Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Kenny Schrader Returns To SPEED On Monday Night

The transition from the three-man panel of Inside NEXTEL Cup to the slimmed-down two-man version of This Week In NASCAR has been a tough one for SPEED.

There are lots of logistical and operational reasons why three voices work better than two on TV. Fundamentally, conversations become discussions when a third voice is added. It also takes away the personal agendas and forces the participants to respect the opinions of the other panelists. There is no "me against him" when there are three. The addition simply does not work.

Every TV talk show that has a regular panel of experts has one "senior statesman." Love him or hate him, that person has earned the distinction of being the leader of the pack.

Sometimes, it is because their professional experience is outstanding. Sometimes, it is because their personality is integral to the show itself. Sometimes, it is because they can keep the other panelists in-check with only a look.

For over a decade, Kenny Schrader has been all this and more to SPEED's longest running weekly series. From the early days of Inside Winston Cup Racing on SpeedVision through the final days of Inside NEXTEL Cup during the Dave Despain era, it was Schrader who worked hard to keep the rudder in the water and the ship on course.

As SPEED changed over to the new show, Steve Byrnes was brought-in as the new host. The network went for experience specific to NASCAR and utilized their most versatile announcer to carry the load for the new program and format.

In a smart move, the network announced that the "esteemed panel of experts" would be kept in place and that both Greg Biffle and Chad Knaus would become regular panelists. Adding a crew chief perspective to this show struck many as a strong move.

As the new programs began to air, it was clear that several things were different. First, the program was saturated with video. From highlights to interviews to features, the show was no longer about conversation. The panelists were mostly reacting to the video.

The second thing was the format. After a brief chat with both panelists about their race weekend, the program left the present and entered the future with an extended preview of the next Sprint Cup race. Even when the race was two weeks away, this is the format the program followed.

Viewers had to wait until thirty minutes into this hour program for Byrnes to return the discussion to the race weekend that had just ended one day earlier. In a good example of putting the cart before the horse in TV, the production team decided to talk about the future before the present. For fans tuning-in to get the inside scoop on the stories of the weekend, this was a tough switch.

The final issue is one that will be solved on Monday night at 8PM Eastern Time. Since the program format and title change, there has been no Ken Schrader on SPEED. As the "senior statesman" of the former panel, the good humor and veteran perspective of Schrader has been sorely missed.

Like it or not, the panelists currently involved in Cup racing are always going to reference and relate to their own teams and circumstances. Often, with only two panelists, viewers feel like they are getting the Roush and Michael Waltrip Racing perspectives. With Knaus, almost every comment seems to include the work "Jimmie."

Now, Schrader returns to the Monday night show with his long-time sidekick and self-appointed NASCAR spokesman Waltrip alongside. Even without a third voice, it should be interesting to watch both the old and the new on-air dynamic of this duo play-out.

Schrader will be facing a much faster-paced show that includes a ton of video and sometimes feature reports that seem to be added for no particular reason. There is often no groundwork in-place for the sudden appearance of various NASCAR personalities on this program.

It will be up to Schrader to determine his on-air relationship with Steve Byrnes and begin to help this bland show develop a personality. Last week's program featured an energized Waltrip and a well-spoke Biffle, but it needed one more voice. Byrnes cannot put Waltrip in his place when he goes off on a rant, and he can also not quiet down Biffle when he starts to expand on how great things are at Roush Racing.

This is the role of only one man, and he has earned it. He earned it by showing up when no one was watching SpeedVision and the show had a cult following of only a small group of fans. He earned it by dealing with the program being cancelled once, expanded to ninety minutes once and then having half of the on-air talent fired in one day. He stayed through the good times with Allen Bestwick and the bad times with Dave Despain. Set changes, wardrobe changes, format changes...Schrader has seen it all.

Monday should be an interesting time for all kinds of fans. Veterans may want to set the DVR or the VCR as SPEED is hesitant to talk about Schrader's continued role on this program. New NASCAR fans may simply want to enjoy the kind of perspective that only someone with Schrader's unmatched racing experience can bring to TV.

Either way, Monday evening at 8PM should get circled on your TV guide. Hopefully, Schrader is in good spirits and ready to experience the new surroundings. While he always brings his sense of humor, in this case Schrader might want to check and see if he packed his rudder. Getting this show back on course is going to be a priority.

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In-Progress At Phoenix: Sprint Cup Qualifying And Nationwide Practice

Thursday on SPEED begins the coverage of the NASCAR activity in Phoenix. The Nationwide Series races on Friday night and the Sprint Cup guys on Saturday.

SPEED comes on-the-air at 7PM Eastern Time with Sprint Cup Qualifying coverage hosted by the NASCAR on Fox crew of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds.

Qualifying will be followed by coverage of Nationwide Series practice that will begin at approximately 8:30PM and run until 10PM.

This weekend is a bit different, so here is brief rundown of the Friday TV shows and the times of the Nationwide action.

Friday, Trackside starts the night at 4PM Eastern Time. Hosted by Steve Byrnes, this show features Waltrip, McReynolds and Jeff Hammond on the panel. This week the show will welcome Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler.

SPEED continues with Nationwide Series qualifying at 5PM, followed by Sprint Cup practice at approximately 6:30PM. A flexible edition of NASCAR Live with John Roberts will take the network to the final Sprint Cup practice at 8PM.

ESPN2 is next on-the-air with a 15 minute version of NASCAR Countdown at 9:30PM and then the Nationwide Series race at 9:45PM Eastern Time. Please note that live NBA basketball precedes NASCAR Countdown, so if the game runs long NASCAR will begin to collapse down to the start time of the race itself.

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Rusty Wallace Steps-Up And Calls For Changes

NASCAR Now faced a big issue on Wednesday when it had to address the recent drug admissions of Aaron Fike and the subsequent topic of NASCAR's seemingly out-of-date drug policy.

Fike disclosed to ESPN's Ryan McGee that his painkiller and heroin addiction had included racing when he was under the influence. The simple admission was shocking.

Taking this ESPN the Magazine story and translating it to TV meant that only one person could deliver the content. The NASCAR Now production team followed through by having Ryan McGee interviewed by host Nicole Manske at the top of the show.

McGee was outstanding in delivering the information without criticizing Fike or inserting his own opinion of the situation. He simply delivered the content from his interview of Fike and his subsequent story. McGee should be a regular visitor to this program if he continues to work the NASCAR beat for ESPN the Magazine.

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston was on by phone and repeated the policy of the organization that has been in-place for many years. Manske pressed Poston on several points, but he made it clear that NASCAR is going to continue to drug test for "reasonable suspicion" only at this time.

While Brad Daugherty and Rusty Wallace appeared next to address the drug testing issue, it was Wallace who spoke-out once again. Manske got Wallace wound-up and Rusty said what many inside and outside the industry have been saying. It was time for a change.

Drawing an interesting parallel to the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the resulting emphasis on safety, Wallace suggested Fike admitting that he raced in NASCAR on heroin should also start the ball rolling on changes. He specifically mentioned random post-race testing and mentioned that his own racing company randomly drug tests employees of all types every month.

Next up was Mike Skinner, and Manske did not mince words when she asked him about his own son being arrested for drugs and if this new drug culture should result in change. Skinner was up-front as always, and said he was not opposed to all NASCAR drivers being regularly tested. As with most drivers, Skinner tried to remain positive about the sport and not allow this topic to grow.

It was Dr. Gary Wadler from the World Anti-Doping Agency who put things quietly in perspective and left NASCAR a lot to ponder. Asked specifically about heroin, Wadler said regular users may not exhibit any signs that non-heroin users would notice. Other than the often mentioned needle marks and perhaps a somewhat tired appearance, Wadler said what many already knew. Often, there is no way to tell.

If anyone on the NASCAR Now staff tried to tell Chip Ganassi in advance that he would be asked about NASCAR's drug policy, Ganassi must not have answered the phone. After a couple of brief questions about why several of his NASCAR teams were running poorly, Manske asked Ganassi point blank "how would you like to see NASCAR do its drug testing?"

For the first time in perhaps decades, Chip Ganassi was speechless. Telling Manske that she caught him off-guard, Ganassi opted-out and toed the party line. He did add that that NASCAR should do what every other (professional) sport is doing in terms of testing.

In thirty minutes, Manske and NASCAR Now had the original reporter that broke the story, a NASCAR spokesman, two ESPN NASCAR analysts, a current driver who raced with Fike, a top drug testing authority and a multi-series car owner.

This is exactly the type of content and the style of delivery that NASCAR fans have been asking for in this TV series. Manske can now ask the hard questions without being rude, and has a good sense of when enough is enough. In this program, she never let-up and kept the intensity and the drug testing theme going for the entire thirty minutes.

This show was a good response to an important story in a timely fashion. It focused on information and did not promote hype or speculation. The continuing maturity of the personnel involved in NASCAR Now both in-front of and behind the camera where news priorities and story content are concerned has been fun to watch this season.

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Viewer Alert: Fike Allegations And "NASCAR Now"

For those of you who have not read the Ryan McGee story over on, here is the link.

McGee writes about the new claim from former Truck Series driver Aaron Fike that he used heroin on race days prior to the events. In a nutshell, Fike states that he was on the track while high on drugs.

You may remember Ryan McGee as being employed by NASCAR Images over the last several years as the Managing Editor for that company. He is now a freelance writer who works for ESPN and has recently expanded his stories beyond NASCAR and into other sports. This is another strong and hard-hitting story that is going to have big repercussions.

NASCAR Now may treat this story as breaking news, or simply use it to lead the show. Even with the Truck Series off this weekend, this statement from Fike to McGee is ultimately going to cause a flood of concern. There is certainly a good reason why.

Many felt that other drivers who have been suspended for failed drug tests may have also been in the same situation and put other drivers at risk. Without naming names, veteran fans have seen the reckless actions of several young drivers who are currently suspended from the sport for failed drug tests.

The weakness in the NASCAR system is the current policy of testing once an issue or suspicion has arisen about a driver or crew member. The obvious topic of discussion is whether or not to institute a regular program of testing for anyone involved in "at risk" activity in the sport.

It should be very interesting at 6PM Eastern Time to see just how NASCAR Now deals with this story, and who they choose to have on the program to speak to this topic. This is not an issue that a Dale Jarrett or Andy Petree can speak to, other than to relate their own personal feelings.

NASCAR Now is going to need Ryan McGee or Aaron Fike to pay this story off on the only daily NASCAR program on TV. They will also need someone to speak to this issue from the perspective of what other professional sports leagues do in the same situations.

This post is not to debate Fike's statement or his personal agenda. It is merely to alert NASCAR fans that watching or recording the Wednesday 6PM show would be a good idea if they wanted an update on this story. There will be a full column up about the show immediately after it concludes. Thanks.