Sunday, November 2, 2008
Just How Big Is The Cup Drivers vs. ESPN Feud?
Anyone remember Tony Stewart? The former Sprint Cup Series champion, new team owner and 2008 Chaser has been a personality noticeably absent from the NASCAR on ABC coverage for some time now.
Stewart does not suffer fools easily and this season the ABC pit reporters have often eagerly stepped-up to that role. Comprised of a mix of veterans and relative newcomers, the four pit reporters covering The Chase for the Championship are in some of the most high-profile sports TV positions in the nation.
Their job is a tough one. It mixes dealing with the the wide variety of personalities in the NASCAR garage with the reality of often being told what to ask by the race Producer or Pit Producer. The combination of serving two masters has resulted in some less than memorable ESPN/ABC TV moments this season.
What makes this job even more thankless is the choices made by the TV production teams of NASCAR Now and the Nationwide Series races. Often this season, by the time Sunday rolled around, one team or driver was already upset at ESPN over a specific issue and the Cup Series pit reporter was going to get an earful.
That was the case earlier this year when ESPN finally discovered team radios. All of a sudden, conversations in the heat of the moment were being replayed hundreds of times all over the ESPN Networks. It was as if ESPN was a child with a new toy. Then, just as quickly as this fad arrived, it was gone.
Left in the lurch were victims like Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart. Team radio comments by them or about them were public media fodder for weeks because the NASCAR Now production team chose to promote them out-of-context and make them into stories.
Waltrip made his feelings known on This Week in NASCAR on SPEED while Junior and Stewart responded publicly with Stewart speaking directly to the credibility of the ESPN personalities in the NASCAR garage. This echoed the sentiment Stewart expressed in 2007 when he openly clashed with ESPN reporters David Amber, Bob Holtzman and Wendy Nix.
In terms of the three Sprint Cup TV partners, ESPN has been having the biggest struggle with driver relations. Both Fox and TNT once again navigated through their portions of the schedule without this kind of incident. By the time ESPN came to the Cup Series in late July, both NASCAR Now and the Nationwide Series TV coverage had been underway for six months.
Many of the Sprint Cup drivers had already been dealing with personalities like Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis since February. These professional reporters operate in sharp contrast to the ESPN pit reporters. Smith and Chengelis have the advantage of working in a journalistic context and editing stories before airing.
Unfortunately, the pit reporters are often stuck standing face-to-face with someone and being pushed to satisfy the agenda of the team in the ESPN/ABC production truck. This was the case in Saturday's Nationwide Series race.
After Kyle Busch dominated the on-track action from the start, ESPN pit reporter Mike Massaro spoke to Joe Gibbs live with only fourteen laps to go and the race under green. Massaro exchanged compliments about Busch, but then hammered Gibbs by reminding him of the harsh penalties his Nationwide Series teams had received earlier in the season.
Massaro's interview was poorly-timed, it was tasteless and it interrupted the action on the track at a critical time in the race. In other words, it was another example of the way ESPN has chosen to treat this sport since 2007.
No one knows why targets like Gibbs, Earnhardt and Stewart are chosen. No one really understands why an off-hand insult about Michael Waltrip should be national news for days. These choices are mystifying.
As the season winds down, it will be very interesting to see if Stewart or Earnhardt Jr. appear on the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show on ABC. Both of these drivers are regulars on SPEED and seem to be having fun with the other members of the media.
Veteran fans know that messages are sometimes delivered in the two races before the finale in Homestead when everyone has to be on their best behavior. Earnhardt Jr. spoke out Friday about some internal NASCAR problems and Stewart recently said on SPEED's Trackside show that he is not going to change his media style now that he is an owner.
What pit reporter gets assigned to Stewart on Sunday and who gets Earnhardt may go a long way toward determining if fans get to see or hear from either one before or after the Texas event. Chances of a Stewart sighting are not very good.
The bottom line is, there is a tinderbox of emotion that has been building up for fourteen races where the ESPN broadcast team is concerned and it may just be the high-speed chaos and intensity of Texas Motor Speedway that lights that fire.
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