Friday, September 14, 2007

ESPN Kisses And Makes-Up With Ragan And Sauter

The ABC telecast was barely off the air when the email and comments began to fly all over the Internet. Sometimes, NASCAR fans can dial themselves in on a key TV topic immediately, and last Saturday night in Richmond was no exception.

The ESPN production crew that originates all of the races on ABC really had a tough night. From the hilariously disjointed pre-race show to missing the race restart after an extended Red Flag period, things had not gone the way ESPN had planned.

Suddenly, as the race was in the final fifteen laps, the action was really rocking at last. The racing was great, the stories were good, and there were two names in the top five that absolutely no one expected. Johnny Sauter had come through the field more than once to then wind-up with a fifth place finish. But, there was even a better story out there.

Sauter had been topped by the tenacious race of former outcast David Ragan who used a motivational bump from Casey Mears to up his intensity and finish second. Imagine, Ragan avoided the contact problems of his past, raced cleanly into the top ten, and ended his night with a career best third place finish.

In the recent past, Ragan has been routinely thumped in the media by both reporters and other drivers as the "out of control" rookie who had no business in the NEXTEL Cup Series. Now, even the cantankerous Tony Stewart offered his congratulations after the race.

Down on pit road, lots of people dropped-by the Ragan car to chat about his effort. Unfortunately, there were several key people missing in action on pit road.

The ESPN pit reporters assigned to Ragan and Sauter's pits were nowhere in sight. Even as Ragan and Sauter spoke to the MRN Radio reporters and the other assembled media, no one from the TV network that was carrying the race live was walking that way.

There were four ESPN pit reporters, two announcers in the Infield Studio, three booth announcers who called the race, and good old Tim Brewer in the Tech Center on-hand for ESPN's production team that night. None of them talked to David Ragan or Johnny Sauter on live TV. They finished third and fifth respectively.

The pit reporters and their assembled cast of cameramen, audio techs, producers, and security guards scampered back and forth on pit road. Each and every time they walked right by these two. ESPN had one thing on its mind, and that was The Chase.

Despite the heroics of both Ragan and Sauter, ESPN decided they were not the story that best served the TV network's interests. Viewers who watched the Richmond race know that Dale Earnhardt Junior fit that bill. It was only about The Chase, and the fact that Junior has missed it again. Basically, it was all Junior all the time.

In reality, of course, Junior had a snowball's chance of making it in and he knew it. Only when the ESPN announcers openly rooted against Kevin Harvick by showing their enthusiasm when he had problems did this "network agenda" emerge. It was almost scary to see, as suddenly the thought that Junior might "be in" began to take shape. Jerry Punch and Rusty Wallace could barely contain themselves.

But, all good things must come to an end, and that is certainly true with some of the DEI engines this season. After Junior's powerplant expired with five to go, his live extended interview put the official "cap" on ESPN's best-laid plans.

With Junior having said his piece, albeit somewhat painfully, ESPN continued to interview the remaining drivers in The Chase. Most of the interviews made little or no sense, because what the drivers wanted to talk about was the race, and what the network wanted them to talk about was The Chase.

Meanwhile, Ragan was pushed aside and relegated to SPEED Channel's Victory Lane show and offering some soundbites for NASCAR Now. At least he got to tell his story to someone. The best part was, it was a very good story.

This Friday, ESPN2 took to the airwaves from Loudon, NH with the qualifying show for the NEXTEL Cup Series. Shortly after Punch, Wallace and Petree did the mandatory Dale Junior recap, something interesting appeared. That something interesting was named David Ragan.

Punch welcomed Ragan to a seat on the Infield Studio set in his driver's suit, which he would need for the on-going live qualifying. If there were any lingering hard feelings, they were smoothed-over long before Ragan took to the air on ESPN2. His nice smile, professional appearance, and well chosen words really drove home the point of just how much great content ESPN missed last week by not speaking to him after the race.

Punch and company could just not say enough about Ragan, or his race last week. It would seem that somewhere in the NASCAR and ESPN "TV shotgun marriage," somebody got a little talking to. Even Rusty Wallace involved Ragan in almost every comment he made as the cars circled the track.

Eventually, Ragan himself slipped away to qualify. After several more cars attempted to qualify, something else interesting appeared in the Infield Studio. His name was Johnny Sauter. Still in his drivers suit, Sauter appeared nervous and high-strung, just like NASCAR in Primetime had portrayed him.

That's right, the other driver that ESPN had ignored on their ABC Richmond telecast had been the featured driver on ABC's Wednesday night primetime NASCAR series. After being thoroughly profiled along with his fiance, Sauter had driven the race of his life only three nights later. What a shame ESPN chose not to "tag" Sauter's NASCAR in Primetime appearance with a live interview in Richmond.

Thankfully, ESPN put both Ragan and Sauter on-camera several times during qualifying, and asked them both to participate as a guest analysts as the session rolled-on. Jerry Punch was falling all over himself to recap the strong finish of both of these two "young men" in Richmond.

It certainly would have helped this "make good" feel a lot better if Punch has just come out and said ESPN was sorry that during the confusion of interviewing The Chase participants on the ABC Richmond broadcast that Sauter and Ragan had "been missed."

As it was, both drivers got on-air time, the fans and NASCAR got calmed down, and ESPN delivered as close to an apology as anyone is ever going to get from a huge corporation like its parent company Disney.

In the long run, perhaps this was a valuable lesson learned for the "new" NASCAR on ESPN production team. Even in the era of the "artificial play-off format," NASCAR fans still want to hear from the key participants in the live and exciting race they have just watched. Even if their names are not Earnhardt.

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