Monday, January 7, 2008

SPEED Officially Begins The 2008 NASCAR TV Season

While SPEED has been covering Daytona testing for several years now, there was certainly a new look on Monday as John Roberts took to the air.

From the Daytona Infield Studio, Roberts introduced Jeff Hammond and quickly began a recap of the day's activity at the track. Just like that, NASCAR was back.

In the past, Bob Dillner has provided a wrap-up of testing as a one man band. SPEED decided last month to step-up their level of coverage. In addition to Roberts and Hammond in the studio, the network will add testing from tracks other than Daytona as well as coverage of the January Charlotte Media Tour.

What this all boils down to for fans is that NASCAR programming will be available on SPEED almost every day from now until Speedweeks begin in February. After the Sprint Cup sessions this week, SPEED will bring out Phil Parsons and Ray Dunlap to cover both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series testing.

Unfortunately, someone at SPEED or in the Fox Master Control Center made the ill-advised decision to insert a large graphic in the upper right-hand side of the TV screen which remained for the entire show. It contained a big promo for the Gatorade Duels and also huge SPEED and NASCAR logos.

As viewers could plainly see, there was already a lower third "ticker" on the screen complete with a SPEED logo that could easily been used to offer this exact same information. The insertion of the big graphic appeared to be done without the knowledge of the production team in Daytona, so it often covered the faces of the reporters and drivers. What a shame that a good first show should be compromised by such an easy thing to fix. It should have been removed after the first segment.

Bob Dillner returned with his usual good information, and SPEED was on-the-spot with interviews from Dale Earnhardt Junior and Kurt Busch. Junior was especially candid in his comments about being in Daytona despite not being on the track, and his concerns about coming back in the COT when it is his turn to test. For many fans, it was nice to see Junior once again after his issues last season.

Dillner scored a key interview with Kyle Busch in his first day on the track with Joe Gibbs Racing in a Toyota. Kyle sounded like a man on a mission, and he really made a statement by saying he didn't want his two teammates to win the Bud Shootout. His reason was simple. He wanted to win his Gatorade Duel race and be the first Toyota winner in the Cup Series. Welcome back Kyle, we missed you.

Hammond was a little bit slow getting up to speed, but he is always better with Steve Byrnes and Larry McReynolds. Once the fun starts with that bunch, it is tough to stop. Hopefully, Hammond will get comfortable with Roberts as these shows progress. Roberts is a ringmaster on RaceDay, but these pre-season shows just need him to relax and show viewers his good sense of humor and calm manner.

As a show close, the "whip-a-round" of the new teams and drivers was perfect. This show contained a great mix of hard news, interviews and commentary. Hammond's closing commentary about the fact that the COT had fundamentally changed testing was right on target.

This investment by SPEED is going to pay-off in spades. All alone without any competition, the network gets the opportunity to shine at a time when fans are looking for any scrap of NASCAR TV. As the shows progress, it will be interesting to see how they grow in production value and information.

This was a solid start to a long season for John Roberts and a welcome sight for the fans. NASCAR on TV is back.

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ESPN Classic Network Shows Its NASCAR Potential

The wonderful tones of the late Bill Flemming were a welcome change from the normal ESPN Classic programming. To hear him open the 1976 Daytona 500 Highlight show by describing Ramo Stott as leading the pack into Turn 1 was absolutely fantastic.

After months of begging ESPN to include off-season NASCAR programming in the ESPN Classic line-up, a sudden announcement popped-up Friday on saying that the company had taken the first step. Six classic Daytona 500 races would be shown every Monday leading up to this year's race.

Airing at 2PM Eastern Time, the six scheduled programs were clearly intended to be recorded by fans for later viewing. To that end, is hosting a page where fans can vote for their favorite of the six shows. On the eve of this season's Daytona 500, ESPN Classic will replay all six races back-to-back in the order that the fans have chosen.

Mr. Flemming passed away this past July at the age of 80. He was an old style plain-spoken broadcaster that fans truly enjoyed. Entering TV in 1949, he joined ABC's Wide World of Sports in 1961. His long TV career covered 11 Olympic Games, and featured Flemming on sports from Cliff Diving in Acapulco to Irish Hurling.

In this race, Flemming teamed with Jackie Stewart to create the type of simple excitement and straight-forward race coverage sadly lacking in today's TV world. Stewart, the former Formula 1 Champion, discovered NASCAR through ABC and became a true fan of the sport. He described to me once that NASCAR was the biggest "culture shock" he had ever experienced.

He was delighted that the distinctly Southern fans had greeted him with open arms at the tracks, especially the "colorful" characters he found in the infield. Needless to say, nothing like that existed "across the pond."

The thing that cemented his love for NASCAR was when he was informed by the TV crew that the very same fans that treated him so well...had absolutely no idea who he was. Southern hospitality was extended not because he was a Formula 1 champ, but just because he was interested in NASCAR.

TV viewers had to take a deep breath when the late Benny Parsons was shown taking the lead of the race. This is the power of showing historic NASCAR racing on ESPN. Moments in time that have sat quietly on a shelf for years suddenly trigger thoughts and emotions the second they air. That was certainly the case for this program.

Kudos to ESPN for stepping-up and making the first move to integrate NASCAR programming on ESPN Classic. With the cooperation of NASCAR Images, the sport's official "keeper" of racing footage, ESPN Classic could become a strong influence on the effort to re-build the TV ratings and the exposure of NASCAR on TV.

Establishing a regular weekly series of NASCAR programming during the racing season on ESPN Classic would serve several purposes. First and foremost, it would help fans to believe that ESPN respects this fifty-plus year-old sport in the same way that it features so many other non-racing programs on the network.

Finally, it would allow the younger NASCAR fans that ESPN covets to see what this sport was like decades ago. Nothing is a better representative for NASCAR than the classic broadcasts of the past featuring announcers who have become legends in broadcasting.

The final two laps of the race, without any graphics on the screen and with cameras using wideshots to convey the speed, could not be better. Needless to say, the classic tangle between Richard Petty and David Pearson will always be a favorite Daytona moment.

The only fitting finish to a race like this would be a fresh-faced Chris Economaki standing alongside Bill "The Hat Man" Broderick and talking to a tough old-school driver known as "The Silver Fox" in Victory Lane.

Classic NASCAR races speak for themselves, they just need a place to be seen and heard.

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