Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A TV Tale of Three NASCAR Banquets

The ESPN2 presentation of the Busch Series Banquet on Tuesday night completed the TV airing of all three of NASCAR's national touring series end-of-season affairs.

In seemingly direct contrast to the ability of NASCAR to entertain millions with exciting high-speed racing action, the inability of the sanctioning body to provide even a hint of excitement or spontaneity during these functions is puzzling.

NASCAR fans are a bit handcuffed where the banquets are concerned. The NEXTEL Cup Banquet aired on ESPN Classic, which is in far fewer homes than ESPN2. This move was a tough one, as ESPN2 had been the "NASCAR network of record" all season long for the ESPN group. The reason it was moved, as racing fans know all too well, was for stick-and-ball sports once again.

In a final ironic twist, when the Cup Banquet re-aired on ESPN2, the start was delayed for a SportsCenter telecast due to a live game running late. Now, after midnight on the East Coast, NASCAR fans without ESPN Classic had set their DVR's and TiVo's to ESPN2 for the originally scheduled time.

Needless to say, they wound-up missing a good portion of the show. Even with the last NEXTEL Cup program of the year, ESPN could not buy a break. It's just been that type of season for this family of networks.

Both the Busch and Truck Banquets were taped by their respective networks, and then edited for broadcast. It seems that this is the way to go with this type of content. Even the NEXTEL Cup Banquet would have been better served if shown a bit later to viewers in an edited fashion. It allows the network to eliminate the "dead time" on the stage and also to "tighten-up" the sequence of events.

In terms of hosting, both the Truck and Busch Banquets struggled a bit with co-hosts. As a single host, Dr. Jerry Punch did an outstanding job with the tough NEXTEL Cup assignment. In both the formal and informal styles shown this year, it seemed that two heads were not better than one.

One of the vestiges of the Bill France Jr. era was the continuation of the posh Waldorf-Astoria banquet setting for the Cup Series. A decade ago, this location and format had a very different function and a very different meaning. Now, we live in a YouTube and Google dominated world where media is sent by text and phone and almost every other way imaginable.

One can only wonder what kind of events and functions could be clustered around a relaxed multi-day setting in Las Vegas or Charlotte where all three national series could have their banquets, with the Sprint Cup function being the finale. That topic was debated in an earlier column, which you can read by clicking here.

The advertisers of Madison Avenue have long since changed to only advertising agencies. They represent NASCAR sponsors with headquarters in Atlanta, Memphis, Dover and ironically enough, Mooresville, NC. That would be the Cup champion.

The fundamental argument that NYC is a global sports media mecca or that sponsors simply can walk to the banquet from their offices is a myth. Things have changed, and this year was the ultimate example.

ESPN just closed their Manhattan studios. ABC's Good Morning America wanted little to do with the NASCAR boys, and everything to do with Helio and his dancing skills. The parade around Times Square made no sense, and most of the national media on-hand were the NASCAR bunch...who live in Charlotte. To top it all off, for Jimmie Johnson to appear on NASCAR Now, he had to drive to ESPN in Bristol, CT.

While some media stories touted one hundred thousand people surrounding the "parade of cars," the YouTube video told a very different tale. The same old New Yorkers, dressed in their dark colors, merely stopped to see what was making all that noise and holding up traffic.

The fact that NASCAR was once again allowed to block off Times Square in the middle of the day is still the source of NYC area website debate. After all, its not like the Yankees won The World Series...or something important like that.

The biggest positive statement of all three banquets across the board was that NASCAR may still have some of the most interesting and appealing athletes of any professional sport in North America. On TV, you would have to go a long way to match the heartfelt emotion of Bobby Hamilton Jr. or the feisty confidence of Tony Stewart during their time in a tuxedo.

Finally, what other sport can offer a grandfather reading his championship speech from a wrinkled piece of notebook paper? Ron Hornaday was thanking the young man who used to sleep on the Hornaday couch when he was new to town. Back then, an unknown racer named Kevin Harvick just needed a place to stay.

Now, years later, Harvick paid Hornaday back with a Truck Series ride and the rest is history. In documenting his own health issues, thanking those close to him, and showing a national TV audience his own humility, Ron Hornaday displayed the kind heart of a tough racer in exactly the way that would have made Bill France Jr. very proud. These are the TV moments that bring new fans into the sport.

What were your opinions about the 2007 NASCAR Banquets? Do you think they were aimed only at the sponsors in the audience or maybe feel short-changed by the lack of fun? If you could suggest one thing to improve the TV presentation, what would it be? What was your opinion of the musical guests?

We know the best suggestions come from TV viewers, and this blog is read by a lot of diverse NASCAR industry types, so give it your best shot.

To add your comment, simply click on the COMMENTS button below, and follow the simple instructions. Please read the rules for posting on the main page before adding your comment. Thanks again for stopping by The Daly Planet and adding your opinion to this on-going Internet conversation.