Friday, February 15, 2008
The emergence of Dale Earnhardt Junior as a man who has decided to control his own destiny continued Friday night with the second episode of Shifting Gears.
Created by Hammerhead Entertainment, Earnhardt's own television and media production company, this unique series is re-defining the entire NASCAR TV industry.
Rarely has there been such an entertaining and informative program centered around one driver. Rather than fawn over some tightly-created media marketing campaign, Junior made sure that this program opened his life up and turned it over-and-over again in the most raw fashion ever seen by his fans. It was sometimes startling.
Building on the first episode, Junior's slow and painful departure from DEI and his decision to move to Hendrick was explained in much more personal and emotional terms than NASCAR fans are normally exposed to on TV.
The NASCAR Media Group, the TV production company owned by NASCAR, has specialized in highly-produced and totally scripted "NFL Films" style programs. Highly popular shows like NBS 24/7, NASCAR Beyond The Wheel and 7 Days are all off-the-air. In terms of high-end post-produced national TV programming, they are now barely visible.
Junior payed tribute to MTV and their style of production as the network was on-hand to create another episode of "Cribs" at Junior's place. The Hammerhead producers paid tribute to the network by editing this show in a manner that would have made MTV executives proud.
The TV production techniques were varied in both the audio and video components. Going from color pictures to black-and-white, formal to informal settings, jump-cutting to still photos from video and carefully adding never before seen pictures and family memorabilia set a cutting edge and continually interesting pace. The audio mix was simply outstanding.
Kudos to the editing and writing staff on this project. They have perhaps lit a fire under other media entities to get busy and create their own NASCAR-themed program series. Not all NASCAR programming needs to be intimidated by the high price for racing footage charged by the NASCAR Media Group.
In the same way that MTV moved-on from music videos, Hammerhead worked hard in these first two shows to "extend the brand" of Junior and JR Motorsports. Along the way, they have managed to present the National Guard in a new light, explain the choice of Amp Energy Drink as a sponsor and detail the fascinating history of the new paint scheme on the 88.
Simply said, the content of this program was amazing for both Junior fans and fans of NASCAR as a sport. Here was the son of an icon, opening a painful and formerly private time in his life for all to see. It was a rare and interesting glimpse that will continue with one more show before Sunday's Daytona 500.
That third episode of Shifting Gears airs Saturday, February 16th from 4:30 to 6PM Eastern Time on ESPN2. This episode ends the pre-season coverage, as the TV crew then follows Junior through the first part of the year and returns with two final episodes in the week prior to the Brickyard 400 in July.
If these first two shows are any indication, we may be seeing a lot more media projects from Hammerhead Entertainment in the future. ESPN would be well-served to invite this group to use ESPN2 whenever they please to bring quality NASCAR programming to the fans. Even fans of other drivers must have a new found respect for Junior after his willingness to make this portion of his life an open book.
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The Friday version of ESPN2's NASCAR Now was facing some heavy competition from SPEED. That network had been on the air almost daily with NASCAR programming since the first testing dates in Daytona.
Now, on the eve of all three Daytona races, NASCAR Now was up against the SPEED's NASCAR Live hosted by the popular John Roberts. This time, ESPN had a response. The theme of that response was change. What they changed...was everything.
The result was the best episode of NASCAR Now since the program began last February. Hands down, ESPN has made a statement that this season they making a commitment to NASCAR. First off, this show was live on ESPN2.
Instead of the Connecticut studios, every ESPN announcer on the program was located at the race track. Instead of a single anchor with a video screen, the show took residence in the million dollar ESPN Pit Studio with the speedway visible behind it.
Memories of ESPN Radio's Erik Kuselias faded like the Yankees as the cameras showed Allen Bestwick, Ray Evernham and Brad Daugherty on the set. Moments later, Bestwick called in the entire ESPN on-air team of Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree for comments on several key stories.
Bestwick then summoned Lead Reporter Marty Smith for a breakdown and follow-up on the news from the garage area. Smith has been working hard to fill a new role on this show as the featured source for news.
Formerly known as the network that shunned the Trucks, Bestwick led into a Nicole Manske interview with key drivers Jack Sprague and Ron Hornaday. Bestwick then followed-up with an actual review of the starting grid, and gave the Truck Series the kind of treatment it deserves.
There is no doubt that ESPN is going to have to work very hard to make the Nationwide Series interesting this season. With less teams and a COT looming for next season, the interest from owners and manufacturers has been less than stellar. As SPEED's Ray Dunlap noticed during testing, they did not have enough cars in all the Nationwide tests to even fill the Daytona field.
Bestwick began this effort with an extensive and well-produced preview of this series. The key for ESPN is to identify the on-going stories while letting NASCAR worry about who shows up to race. Key "soundbites" from veterans like Jeff Burton helped to lend credibility to a series without a real focus in 2007.
In another sign that only the kitchen sink remains of the old NASCAR Now, Bestwick voiced a promo for all three of the weekend races from Daytona, including the TV networks and the air times. There they were, the SPEED and Fox logos on a NASCAR Now promo graphic.
Before going, the show reviewed a classic Daytona 500 finish and then transitioned into the first memories of seeing the speedway from a wide variety of drivers. Coming back on-camera, Bestwick got a response to that question from both Daugherty and Evernham.
After adding his own comments, he finished the program with a memorable line that perhaps only Daly Planet readers would understand. As the cameras went wide, Bestwick said it nice and clear for all to hear.
"You're looking live at Daytona! Thanks for watching NASCAR Now." It just does not get any better than that.
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The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series kicks-off Friday night beginning at 7:30PM with The Set-Up. This pre-race show is hosted by Krista Voda.
Coverage of the race follows at 8PM live on SPEED. Rick Allen again handles the play-by-play with veteran Phil Parsons and the always colorful Michael Waltrip alongside. Ray Dunlap and Adam Alexander return to handle pit road reporting duties.
SPEED has been consistently good in covering this series, which many believe is the best-produced TV coverage of the three NASCAR national touring series. This season will allow SPEED to try and continue the NASCAR momentum the network has built-up with the exceptional coverage of both pre-season testing and the Daytona Speedweeks.
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