Sunday, November 18, 2007
There were certainly some high hopes that this final weekend in Homestead would see the ESPN on ABC gang come through with their best telecast of the season.
The stage had been set with an outstanding Busch Series race on Saturday featuring the same announcers, the same TV crew, and the same track. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, for NASCAR fans nationwide...the answer was almost everything.
Sometimes, the poor ESPN guys just cannot buy a break as they try to navigate their way through the twisted world of the ABC local stations. On this Sunday, KABC in Los Angeles, the number two TV market in the US, somehow forgot to show the first thirty minutes of the live NASCAR Countdown pre-race show.
Can you believe it? Even with thousands of angry calls pouring into the KABC and ABC Network switchboards, the fans could not convince the Master Control operator at the station that he probably should switch to the live final NEXTEL Cup race instead of running the children's show the station was airing.
Thirty minutes into the forty-five minute program, the greater Los Angeles area joined the final NASCAR Countdown right in the middle of a Tim Brewer Tech Center update. What a way to kick things off for the West Coast viewers.
The amazing thing is that those viewers missed the best thirty minutes of the entire five hour telecast. Jerry Punch offered a great feature, and Suzy Kolber did her best to lead her cast through the top stories of the weekend. Thankfully, this included both the Truck and Busch Series highlights from the final races.
The only glaring omission by ABC in the pre-race was the lack of any interview or brief tribute to Ricky Rudd. This tough and strong-minded driver still has a big fan base and will be fully retired after the race. Rudd is "old school" and will be missed in the grandstands and around the nation.
When the ESPN race team took over, things from pit road were being followed quite well, but that could not be said for the announcers upstairs in the TV booth. Quickly, Jeff Burton and Martin Truex Jr. had incidents that were first missed, and then brushed aside by the ESPN on ABC crew. It was clear that despite the reality of the situation, it was going to be "all championship all the time" for this race.
Even good old Junior got into the act by being spun coming onto pit road. A yellow flag coming out during green flag pit stops quickly put the network team right over the edge. This set the tone for the night, with the TV crew forgetting to reset the field after a caution. They forgot to even mention who the Lucky Dog was for the first of many times this night.
They were obsessed with the Johnson and Gordon cars, although for experienced race fans there was no drama to be had. As we have said many times this season, how can two sets of announcers at the same track be describing two completely different races?
The radio call of this event had exciting racing, two and three wide action, and lots of updates on drivers from all different teams, big and small. The ESPN on ABC presentation consisted of the top three cars on the track and then Mr. Gordon and Mr. Johnson.
As cars began to fall out of the race, their stories were never updated. After several accidents, no one was interviewed outside the Infield Care Center so fans would know they were OK. Several accidents were very hard hits. This practice used to be a very fundamental part of NASCAR coverage. Now, ESPN cannot be bothered because they have a pre-determined storyline to tell.
It only got worse from there, and it was a shame. Perhaps, too many cooks were trying to create the Homestead "soup" in the TV truck. ESPN never did regular field rundowns with the pit reporters assigned to the drivers. Only the silent ticker at the top of the screen had any reference to what was happening on the track.
In The Daly Planet forum, readers kept asking "how did he get so far back?" or "how did he gain ten places in two laps?" as the disjointed coverage stumbled along. Nothing in the field was being updated except the top three cars and the two points contenders.
As we all know, the key issue that NASCAR fans want the TV networks to understand is that each and every driver is represented in the fans watching the race on TV. No one misses that point more than ESPN, who can literally not mention a driver's name after reading it on the starting grid. How is this possible?
The reason is clear, and has been made clear by this production staff all season long. The network creates a storyline to follow prior to the event, and despite the reality of the race itself, they will not bend. No matter how completely foolish or amateur it makes the announcers appear to be, live NASCAR racing cannot make ESPN change their story. They are simply sticking to it.
At Homestead, the story was the "threat" that Jimmie Johnson was somehow going to mysteriously lose his championship if Jeff Gordon won the race. Jeff would lead one lap, then get more points for leading the most laps, then win the race and it would be the greatest...ok....I can't even deal with trying to type that hype.
The biggest shame of the poor job ESPN did televising this race was the lack of exposure for the fulltime NEXTEL Cup teams that ran hard all season. The stories of both the drivers and the teams went untold in what should have been a balanced and informative multi-hour telecast.
When Jarrett and Reutimann ran well, nothing was said. The drivers still chasing rides for next season were never mentioned. Rudd was never shown. It was just a very poor excuse for network TV coverage of the field in the final race.
Then, to put a cap on the night, only the winner and the new champ were shown crossing the finish line. It almost appeared that the Director did not know where to go or what to do. ESPN had been doing a fine job of showing the lead lap cars racing to the stripe, but that went out the window along with almost any other positive elements of the on-track coverage.
Strangely, we did not see the Draft Tracker at Homestead, where the cars run well over one hundred and fifty miles an hour. Earlier this season, we did see it explaining how Clint Bowyer spun at Richmond while going almost eighty. It was the dreaded low-speed aero push.
Another element missing from both the pre-race and the race itself was Aerosmith. Where they went, why they went, and who made them go was never explained. In the final race of the season after ten long months of being back in the saddle again, Aerosmith had taken their motorcycle song and left the building.
Luckily, the saving grace for this night was Allen Bestwick. He quietly went about interviewing the key players in the championship, and then handled the awards presentations with dignity and his normal good humor.
When the network had additional time to fill, it was Bestwick who waded into the masses and pulled out interviews with Johnson's interim Crew Chief and even the champ's dad and grandmother. Let's face facts, the only thing Allen Bestwick has not done for ESPN this season is change the oil in the TV truck.
Bestwick has done play-by-play for races, been a pit reporter, hosted the NASCAR Countdown show, hosted NASCAR Now and been a feature reporter for that same show. On several occasions, he hosted the pre-race show, did the play-by-play and then handled the post-race segments by himself. If there is a Most Valuable Player award for this season, Bestwick gets the nod.
As we close out the final race of the season, it is tough to defend any of the glaring and almost strange problems ESPN had with this race. How tough is it to tell us who the Lucky Dog is after a caution? How hard is it to reset the field before a restart? Its great to know who was first off pit road, but who stayed out?
Fans want to hear from their driver after an accident. Fans want to hear from their driver when his car is retired from the race. Fans do not need to hear pre-recorded team radio conversations, pre-recorded crowd noise, or pre-recorded team speeches after the engines are started. All of this combines for one big mess.
Later in the off-season, we will be discussing the ESPN NEXTEL Cup season as a whole, but for right now we need time for the memory of Homestead to fade. I never saw my favorite driver after the green flag. I did not see him finish. He was never mentioned in a race recap. I never saw one of his pit stops.
My personal memory of Homestead is watching the race ticker to see where my driver was, and coming to the grim realization that the official NASCAR TV network of The Chase for the Championship was not going to mention him. He never ran in the top five and his name was not Johnson or Gordon.
Halfway through the race, if I did not have to write this column, I would have turned the TV off and never turned it on again. I wonder how many people across the nation, wearing the t-shirt and ball cap of their favorite driver, reached for the remote and voted on the ESPN coverage with one swift click. What a season.
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This Sunday at Homestead marks the end of the first season of NEXTEL Cup racing on ESPN and ABC. The company bought the final seventeen races of the season, including the entire Chase for the Championship.
The NASCAR Countdown pre-race show this week will be forty-five minutes long and begin at 3PM Eastern Time. Suzy Kolber is listed as the host, and Brad Daugherty will be alongside of her in the Infield Studio.
Race coverage will begin at 3:45PM, with the green flag falling around 4PM. The race is scheduled until 8PM, which will hopefully include coverage of the championship trophy presentation and post-race interviews.
Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree will anchor the ABC coverage. On pit road will be Mike Massaro, Allen Bestwick, Jamie Little, and Dave Burns.
This announce team is coming off a very good Busch Series telecast from Saturday afternoon, and they have good weather and a race track in outstanding condition. These ingredients should combine to produce a good telecast. Fans should be watching for ABC to spread the attention around to cars in the race not contending for the championship, but in the news for other reasons.
This is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s final ride in the DEI #8, Ricky Rudd's official last race and several other drivers are still without a ride for 2008. There are several storylines to follow.
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Mike Joy is a talented racing TV veteran, and perhaps the most professional NASCAR announcer presently on network television. Darrell Waltrip is a former champion who is continuing to enjoy his re-birth as a TV analyst that has led him into a wonderful and financially rewarding world.
Dave Despain currently enjoys his status as the single host of WindTunnel on Sunday nights. This series is his franchise. He does not enjoy his status as the single host of Inside NEXTEL Cup on Monday nights. This series will never be his franchise.
Sunday morning Despain hosted a special live version of WindTunnel from the SPEED studios in Charlotte, NC. Joy was alongside, and DW was on a satellite liveshot from the Homestead track. It was an opportunity for Despain to vent all his NASCAR frustrations, and he did just that for the better part of the hour.
The reason The Daly Planet does not normally discuss this program is that it is not NASCAR themed. We do, however, view it each week and continue to appreciate the fact that Despain tries his best to spread TV exposure around to all forms of racing.
Despain works best with Robin Miller, when both can provide support for the other to continue to harrass NASCAR on every possible point. In this program, Mike Joy refused to play the Miller role and took every NASCAR question poised to him by Despain with a very big grain of salt.
The first question asked to DW was not done until fifteen minutes into this one hour show. In that same time, Despain asked Joy only one or two questions. The criticism of Despain is that his endless talking and control issues always sink every meaningful conversation.
DW answered some hard questions, but it was clear that Despain was there to poke the big NASCAR bear with a stick. Mike Joy tried to ask DW questions from the Charlotte studio, but Despain quickly stepped-in and took control, which included telling DW that he had ten seconds to answer a question. Needless to say, DW took his sweet time and made sure Despain understood not to do that again.
It was Waltrip that quietly raised what was perhaps the best point of the entire program. It was the contrast between the intensity and the agressiveness that we saw in the past and the current Hendrick Racing "love fest" for the championship. DW did not mince words when he said NASCAR "sucked the life out of the sport" by clamping down on the personalities of guys like Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart.
His point was that NASCAR itself had made this championship "vanilla" through their own actions with the intense and passionate drivers in the sport. His words were a big public shot across the NASCAR bow on national TV, and really made this show memorable.
Joy and Despain struggled on the same set, as both are professional TV hosts. Joy wound up asking as many questions as Despain, and each time Despain stepped-in and tried to regain control. Several times, it was not only obvious, it just was not very professional.
Once DW departed, Despain began to take viewer calls that instantly left NASCAR and went directly to Formula-1. Joy and Despain were off into Formula-1 land with a the NASCAR TV viewers who tuned-in for this special NASCAR edition scratching their heads.
It was great to see Mike Joy on TV again, and SPEED fans can only wonder what Inside NEXTEL Cup could become if Joy was at the helm. This Despain-hosted show is struggling, and fans only had to see and hear Joy again to rekindle their great memories of this TV professional.
Chip Ganassi stepped onto the show live from Homestead and addressed the success of Hendrick Motorsports. It was nice to see someone with an ego the size of Ganassi exchange plain talk with Mike Joy about the COT and the 2008 season. Gansssi was a good guest to address the influx of open-wheel drivers and he spoke plainly about the fact that most of these drivers paid their dues, just in another series.
Joy once again took control of the show and led Ganassi into a good discussion about Juan Pablo Montoya and his rookie season. Despain stepped-in and could not resist taking a shot at Ganassi about Montoya and left the interview with "Robin Miller says hi."
This "extra shot" is Despain's Achilles Heel, and it was never more apparent than when he was seated alongside of the classy Joy on the set.
DW returned to address the Penske Racing situation and talked again plainly about the tough racing with the COT, and the fact that "The Chase" should only be about five races long. He also suggested that the Cup regulars should not be scored in the Busch Series Championship. Waltrip was on a roll, and he was not going to stop.
Without prompting, he reinforced that the COT needs additional work, and Mike Joy asked him about the safety issues of the COT. Joy continued with his own beliefs about the cost-saving and racing issues with this new car.
DW summed up the fact that NASCAR is at a crossroads, and that the fan base needs some assurance that the sport will maintain the excitement and intensity that put it on the map. Despain is not a NASCAR fan, and he moved onto another question without reinforcing that the top NASCAR on Fox announcer was saying NASCAR was in crisis.
The reason Despain moved on was clear. It was his time to talk about more Formula-1 racing. Off he went to the races, talking on a NASCAR Sunday about some bizarre Formula-1 story that none of his viewers were interested in at all.
Despain was very clear that this was the biggest story of the year, but then someone said something in his ear. He was not happy, but sent the show down to Homestead so the RaceDay trio of panelists could contibute their biggest NASCAR stories of the year. Because Despain rambled on about F-1 so long, Mike Joy did not get to participate.
The bottom line about this show is that SPEED needed to decide in advance if this program was going to be NASCAR themed, or not. Because they did not, the program was disjointed and made no sense. It was as though NASCAR was being forced on Despain, and he was doing everything possible to get if off "his show."
In the end, the contributions of DW and Mike Joy proved to be valuable, and brought the content to this program that the NASCAR fans wanted to see. Despain's rant about the Formula-1 cheating scandal was mis-placed, and threw the program off balance.
This is the only Daly Planet review of this program, and there was no doubt if SPEED had committed to make this an all NASCAR show, it could have shined.
Instead, what was left for the viewers was a "mish-mash" of NASCAR experts surrounded by Despain and his unyielding Formula-1 agenda. One wonders what Mike Joy and DW could have done alone with live phone calls from fans and without all the ego and control issues on the set. Despain is a talented man, it is just a shame he cannot get out of the way on the air and let others shine.
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Sunday at 12:30PM SPEED produces what may be its highest-profile NASCAR TV show in history. NASCAR RaceDay will offer three hours of live programming from Homestead, FL.
John Roberts will host this telecast as usual, with Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace alongside. The popular Wendy Venturini will provide the live news and interviews from the garage area and pit road. Only, this one RaceDay will be a bit different.
SPEED is pulling out all the stops for this expanded version, and will add to the line-up Steve Byrnes, Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond from the Trackside crew. In addition, we will see Hermie Sadler, Randy Pemberton and Bob Dillner offering information as well.
Love him or hate him, NASCAR.com InternetTV host Ricki Rachtmann will also be along to participate in the final race picks of the year.
RaceDay has been having a good run, but has been plagued by technical problems on some of their highest profile shows. This is the day at the track when the demand for electricity, RF transmission space, and wireless communication is at an all-time high. The SPEED stage is not part of the main TV compound, but a "stand alone" TV venue on the outside of the track.
Like the ESPN on ABC crew, SPEED faces the challenge of balancing the championship news and information with the other big stories of the day. There is a ton of news and NASCAR moments in history that will be unfolding before this race. From Junior's last ride with Budweiser in the "8" to Ricky Rudd calling it a career, it will be interesting to see how SPEED prioritizes this information.
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