Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Code Red" Continues At ESPN

There may not have been sirens and flashing lights inside of the ESPN Broadcast Center, but there was clearly a "NASCAR state of emergency" declared last Friday afternoon that has continued through today.

Whatever happened, and who ever did it, the effects have been sweeping across the ESPN networks and programs. Suddenly, NASCAR discussions are taking place on programs that have openly mocked the sport for years. Suddenly, NASCAR promos are being read by announcers at college football games that do not know Jimmie Johnson from Junior Johnson or Darlington from Daytona.

The NASCAR comments originating from some ESPN announcers are actually finding their way onto the Internet courtesy of alert NASCAR fans. Note to ESPN: Do not let college football announcers talk NASCAR unless they are prepared to live on YouTube forever.

NASCAR fans are still cringing from the staged liveshot with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at halftime of the Monday Night Football Game. Stuart Scott, one of the biggest racing-haters on ESPN was chosen to interview two tough NASCAR stars. Only several things were missing. Instead of two drivers in uniforms pumping the racing action coming-up at Homestead, ESPN had arranged for something...a bit different.

What viewers got was two buffed and polished "actors" sitting side-by-side in cozy chairs and fashionable clothes talking about togetherness and camaraderie. Several Daly Planet readers suggested these two had gone from "fearless racing drivers" to "stylish metrosexuals" in one interview. That term was coined for the buffed New York City young professionals who seem to be "just out of the spa" anytime of the day or night.

What ESPN and NASCAR were trying to accomplish in this interview was anybody's guess. It certainly did not make anyone want to tune-into a NASCAR race. The hastily expanded one hour editions of NASCAR Now have become nothing more than a chance to re-air old features and add more commentary to a program already light on hard news.

In a way, this sudden company-wide "push" to promote the final NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race is simply embarrassing. The reason is easy to understand. It did not have to happen this way. When one looks for the cause of this late-season scramble, they need look no further than the ESPN campus in Bristol, CT.

In February, NASCAR fans were expecting a return to the focused and racing-driven coverage of NASCAR that ESPN had seemed to perfect in the 1980's and 90's. Instead, what greeted them for the Daytona Busch Series race was the trio of Brent Musburger, Chris Fowler, and Brad Daugherty. The only two people missing were Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski.

Since that time, ESPN has limped along with little support for the trio of Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree. The most recent example was the visit of the Mike and Mike in the Morning ESPN Radio show to the Texas Motor Speedway.

As the hours of the show went by, no one from NASCAR was present and there were no NASCAR stories. Finally, in the last thirty minutes Jimmie Johnson showed-up to answer some obligatory questions from the racing-challenged hosts.

NASCAR fans also had some questions. Where was Jerry Punch? Where was Rusty Wallace? Why didn't big sports fan Allen Bestwick or glamour girl Jamie Little stop-by? Where was the ESPN NASCAR team's presence on an ESPN show at an ESPN race? The answer...there was none.

This is typical of the off-balance and disjointed approach ESPN has taken to integrating NASCAR into a company that is staunchly "stick and ball" sports across the board. Consider this, ESPN showed Joe Torre stepping onto the field live at Dodger stadium while being announced as the new team Manager. They actually interrupted regular programming to show this live to the nation.

Several weeks ago in Memphis, TN a young driver named David Reutimann won his first Busch Series race in over fifty starts. He was driving one of the cars decorated that weekend by the children from St. Jude's Children's Hospital, which is located in Memphis. It was a program that NASCAR fans were aware of only through the Internet, as nothing had been mentioned on ESPN's NASCAR Now or on the Busch Series live coverage.

After Reutimann took the checkered flag, ESPN immediately left Memphis to join a college football game that had not yet started. They did not care that it was Reutimann's first win, they did not care that one of the young patients had designed his car, they did not care about NASCAR. What they did care about was that no sports fan should miss Joe Torre's first steps on the hallowed ground of Dodger Stadium.

Needless to say, there was no follow-up with Reutimann on ESPN News, or ESPN SportsCenter. There was no brief taped interview with him on halftime of the football game that interrupted his moment in the sun. As NASCAR fans know all too well this season, when it comes to ESPN and NASCAR, there is no effort extended to follow-up any post-race stories.

This Sunday the final NEXTEL Cup race of the season will be produced by the ESPN on ABC team. It is scheduled to start slightly before 4PM Eastern Time. Most NASCAR races in this series run about three and a half hours. The track at Homestead has lights for night racing. One small South Florida afternoon rain shower could easily delay this event by thirty minutes. One red flag period for accident clean-up could do the same.

At 8PM Eastern Time Sunday night host Jimmy Kimmel will welcome the nation to the American Music Awards from the NOKIA Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. This program is live on the ABC Broadcast Network.

There are not two ABC networks. The local stations across the nation will be making the choice to stay with the NASCAR race, or move to the primetime live awards show. This season, ABC stations have left live races for local news, inserted local news updates over the racing, and covered the pre-race show.

NASCAR fans are not optimistic that stations are going to stay if the race is in-progress, and are certainly not going to stay to watch the NEXTEL Cup Championship trophy given to the winner if it is past 8PM. The big question on the mind of the fans is whether ESPN is ready to join this race or this presentation in-progress on one of their mainstream networks?

If the footsteps of Joe Torre into the blue world of Dodger Stadium can interrupt national programming on ESPN, than maybe the final NASCAR race of the season can do the same thing. If the programming on the local ABC stations suddenly changes from Tony Stewart to Jimmy Kimmel without any other TV options, NASCAR fans are going to think long and hard about how ESPN and ABC have treated them this season.

Maybe NASCAR should take a moment and think about that as well.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your opinion.

Craftsman Trucks Are Happy On SPEED

Newspapers, magazines, and Internet websites have been littered this year with the amazing problems encountered by the "new" NASCAR TV partners.

Fox refused to show any car finishing but the winner. TNT refused to stop showing commercials and promos long enough to actually glimpse the race. ESPN has been struggling with their production philosophy since their first Cup race.

Very quietly, NASCAR's third national touring series is gearing up for another fantastic finish. Without a convoluted "reset" of points, without the hype of Monday Night Football liveshots, and without the need for a "Tech Center" or an Infield Studio, the Craftsman Truck Series has been outstanding on TV this season.

There is no doubt it has been because of the commitment of SPEED Channel's veteran production team to create simple and yet compelling sports TV. From the start of a Truck Series telecast, there is no doubt in the mind of the viewer that they are there for a race. Bells and whistles are in short supply.

Krista Voda anchors the pre-race thirty minute show, called The Set-Up, from the starting grid. No, literally from the starting grid. The SPEED set is rolled-out once the trucks are lined-up, and quickly rolled away once the show is done so the race can start.

Throughout the program, right over her shoulder, are the pole-sitting trucks and the rest of the field. You may recall Brent Musburger recently relocating to the same position for the ABC races. What a coincidence.

Earlier this season, at a short track, Voda abandoned this set and hosted the pre-race show from the bed of a pick-up truck in the infield surrounded by fans. Now, that was a lot of fun and just the right thing to show her versatility, and the flexibility of the network to permit it.

Voda's "no nonsense" approach is a tribute to her Iowa heritage, and her continual desire to let the people and the event tell the story. Like any good TV sports host, her job is to direct traffic and then get out of the way.

Voda began the season freezing on pit road in Daytona with Mark Martin freezing alongside as her guest. They did not go inside, did not do the "TV thing" and complain, but they made the best of a bad situation and hosted the entire thirty minutes from pit road. For me, this set the tone for the SPEED coverage and moved Voda up another notch on my "TV respect" scale.

There is no doubt that her hard work and single-minded dedication to this series will eventually pay-off with bigger assignments, but for right now NASCAR fans are very lucky to have her around. She is currently anchoring SPEED's mid-week Homestead coverage. Enjoy her unique style and on-air presence while you still can.

No one has epitomized the Truck Series more than Phil Parsons. This veteran racer is so good at being low-key fans have just come to expect completely accurate and up-to-date information from him in every telecast. Parsons has become an outstanding color announcer, and has hit his stride when he was matched with his current partner, Rick Allen.

The story of how Allen wound-up on this series is very interesting, but not for this column. Needless to say, he has made the most of an opportunity that came his way out of the blue, and continues to increase his commitment to NASCAR TV with his announcing of the DirectTV Hot Pass package.

Allen was rough at first, but has now learned through trial and error when to step-back and let Parsons fill-in the blanks, and when to get up on the microphone and let it fly with top intensity and volume. He has put the racing back in racing TV, and only Mike Joy has been as consistent in his performance in the TV booth.

Ask anyone about the Truck Series, and they always say the same thing. What is up with that Ray Dunlap guy? Over the years, this Bowling Green State University graduate has been a racing fixture. Dunlap was the PR Director for ARCA before joining ESPN in 1997. He was used in all kinds of roles with that network, before transitioning to SPEED and becoming so highly identified with the Craftsman Trucks.

Dunlap is outspoken, has a great sense of humor, and sometimes can have a bit too much fun away from the track. Many fans remember Dunlaps's attempt at humor on a live SPEED talk show resulted in a one week suspension and a public apology. Then, just a short time ago, SPEED confirmed that Dunlap had been once again suspended and would only be returning to the series when it arrived in Texas.

The funny thing is, this colorful character is exactly what SPEED and the Truck Series needed. Looking around at the overall quality of the pit reporters currently on TV, Dunlap is absolutely one of the best. Love his style or hate it, he can poke his nose in on any situation and knows the Truck Series inside and out. Could Ray Dunlap be the Tony Stewart of pit reporters?

Rounding out the SPEED coverage has been the solid Adam Alexander and the fascinating Michael Waltrip. Alexander has been a great addition to SPEED, and his low-key and factual reporting works well to balance the enthusiastic and over-the-top style of Dunlap.

Michael Waltrip continues to be a mystery this season in many ways. Is there anyone recently in NASCAR who has experienced the highs and lows this man has in one year? The worst part is that he did it all publicly. Removed from Tradin' Paint on SPEED and with bad memories of several other SPEED programs in which he appeared, the Truck Series has been his salvation.

On the air, Waltrip actually gets to talk about racing. Even on Inside NEXTEL Cup, he is only able to respond to the painfully scripted questions of host Dave Despain. Here, Rick Allen and Phil Parsons give Waltrip plenty of room to talk about the action on the track.

Both Parsons and Allen were working this series before Waltrip arrived as the third man in the booth, and one gets the opinion they will both be there long after Waltrip has moved on. To Parsons and Allen, Waltrip is the excitable little brother who makes things more interesting and humorous, regardless of his level of accuracy. Parsons slowly and patiently helps Waltrip when he drifts from the center line.

The final part of this column is directed to the production staff at SPEED who have helped to maintain a consistency with the trucks that has failed to materialize in the other two NASCAR national touring series. Just two little words...thank you.

It is refreshing to see the racing and have everything else be pushed aside. There are no "sports updates," no one needs to offer opinions from the infield on-camera, and absolutely never will we see exciting racing action on the track without exciting racing commentary from the booth.

As the exciting Craftsman Truck Series finale approaches this Friday night, SPEED will once again have an opportunity to close-out the season with a barn-burner of a race. Voda opens the show at 7:30PM Eastern Time, and then the action gets underway to decide another championship. If you have not taken the time to check-out the Trucks on SPEED, you might be missing the best NASCAR racing on TV.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop-by and leave your opinion.