Wednesday, June 6, 2007

TV Viewers Get An Eyeful Of Dirt And Love It

There were lots of folks around the racing community who chuckled when HBO said the words pay-per-view. There were lots of people who rolled their eyes when they heard the name Tony Stewart. There were lots of NASCAR fans who got a puzzled look on their faces when the race location was announced as Eldora Speedway.

Nothing got the world ready for the complete success of Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream charity race that ran on Wednesday night live on pay-per-view. It may have been the most interesting and successful pay-per-view racing event in TV history.

Sometimes, things on TV just come together and the end product is wonderful. Good weather and a great crowd set the table for an evening of Late Model Stock Car racing on the half mile dirt of Eldora. Producer Pam Miller organized a professional television evening that was second to none. From the start of the pay-per-view program, it was clear that between show host Matt Yocum and play-by-play announcer Mike Joy, the evening would be classy and fun.

All of the TV personalities and production staff donated their time in the exact same way that the NASCAR and NHRA drivers had done for the evening. Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty formed an interesting union as the booth announcers. DW had just ended his Fox Sports racing season, and Kyle was about to debut in "DW's spot" with the TNT crew at Pocono. They got along great, and had a blast. It was nice to hear the racing knowledge flow from both of these veterans.

Give credit to the organizers who kept the event on schedule, even though Bill Elliott flipped at the finish line in his heat race. After a quiet moment, Elliott emerged and was still smiling. He had flipped at Eldora. The rest of the evening went off as planned, with good heat races, a B Main, and the Feature.

Lots of credit for the smooth flow of the evening goes to Dick Berggren and Matt Yocum. With Berggren patrolling pit road and the garage, he was able to introduce the viewers to many of the family members and associates of the NASCAR drivers. This brought back the family feeling that has been so missing this season on the other racing broadcasts.

Matt Yocum filled the role of host, interviewer, and reporter. He and his buddy Tony Stewart were keys to the overall organization of the event. Matt showed the TV industry just how versatile he is. He has hosted this event, a weekly NASCAR TV studio show, is a pit road reporter, and also is Tony's producer for his Sirius Satellite Radio show. Can it be long until Yocum gets an offer to step-up to a key TV role in the racing world? Can you say Hollywood Hotel?

While HBO will wait until Thursday to release the number of households who subscribed to this telecast, that information really does not matter. This concept was an unbridled success and will lead to huge numbers for this weekend in 2008. I certainly hope that lots of money was raised for the Victory Junction Gang Camp this year, but everyone at the camp in Randleman, NC can sit back and smile. The future for this event is assured.

Who imagined that a great looking TV broadcast from Eldora Speedway could be sold on pay-per-view? Who imagined that it could fund a good portion of the operating costs of Kyle and Pattie's camp? Who imagined that top NASCAR drivers and TV professionals would show up for free and be happy to do it? Who imagined that NASCAR and racing fans nationwide would step-up to watch an evening of Late Model Racing? Who got NEXTEL and Old Spice to fund the entire evening without running one TV ad?

Love him or hate him...that would be one man. This was a great idea, and thank you Tony Stewart. See you again in Eldora next year.

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Bestwick And Burr Lead ESPN2 Back From The Brink

There was no Tim Cowlishaw. There was no Brad Daugherty. There was no "fantasy racing" or "driver pick 'ems." There was no screaming, yelling, or hype. Finally, for a solid thirty minutes on ESPN2, NASCAR Now was just about racing. Somehow, this seems to happen when Allen Bestwick is at the helm.

As the "off-duty" drivers assembled in Ohio for Tony Stewart's "Prelude to the Dream," Bestwick shifted the focus of the show to Eldora Speedway. He began the show by speaking directly with Tony Stewart, and giving Stewart the time to explain how this night of racing came about, and how it would benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp.

Then, for the better part of the entire show, ESPN focused on the drivers involved in the race, and put reporter Shannon Spake right smack dab in the middle of them. The results were hilarious. Finally, fans got to see the NASCAR stars when they did not have to wear the right shades, drink the right drink, and mention the list of sponsors all while being politically correct. Montoya, Hamlin, Martin, and Ray Evernham were all great with Spake, and their good humor was contagious.

Bestwick introduced a fantastic feature by Mike Massaro on ageless veteran Red Farmer. As long as anyone can remember, Farmer has been driving or working on race cars. An original member of the Alabama gang, Farmer was well-known on the NASCAR circuit for his closeness with the Allison family. Massaro led Farmer through the tragic story of the helicopter accident that killed Davy Allison, while sparing the life of Farmer. This was the type of feature that NASCAR fans have deserved from NASCAR Now since the show began in February. It was heart-warming, entertaining, and put the sport in a whole new light.

Maybe the best part of the show was the live interview with Jeff Gordon from Eldora. Bestwick and Gordon have known each other for years, and it showed. Gordon was relaxed, and let his personality and understanding of racing come across in his unique way. As a grown man with a baby on the way, Gordon was quite different from the intense young man who raced USAC Sprints and Midgets with an unmatched ferocity. A NASCAR champion was on ESPN in a T-shirt talking with a smile on his face about racing. What could be better?

This show was so interesting, it was over before anyone knew it. Bestwick and co-host Ryan Burr have changed NASCAR Now from the "hype machine" into a true racing program. The only challenge for ESPN now is to keep the momentum going
for the rest of the season. This is only going to be done with the right combination of on-air talent and racing content.

After the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of NASCAR Now, it may well be that the network has found that combination. Hosts Allen Bestwick and Ryan Burr are surrounded by a strong cast of reporters, great news from the "Insiders," and solid analysis from the race and studio announcers. All the elements are in place, and its up to the ESPN management to make it happen.

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Tony Stewart And HBO Are About To Make History

Leave it to a tough-minded and hard-headed sprint car driver to pull off one of the most unexpected sports television happenings of the year. The influence of dirt racers from the Midwest in NASCAR was felt first with Jeff Gordon. Ridiculed as "soft" and "immature," Gordon woke the NASCAR boys up with a victory at Daytona in the Twin 125's and has never looked back. Now, Tony Stewart carries the dirt racing banner as he assembles an all-star cast for a night of racing for charity.

Eldora Speedway is like a lot of dirt tracks across America. Its a half-mile banked dirt oval that races everything under the sun. But this speedway has something going for it that not too many others can boast. Tony Stewart owns it.

For the past several years, with varying amounts of success, Stewart has gathered NASCAR friends together on one night to race Late Model Stock Cars at Eldora. It was a good way to draw a crowd on a Wednesday, it did not interfere with the NASCAR schedule, and gave a financial boost to several charities. Now, like almost everything associated with NASCAR, it has exploded.

Wednesday night, HBO will offer the "Prelude to the Dream" night of live racing from Eldora on pay-per-view nationwide. There are currently over sixty million households that can access this event. At a cost of $24.95, Stewart and HBO are betting that bored NASCAR fans will pay-up and tune-in to see their heroes slug it out on a dirt bullring with no restrictor plates, no NASCAR Inspectors, and not a COT in sight.

To entice fans, Stewart will divide any money raised into both his charity foundation and the Victory Junction Gang Camp. This has been a favorite charity of Stewart's, and he has handed Kyle and Pattie Petty checks worth well over a million dollars in the memory of their late son Adam. For NASCAR fans, there is no better cause then charity, and no better charities than these.

Recently, Stewart went about asking drivers if they would fly up to Eldora, race in a heat race, then the B Main, and finally the Feature. Unfortunately, he experienced one big problem. Everyone said yes. This year, both Eldora and Stewart are going to be up to their eyeballs in drivers. While the usual suspects came along for the ride, some of the participants are very interesting, and one is downright unbelievable.

Mike and Kenny Wallace, along with Kenny Schrader are absolutely the usual suspects. But, there are over twenty-five other NASCAR and NHRA drivers who are "rounding out the field." Among them are seventy-five year old legend Red Farmer, former driver and now owner Ray Evernham, and some guy named Mark Martin who keeps telling us he is going to retire...but never does. The list is incredible.

Then, there is the unbelievable. The mix of drivers from different forms of racing has never been deeper in NASCAR than it is now. They come from different series, different countries, and very different backgrounds. But, one driver stands alone this year as the new "Mr. Excitement." The good news for HBO customers is that "Mr. Excitement" is coming to Eldora and your home live on pay-per-view.

Sometime Wednesday night, former Formula-1 driver and Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya will be slinging dirt under the lights on a hot summer night in Ohio. The Colombian who never raced a stock car before this season will be sideways with some of the top dirt track drivers in the nation. As we know from his history this year, there may well be some "bumping" going on as he "learns" this sport. How incredible would it be...if he won the Feature?

Both NEXTEL and Old Spice have stepped-up to the plate this year and their financial assistance has made this possible. Also, veteran announcer Mike Joy will be on-hand to call the action with Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty in the booth. On pit road will be "Dr. Dirt" Dick Berggren, with Tony and Sirius Radio pal Matt Yocum as the TV hosts. Outstanding TV Producer Pam Miller will lead the broadcast, with Fox Sports Artie Kempner directing. That line-up is almost as stellar as the drivers.

I don't know where you will be Wednesday night, but I can tell you very clearly that I will be watching "the boys" mix it up in Ohio on pay-per-view with my family. I like that the money is going to charity, I like that the line-up is outstanding, and I cannot miss the first moment that Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Juan Montoya go into Turn 1 side-by-side on dirt and only two come out on the backstretch. No matter how you slice it, this is going to be good.

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