Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Allen Bestwick Rocks "NASCAR Now" To Its Core

It might have been a good thing that most NASCAR fans are used to watching NASCAR Now on ESPN2 while sitting down. Normally, this position was assumed so that if fans actually fell asleep, there were no traumatic injuries.

Often, the sleep came while Erik Kuselias, Doug Banks, or Tim Cowlishaw was talking. There was no defense for nodding-off while Erik and Tim "screamed" about the fact that the Charlotte race was "600 miles long!"

Some fans are still asleep from the day that Doug Banks spent quality interview time asking Kasey Kahne if he "stood by his statement that David Stremme was fat." That was an ESPN instant classic.

Wednesday, NASCAR Now opened the show and seated fans nationwide had a strange reaction. First, their heads snapped-up straight. Then, their shoulders straightened. Finally, they slowly began to rise to their feet and screamed in a loud voice "is that Allen Bestwick hosting NASCAR Now? It sounds just like him!"

Sure enough, the dreams of many NASCAR fans finally came true as Allen Bestwick stood in the middle of the High Definition Studio at the very core of ESPN. After an endless moving disaster of "NASCAR illiterate" hosts since February, one of the most respected NASCAR broadcasters was in Bristol, CT to show them how its done.

All Bestwick did in his thirty minutes was blow them away from start-to-finish. It may have been the first time for many ESPN staffers that they experienced a "true" NASCAR broadcaster hosting "their" show. While ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr is solid, having Bestwick in the building, and on the air, was meaningful in several ways.

Allen has a style that is well-known. This allows struggling on-air "talent" like Brad Daugherty to feel, perhaps for the first time, that he is being included in the "conversation" of the show. Bestwick went out of his way to include Brad in a comfortable and casual manner. He finally allowed Daugherty to "talk" with the host, after Brad had endured four months of nothing more than answering scripted questions. For the first time, NASCAR fans got a glimpse into Daugherty's personality. This has been the aspect so sorely missing from his many appearances on ESPN.

As the show progressed, Bestwick spoke with JJ Yeley from the Joe Gibbs shop. For fans who have watched NASCAR Now for months, they may have actually felt the planet stop spinning for just a moment. Bestwick and Yeley spoke freely, were obviously comfortable with each other, and covered all the bases on a wide variety of topics. There were no scripted questions, and no pregnant pauses. They just "talked."

One growing problem for ESPN has been the animosity between the NASCAR Now news reporters and the show hosts. Both Erik Kuselias and the "now apparently fired" Doug Banks would read a scripted question, wait until they "thought" the reporter was finished, and then ask the next one. I believe "sharp stick in the eye" was my quote from an earlier article. It was going to be interesting to see how the ESPN Producer dealt with Bestwick hosting the news segment. We didn't have to wait very long to find out.

Reporters Marty Smith and Terry Blount did the best they could to hide the smirks on their faces, but they knew well in-advance that there was a new sheriff in town. The best part was, he had a clue. Bestwick allowed Smith and Blount to speak freely and engaged them both in actual conversation for the first time since this show began. The only thing lacking was the ESPN technical crew not having a "three shot" split-screen. The next step is to have the reporters on-screen together, and to allow them to talk to each other. I am sure the guys over at Around The Horn are laughing. A couple of reporters on-camera talking is not a new concept.

With Kyle Petty stepping out of his car to do the TNT commentary, one of the drivers filling-in for him will be Chad McCumbee. Bestwick interviewed the twenty-two year old on the phone about this opportunity. If there was ever a moment in this show when the glaring difference between "those who know" NASCAR and "those who ESPN says know" NASCAR was front-and-center, this was it.

Bestwick guided this young man through a feel-good interview that allowed the driver to get comfortable, relate his experiences, and let the viewers see his personality. In order to do this, the host had to know a whole lot about racing. Allen Bestwick certainly does.

Last week, Erik Kuselias interviewed seventeen year old Joey Logano after his NASCAR Grand National win over Kevin Harvick in Iowa. Logano could have been an alien as far as Kuselias was concerned. Totally ignorant to the young man's history, Kuselias was forced to ask "talk radio" style questions. This included "did you ask Harvick for half of his million dollars?" To Kuselias, it was just another interview that would be over in three minutes and then he could go home. For Logano, it was a fantastic achievement to beat Harvick, and then be live on TV on ESPN. Logano was cheated, the fans were cheated, and the sport was cheated.

Bestwick then brought Daugherty back to discuss the fact that less than a full field of Busch cars are entered at Dover this week. Brad's opinion did not really address the issues behind this problem, including the COT car and the lack of true "Busch Series only" drivers. Bestwick accepted this naive opinion, and allowed Daugherty to walk away with his dignity intact. Maybe Daugherty will begin to rise to the occasion and focus on what role he really plays in the ESPN NASCAR coverage. This must be defined before the ESPN NEXTEL Cup TV coverage begins, or the media will eat him alive.

Then, just like that, it was over. Remember when Bob Jenkins never had enough time for SpeedWeek? When John Kernan used to crank-it-up on RPM2Nite from the moment the show came on the air? This is the pace that NASCAR Now had tonight. There was a ton of information, and then it was over. Can you imagine if ESPN used Bestwick on the one hour NASCAR Now Monday show? That would make any fan smile.

Tonight's show was the most positive step in the right direction this program series has taken since it started. Bestwick and Ryan Burr would change NASCAR Now into a completely different show if they were the co-hosts. Restoring the credibility lost with Doug Banks and Erik Kuselias can be done, but only with consistently good decisions in both talent and content.

Maybe, while Bestwick is still in Bristol, he can speak to ESPN about some other items that they might consider for NASCAR Now. These could include regional touring series highlights, behind-the-scenes team reports, a weekly feature on an interesting racing personality, or even video questions from the fans sent-in to the NASCAR Now experts.

If this was an audition of sorts for Bestwick, I hope he provided the ESPN executives with what they were looking for. Thirty minutes of fast-paced NASCAR news and information went flying-by in a snap with a knowledgeable host, good interviews, and smart reporters. NASCAR fans could get used to this, and wasn't that the original idea?

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