is Tradin' Paint. It has a simple premise. John Roberts hosts a thirty minute show in which a driver, originally Michael Waltrip, debates NASCAR topics with a different member of the media each week. It originates from the track, and features a live audience around the "SPEED stage."

From the beginning, Michael spoke his mind and often the media member became quite vocal when challenged on opinions about NASCAR. Last season, pit reporter Ray Dunlap earned a one race suspension in October when he questioned Waltrip's comments about minorities coming to the races. Dunlap basically said the only minorities he saw were working...and he was given a timeout. Waltrip made it all the way to March of this year, when SPEED dumped him off the show completely. Network spokesman Erik Arneson said "the network would not elaborate on internal personal matters." How nice of him not to specifically mention the word Toyota.

So, this week at Martinsville, SPEED rolled-out what is left of their NASCAR opinion and discussion program. Ray Dunlap is back for more, and he is joined by Kenny Wallace. With John Roberts hosting the program, that makes three SPEED employees representing the "opinion" portion of the network's NASCAR coverage. The show follows a set format. Roberts introduces the topic, Dunlap acts as the dissenter, and Wallace tows the company line...over and over again.

Sooner or later this season, Dunlap will again feel the wrath of NASCAR for his comments. Even in this "watered-down" version, NASCAR cannot tolerate dissent. Kenny Wallace is a nice guy, but this program does not suit him. With RaceDay, Victory Lane, and his other media duties, Tradin' Paint puts him clearly in the "over-exposed" category. And with "Herman," sometimes enough is enough. This is clearly more than enough...over and over again.

SPEED could easily entice some non-TV journalists or non-SPEED employees to participate in this program, but they will not. And the single reason they will not is the Craftsman Truck on SPEED. Just like the journalist who risks losing his media credential should he step out of line, SPEED will never risk losing their one and only NASCAR racing series. This "watered-down" version of Tradin' Paint is here to stay, like it or not. Well, we know one group that likes it.

Wednesday: Checking The Email

Thanks once again to everyone who expressed their opinion on either our comments page or through an email. Here are some samples:

David in KY: Thanks again for all your hard work. This long-time NASCAR fan hopes that through your efforts race coverage rises to the level that fans truly deserve.

Dosie in OH: I really enjoy reading your comments on Jayski. I agree with you and everyone else about some of...the finishes and The Hollywood Hotel. Thanks for hearing me out and keep up the good work.

Regina on Comcast: You seem to say the things that a lot of race fans are thinking without the inflammatory rhetoric that other writers use. I think that your points about the broadcasters have been very accurate and interesting.

Paula from TX: How very true you are about the lack of follow-up at the end of a race. It seems the TV people are getting as bad as NASCAR on paying attention to the fans. Keep up the good work.

Ron on SBCGlobal: Great article on the blown coverage at the end of the races. This has been making me crazy for years now. I don't get to see drivers racing for the other finishing positions. We are missing the most exciting time of the race! Its time to have better and more professional coverage of the races.

Thomas from FL: This is the first time I have written. I have come to appreciate your comments concerning ESPN and the less than stellar NASCAR Now. I have long been a fan of what ESPN did in the early years, and came to use those crews as the yardstick by which I would judge all others.