Tuesday, August 28, 2007

SPEED Channel Is Going Out With A Bang

The email has already begun to roll in about the end of SPEED Channel's brief run covering the practice and qualifying for the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series. Over the past couple of weeks, the network has worked hard to remind us of how much their approach to NASCAR differs from that of ESPN.

Once again, we have seen the self-effacing trio of Steve Byrnes, Larry McReynolds, and Jeff Hammond offer up their unique brand of racing and fun. There is just no doubt about it, these guys are a great combination on-the-air.

ESPN passed this opportunity over to SPEED because of some programming conflicts, and the Charlotte, NC based network has made the most of it. Already surrounding the races with tons of live programs, SPEED really seemed to be at home again when they picked-up the same practice and qualifying sessions they used to produce before ESPN came on the scene. Update: Just to make sure everyone is one the same page, these TV contracts were done well in advance and SPEED is doing this coverage directly with NASCAR, not as a "sub-contractor" or ESPN. Thanks.

This weekend at California is SPEED's swan song with this overall coverage. The network really threw everything but the kitchen sink at these selected weekends in order to make an impression in the minds of the viewers who now had ESPN's coverage to use as a comparison.

SPEED offered the laid-back Wendy Venturini patrolling the garage area alongside the absolutely not laid-back Bob Dillner. It made for an interesting contrast in styles, and interviews. It certainly must have been fun behind the scenes sorting out who gets to interview who among the NASCAR gang.

Venturini has been on a roll this season, and simply strolls-up to anyone and everyone and starts talking. Her comfort level makes the viewer fell as if they are also part of the scene, and that is tough to do. If there was every a person more at home in the NASCAR garage, it may only have been the late Benny Parsons, who loved to walk and talk like Wendy. Big smile, boundless energy, and always a good word.

Dillner is hilarious because even when he tries to be serious, he cannot shake the fact he is about three feet taller than most drivers, and that just looks funny on TV. If he is not talking to Dale Jarrett or Michael Waltrip, eye-to-eye conversations are out. With Jamie McMurray, its always memorable.

SPEED's team differs from ESPN's in many ways, but only because they have a very different network philosophy. SPEED has incorporated fun as a required element of practice and qualifying, ESPN has not. Both networks show the graphics, clock the times, and use the same information supplied by NASCAR. But, its not the same.

Jerry Punch and his broadcast team are serious guys. Its just the nature of ESPN to produce more formal-style television in the field. We see it in their baseball and football coverage. During the actual NASCAR races, being serious and formal certainly has an important place in these high-profile events.

Practice and qualifying, however, do not mix well with a big multi-hour dose of serious and formal TV. Even somehow trying to pretend that things are serious when guys are doing tire and fuel mileage runs is ridiculous. Busch Series early practice at California this Friday would be like watching paint dry without some fun injected into the telecast. Three laps and back to the garage.

That is the lesson that ESPN has hopefully learned during their time away. Tight and nervous in the booth, only Allen Bestwick and Marty Reid in substitute roles have managed to coax some fun from the announcers. The vast majority of the time, even with forced smiles, things are just presented as being very serious.

As a final statement, SPEED is going all-out (no pun intended) this Friday with nine hours of coverage from Fontana. Beginning with Trackside Live at noon, the network will roll through Busch and Cup practice, then go back live to the SPEED Stage. If time permits, they might sneak the latest episode of Survival of the Fastest in around 4:30, but I bet they stay live all the way. Things in NASCAR land have a way of changing on-the-fly.

Then, their Go or Go Home show sets the stage for Cup qualifying. Finally, one of SPEED's most popular shows hits the air when Trackside wraps-up the day. Even then, the network itself is not done, because the ARCA race from Gateway is next live, and then the Fontana Busch Series qualifying will be shown on tape delay.

All in all, that puts more than twelve continuous hours of stock car programming on SPEED this Friday. The network's last peep from Fontana is the Cup Series final practice on Saturday at 8PM Eastern after the Craftsman Truck race. That, my friends, is a lot of racing on one network in two days.

For a relatively small-sized cable network on a limited budget, SPEED has put forth an excellent effort on this stretch of practice and qualifying shows. The pictures from the NASCAR Images TV compound are fine, but it is the personalities and the light-hearted atmosphere that wins viewers over.

As ESPN returns to the practice and qualifying telecasts, both ESPN and ESPN2 will be in the heart of live college football and other major sports. Once again, the network will not show the early NEXTEL Cup practice, which rubs fans the wrong way. In addition, the Busch Series coverage shrinks substantially.

Any true TV sports fan knows that Mike and Mike in the Morning and then First Take air on Fridays from 6AM through 2PM on ESPN2. Over on ESPN, its SportsCenter from 6AM through noon. That would spell the end of Friday Cup and Busch practice on-the-air this season.

SPEED's marathon on Friday should be fun to watch, as live TV has a way of never going exactly the way it was planned. After that, the network steps back into its role of offering "support" shows and leaving the on-track activity to ESPN and ABC Sports. This time when Larry Mac and Jeff Hammond take a seat on the SPEED Stage, it will be for the rest of the season.

UPDATE: Since so many emailers have been asking the same question, here is the remaining SPEED schedule of practice and qualifying. Yes, they will do Cup practice and qualifying from Talledega. That is the only remaining Cup race. On the Busch side, SPEED will cover practice and qualifying at Dover, Kansas, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix.

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