Saturday, August 9, 2008
Road Course Baffles ESPN
It was promoted by infield host Allen Bestwick as a fun afternoon.
There was a wide variety of drivers in the Nationwide Series race from Watkins Glen. The weather was beautiful and the HD pictures from ESPN looked great. Then, the race started.
This was the first road course race since ESPN took over the Sprint Cup telecasts this season. It was Marty Reid and a different TV crew that handled the Montreal Nationwide race one week ago. This time, it was the "A team" of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree on-the-air.
Bestwick ended the pre-race show and then passed-off to Punch. That moment signaled the beginning of what may have been the worst NASCAR on ESPN telecast of the year. There seemed to be no philosophy or common sense to the coverage. The focus was on the Sprint Cup drivers and not the actual story of the Nationwide Series race.
The early action was exciting, but ESPN kept the TV viewers watching the leaders. Often, the cameras would be catching two-wide racing and passing outside the top ten. To ESPN, it did not matter. They were going to follow the leader and replay anything else that happened. The problem was, a whole lot happened.
Just like last season, by the time this race came around in the afternoon the energy and focus was gone from Punch in the play-by-play role. It was up to Jarrett and Petree to carry the conversation in the booth and interact with the pit road announcers and the Infield Pit Center crew.
When Punch is tired, he asks a lot of questions because he is a reporter at heart. In this race, he often started his sentences with the words "how about" as he repeatedly made-up questions for Jarrett and Petree to answer rather than calling the action on the track.
Silence is something that is normally not heard during a top-level NASCAR race by the fans watching on TV. Saturday at Watkins Glen, silence was everywhere. It came as awkward pauses or when an incident was happening. It came when the camera changed to a different car or when a car that had spun was shown sitting off the track.
As The Daly Planet mentioned in an earlier article, this race was the third live telecast the same on-air crew had done since mid-morning. First-up was Nationwide qualifying and then Happy Hour for the Cup Series. Punch had handled the play-by-play for all three programs. There was no relief pitcher to be called in.
This biggest challenge on a road course is to go back through the field to where the racing is actually happening. Otherwise, TV viewers just watch a parade of the leaders staying nose-to-tail and waiting for the next pit stop. Meanwhile, the real racing may well be going-on just outside the top ten.
In this event, there were many stories that unfolded on pit road. Where the ESPN pit reporters were concerned, this was a complete implosion. Coming off a wonderful Monday episode of NASCAR Now, Jamie Little and Shannon Spake were not in-sync all day long. Several drivers, crew chiefs and even Andy Petree questioned the accuracy of what Little was trying to pass off as fact. Kevin Harvick was a classic.
Late in the race coming back from a commercial, Allen Bestwick took over and coordinated a short strategy session with the announcers. It was like night-and-day when the green flag came out and instead of describing the action, Jerry Punch said "restarts are quite an adventure here."
As the cars got up-to-speed, ESPN interviewed crew chief Todd Parrott and then driver Sam Hornish who was out of the race. Both of these interviews should have waited until the field had at least completed one lap. Viewers had no idea what was going-on as they watched the field scramble while listening to a driver plug his sponsor.
With less than thirty laps remaining, awkward silence was the main contribution of Punch to this telecast. The Producer turned to Bestwick, who lead another long discussion of pit stop strategy and track position. The contrast between the detail-oriented Bestwick and the veteran reporter Punch put could not have been more clear.
With twenty laps to go, Kyle Busch hit Jeff Burton and both cars spun-out. This happened during commercial. Both cars continued and a clearly upset Burton was now tracking down Busch for a pass and possibly some revenge. After replaying the incident, ESPN followed-up by reading a promo for Dancing With The Stars over live action and then transitioned to another commercial.
Andy Petree was the saving grace as he took the strategy lead coming down the stretch. Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty were silent as was Tim Brewer. Petree kept the viewers updated as much as he could in the middle of this confusing television coverage.
In the final ten laps, Punch was only able to talk about the top five cars. The only moment where the tenth place car was mentioned was to show viewers it was Joey Logano. Many of the cars in this race were never shown or mentioned once the race began. Stories from earlier in the event like Carl Edwards, Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick were never updated.
The closing laps were tough to watch. ESPN locked on the top two cars and held onto them. No other cars existed on the race course. The two never passed each other or even touched. With four laps to go, there were suddenly cars shown on the TV screen with engines blowing-up and others were shown spun-out. Punch never even mentioned it.
Marcos Ambrose made his fuel last and won the race. It was only fitting that as the final lap was winding down the caution flag came out and viewers never saw the reason why. Thankfully, the win was a popular one. It cannot, however, make up for a very disjointed effort by the television network covering the event.
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