Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Glimmer Of "RPM2Nite" Appears On ESPN

Normally, Thursdays are a bit slow on the "NASCAR news" beat. This week, things are even slower with the NEXTEL Cup Series taking the weekend off. This "Thursday vacuum" has always led ESPN2's daily racing show, NASCAR Now, to struggle in figuring out what to talk about, and even who should do the talking. Viewers have seen a "veritable plethora" of talking heads visiting this show to talk about everything under the sun.

Yesterday, The Daly Planet documented the fact that ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr had hosted an outstanding fast-paced episode of NASCAR Now on Wednesday. What fans and viewers could not know was that on Thursday, Burr was about to host the best produced and most polished episode of this series since it began in February.

The sad case of Aaron Fike led this telecast, and Burr used Detroit News veteran Motorsports Reporter Angelique Chengelis for all the details. Chengelis and Burr work well, and these two professionals laid-out the problems and challenges that Fike will be dealing with over the coming months. Chengelis has been solid as a "hard news" source and always speaks in clear terms about these types of difficult issues. This segment of NASCAR Now had all the credibility of Baseball Tonight or Outside The Lines and is exactly what fans have been looking for from the network.

With the Busch Series race at Gateway on ESPN2, Burr did a preview of the event and the led to an interview with IndyCar's Sam Hornish Junior. Burr let Hornish describe his own feelings about NASCAR, and then critique his own performance in his part-time Busch Series role. Hornish gave the impression that NASCAR certainly is on his list for 2008. He hedged his bets by saying things next year would be mostly fifty-fifty between NASCAR and IndyCar. This interview is a great cross-over for ESPN and ABC, who now carry both the top two NASCAR Series, and the entire IndyCar schedule.

Continuing to touch base on the Aaron Fike story, Burr brought in NASCAR veteran Jack Sprague, who is a full-time driver in the Craftsman Truck Series this season. Burr took the time to ask Sprague about his own interest in the sport, and what he has left to accomplish. His answer was honest and heartfelt. Moving to the story of Aaron Fike, Sprague wasted no time in ridiculing the "young kids" of today by comparing his own meager beginnings with the apparent disrespect that some of the young drivers have for their fellow competitors and the sport.

"You had the golden spoon in your hand...and you dropped it" said Sprague of Fike and his alleged drug use. Sprague continued to emphasize the hard road that most drivers of his era took to "get up" to the biggest series in the sport. Burr got Sprague to endorse random drug testing in the Truck Series, and also the permanent ban of anyone for even violating the drug policy one time. Strong stuff.

For once, Tim Cowlishaw of Around The Horn fame was concise and on-target with his weekly "driver pick'em" segment. He had good information to make his picks, and explained his reasons without hype or hysteria. Even Cowlishaw seemed to be picking up on the new vibe of this show. He was actually entertaining.

Since February, ESPN2 has struggled to deal with the "bi-polar" personality of this one series. Sometimes oriented to news, sometimes loaded with hype, and sometimes just absolutely terrible, NASCAR Now seems to have gotten on-track with "hard news" leading into an interview, then a solid feature, and finally a closing segment referencing the upcoming event and the miscellaneous news and notes.

ESPN's other top shows thrive by being consistent. Although the stories themselves change every day, the "body" of the show and the personalities presenting it do not. NASCAR Now should be considered in the same breath as NFL Live and Pardon the Interruption. It should have the same credibility in viewers minds as thirty minutes of the ESPN News Network.

Thursday, NASCAR Now finally accomplished every goal set out for it by the network. No hype, no innuendo, and no ineptitude. This program sparkled from start-to-finish and will hopefully serve as the model for the thirty minute mid-week shows for the rest of the season. If this happens, ESPN may have finally put their mark on the NASCAR brand in the same way they have affected Major League Baseball and other professional sports.

On behalf of NASCAR fans nationwide, I would ask ESPN...could we have more of that please?

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