Sunday, April 27, 2008
In-Car Cameras Rule The Day In Talladega
Watching the Sprint Cup race at Talladega from the grandstands is a great experience for fans. Watching the race on TV is quite another.
Earlier this season, the NASCAR On Fox production group seemed to be focused on their new track-level camera. They created a personality called "Digger" and then "extended that brand" into a marketing and sales program. They sell "Digger" t-shirts and merchandise on both foxsports.com and Darrell Waltrip's personal website.
With the big wide track at Talladega, it looked like "Digger" would be featured extensively on Fox's Sprint Cup coverage. As it turned out, the NASCAR on Fox Director had already determined that it would be another group of "TV toys" that would be featured during the race. That one decision affected the viewing experience for everyone at home in a big way.
In-car TV cameras have been around for a very long time. At NASCAR races, the cameras are provided and serviced by an outside company. All the different networks that televise races from the NASCAR TV compound can use them. This season, those cameras are even in HD.
The dynamics of racing at Talladega in the Sprint Cup Series make for some good pictures from the bumper cams. It never fails to generate excitement when one car pulls up and puts a big bump on the other. The topper is that these cameras also have audio, and the hum of a Cup car at speed is something to hear.
The downside of the new COT cars is that the bodies do not allow for a very good bumper cam view. Nothing else can be seen but a big nose piece and hood from the car behind when they are drafting.
Inserting the in-car shots into the race is simple, the Director just calls for the camera. Knowing when to use this angle and how it should be integrated into the race is something all together different.
Once underway, the new and extended pre-race show from Fox was a mix of the semi-informative and the utterly ridiculous. While Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond answered some good questions from host Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel, there were several items that left NASCAR fans steaming.
For some strange reason, the Fox Producer decided to place a staff member in the grandstand and have him eat junk food. Located in a section that offers fans an "all you can eat" option with the ticket, this staffer was supposedly eating an obscene amount of "track snacks." If this was some sort of inside joke, it failed miserably.
The bigger issue is the struggle for fans to be represented as what they really are, a good cross-section of this country. What Fox chose to do, intentionally or not, was to present NASCAR fans as gross over-eating slobs. None of this made sense, especially when mixed-in with the upcoming challenge and very real danger of racing at Talladega.
The hot dogs and hamburgers were quickly forgotten when the race got underway for one simple reason. Lead change after lead change was missed on-the-air because viewers were watching the in-car cameras. It was being made clear that this race would be very different, and fans would simply have to accept this new approach.
While "Digger" made an appearance or two, there was no problem with this track-level camera and it wound-up providing a some memorable replays. The issue on the table was whether or not the Fox Director would continue his new fascination with the in-car cameras. Fans had little idea of just how big a role this issue would play in the critical parts of the race.
The Fox announce team had a great event. Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip were simply outstanding in pointing out the strategies and the scenarios that teams may be considering as the race progressed. Talladega is always strange, and regardless of who was lingering at the back of the pack and who was trying to take the lead, Mike Joy and company kept things in perspective.
The production team used the double video box effect throughout the race in a wide variety of ways and it worked quite well. Other than actually trying to show two in-car cameras at once, this tool was the most effective in the network's coverage. With a limited amount of pit stops under caution, the quad-split was no problem and the few races off pit road were captured complete with live graphics.
Often, Joy and company would be calling the action on the track while the folks at home were once again seeing an in-car camera shot of some kind. As the race wore on, the racing took a backseat to the fundamental problem of the TV viewers. They were simply not seeing what Joy was talking about. What they were seeing was a lot of big COT hoods.
Accidents or incidents were often seen on replay, while passes for the lead were sometimes not seen at all. This was a shame, but the in-car camera emphasis continued unabated. Even in the closing portions of the event, there was no change in the approach.
With 29 laps to go, Fox was in-car during the Paul Menard spin. Viewers saw it on the replay, even though Menard was in the lead group. With 9 laps to go, all viewers saw of Jimmy Johnson pushing Michael Waltrip into the lead was the big Lowe's logo on Johnson's hood.
Ultimately, it was a crash at the back of the pack that ended the race. Fox handled the Victory Lane and post-race interviews in veteran fashion. They had time to fill while the scoring was being sorted out, and left the air giving as much information as they could. It was a bittersweet ending to an exciting event.
Next week, the short track in Richmond should pose a challenge of a very different kind as there is usually action throughout the pack all race long. This true bull-ring will demand intensity from start to finish and feature lots of caution periods.
Talladega is a memory, but for many TV viewers that memory may be tinged with the the frustration of missing some key moments while the big hood of a COT car filled the TV screen.
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