Saturday, June 2, 2007

Punch And Company A Little Off Their Game

There is no doubt that Jerry Punch is one of the most sincere and hardest-working TV racing personalities in the business. I had the pleasure of working with Jerry at ESPN, and he was a reliable and honest guy, approachable and very fan friendly. Over the years, we have seen Jerry in a wide variety of roles.

Most older fans remember Jerry as the key pit reporter in ESPN's early NASCAR days. As a medical doctor with a love for racing, the fans understood that Punch had worked his way up from a public address announcer at a local Carolina track to the big time. After NASCAR departed, Punch chose to stay with ESPN and began to carve a name for himself as a well-spoken sideline reporter for college football telecasts.

This season, Jerry has shared play-by-play duties for the Busch Series telecasts on both ESPN2 and ABC Sports. Marty Reid has appeared when Jerry was on vacation, and worked well with the NASCAR team of announcers. In Dover, Punch returned to Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth with mixed results.

The booth announcing team did not appear in the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show to discuss any aspects of the upcoming Busch race. They were present and called the live Busch Series qualifying, but should have at least appeared on tape with an on-camera preview of the race.

ESPN has been working hard on its technical aspects, and the live reports from both the driver and his crew chief throughout the race are a good look inside the minds of actual participants. Having DJ speak with the driver, and Petree speak with the crew chief was a great touch to keeping things in the right perspective. This has been an outstanding feature of these telecasts.

The concept of turning on all the in-car communications during a re-start is not growing on NASCAR fans. This chatter is available online, through NEXTEL, and can even appear on your cell phone. There are too many voices, and somehow limiting the number of channels would provide a much clearer picture of re-starts. In races like Dover, you can only hear "green flag green flag green flag" so many times.

The HD in-car cameras are of great technical quality, but ESPN is struggling to determine a philosophy of use. In this race, the in-car shot often lost the race perspective for the viewer, and even eliminated good racing action. In-cars are best used in a definitive two car battle, even if the angle is from the car behind, such as Jeff Burton in this Dover event. In case of accidents, in-cars should only be used as replay cams. This was evident several times as ESPN missed incidents.

It seemed that while Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were into the race, they had trouble meshing with Jerry Punch for some reason. Punch seemed to be very intense, and often times was not very happy, and struggled for words. We have discussed that the play-by-play role for Punch is a work in progress, but sometimes it seems that he might be better suited for a reporting job. Jerry likes detail, and the play-by-play role just generates excitement and directs traffic.

Often, the production staff would cut-a-way from a pack of car racing and return to the leader only to have an incident occur. It often occurred in the pack they just left. Its great when someone is leading, and someone else is two car lengths behind. We just don't need to see it while there is pack racing going on. The accident at the end of the race told the tale. It was never explained, and never followed-up before the telecast left the air. This was a rookie mistake that should not be repeated.

Let's hope that ESPN incorporates the booth announcers into NASCAR Countdown, NASCAR Now, and SportsCenter for the rest of the season. As the network approaches their NEXTEL Cup debut, they are going to need their "faces of NASCAR" on-camera and on-the-air as much as possible. An on-camera "wrap" of the Busch race on the one hour Monday NASCAR Now should be mandatory.

With the technical aspects, the pit reporters, and the booth analysts in place, ESPN has only to confirm the play-by-play position before their NEXTEL Cup debut. While the administration says they already have a schedule, both Jerry Punch and Marty Reid are hoping that their name is on it when it reads "NEXTEL Cup on ABC Sports."

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ESPN Busch Series Pre-Race Show Never Mentions The Busch Race

Many NASCAR fans felt that the story of the weekend for ESPN would be the introduction of Suzy Kolber as the host of NASCAR Countdown. ESPN has been struggling with this program since it began in February. Kolber is a pleasant TV professional, and her on-air presence is calming.

The goal of NASCAR Countdown is to preview the Busch Series race that day, and look back on the previous race. Add-in the current Busch Series news, the driver changes, and the conditions at the track and the result is a nice, fast-paced preview show. ESPN made a deal with NASCAR while negotiating this TV contract that the network would return the focus to the Busch Series. This struggling sport has been on the decline, and did not even bring a full field of cars to Dover.

Very effectively, Kolber led the panel of Brad Daugherty, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, and the pit reporters through a discussion of many topics during the pre-race show. Her first question to the drivers involved the COT, a car not racing in the Busch Series. Her second question involved NEXTEL Cup racing, as did her third and beyond. Then, the pit reporters did their on-air features. None of them related in any way to the Busch Series race about to start. Once again, ESPN had shot itself in the foot.

The big feature of the show was Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his signing of Jeremy McGrath to a driver development deal. McGrath is running a regional NASCAR Series, which ESPN's NASCAR Now has refused to report on, or even acknowledge.

Earlier this season, they did one story on McGrath's signing and have never mentioned him again. Today, for some reason, in the middle of the Dover Busch Series pre-race, there was McGrath. In the on-camera that followed, Jamie Little talked about where McGrath was racing this weekend. This story had nothing to do with Dover, nothing to do with the Busch Series, and was very old news. It will be interesting to see if NASCAR Now reports on his results.

The following discussion with the panel related to drivers switching series, but absolutely never mentioned the Busch Series or the race at hand in Dover. Bowyer and Busch talked intelligently about the topic, and ended the discussion with an awkward comment from Daugherty.

Then, a brief moment in the show actually relating to the Busch Series happened. Travis Kvapil was in for an ailing Jon Wood, who had the flu. That was it, nothing more. For some strange reason, the Busch Series had the audacity to intrude on the ESPN pre-race show. I guess its safe to assume if Jon Wood had not gotten sick, the Busch Series would not have been mentioned...period.

Casey Mears was next up, and his discussion was centered on NEXTEL Cup and his first win. Mears tried to steer the discussion back to the Busch Series, but Dave Burns took over and re-directed the commentary back to NEXTEL Cup. Give credit to Mears for trying to insert some Busch Series content in this show.

As Kolber dismissed both drivers, Busch and Bowyer made their picks in today's race. Unfortunately, viewers could not identify with their brief picks, because no where in the Busch Series pre-race show did we meet any of the Busch Series drivers or see their cars.

There were great Busch stories at Dover, including Marcos Ambrose qualifying third, and Scott Wimmer just missing the pole after all his struggles. Apparently, this did not matter when there are NEXTEL Cup items to be discussed.

Many months ago, ESPN never mentioned the Busch Series race during the NASCAR Countdown show from Talladega. They were so obsessed with "the big one" and the NEXTEL Cup stories, even the on-air announce crew for the Busch race never spoke about it. Then, we thought it was just a mistake, today is it just plain embarrassing.

After watching SPEED's Krista Voda lead the Craftsman Truck crew through their pre-race show called Set-Up, it was amazing to watch ESPN totally ignore the very series there were on-hand to preview. What else can be said? It was just flat-out amazing. Do you have the feeling that somewhere Doug Banks is laughing?

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Krista Voda Rocks "The Set-Up"

With all the buzz surrounding the addition of Suzy Kolber to ESPN's NASCAR broadcast team, the gang at SPEED must be quietly chuckling to themselves. This network boasts several of the top female TV personalities in NASCAR who continue to re-define the role of women in television. One of them is Krista Voda.

As the cameras revealed the pre-race stage for The Set-Up, SPEED's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series show, there was only one person to be seen. She is familiar to NASCAR viewers for her hard work in the sport, her pleasant manner, and her ability to handle a wide variety of TV roles. Krista Voda has quietly established herself as a top television professional through her consistent performance on-the-air.

With Voda, there is no need to provide additional "manpower" on the set, she can handle herself quite nicely. Her longtime pit reporter pal Ray Dunlap works so well with Voda their comfort level is apparent to viewers. When Voda does ask someone to appear alongside her, the guest always comes away with a smile. In this show, Carl Edwards stopped by, and his comfort level with Voda was apparent. Its clear she "speaks the language."

The production staff for this show has been top-notch, and the Ron Hornaday feature this week proved they are still on their game. There are some great "characters" in the Truck Series, just like there used to be in the Busch Series in the old days. This is where the "fun" lives in NASCAR, while the Busch Series continues to be simply NEXTEL Cup practice with a checkered flag.

With Dover being the 300th race in the Truck Series, the show did a great job of putting into perspective what changes had occurred in that time, and where the sport had come from originally. Chris Showalter's interview with Ray Dunlap really drove home the point that this series had done exactly what NASCAR wanted it to do, provide additional opportunity for drivers, crew chiefs, and crew members to work in the sport and establish a meaningful career.

This program flew by at a breakneck pace because the on-air talent and the production staff continues to provide as much information about the series as they possibly can in thirty minutes. It is the epitome of what viewers want in a pre-race show, lots of info and no "antics." With Voda at the helm, SPEED can continue to smile for the rest of the season because The Set-up is right on target.

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Suzy Kolber And Brad Daugherty Are The Ultimate Odd Couple

Over the course of this season, fans have watched the infield studio portion of ESPN's Busch Series coverage go through a painful series of changes. ESPN is trying to put together the pieces of their NEXTEL Cup pre-race show which they will begin later this year. In essence, the NASCAR Countdown for the Busch Series races is a continual audition.

Suzy Kolber has been a designated hitter for ESPN since her career began. Veteran ESPN viewers may remember her involvement in the original debut of ESPN2, which featured a "hip and cool" look and feel that was supposed to appeal to the younger generation. It went over like a lead balloon, and forced the network to change itself completely into what it is now, a nameless extension of the "mothership" of ESPN.

Kolber is a veteran broadcaster and has been used in a wide variety of roles. She is smart enough to be one step ahead of the former hosts of NASCAR Countdown Chris Fowler, Brent Musburger, and Erik Kuselias. These three tried to pass themselves off as knowledgeable about NASCAR, only to be exposed as stick-and-ball guys who just happened to be at the track. Give Kolber credit, she understands that asking questions is the way to go in her early shows. Unfortunately, there is a limit to just how many questions should be asked by a host who is supposed to know the sport.

Dr. Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, and the pit road gang did their usual solid job of clicking off the qualifying times, and putting the information out to the viewers. Kolber, Dale Jarrett, and Brad Daugherty were on hand in the infield studio, and tried to establish their credibility throughout the qualifying session. It was a tough sell to viewers.

Daugherty and Kolber were attired in shocking red shirts that did not lend themselves to the cameras, or the background. This was a departure from the suit-and-tie attire that the anchors and analysts on this program have appeared in this season. Dale Jarrett, fresh from practice, was in his UPS driver's suit, and appeared to need a Gatorade.

As the session wore on, the ESPN Producer tried to insert the infield studio gang into the coverage more often. This led to a very interesting example of what ESPN needs to deal with before the NEXTEL Cup season begins. Alongside Dale Jarrett, Daugherty is completely out-of-place. Not one comment in this qualifying session contained anything other than the obvious topics that were already being discussed. He often repeated exactly what DJ had said, which made him appear to be woefully short on the type of in-depth NASCAR knowledge that this role requires.

Kolber adapted a role that was clearly the only solution to her situation. She became the questioner, and spent the entire time asking poor old Dale Jarrett everything under the sun about anything she could think up. Most of it was so fundamental that DJ just kindly replied, and then waited for the next question. That usually came almost immediately.

This approach allowed Kolber to make it through the qualifying session with no problems, but that is not going to set her up for the NASCAR Countdown show which will follow shortly. We certainly wish her all the best, as this high-profile position is not going to be helped by Brad Daugherty, and is only going to be further complicated by the impending arrival of Brent Musburger as "the host."

NASCAR Countdown is coming up, and we will be watching. ESPN is today going to be offering their all-star NASCAR crew to the TV audience for the first time, and it should be an interesting experience.

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