Monday, May 28, 2007

"NASCAR Now" Lets Mike Massaro Talk

ESPN has returned to NASCAR with many millions of dollars tied up in "rights fees," production costs, and technical equipment. Among the production costs are the fees paid to the announcers both at the races and in the studio. While there are usually nine announcers working on each Busch Series race, there is only one announcer who hosts the ESPN2 studio program called NASCAR Now.

Last week, we saw that the name of Doug Banks had been left off the ESPN media list of announcers who host NASCAR Now. Without any comment, ESPN shrank the studio announcer list to Erik Kuselias and Ryan Burr. Kuselias is still the man, and without knowing a thing about NASCAR, continues to host this program at least five days a week. Ryan Burr pops-up occasionally, and then is gone like the wind.

When ESPN first started this studio venture, the names of Allen Bestwick and Mike Massaro came immediately to the minds of many. Bestwick was a radio and TV veteran, perhaps best known recently for his NBC Sports work in both the announce booth, and on pit road. Many cable viewers watched Bestwick host Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup on the SPEED Channel for over ten years. At one time, it was the highest rated weekly show on the network.

Massaro had carved-out a niche for himself by serving as ESPN's "NASCAR guy" after ESPN lost the rights to televise the races. No fan can forget his determination to deliver driver interviews and news while very unceremoniously being shut-out of many tracks. Massaro showed himself to be a determined and well-balanced reporter, never mixing his personal feelings or his surroundings with the news of the day.

Bestwick has recently been given an opportunity to host NASCAR Countdown, the ESPN pre-race show for the Busch Series. Meanwhile, Massaro has been stuck on pit road as a reporter and occasionally files a trackside report for NASCAR Now. Monday, on the one hour edition of the show, Massaro was given the opportunity to finally "step outside the box."

Mondays normally mean show host Erik Kuselias dragging analysts Stacy Compton and Boris Said through a lengthy recap of the weekend action. Kuselias reads the script, then Compton and Said offer actual racing insight on a variety of topics. Clearly not a racing guy, Kuselias is not sensitive to the right topics, and likes to hype stories that are minor in nature. Its an endless cycle of dysfunction.

Also every week, Kuselias moves over to "speak" with various NASCAR Now reporters via liveshots on a studio wall. The pattern is that Kuselias reads a scripted question, lets the reporter answer, and then reads the next scripted question to the other reporter. After about four minutes of this, a sharp stick in the eye almost becomes a viable option. Its horrible. This week, it was less horrible because Marty Smith had good hair. Angelique Chengelis, a close second.

Then, a moment of clarity came to this troubled show. Mike Massaro appeared from an undisclosed location to introduce a story. He led into a piece on Casey Mears and his big win on Sunday night. From the word go, something was different. Massaro was happy and speaking to the viewers directly, without even a reference to the host.

He "framed" the story of Mears crew chief, Darian Grubb. Then, Grubbs joined Massaro by phone for a live interview. Watching a racing guy like Massaro talk to Grubbs was just great. Mike hit on all the key points by asking the right questions, and listening to the answers.

The best part was that his NASCAR knowledge allowed him to "talk racing" with Grubbs in sophisticated and informed terms. This is exactly what this program needs to do all the time. Allow informed reporters to speak with NASCAR guys, and not just the clearly un-informed host. Did I mention it was great?

When it was over, Kuselias would not even acknowledge the great job that has just been done. He picked up his script with "Mike Massaro reporting" and then moved on to some more reading. Anyone who watched this interview could not help but ask themselves why Massaro was not hosting the show, and Kuselias was not back talking stick-and-ball sports with the talk radio gang. With everyone else on the show neck-deep in NASCAR knowledge, Erik Kuselias is a fish out-of-water.

Hopefully, NASCAR Now will soon give Marty Smith the chance to host his own stand-alone segment dealing with news items. Smith does not need scripted questions, and his style of delivery works best with the fans when its off-the-cuff.

Change seems to be coming to ESPN, only very slowly in this case. NASCAR fans can only dream of Mike Massaro hosting, Stacy Compton and Boris Said in the studio, and all the news and feature reporters ready-to-go with good stories and info. Come to think of it, that might be easy to do with one more little change.

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RaceDay Celebrates NASCAR's American Hero

Today, we live a life of cell phones, Blackberrys, ATM's and cable TV in High Definition. We expect new podcasts on iTunes, trendy coffee drinks from Starbucks, and want movies on DVD to arrive by mail the next day. We drive-thru for meals, workout on a treadmill, and expect broadband Internet access everywhere. Sometimes, its nice to be reminded how we got here, and who did the heavy lifting.

Things were a little bit different in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1925. That was when Bud Moore was introduced to the world. It was a world in a continuing struggle to define the future of man on this planet. The very fundamentals of what we all take for granted today were still being discussed, and in a very real way.

Kids today at nineteen years old might be home playing Madden Football or Guitar Hero on the Playstation2. For Bud Moore, nineteen years old meant stepping off a landing craft in Europe and fighting for his country. With his South Carolina wits about him, Moore survived the fiercest battles of World War II on the front lines. His return home came with two Bronze Stars, Five Purple Hearts, and his life intact.

Once back home, the survivors of the conflict set about to build their new lives, and slowly put the horror of wars reality behind them. This time in US history ushered in a period of growth and change the likes of which the country had never experienced. Strong men like Bud Moore had returned to invigorate a nation, and they did.

Moore used his mechanical skills to transition to a new sport called NASCAR back before things got all fancy and serious. Moore debuted his team in 1961 with legendary driver Joe Weatherly at the helm in Daytona. They won their first race. From there, things just got better as Moore pushed into NASCAR with the same kind of courage and resolve that had served him so well in his military service.

This season, Wendy Venturini and her RaceDay production team have been putting together a segment each week called "The Real Deal." It is a totally pre-produced feature that has grown in value each week as the NASCAR season has progressed. She has been supported by strong TV production values that result in a lot of historic and rarely seen details appearing in "The Real Deal" reports. This week, for Memorial Day, she interviewed the now-retired Bud Moore.

To talk about heroes is one thing. To see them is quite another. People who go through things that you and I might not ever be able to even comprehend allow themselves to talk about their experiences up to a point. Then, there is no more. They will not unlock the secret room where they have placed the brutal and horrific images and experiences of war. It's how they keep their sanity.

I met Bud Moore back in the 1980's while doing NASCAR races with ESPN. To say he was a character is an understatement. Moore was a wheeler and dealer in NASCAR long before the team owners of today began to bring the corporate culture to the sport. Moore's two championships and sixty-three wins came with a wonderful variety of drivers in the sport from David Pearson to Bobby Allison and finally Dale Earnhardt Sr. Moore was one of the first multi-team owners, and is responsible for some of the best innovations, and most colorful stories, in the sport's history.

Venturini is continuing to define her style as the outstanding NASCAR reporter for this season. Credit John Roberts, the RaceDay host, as a person who stands back and lets Venturini take the spotlight on a regular basis. This partnership has provided the foundation for a very successful franchise for SPEED Channel.

In TV land, its easy to tell which feature reports have been thrown together on short notice for these types of "support" shows. They normally contain the reporter on-camera, interviews shot with news cameras, and some videotape to "show" what the person is talking about. This is called "B-roll" It all gets edited in the same type of standard package that sports TV shows have been pumping out for years. Luckily, for SPEED viewers, "The Real Deal" is different.

Well-crafted television uses the elements like the ones contained in the Bud Moore feature to bring the subject to life. Personal items like historic photos, family pictures, and military medals show the viewer the reality of the story. Old video footage that grabs the viewer and holds their attention because of its content is key. Finally, a well-lit and professional location where the reporter and subject can be seen as dignified and comfortable lets both the questions and the emotions flow. All of this was contained in this memorable feature, on this memorable day.

RaceDay is a program that contains tons of information shown over the live two hour "SPEED-a-Palooza" happening at the track. The antics of Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer could sometimes make Gandhi cringe, but "the guys" serve their purpose and have adapted well to their unique roles on the show.

The surprise this season has been the consistently high level of television production both in the pre-produced show elements and during the live show. ESPN's NASCAR Now and NASCAR Countdown would do well to put RaceDay on the DVR. I am hoping the Fox guys already watch it in the Hollywood Hotel.

As this season continues, let's hope SPEED assigns even more resources to "The Real Deal" in terms of production dollars and time. As for Wendy Venturini, her name keeps coming up when the struggling Inside NEXTEL Cup show is mentioned. So far, the SPEED execs have been mum on that topic.

With the quality presence she currently enjoys on RaceDay, SPEED might just want to think about expanding that franchise onto Monday nights. A dash of class might be just what the doctor ordered, and its just what Wendy Venturini brings.

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No Indy 500 Commentary

Readers: Thank you for the many emails, but I am going to politely decline to offer a commentary on the ABC Sports coverage of the Indy 500. This year, The Daly Planet will remain focused on the NASCAR TV partners, and the interesting season that viewers have been watching with great interest. Perhaps, in the future, we may expand our commentary to include the IndyCar and NHRA broadcasts. Thanks again for the email, I certainly understand the very valid points that have been raised, but I think I will leave them for Robin Miller and the Wind Tunnel gang.