Tuesday, July 22, 2008
"Shifting Gears" Continues To Rattle NASCAR TV Establishment
Other than the TV coverage from the tracks and one daily news show, the NASCAR landscape is barren of long-form television programming.
The Charlotte-based NASCAR Media Group may have lots of "official" resources and footage, but without a TV network that wants to participate, they are just watching the world go by.
Meanwhile, upstart TV production groups run by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart have made in-roads on the racing TV landscape. Stewart has made a name for himself with his annual Pay-Per-View charity race, while Junior has offered his first TV series called Shifting Gears.
Earnhardt paid the freight to ESPN with commercial spots in order to get his originally-produced one hour TV shows on-the-air. Three episodes of Shifting Gears aired earlier this season, documenting Junior's transition from DEI to Hendrick Racing.
The first two programs were groundbreaking, the third was a mess. The brutal honesty and the behind-the-scenes moments with family members, friends and NASCAR personalities were sometimes breathtaking. Junior had clearly decided to open himself up totally and he emerged as an adult in charge of his own life and destiny.
This television project was original, meaning that it had no set schedule and was done on-the-fly with a very dedicated group of production folks. Things worked out well logistically for the first two shows, but the schedule caught-up with the Hammerhead Entertainment guys for the third episode. It turned-out to basically be a re-hash of the earlier two programs.
In this fourth episode, things got back to normal with plenty of documentary-style production involving activities both on-and-off the track. Earnhardt's life is a whirlwind of scheduling and sponsor activities. The storyline woven through the foundation of the series is the 2008 Sprint Cup Series experience.
Mixed with race footage, Shifting Gears moves the focus from the track to the personalities involved in Junior's NASCAR world. The highlight of this episode was the tangle between Earnhardt and Kyle Busch in Richmond. "As I was spinning out, for some reason I knew it was coming," said Junior.
Cameos from Darrell Waltrip helped this show, as DW's candor is legendary and his words about Earnhardt and his new found maturity rang true. This was especially meaningful after Walrip actually called the race in Richmond and was criticized by the fans for his over-the-top enthusiasm for Kyle Busch this season.
Earnhardt's sister Kelley continues to be a presence in these programs, but by now she has returned to her role out of the spotlight. Her perspective continues to be relevant where Junior's family roots and personal history are concerned.
ESPN's Marty Smith was included in the show, talking about Junior's in-depth interview with ESPN the Magazine. Smith described the history behind his story and Junior described why he agreed to do it. Anyone who has read it will definitely come away with a new understanding of the demons and struggles in the life of this third-generation racer.
There is an anonymous voice-over announcer that played a significant role in the first three shows tying segments together. In this fourth show, he added cheerleader to his responsibilities and it did not work. Junior does not need more compliments. Viewers just need the function of explaining where the show is going and why.
The candid comments of Earnhardt about the All-Star race and its lack of value in its present form are destined to raise some eyebrows and start some conversations. Also memorable were the soundbites from Jimmie Johnson about Junior and his consistency this season. Add his sister and crew chief to those saying flat-out that the team will make The Chase and finish strong.
Ultimately, this series is an eye-opener for the TV networks and NASCAR itself. This is exactly the type of programming that NASCAR envisioned would be on-the-air regularly with its television partners.
So far, no TV network has stepped-up to the challenge and committed to even one regularly scheduled long-form new NASCAR programming series in 2008. As with many other things in his life, Junior had to do this by himself.
The fifth and final episode of this series airs on ESPN Friday at 7PM Eastern Time.
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