Friday, April 20, 2007

Busch Pre-Race Show in Phoenix Continues ESPN's Woes

Lug nuts. There is little more that needs to be said other than those two words to understand how completely confused ESPN2 is about NASCAR. Besides the actual racing action on the track, things could not be more bleak for this network. In the first race back after the Virginia Tech shootings, ESPN chose lug nuts over human emotions and overwhelming feelings of sympathy and support. They chose lug nuts.

ESPN's Busch Series pre-race show is called NASCAR Countdown. Erik Kuselias was imported from his position as host of NASCAR Now to handle the pre-race anchor duties for Phoenix. He was not imported because of his strong performance or experience with the sport. He is simply ESPN's pick of their stable of generic "announcers" to fill this open "position." It did not go well.

Kuselias "whipped-around" with the pit reporters, and then things took a familiar turn. Drama was suddenly all around us. The sport formerly known as NASCAR had again become an ESPN-created soap opera. The issues ESPN chooses to address with "driver feuds" and "the Montoya update" leave NASCAR fans scratching their heads. Where is the information? Where is the "track smack?" Who has the fast car? How is this hard?

Kuselias then brought-in Brad Daugherty to talk to us in the first segment of the show about his "opinions." Both Mr. Kuselias and Mr. Daugherty are seemingly under the impression that NASCAR fans care what Mr. Daugherty thinks. Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett have been racing their entire lives and work for ESPN as well. Mr. Daugherty has been playing college and pro basketball. Despite the fact that he is well-respected in the NASCAR business community, that does not translate to national sports television. Especially, on a weekend like this.

After Daugherty and a cameo by Andy Petree, Kuselias led to the top priority of the show as selected by ESPN. It was lug nuts. Tim Brewer, bumped-off the set once again, was standing in the parking lot pointing at lug nuts. Brewer did his best to try and work some logic into this story, but it made no sense. There was only one story that should have led the show, and ESPN should be ashamed it did not.

Only after ESPN sold us Kawasaki motorcycles, Chunky Soup, Circuit City TV's, pizza at Cici's, and Coors Beer did any shred of normality return. After the hype, opinion, and of course commercials, viewers finally got the largest NASCAR news story of the week. The shootings at Virginia Tech and the extensive NASCAR connections. Thank goodness for Alan Bestwick, Jeff Burton, and Elliott Sadler. Their words helped everyone to put into perspective reality and life. There are times when racing can just plain wait. This should have been one of them.

Kuselias then referenced the "Junior wants 51%" controversy and introduced a nice feature by Shannon Spake on Earnhardt's JR Motorsports business. Unfortunately, Kuselias never had anyone on-camera from DEI, or put the report into perspective. It just led quietly to a commercial. This is a video feature that needs what is called a "tag." That is when a reporter comes on-camera after it is over, and follows-up the information with an interview. No such luck for ESPN2 viewers. Nice feature, no perspective. What a missed opportunity for the other big story of the week that broke on Jayski.

Finally, Juan Montoya looked right at ESPN's Jamie Little and said, "the press likes to make things up." Well, that was certainly no surprise to the viewers of NASCAR Now for the past two-and-a-half months, but maybe it caught pre-race viewers a bit off-guard. Little was sent chasing the non-story of two drivers bumping each other, one spinning, and the same one surprisingly being upset about it. If this is how ESPN2 is going to go about their business, it is going to be a very long season for those same pit reporters. Perhaps by early November, ESPN will figure out...this happens all the time.

When the ESPN2 cameras pulled-out for a wideshot of Phoenix International Raceway, TV viewers saw a nice, fast, flat track that has always been exciting. What they did not see was fans. The entire thrust of ESPN's acquisition of the TV rights for the Busch Series was to re-energize this series and bring it up in racing stature. One only had to watch the pre-race show, and then view the stands to confirm that things are not going in the right direction. If you hear anything otherwise in the NASCAR media on Saturday, just remember Montoya's words. "The press likes to make things up."

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