Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ESPN's New Defining NASCAR Moment

Big things in TV sports are supposed to take place on the weekend. They are supposed to happen in playoffs and championships. They are certainly not supposed to happen in North Carolina on a Tuesday afternoon.

ESPN has learned a lot from the tough times the network had in 2007 when they waded back into the NASCAR scene. The wholesale changes in both the on and off-track personalities and the increase in the level of commitment to the sport has been nothing short of remarkable.

Dale Jarrett and Allen Bestwick have been leading the new ESPN team trackside. Rusty Wallace has embraced his new role as a commentator and Andy Petree is simply having a spectacular season as an analyst.

Away from the track, the struggles of ESPN's daily show called NASCAR Now last season were well-documented. The result has been an overhaul of the program format and the on-air announcers. Since the series came on-the-air in February, the momentum of this show has been slowly building.

It has been interesting to watch the Connecticut-based ESPN production staff begin to embrace NASCAR as something more than a "southern curiosity." At the forefront of this change has been the addition of Allen Bestwick and Nicole Manske to this series.

While last season's substitute host and ESPNEWS anchor Ryan Burr continues on the show, Bestwick and Manske have brought an entirely new level of professionalism to both the TV series and the network.

NASCAR fans know the recent professional struggles of Bestwick, and have watched him labor to once again become a key element of ESPN's network coverage. His effort has been rewarded this season, as Bestwick has emerged as the leader of ESPN's NASCAR team.

Manske came to ESPN from SPEED with one big question mark on her resume. Could she handle the national spotlight alone as a host and reporter? From her first time on-the-air at Daytona in February, the answer has been yes. Now, three months into her first NASCAR Now season she blends seamlessly into the program.

After a stellar "roundtable" show on Monday, NASCAR Now presented a one hour live special from DEI in Mooresville, NC on Tuesday. It was Dale Earnhardt Day and fans, drivers and family members were on-hand at the shop. For this version of NASCAR Now there were no scripts, no distractions and no hype.

Burr anchored in the studio and Manske handled things at DEI. These two have proven to be effective on-air partners this season. Manske knows how to listen, and she did just that with a wide variety of guests from Kerry Earnhardt to Mark Martin. Listening was something in short supply on this series in 2007.

In this show, ESPN finally also discovered the NASCAR fans. Hearing from Americans who had their own unique and individual stories about Earnhardt Sr. was a very nice touch throughout this show. More fan input will only help to make this series even more "human."

Despite the issues some fans have with Teresa Earnhardt, the commitment of ESPN to originate this program should not be overlooked. Dale Earnhardt Day could simply have been a two minute taped report on the normal thirty minute Tuesday episode of NASCAR Now.

Instead, other ESPN2 programs were moved aside and one hour of NASCAR took center stage as close to primetime as was possible. The show interviewed almost everyone available, and put a very human face on DEI at a time when the company needed a little boost.

Fans may have been most emotional when Burr introduced a tremendous Earnhardt feature that put together a ton of footage from the ESPN vault. Transcending the decades, it put a unique face on a man who meant so much to so many.

Following-up on this feature and finally in his correct on-air role was Dr. Jerry Punch. Given the opportunity to talk about Earnhardt, Punch let the words and the emotions flow. Viewers got the opportunity to see Punch in the environment in which he is most effective. His experience in this sport is second to none, and hopefully he will begin to contribute to NASCAR Now more frequently as a commentator and reporter.

There was no better way to finish-off this program than to bring in Earnhardt's longtime friend and employer Richard Childress. Burr let Childress talk about the off-track personality of "Senior." Childress made it clear that Earnhardt single-handedly had made his RCR company successful. "RC' is a plain-spoken man, and he put the tidal swell of popularity for NASCAR during the final Earnhardt years in good perspective.

Every TV series needs a good defining moment. Fourteen months after it first came on-the-air, NASCAR Now has finally experienced just that. It was not at a racetrack, it was not on a weekend and it was not all from the ESPN studios.

NASCAR and ESPN finally came together in the green grass of the big front lawn at DEI. Amid fans, drivers and family members the TV network discovered it is not High Definition, loud rock music or brightly colored graphics that define NASCAR on TV.

It is simply the ability to understand that at its core, NASCAR is just ordinary people getting together to do what they like to do. On this day, ESPN let the fans and the sport do the talking with memorable results.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are on the right side of the main page. Thank you for taking the time to stop by.


Anonymous said...

Hello JD,
I eat my comment from 529PM on the other post.(DEI Plays Host...) Good show, Andy, Mr. Childress, Kerry, Dr P were good interviews. As were the videos of Dale and the 3 from the past. Too bad except for Dale Jr in the opening, we could not have had an interview w/ Dale Jr from Ms Manske onsite.

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Anonymous said...

I know I've seen every bit of footage shown by ESPN numerous times on various shows but I never tire of seeing him in action. That man, with his on track expertise and his off track business sense put Nascar on the radar for this fanatic.

I thank ESPN for dedicating this hour to his memory, so the many fans that miss seeing that #3 roll into Victory Circle and miss that twinkle in his eye as he toyed with the press, the fans, and fellow competitors can take a moment and remember what used to be.

I never had the honor of actually meeting him, however I was at Daytona in 1998, on pit road, right when Happy Hour for the Cup driver's was about to commence. The #3 was on pit road, waiting for his opportunity to go and practice and a friend encouraged me to stop staring at the car and he would take a picture of me in the foreground on one side of the pit wall and the #3 behind me on pit lane. I swear, that man knew exactly what we were doing, and he revved his engine just as my friend snapped the picture.

To this day, that is my most treasured item. You can see Earnhart's twinkling eyes as I am jumping out of my imagined doom.

Yes, he loved to race, but yes, he loved to perform for the fans.

I miss you Dale.

SophiaZ123 said...

Excellent show. Enjoyed it all but for one quibble.

*sigh sorry JD*

TURN DOWN THE MUSIC FOR THE TALKING PARTS!! I wanted to hear the late, great Dale's voice...not a bunch of canned music overlayed it in a way too loud tone...sigh.

You don't need to add maudliness or sentimentality..just seeing the old clips and interviews can do it for a person.

Btw, this is not a crack at ESPN ALL TV shows have this annoying LOUD MUSIC HABIT.

Turn down the music and I would give this show an Aplus.

Also I was worried the band doing the sound check behind Dr. Punch would crank it up. Also, Dr. Punch is worthy of a good half hour of memories with Dale and I for one would like to see something like that....(sans music of course)

Other than difficulty hearing, I LOVED THIS SHOW.

p.s. I have old fashioned non stereo tv btw.

PammH said...

This show had heart-something that has been totally lacking until today from NN! From Kerry recalling memories to RC's comments, it was stellar. I loved seeing Nicole put her hand over her mouth when Andy was talking about the bloody tuna fishing trip!
Not surprised TE wasn't filmed tho..btw, Jr was testing today with the HMS group, so he wasn't available to be there, but Kelley was there. Claire B played alot of Kelley on her XM show. That was the only thing missing from NN tonite, imo.

Newracefan said...

Dale was gone by the time I starting watching Nascar but even I understand what he did for the sport. It was an excellent show, very well done and very respectful of his memory. Nicole's interview with Martin was interesting in the beginning it was all about a championship for DEI but there was that big but hanging off at the end. Nicole pushed but knew when to stop.

SophiaZ123 said...

I just had to add, nobody was harder on Nicole than I, when she was on the SPEED REPORT.

but I must admit, for myself, I prefer her over Ryan as host on NN.
She always seems so natural.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece of work, kudos all around.

I liked all the interviews, thought they were well-done. My only problem with them all was that they were too short. (Except for Kerry, who seemed uncomfortable.)

Nicole looks beautiful in natural light (natural plus). She looks like a gorgeous soccer mom. Wow! Not to detract from her brains and skill as an anchor. Agree with you Mr. Daly, she's the key to this program's success.

Ritchie said...

Thank you ESPN and NASCAR Now for an excellent program. A great way to remember Dale Sr. and his career. I enjoyed Jerry Punch and the stories he told about Dale.

I really enjoyed the look on Nicole's face when Andy Petree was telling the story of fishing with Earnhardt in the Bahamas.

glenc1 said...

I remembered at the last second to turn on the show, and I was glad I did. A lot of it I had seen in past airings, many of the stories I'd heard before, but as someone said, I don't get tired of seeing/hearing it again. Nicole was simply excellent, blending the professional and personal stories; all the interviews were well done. I couldn't help but think there could be some little kid out there watching who never saw Dale--and that's why it's important to do these things from time to time. I wasn't raised in a 'racing' household, so learning about some of the past generations was always interesting to me, and hopefully it will continue to be for younger generations. Well done, ESPN.

Sophiaz123--if you eventually upgrade, newer TV's do have settings that help even out the sound levels! (I never noticed the music as a problem at all.)

Wisconsin Steve said...

Terrific program. I haven't enjoyed an hour of TV that much in a very long time.

Its hard to believe how much this show has changed in less than a year.

Anonymous said...

Nicole should become the "full time" host. She seems very comfortable and sincere and can throw in some humor, as well. Her comment at the end saying she wasn't doing sports when SR raced and it appears she missed something very special (or words to that effect) was very poignant. That one comment made me a bigger fan of hers.


Anonymous said...

PammH said what has been missing from ESPN and their Nascar coverage. Heart. THAT'S why I've not liked this show much at all. It's too canned, too clean, too proper and too PC. Too bad it (heart) was only around for one episode, the one they aired from DEI.

I'm glad ESPN has made changes that have pleased many viewers but for this fan it's too little, too late. I'll stick with SPEED.

stricklinfan82 said...

What a fantastic decision by ESPN to dedicate a full hour to Dale Earnhardt Day.

Admitedly I still pretty much only watch NASCAR Now on Mondays so I haven't seen her work very often, but the two times I have seen Nicole Manske (Daytona Media Day on ESPNEWS and Dale Earnhardt day on Tuesday) I have been very impressed. Her interviews both days had a relaxed and comfortable tone. And like I said many months ago on Media Day and you echoed today JD, her best asset is that she listens to what the person is saying and doesn't just stick to only speaking when she is asking her pre-scripted questions, like some other TV reporters tend to do.

The Martin Truex Jr. interview got a little uncomfortable but Nicole knew when to pull the plug after Truex didn't give the expected "I love it here at DEI because..." response and instead said something like "Well... we still have a lot of things to work out if I'm going to stay here".

I have to give credit where credit is due. I destroyed ESPN many times on this blog last year (and justifiably so) but they are making great strides in fixing their issues from last year.

It still remains to be seen if issues like TV blackouts of ESPN Cup practice sessions, the Sportscenter Minutes during Cup races, and Draft Tracks overkill during the Cup races will be fixed or not. But the Nationwide broadcasts and NASCAR Now programs they have done to this point have seen fantastic improvements and I have to thank ESPN for that.