Sunday, August 3, 2008
Pocono Lets ESPN Get Back On-Track
The big sigh of relief you heard on the first lap of the Sprint Cup race from Pocono was both NASCAR and ESPN finally exhaling. It had been a very long week.
NASCAR was trying to shake the Indy tire fiasco and ESPN was getting thumped by angry drivers over reporting practices. What both groups needed was a break. The wide track and sunny skies of Pocono let NASCAR fans get their minds back on racing.
Allen Betwick hosted the pre-race show, which swung through a wide variety of topics and included an Indy follow-up and some highlights of the Montreal Nationwide Series race that was run in the rain. Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty joined Bestwick in some high-spirited discussions of these issues. Wallace arrived from the Montreal race with his volume level set on high and never turned it down.
Sunday's Red Cross race sponsorship was part of a program (redcrossracing.com) that educates fans about the need to donate blood and helps them understand that process. Unfortunately, that did not translate to the ESPN airwaves. Amid the endless promos for the X Games, SportsCenter and future ESPN NASCAR races there was no mention of this worthwhile effort.
On SPEED's RaceDay it was NASCAR President Mike Helton who introduced this charity and promoted the cause. He explained that organizations like the Red Cross were the reason the NASCAR Foundation was created. It was a good choice by SPEED to showcase this effort and a big miss by ESPN to avoid it.
Jerry Punch does not appear during the pre-race show and when he begins his portion of the telecast things change substantially. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree are now well-practiced at jumping-in and helping Punch when the racing on the track does nothing more than elicit a yawn from the good doctor.
Luckily, the drivers were working hard to put on a good show on a nice big track. NASCAR spiced things up with the competition cautions once again, but tire issues never materialized and things began to work out for the teams. Racing had returned to NASCAR and just in the nick of time.
ESPN was trying some new things and expanded the integration of the three announcers located in the infield. Fans heard a lot of Rusty Wallace interacting with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree in the booth. Wallace was in Jarrett's position last season, so the dynamic between these two was interesting to hear.
Wallace was eager to offer his opinion, only to have former TV partner Andy Petree often completely disagree. Alongside of Wallace in the infield was Brad Daugherty, who also had very different opinions on a variety of subjects than Wallace. Both Allen Bestwick and Jerry Punch sometimes found themselves navigating through a sea of diverse opinions and a whole lot of talking.
It was clear that Jarrett and Bestwick were actively involved in "team building" on the TV crew and were the professional voices of the broadcast. Punch continues to boost his volume for things like going to commercial and reading promos. This only became worse as Wallace cranked his volume up to the highest level in the rain delay.
One shining spot in this telecast was Andy Petree. He felt comfortable from the start of the race and interacted effectively with all of members of the broadcast team. Having Jarrett in the booth instead of Wallace has resulted in Petree having a very good year. His Nationwide Series telecasts have been fun and these longer Sprint Cup races are proving to be right up his alley.
ESPN had great pictures and sound, but several things happened while the network was in commercial and Punch failed to follow-up on race issues. The Michael Waltrip story was never updated, ESPN did not have video access to weather radar and was slow to use the blimp to show viewers what was going on with the rain.
Last season, Pocono was a race that resulted in this column on TDP. This season, ESPN has made substantive changes to a significant amount of the network's production elements and practices. Fans did not see Draft Track, music videos leading to commercial or celebrity interviews under green flag conditions.
Since Indy was not a true test of ESPN's NASCAR efforts, this Pocono race helped to show fans that ESPN is serious about putting the emphasis on race analysis. Jarrett, Petree and Wallace were featured in this telecast while Tim Brewer, Daugherty and the pit reporters played less of a role than normal.
ESPN worked well in the rain delay and picked-up the frenzy of the race in full stride to the finish when it resumed. This stretch was the best TV production of the race and the hard work of the pit reporters to update the final stops worked well. It was a nice way to finish the first "real" full race of the ESPN/ABC Sprint Cup package.
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