Saturday, August 11, 2007

Sparks Fly On SPEED With "Tradin' Paint"

Every racing weekend on the NEXTEL Cup Series, SPEED gathers John Roberts, Kyle Petty, and a member of the NASCAR media for a thirty minute conversation about the hot topics of the week. Normally, things are interesting and opinions are varied. The Watkins Glen edition of the show, however, brought out some strong statements and had the fans at the SPEED Stage making lots of noise.

Bob Pockrass from NASCAR Scene was the media guest, and things got off to a strong start with the topic of Robby Gordon. Finally, some issues were addressed that the fans could understand about this confusing situation.

Pockrass compared Gordon's actions to a MLB batter getting called out on strikes, and then standing in the batter's box until the pitcher threw another ball. Petty disagreed with NASCAR carrying a Busch Series penalty over into the NEXTEL Cup Series by sitting Gordon out of Pocono.

The fun began when Kyle maintained that NASCAR doles out harsher penalties to Cup regulars when they drive in the Busch Series. Pockrass argued that they should receive stiffer punishment because they have nothing to lose, and basically get in the way of the actual Busch Series regulars running for the championship. That did not sit well with Kyle, who bases his argument on the larger premise that all drivers are equal at the drop of the green. This was a good one.

The potential demise of the Busch Series next season has been a hot topic all year long. After the COT was made the fulltime NEXTEL Cup car for 2008, it no longer made sense for Cup owners to run Busch teams. The cars are not similar, so now there was no information that could be transferred over to Cup. Many Cup owners were now said to be eyeing the Truck Series because they are similar to the COT in many ways. If they leave, the Busch Series is in big trouble.

Petty is true in spirit, but sometimes lacking in reality. Pockrass contends that the Cup teams train their drivers, pit crews, and mechanics on the Busch Series and then get called up to the Cup level. Petty disagrees, but does not have a leg to really stand on. Petty says the money is important, but Pockrass disagreed completely. Petty was getting steamed, and his point was again that it was not the responsibility of the Cup owners to support the Busch Series. Pockrass carries some weight in the journalism world, and was having none of the Petty party line.

Kyle got so steamed he basically said Pockrass was full of BS, had a smoke machine to blow smoke you know where, and then blamed the media. He does that a lot. While it is great to see debate on SPEED, Petty seemed to be tired and cranky and a looked a lot more like a middle-aged guy who had a long day than a NASCAR driver and owner.

The show closed with Robby Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya as the topics. While both parties agreed that Robby Gordon could win, the vote was split on Montoya. As the show closed, Petty continued to insist that Montoya could win, and Pockrass finally gave him the ultimate shot when he could you. That was a cheap one.

When SPEED replaced Michael Waltrip with Kyle Petty on this show things improved and the show developed a strong character. While Kyle is pleasant and easy-going with most members of the TV and radio media, he simply does not like the print reporters.

The "Media Center gang" have proven over the years to be a surly lot who, much like the drivers, do not forget who did them wrong. While the group has become more diverse over time, there is small core of real insiders who continue to dominate both newspapers and the Internet. Everyone else, like me, is just watching the action from the outside.

Let's hope that SPEED continues to bring-on TV the reporters that feature prominently in our racing world. This type of debate is exactly what is missing on TV, and SPEED is the only network dipping their toe in the water. When NASCAR gets brought up on ESPN's Around The Horn, the stick-and-ball gang yells "no NASCAR or hockey." Over on PTI, Kornheiser and Wilbon have absolutely no clue to this billion dollar national obsession. Just like the New York Times, NASCAR does not exist for them.

If SPEED can continue to develop this show, and get more topics covered and more reporters heard, it will be better for the sport as a whole. On the Internet, anyone with a keyboard and a mouse can play God for a while, but eventually those who know and those who don't are exposed. On TV, however, it is a different world.

Conversation and typing are two very different functions for human beings, and doing a show live in front of an audience is a great test of one's ability to make a point, and then back it up. Kudos to Kyle Petty for continuing to spread his wings in the TV world, and to SPEED for continuing to offer this important show.

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Saturday At Watkins Glen Was The Real Disney Marathon

Once a year, Disney hosts athletes that run around Disney World for over four hours. They have chosen to run the marathon, chosen to endure the pain, and know the reward at the end is not glory or praise. They have their own reasons to be there.

Saturday at Watkins Glen, ESPN stayed on the air from 11:30 AM through the end of the Busch Series race. There was no break, there was no pause, and there was no mercy.

Finally, at the end of this TV marathon, all the crew got to face was the drive to the hotel and the opinions of The Daly Planet.

All day long on Saturday, the ESPN Infield Studio gang was led by Allen Bestwick. Perhaps, I might have missed a memo, but I thought that Suzy Kolber was going to take over both the Busch and Cup editions of Countdown.

That aside, Bestwick led the network through a very long day that included practice, Busch qualifying, Cup happy hour, and then the Busch race.

Dr. Jerry Punch was struggling with providing the play-by-play alone hour-after-hour for the network and then having to call a full Busch Series race. ESPN would have been better off using Bestwick to give Punch a break during Cup happy hour. By the time the Busch race came around, it was clear Punch was done. It was now 3:30PM, and Punch had been on-the-air constantly since 11:30AM with no break.

This week pit reporter Jamie Little was everywhere, with mixed results. Little is fearless, but sometimes pushes interviews a little further than NASCAR fans are used to seeing. For some reason, the pit reporters were focused on controversy rather than reality. It was all about Montoya vs. Pruett and Gordon vs. Ambrose. This naive approach really left a lot of information from the garage on the table.

Even veteran Mike Massaro got a face-full of Dale Junior in an annoying interview that Massaro would not end. Sometimes, ESPN just needs to get the hint that the diplomatic thing to do would be walk away. Junior was not having anything Massaro was trying to sell, and it looked like the TV crew was interfering in the garage.

In Countdown, Tim Brewer finally appeared and viewers wondered where he had been for the previous three and a half hours? ESPN is still working on the Tech Center, and desperately needs a Steadicam in this facility instead of the normal shoulder-mounted hand-held. Almost all of Brewer's features involved low-angle camera shots, which would be better served by the smooth transition of the Steadicam.

Bestwick brought-out the best in Brad Daugherty, and again focused his role on TV as the voice of the fans. Daugherty is a nice guy, he has good points, and he asks good questions. The problem often is, the person he has to ask is Bestwick.

Daugherty's comments do not work unless there is an expert analyst on-set and ready to answer them. How hard would it be to walk Brewer over to the set, just like the NASCAR on Fox gang does with Jeff Hammond?

As the race progressed, Bestwick and Daugherty began to offer comments from the Infield Studio and talk with the booth announce crew. Including these voices is a good idea, and takes some pressure off Petree and Wallace, who often times did not agree on racing items during this telecast. The long season is starting to grate on announcers as well as drivers. The happy faces of Daytona in February have turned to the tired eyes of Watkins Glen in August.

Petree is clearly the experienced guy when it comes to strategy, and he was head and shoulders above Wallace in terms of suggesting and understanding road course tactics. Petree, much like Larry McReynolds, tracks the on-going stories of the race and stays up-to-date with the actions of the entire field, not just the leaders.

Punch was working hard to keep his wits about him and used the pit reporters, the Infield Studio gang, and his analysts much more than he normally would. One had to feel for the fact that he had no relief, and had an entire NEXTEL Cup race on-tap for Sunday. For the good doctor, this was going to be a weekend to remember.

With SPEED taking over practice and qualifying activities beginning with Michigan, this was ESPN's last Saturday for a while to cover everything on the track. Instead of staggering their on-air crews, and providing some relief announcers, the network just began at 11:30AM and kept everyone going all day until the end of the Busch race. Give it to the talent and production staff, they hung-in there.

Rusty has become a pro at dealing with the situations his son Steven encounters seemingly every week in the Busch Series. This week, a solo spin at a part of the track where he should have been paying a little more attention was the culprit. Rusty was honest in his comments about his son's learning curve, and the fact he was looking forward to the second half of the season.

ESPN presented this race the old-fashioned way. There were no music videos, no hip-hop or pop music queens gyrating, and no interruptions to green flag coverage. It was very refreshing and paid-off for the viewers with almost every incident covered quickly, and almost all the on-going stories in the field shown thoroughly.

The difference between this presentation of the Busch Series and the previous weekend's NEXTEL Cup race was striking. This time, the star of the show was the race. There were no movie stars, no mid-race recaps, no studio chat sessions under green, and no features rolled in the middle of racing.

ESPN followed the stories, let all their announcers talk freely, and openly asked questions of their co-workers when they did not know the answer. Despite the relative boredom of a road course race on TV, the network stayed aggressive in their coverage, and again presented great HD pictures and good sound.

After the race, there is no doubt that a tired TV crew had a post-race meeting and then staggered to the hotel for some sleep. Hopefully, they will be dreaming of presenting Sunday's NEXTEL Cup race in the same clear and concise way to the NASCAR fans. That would make a clean sweep of Watkins Glen for ESPN, and put the network back on-track for the rest of the season.

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