Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sprint Cup Qualifying A Tough Start For ESPN

NASCAR fans have been watching practice and qualifying sessions for the Sprint Cup Series since the kick-off of the season in February. These sessions have been presented on SPEED and hosted by the likes of Mike Joy, Steve Byrnes and Bill Weber.

SPEED treats qualifying like gold. Each car is shown taking the full qualifying attempt and each story is told from the warm-up lap through the checkered flag. One TV twist that SPEED has worked to perfect is the "time shifting" of qualifying.

The cars are all continually recorded and the program itself continues to be recorded even as the TV network is in commercial break. Coming back from commercial, the network changes from being live to being "time shifted" as the program is picked-up right where it left off. This allows each team to have their moment in the national TV spotlight and all the stories to unfold as they actually happened.

Saturday morning, it was the time of the year when qualifying shifts over to ESPN. It was clear from the start that ESPN was going to be using a very different philosophy for qualifying than fans had seen this season. Unfortunately, many fans remember this same approach from last year. The on-track action quickly became a sideshow as ESPN once again decided that the network's agenda would come first.

It was Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree calling the qualifying session. Just like last year, ESPN has made the very strange decision to put the on-air announcers in the Infield Pit Center for this live action. Essentially, this forces Jarrett and Petree to watch TV and comment on the picture instead of watching the track and commenting on the car from a better perspective. The results were not good.

Mike Massaro, Jamie Little and Shannon Spake were the ESPN reporters from the garage area. It did not take long to have them begin talking about stories and news items that had nothing to do with qualifying. The reality was about to set-in that ESPN was back and the NASCAR TV world was going to be different.

There had only been three cars on the track, but that was enough for the network. ESPN2 was off to commercial break and several minutes later fans of Dave Blaney only saw him coasting back toward the garage with his time posted on a graphic. There would be no replays of cars that were missed during the commercials.

David Ragan may have been actually on the track, but it was Kurt Busch being interviewed and the tone of this coverage was clear. ESPN was in-charge and what was happening on the track was just going to be observed, not the focus of the program. Off to commercial again for two minutes of X Games, World Series of Poker and Brickyard 400 promos.

As Reed Sorenson slowed down and his crew looked at the clock, the ESPN cameras caught an orange glow coming fast around the corner. Fans knew instantly that it was "Tony time" at Indy. Stewart continued to build his speed and headed for the green flag. With all the pressure around him, it was going to be fascinating to see how Stewart and his team responded at Indy. Would this be a pole run or would he simply be going through the motions?

It was suddenly very clear that Dr. Punch had begun reading something. What he was reading was "intro copy" to a pre-recorded feature on Stewart winning the Brickyard 400 in 2005. As the orange glow hit full-speed and history was about to be made, ESPN played-back a 37 second feature as Stewart took the green flag.

Petree and Jarrett picked-up the end of Stewart's run and never mentioned the fact this was his final time in the Home Depot car with Greg Zipadelli and Joe Gibbs Racing. Moments after flashing across the start-finish line, the network was gone off to other interviews. ESPN refuses to tell the stories behind the qualifying attempts.

ESPN was now gushing about Dale Earnhardt Jr. going through tech and Tim Brewer was talking about fitting the NASCAR inspection templates. The network missed the entire run of Martin Truex Jr. and his DEI team. Another key story of the week, another struggling Cup team and another bad TV production decision to ignore this entire qualifying effort.

The cars that were lucky enough to get featured in the live telecast got generic graphics and one video box in the upper corner that contained a crew chief or owner. The moment the car posted a time ESPN was off to other interview, feature or promo. It was a disjointed TV mess for fans who had been watching this same activity covered in a very different way over the last six months.

Maybe things were a little off-balance for the NASCAR on ESPN gang as they had not done a Cup qualifying session in 2008. It was unfortunate that they chose not to recover during this session, but to continue over-laying an entirely different stream of programming that contained features, interviews and promos while live qualifying was in-progress.

One very interesting aspect of this year's ESPN coverage was drivers being escorted to the Infield Pit Center to appear as guests. They were actually interviewed on-camera by Punch, Jarrett and Petree while other cars were on the track. There could be no bigger insult to the teams trying to qualify then having sweaty drivers in the shiny ESPN mobile studio talking about their own sponsors while cars roared by in the background.

This seemingly arrogant behavior was never more clear than during AJ Allmendinger's time on the track. ESPN's coverage of the go-or-go-home cars was lackluster and Allmendinger's entire run was completely covered by a video recap of the earlier cars in the session. It was another strange TV production decision during an important moment on the track for a big team. Perhaps, some folks at the multi-million dollar Red Bull Racing team were not very happy with ESPN.

The challenge of TV qualifying is sometimes harder to deal with than the race itself. Imagine going to commercial and missing the run of the polesitter? That is exactly what will eventually happen using this format. The random cars that were shown made no sense. The on-going stories could not be updated and the network acted like only the Top 35 cars had value.

ESPN faces the challenge of seven Cup races and then the big move over to ABC for The Chase for the Cup. All of these races will have critical qualifying sessions for many teams that are barely hanging-on and others that want the pole for a variety of reasons. Coverage of this "race" should be just as important as the event itself.

This was a tough start on the Cup side to what has been a very solid year of Nationwide and studio coverage for the ESPN family of networks. From ESPNEWS to NASCAR Now, the change in priorities and the attention to detail where NASCAR is concerned has been nothing short of fantastic.

Hopefully, the positive changes that ESPN has made to the other NASCAR programs can migrate over to qualifying and the teams on the track can once again have their stories told and become the center of attention as NASCAR heads down the stretch.

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Sophia said...

Glad I missed most of this mess. Thanks for the detailed column.

I do think we have found ESPN's reality show version of Qualifying: "NASCAR Wrecked"

as in ruined.

Anonymous said...

JD that was a very nice way of detailing the screwed up arrogant, screw the fans we want you to see something else cuz we don't like NASCAR or its fans or quals attitude we got this afternoon.
Contrast that with the Nwide race we just watched.

I just do not get it - if ESPeeN doesn't want practices & quals - let Speed do them.

It was glaringly apparent this afternoon that we are not going to get good coverage of the Cup races from this network. period. They (behind the scenes) are not fans,unlike the team that covered tonights race.

If you don't like your job it shows and this afternoons mess proves they don't want to please the fans.

They hold us in contempt.

Anonymous said...

ESPN: the Gump Group.

Anonymous said...

ESPN: Blue-staters covering a red state sport.

Newracefan said...

IMO DJ and AP tried but the ESPN agenda beat them. Unfortunately we lost because of it.

Anonymous said...

JD you say: ...the network acted like only the Top 35 cars had value.

I say that not even all of the top 35 had value to them.

TexasRaceLady said...

An absolute travesty. I guess we fans found out very quickly where we stand.

I hope the commercial sponsors and NASCAR remember, we fans are the ones that spend money on their products. By shafting us, they may well wind up shafting themselves.

sophiaz said I do think we have found ESPN's reality show version of Qualifying: "NASCAR Wrecked"

sophia, you get a gold star for this. ROTFL

Anonymous said...

I just deleted it...I'm not going to worry about watching this mess.

IIRC, the format TNT had years ago would miss pole sitters because they weren't a "star" so they'd be at commercial. But at least they'd "replay" it. But still we'd miss other drivers because they weren't a "star".

Missing any driver whether he's a "mid packer" or "lucky to make the race" is unacceptable! All of these drivers have fans.

I like drivers all over the board and I want to see my guy attempt his run.

I don't want to see fluff pieces and interviews when I can see the car I *should* be watching qualifying/practicing going around behind them. There is a time and a place for that. I swear the Texas practice, we were lucky to see 10 minutes of actual practice. The rest was fluff pieces and interviews from the infield as we saw the cars going around BEHIND them.

Sophia said...


Thanks for the gold star!:)

Gymmie, I refreshed my browser 3 times to see what you 'deleted'.
Then my low tech brain realized you must have meant qualifying on your DVR, lol.

But yea, I only caught bits and pieces but the over abundance of graphics made me feel like I was on a moving boat. And the pre canned video..sigh.

Glad JD gave the details. Those were all reasons I turned off the show.

I did keep practice on as background noise ONLY due to the tire issue and I was not in the room all the time with that.

Jo, you worded things in a way I wish I had the guts to do but I have decided ESPeeN is bigger than city hall. No, I have fought city hall and won once years ago.

But ESPN is so blinded by their own agenda, they don't see or feel the love of the sport from many of us.

But you know, with the cost of sponsorship falling by the wayside, the economy, NASCAR's ratings and car manufacturer issues, isn't it a NO BRAINER that the cars QUALIFYING DESERVE TO BE SEEN!! As do the major sponsors.

THAT is what continues to be lost on me.

Same thing as during the race. SHOW WIDE ANGLES AND THE ENTIRE PACK.

Whether it's a start and park struggler, who's driver might deserve a better ride, a mid packer or the top 10, without ALL kinds of drivers, there would be no race.

I continue to be ASTOUNDED none of these IDEAS were written in stone in the NASCAR Partners contracts?! I didn't think one needed an MBA for common sense business practices but like Dangerfield, NASCAR gets no respect from ESPN.

After I saw how good CAMERA WORK COULD BE (with Mike Wells directing on TNT) and how we could choose, for FREE, great video to watch during commercials (Race Buddy) since NASCAR won't do the side by side or OPEN WIDE coverage more often, I told myself to be weaning myself off NASCAR shows on TV.

So far, I am reading LOTS less online....and did not see much today at all.

And I doubt I will watch much pre race on Sunday.

And the tracks that leave me cold will probably be taped and fforwarde through for the rest of the season after reading all details here and realizing, "Still the same old ESPN."


alex said...

I don't watch qualifying as much as I used to, but I made an exception today. Big mistake. If I was a big fan of one of the drivers ignored for a studio interview with Kurt Busch, I'd be pretty upset. The only excuse for that kind of interview is during the down time between one car taking the checkers and the next one taking the green flag... which lasts about 10 seconds.

Next time I think of watching qualifying, I'll check to make sure it's on SPEED first.

Anonymous said...

Sorry ESPN, but I'm going to have to go with the crowd on this one.

The coverage for qualifying was hit and mostly miss.

I sure hope this isn't what were going to see Sunday afternoon and the preceding weeks ahead to Homestead.

You got the personalities right (Punch needs to be in the pits), now you just need wide camera angles, and NO gimmicks.

Anonymous said...

What's amazing to me is how well ESPN covered Nationwide qualifying today compared to how they covered Cup qualifying. It's like ESPN has a whole set of "special" rules for the big show and just give regular plain coverage to the feeder series. Guess what ESPN? We'd actually like the regular coverage for the big event too. No need to add more interviews, features, etc just because it's Cup.

Anonymous said...

LOL Sophia! Yes sorry! I deleted the DVR recordings of qualifying.

Anonymous said...

I think ESPN's approach to qualifying will only give sponsors another excuse to leave the sport. The sponsors on midpack or lower cars will never be shown on TV unless they wreck (still not always shown) or they are shown qualifying. We need every car highlighted in qualifying so the sponsors can get some exposure.

Why would a sponsor spend their money on a car if their product is never shown?

Sophia said...


Glad somebody else sees the value of sponsors on cars even on practice and qualifying. Thus ESPN (and NASCAR since they are a partners) being too STUPID to make tv coverage rules in their $$$$ contract.

If I sponsored a car that never won, it would be nice to see him on the tv screen in prac/quals and during the race.

Simple solution realy. Take camera lessons from Mr. Wells.

Everybody is, owners, sponsors.

Anonymous said...

The only thing that is going to fix this mess are the sponsors complaining, especially those sponsors that are on cars outside the top 35 or those on cars whose qualifying runs are continually missed (which I am sure that you will see the same cars skipped week after week).