Monday, February 4, 2008
ESPN Classic Showcases NASCAR In Transition
The 1999 Daytona 500 was the feature presentation on ESPN Classic Monday afternoon.
Airing at 2PM, and clearly intended for your DRV or TiVo, fans were once again reminded of the "CBS Sports style" of presenting this race with the focus on excitement.
Free of goofy gimmicks, inside jokes and intrusive graphics, the on-track action in this race made it very clear to both the announcers and the fans that what we were witnessing was a sport in transition.
The familiar tones of Greg Gumbel opened the telecast, with Gumbel serving in much the same role as ESPN's Brent Musburger this past season. I believe "show host" was the official title.
It seems somewhat ironic that Gumbel started at ESPN and then moved to CBS, while Musburger started at CBS and is now a staple on ESPN. This validates once again that the only constant in TV is change.
Both Ken Squier and Mike Joy were heard in this telecast, as the transition theme continued. Joy was on the way in as the future announcer of the Daytona 500, and Squier was on the way out. If not for the hard work and dogged determination of Squier, the sport may never have established a real "toe-hold" on network TV.
While the highlights of races on ABC's Wide World of Sports made it a curiosity, only the determined and focused CBS Sports coverage of the Daytona 500 made it a "real sport" to millions of Americans. Today, every lap of every race in all three national touring series is televised live and so is much of the practice and qualifying.
As we have mentioned time-and-time again throughout these last five ESPN Classic programs, the one production element that immediately strikes the viewer is how wide the Directors kept the cameras in those days. Clearly, the idea was to treat the whole field equally, and then zoom or cut to a specific pass or incident.
Few visual moments are more powerful than the Director cutting to a wideshot of the backstretch at Daytona moments before the field thunders into view. That one moment of an empty racetrack registers in the mind, and then suddenly it is invaded by forty-three very fast machines locked in tight formation. Is there anything better?
As the CBS production team proved, using a wideshot is also the best way to convey speed. Other than the single "speed shot" fixed camera where the cars just zoom by, a wideshot of the pack as they run shows the infield scenery flying by and conveys a sense of speed that is sorely lacking in today's "leader dominated" coverage.
Buddy Baker and Ned Jarrett were very good in this race at treating every driver equally. This field reflected the veterans like Dale Earnhardt Sr., Rusty Wallace, and Dale Jarrett. It also featured the youth movement of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Elliott Sadler. All of them were fast.
This is the race that went 96 laps before a caution. Back then, with a ten thousand dollar bonus for leading at halfway, fans actually saw some racing right before the midpoint of the race. Once in the pits, CBS unveiled the "triple split" effect on the pit stops, and was always right on top of the action.
Another interesting element featured in this race was CBS cutting back from commercial break to catch the big crash triggered by Dale Jarrett. Mike Joy immediately heightened the excitement with his commentary, and the key replays were not seen until CBS made sure all drivers were OK.
As usual, the entire announce team did a good job of building up the finish in terms of fuel and tire issues. With ten laps to go, this race became exactly the kind of barn-burner that NASCAR wanted the fans to see.
The finish was outstanding, and to see a fresh-faced Jeff Gordon in Victory Lane and hear his words once again was certainly interesting for all kinds of fans. This type of programming really hammered home the fact that "old school" NASCAR races have value on TV networks like ESPN Classic.
This series ends next Monday, and then all six of the races replay after the Daytona Nationwide Series race in two weeks. Hopefully, with ESPN now starting their second season of NASCAR coverage, this type of programming will become a lot more frequent on the one ESPN TV network specifically designated to show us the past.
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