Sunday, February 17, 2008

NASCAR TV Wall-To-Wall At Daytona

Some of us will certainly be glad when the "normal" part of the NASCAR season begins next week in California.

That is because there is only one word to describe the national TV coverage surrounding the 50th running of the Daytona 500. That word is overload.

Beginning mid-morning, the SPEED gang rolled-out a full day of lead-in programming that culminated with a three hour NASCAR RaceDay. With no points races before Daytona, the TV networks pulled-out all the stops when it came to looking back at NASCAR's Daytona 500 history.

Viewers saw past champions, heroes no longer with us and the first family of NASCAR building the speedway itself. Darrell Waltrip played a critical role for SPEED in providing a veteran influence with his commentary and interviews. Waltrip certainly has come into his own, and he worked harder than anyone else in the pre-race shows.

We have come to expect some interesting programming during the Daytona pre-race festivities, but this time Fox Sports really went over-the-top. There was a ninety minute additional pre-race show before the race started, so coupled with the SPEED portion NASCAR fans had been watching TV for over five hours even before the race began. Add in Victory Lane on SPEED at 8PM and the Daytona 500 is now an all-day affair.

What music videos from Daytona carry-over into the next race and what pre-race features remain from this week can only be seen when Fox begins their California coverage. Hopefully, Chubby Checker will not make the trip. Regardless of the history of his songs, that performance was somewhat embarrassing. Now, Mike Joy in his disco attire was something else altogether.

Race coverage slipped into a familiar groove, but featured the TV crew playing with their new and somewhat annoying toy called the Gopher Cam. This camera angle has been used by other TV networks to cover racing for years. Adding a distracting animation almost every time the camera was used simply took the focus off of the racing action.

As the first race of the season and the first Daytona 500 with the COT, it was up to Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds to continually point-out the issues associated with this new racing dynamic. McReynolds handled the bulk of the explanations with his usual intensity. It was unfortunate that the on-track activity did not match his level of excitement.

As things on the track became a single file test run, the Fox crew smartly squeezed in as many commercials from the format as possible. This freed the crew from being caught in a bind later during the action of the final laps. When racing action picked-up with thirty laps to go, the frequent cautions and the long pace laps prevented the commercial trouble viewers saw so much last season.

The production team did a good job of working to capture the racing as opposed to the leading, and finished the job with a nice wide shot of the field screaming across the line. This moment really showed what TV viewers had missed with the ESPN2 Saturday coverage of the Nationwide Race. You can read about that by clicking here.

The pit reporters did the usual solid job, but seemed to be noticeably absent as the race wound down. Perhaps, they had moved to their post-race positions. We all have our feelings about Chris Myers and his Hollywood Hotel, but Fox used him well as the transition between production elements, and junked a lot of the features that used to involve him on a weekly basis.

The innovative starting line-ups were great, but audio issues caused a lot of the drivers to be seen but not heard. The audio of the cars behind the video effect on the track over-rode the drivers audio. Still, it was a nice touch and hopefully the bugs will be worked out before the next race.

Mike Joy may wax a bit nostalgic once and a while, but he is still the best play-by-play voice in NASCAR. His comfort level extends to the viewer at home, and makes the telecast flow. His abilities were put to the test at the midway point of the race, when suddenly calling the action at Daytona was like describing the traffic on the Florida Turnpike. Two by two, in their lanes and eventually headed home.

The NASCAR on Fox graphic package still works great, especially with no additional network "ticker" on the lower third of the screen. The split-screen they are using this season is simple and effective, but certainly could use some sort of graphic information on the screen each time. The simple labeling of the drivers being featured was very effective when used.

After watching the final ten races on ABC, it was startling to have no sports updates, celebrity interviews or infield announcers on-camera during green flag action. The sole focus on racing was refreshing to watch. While Jeff Hammond offered tips and information, the network carefully brought-out the split screen as soon as possible to get racing action back on the screen.

There was absolutely no bigger and better example of why national advertisers should allow this split-screen effect to be used for their commercials than this race. Once Mike Joy led to a commercial break, viewers had no reason to stay. They knew the race was very safe, the cars were lined-up, and they now had two minutes to surf the dial or hit the fridge.

The only way to bring NASCAR viewers back during commercials in a race is to allow the side-by-side effect that continues the action on the racetrack during the commercial. It is almost a no-brainer. The time is now to try and get this done before the Fox portion of the schedule is gone.

In the closing laps, a tired race crew used everything they had to inject excitement into a race whose main ingredient was clearly vanilla. Even with the help of Kyle Busch, the closing lap seemed to be "bumper cars by manufacturer" as pointed out by Darrell Waltrip.

Fox walked away from a monster telecast with no damage, and with their production of this historic race solidly in the books. Now, reality will sink-in with the long airplane ride to California, where a very different fan base and a very different track awaits this group.

In a way, history now "begins again" as the first full season of the COT unfolds on the NASCAR fans. How this car behaves and if it allows passing at California will be two big questions that can only be answered next week.

Now, after more than ten hours of continuous Daytona TV coverage, what NASCAR fans really need is a good night's sleep.

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In-Progress At Daytona: 50th Daytona 500 On Fox Sports

The build-up to this race on Fox has been supported by the hard work of both the SPEED and Fox crews for the last several weeks. Beginning with pre-season testing, SPEED has filled the role of hosting almost all of the on and off-track NASCAR TV programming including the Sprint Cup qualifying.

Now, the torch is passed once again to the most experienced NASCAR TV crew in the history of the sport. No group has been deeper in experience and the understanding of the inner-workings of NASCAR. The intensity of Larry McReynolds, the enthusiasm of Darrell Waltrip and the calm leadership of Mike Joy have formed an on-air team that provides NASCAR fans all the information needed to enjoy a race.

On pit road, Fox uses the low-key but very effective group of Matt Yocum, Steve Byrnes, Dick Berggren and Krista Voda to follow-up the on-going stories of the race. This group has quietly provided the information that allows the announcers in the booth to be fearless in asking questions and expecting answers.

Jeff Hammond continues to provide the counterpoint to Larry McReynolds. His style is so very different that he often points out the aspects of competition and mechanical issues that require a little different perspective than McReynolds. During the 500, especially with the tire and engine issues waiting in the wings, Hammond may wind-up providing some key information.

This telecast will provide the foundation for a season of live Sprint Cup coverage. The importance of this race on TV to set the tone for the year cannot be understated. Last season, this TV package went downhill once Fox departed, and never recovered. This season, there is a renewed sense of optimism on the part of the NASCAR TV partners. Hopefully, this one telecast will start the ball rolling in the right direction.

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In-Progress At Daytona: "NASCAR RaceDay" On SPEED

Here we go again with another season of one of SPEED's most popular shows. RaceDay is absolutely the "Super WalMart" of NASCAR. There is something for everyone. The Daytona show runs from 11AM to 2PM Eastern Time.

John Roberts returns to host this series with Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer alongside. The fact that Wallace made the Daytona 500 this year is going to be a fun dynamic to watch. Hermie Sadler has been a utility player for this show, reporting on the track conditions from the RaceDay set and also as the second pit reporter.

Wendy Venturini continues to define her role as the source for news and information from the garage area. Her personal relationships in the sport work well for access, but she has kept things on a very businesslike level on the air. Her weekly Real Deal features have worked well to provide an "away from the track" break during this multi-hour program.

RaceDay has changed from its casual and semi-organized past into a franchise program for the network that goes head-to-head with the pre-race shows of TNT and ESPN/ABC once the Fox coverage of the Sprint Cup is over.

It should be interesting to see if this series can continue to build the momentum of the past several seasons. The task of presenting a live multi-hour show every race weekend is big. SPEED has shown that they can not only handle the responsibility, but they can thrive in this environment.

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