Friday, August 17, 2007

SPEED Puts Its Best Foot Forward In Michigan

Before this new NASCAR TV package in 2007, fans had become accustomed to SPEED Channel being a regular partner on racing weekends. With NBC, TNT, and Fox Sports handling the NEXTEL Cup races, SPEED was the network to watch for practice, qualifying, and news.

Now, one of the new TV partners comes equipped with their very own cable sports network, and wants to handle its own "support programming." We call this type of programming that name because it supports the main event, the actual race.

ESPN waded into the practice and qualifying coverage with mixed results. For several seasons, every lap of both the Cup and Busch Series was televised live. This included both practice and qualifying. This year, ESPN decided not to show the first of two NEXTEL Cup practice sessions on day one, and also not to show various Busch practices on the track.

The network was trying to fold a large amount of NASCAR practice and qualifying into both ESPN and ESPN2. Unlike SPEED, that focuses on motorsports and racing lifestyle programs, ESPN has been putting early rounds of tennis, golf, and even the Little League World Series on Fridays live for some time now. So, as the NASCAR season approached Michigan in August, ESPN needed some help. There was no room at the Inn.

Re-enter SPEED. Friday in Michigan, SPEED rolled-out an impressive line-up to provide over eight hours of live coverage from the track. Beginning with John Roberts and NASCAR Live, the feeling was one of SPEED being back where it belonged. Every lap of every practice, every car in qualifying, and all the behind-the-scenes news was covered live and in detail. SPEED was back.

Roberts was joined on his NASCAR Live portions by veteran reporter Randy Pemberton and veteran driver Hermie Sadler. Pemberton is the big story here because he was just signed by SPEED to a new TV contract. In his on-air time, he provided just the kind of credible and experienced coverage fans had come to expect from him.

On Friday, Randy turned a simple fan question into a direct answer from NASCAR VP Jim Hunter. He then casually approached Dale Earnhardt Junior in the garage and "just chatted." Friends, the list of TV people who can do both of those things is very small.

Coming back to the announce booth for SPEED was a trio fans have come to love. Steve Byrnes, Larry McReynolds, and Jeff Hammond looked like they had never left. Byrnes is versatile and hosts both the on-track action and then Trackside Live from the SPEED Stage. His good humor and professional demeanor really bring the right touch to this sport.

Hammond and McReynolds were all over the details of practice and qualifying. These guys have been working together so long they are starting to complete each other's sentences. Now, that is just scary.

SPEED used RaceDay and ARCA reporter Wendy Venturini in the garage along with SPEED regular Bob Dillner. Both are solid professionals with very different styles, and that combination made it interesting. Dillner continues to be a little rough around the edges, but that is needed sometimes in this sport.

After handling the on-track action all day long, a very invigorated and slightly goofy crew of Byrnes, Hammond, and McReynolds joined NASCAR's "Nolan Ryan" in the form of Elliott Sadler on Trackside. Sadler has become a popular TV personality in his own right, and his brand of honesty and ability to poke fun at himself fits right in with the SPEED gang.

In taking over the entire day, SPEED proved its ability to handle this type and volume of live programming. Both in practice and qualifying, the network showed that they had not missed a beat, could roll with the punches, and were open to allowing all the announcers to contribute fully. In this stripped-down mode of three announcers in the booth and two reporters on pit road, SPEED delivered in both practice and qualifying.

Fans who hung with the network all day were rewarded with a delightfully goofy Trackside program. Kurt Busch and David Reutimann stopped-by as guests, and then the big story strolled on the stage. Dale Jarrett had missed the race, but honored his commitment to be a guest on the show.

Many are saying that DJ is going to join the ESPN stable of NASCAR announcers, and retire formally from racing at the end of this season. How ironic that he is on the SPEED stage having a blast in exactly the type of live program that ESPN would never produce. Imperfect, unruly, spontaneous, and hilarious all describe Trackside.

Kudos to Steve Byrnes and John Roberts for directing traffic on-the-air all day for SPEED. These two professionals have earned the great reputation they have with the fans. SPEED returns on Saturday to cover Cup practice, Busch qualifying, and then final "Happy Hour" for the Cup series. All in all, a very solid day for the network in a high-profile role with lots of eyes from both NASCAR and the TV industry upon them. It does not get much better than that.

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