Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Darlington "In The Dark" On Thursday
The NASCAR action starts at the famed Darlington Raceway on Thursday at 3PM. Both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series will be taking to the track for two practice sessions.
All of the stars of the sport will be on the newly-paved raceway trying to get their cars dialed-in for both qualifying and the two races. With afternoon and evening practice sessions, there should be some interesting stories for the NASCAR television partners to tell the TV viewers live on-the-air.
Unfortunately, none of that will happen.
As the exclusive TV network of the Nationwide Series, ESPN2 will not be televising any of the Nationwide practice sessions on Thursday or Friday. The network will also not be televising the qualifying for the series.
ESPN2 will be on-the-air at 7PM Friday for the Nationwide Series race. That is the total amount of the network's on-track NASCAR programming from Darlington.
The NASCAR on Fox telecasts of the Sprint Cup Series races are transmitted over the Fox Broadcast Network through the local Fox TV stations. This allows Fox-owned cable TV network SPEED to "partner-up" with NASCAR and show Sprint Cup Series practice and qualifying sessions.
The SPEED commitment to the on-track action has been significant. The SPEED Stage and the TV programs produced by The NASCAR Media Group have met with great success. One element of this presence that has been a big hit with the fans is coverage of selected practice sessions.
Analysts like Larry McReynolds, Jeff Hammond and Hermie Sadler have been outstanding in explaining what is going-on during this live coverage. Long runs, short runs, plug checks, qualifying trim and the myriad of adjustments taking place in the garage are almost overwhelming.
Once viewers have seen these sessions, they have a whole new perspective on qualifying. During practice, the TV reporters in the garage area can deliver the stories as they actually happen. Fans can know first-hand the issues and the struggles of the teams as they approach qualifying like never before.
On this Thursday at Darlington with speeds approaching two hundred miles an hour, those stories will once again be underway. Unfortunately, there will be no one on-the-air explaining them to the TV viewers.
Across the nation, the TiVo's and DVR's will not be humming. There will be no need to record the action to view after work. Darlington will be "in the dark."
During the early Sprint Cup practice session on Thursday, SPEED will be showing a mud race as Lucas Oil presents On The Edge. As the Cup cars take to the track under the lights in the evening, on-the-air will be another presentation of PINKS followed by Pass Time. That TV series is a drag-racing game show.
In the days before cable TV, professional golf was reserved for the weekends and the broadcast TV networks. With the advent of ESPN, TV golf veteran Frank Chirkinian brought live coverage of the Thursday and Friday rounds of PGA Tour events to the nation on cable TV.
Suddenly, America discovered that there was sometimes more drama in trying to simply make the cut than in winning the tournament. Sometimes, the favorites were in big trouble. Sometimes, an underdog was at the top of the scoring sheet.
This Thursday in Darlington, the NASCAR teams will be scrambling to make the cut and get in the race. They will be doing whatever it takes to get their car "in the show." Some of the favorites might be in big trouble. Someone no one expected might be at the top of the scoring sheet.
When SPEED finally comes on-the-air this Friday at Noon, the Nationwide Series practice sessions will have concluded. SPEED will televise the remaining daytime Sprint Cup practice and then transition into qualifying for both series.
What will be left on the TV table unseen is almost six hours of cars on the Darlington track at speed from Thursday in day and night sessions.
As both the sport and the TV technology that surrounds it continue to evolve, the fact that this on-track full-speed NASCAR action is not available to the public is quickly becoming an issue. With the NASCAR TV contract now in its second season, fans are starting to realize what they are missing with this "new" deal.
Over at NASCAR.com, there will be a live leaderboard during the Thursday practices. In the garage area, the NASCAR media will be walking around and looking to create their stories before raceday as they always do. The missing piece of the Thursday puzzle is television.
Whether the "dark" practices are uplinked by DirecTV, shown on ESPN Classic or put online at NASCAR.com, there will ultimately have to be a solution.
Discussing this topic in May when the Sprint Cup championship is still wide-open is one thing. Missing Cup practices at tracks like Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas during the height of The Chase in October and November is going to be quite another issue.
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