Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hornaday Bomb Helps ESPN Kick-Off "The Chase"

First it was Clint Bowyer mistakenly blaming Michael Waltrip for an accident. ESPN had just explained it was actually a problem between Casey Mears and his spotter. No matter. Bowyer's insult about Waltrip and his long-time sponsor was played thousands of times on all of the ESPN TV networks, websites and even sent to cell-phone users. A friend of mine has it as a ring tone.

Last week it was Tony Stewart using his team radio to blow-off steam about just missing a win in Richmond. Despite Stewart cooling down and apologizing, ESPN made sure to play the words without the apology over-and-over again in every way possible. Everyone watching the various ESPN TV networks heard what Stewart said, but not many heard what Stewart said just minutes later.

Now, 50 year-old Ron Hornady is in the ESPN gunsights. As NASCAR heads into the first Chase weekend, it is the Craftsman Trucks that will race alongside of the Sprint Cup Series. What a coincidence that after much preparation and planning, ESPN has chosen to release the full fury of all its media power on what may be NASCAR's best-loved grandfather.

This is mid-September of 2008 and the Craftsman Truck Series on SPEED is in full swing. Hornaday is once again driving hard and continuing his legacy of being one of the "old school" racers in the sport. His relationship with Kevin Harvick has come full-circle, as anyone who watched the two embrace on the backstretch at Homestead last season can attest. That is the AP photo of the moment from Glenn Smith above.

Shaun Assael is a writer for ESPN the Magazine that has penned a book on steroids in sports. On this particular Thursday, Assael launched a multi-platform media campaign to make sure that NASCAR fans and ESPN viewers know one thing. Ron Hornaday used a steroid cream nearly three years ago.

Thursday's NASCAR Now was the perfect TV location for Assael to release all the sordid details and document Hornaday's claim of trying a steroid cream to battle the extreme weight loss that he had been experiencing in 2004 seemingly without any medical explanation.

Host Nicole Manske looked as uncomfortable as any person could possibly look on TV as she asked the scripted questions of Assael and an ESPN medical expert. Hornaday's use of this cream reportedly ended in January of 2006, but Manske never asked the medical expert if any lingering effect of this 16 months of use several years ago would remain today.

Best of all, no one spoke to what was being suggested. ESPN was trying to make a case that Hornaday somehow had a performance advantage driving a Craftsman Truck while taking a steroid cream for unexplained weight loss.

Hornaday did advise Assael that since Kevin Harvick Inc. has instituted a drug testing policy, Hornaday has taken and passed the across-the-board drug testing. No issue was every raised about any type of drugs before or after this time period.

The bottom line is, all of this smells very bad from any angle. ESPN tried to tie Harvick's recent call for drug testing to this issue. Assael never mentioned why his report came out today or why he did not have any footage from his interview with Hornaday that seemed to be the basis of this story.

In Asseal's story on, his performance allegations are made clear. Asseal says Hornaday was let go by Richard Childress for a younger Clint Bowyer in 2004. "At that point, Hornaday reached out to the Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center," said Asseal. "His first shipment arrived at his North Carolina home at roughly the same time he accepted an offer to drive on the truck team owned by Kevin Harvick in December of 2004."

So, Asseal's allegation is that Hornaday turned to steroids to somehow save his NASCAR career. Manske got ESPN's medical expert to say that steroid use is beneficial to drivers because of concentration and reflex issues.

Hornaday said he lost forty pounds, thought he had cancer no doctor could find and turned to the type of testosterone therapy that would bring his hormone levels back to normal. In 2006, doctors finally diagnosed Hornaday with a hyperactive thyroid and prescribed medication that he takes to this day.

So, what a way to kick-off the first Chase weekend on ABC and ESPN. This should also lead to some interesting conversation on SPEED's Craftsman Truck Series coverage. The person mentioned in the first paragraph of this column is the same person who will be providing the live commentary on the Truck race. His name is Michael Waltrip.

If ESPN wanted to stir things up in the media and get NASCAR back in the mix, they certainly accomplished that goal. The Hornaday "steroid story" is heading around the world on the Internet even as you read this.

It should be very interesting to see how seasoned veterans like Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree handle this topic. Both were absent from Thursday's NASCAR Now, as was all of ESPN's key NASCAR on-air talent.

What is your opinion of ESPN's report? Good journalism or just a driver trying to do anything to save his career and maybe even his life? Did this story change your impression of Hornaday or deepen your feelings that ESPN and NASCAR are once again having a very tough time getting along?

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Look Out New York! It's The NASCAR Media Tour

Now that The Chase For The Championship is set, twelve NASCAR drivers are going to be spending some additional time it or not.

The chosen twelve are in New York City for Tuesday night's David Letterman Show. That is a picture of the appearance above, courtesy of Jeffrey Staab from the AP. To see it full-size, just click on it.

Once Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch finish dinner together, the entire crew will turn-in early because Wednesday is a very long day of media appearances. First-up will be the TV morning shows.

The crew will split-up to cover three programs. Good Morning America on ABC, The Early Show on CBS and Fox and Friends on the Fox Cable News Network. Apparently, NBC and the Today Show had other things to do. The drivers will appear between 8 and 9AM ET.

In the afternoon, the media attention turns to satellite radio and Sirius is going to be on-scene in NYC at the official media tour headquarters. That is no longer the ESPN SportsZone, but the Hard Rock Cafe at 1501 Broadway right in Manhattan.

A satellite media tour (SMT) is what fans often see on shows like NASCAR Now on ESPN2. A driver makes himself available for a brief live interview in exchange for an opportunity to promote a charity, sponsor or The Chase.

The twelve drivers will be doing the SMT thing Wednesday afternoon with all kinds of local TV stations and programs like NASCAR Now. That should put their faces on a lot of TV and radio that you will be seeing and hearing on Wednesday.

Please take a moment to add a comment about where you saw or heard a Chase driver on Wednesday in your area and how you think their appearance went. This will give us a good overview of who went where and what local TV stations picked-up this SMT.

To add your comment, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to help us with this project, it should be interesting to see just who gets seen where across the nation.

IRL Fans Upset With NASCAR And ESPN

Rarely do we hear from IRL fans, but this past weekend certainly proved to be an exception. While Tropical Storm Hanna turned Richmond into a doubleheader, IRL fans got quite a double whammy of their own on Sunday.

Open wheel fans tuning-in to ESPN2 for the 12:30PM season finale of the Indy Lights series instead found themselves being welcomed to NASCAR Countdown by Allen Bestwick.

Originally, veteran announcer Bob Jenkins was scheduled to call the live IRL support series race from Chicagoland as the end to a full season of open wheel racing. Instead, at the very last minute, the Indy Lights were moved to the ESPN Classic Network. That is a place that Nationwide Series fans know all too well.

In today's world of technology, that meant the DVR's and the TiVo's recording the Indy Lights race were on the wrong channel. Cable listings did not have this change and neither did the website.

Network executives had finally decided that the Sprint Cup Series race from Richmond on ESPN needed a pre-race show. Since the NFL Countdown program on ESPN could not be touched, NASCAR was moved to ESPN2 and it was the Indy Lights that took it right on the chin.

Later that day, it was Marty Reid and the ESPN crew who produced the IRL race from Chicagoland on ABC Sports. As many fans know, ESPN just wrapped-up a brutal TV negotiation with the IRL. The network wanted the Indy 500 and perhaps a couple of other selected races that fit the program schedule, but nothing more.

Even with the new unified series, the IRL could do nothing more than cave. SPEED expressed no interest and the TV options were limited. The remaining IRL events wound-up alongside NHL Hockey on the Versus Network. TV viewers may remember this as the former Outdoor Life Channel. Comcast has bought the network, moved it to Philadelphia and is trying to build an ESPN-style national sports network of its own.

Once the IRL race at Chicagoland was underway, ESPN had a tough time. They completely missed Sarah Fisher's hard crash and Reid said the network "did not have cameras on that portion of the track." Fisher was OK.

The IRL cars at Chicagoland are like NASCAR at Talladega. Side-by-side, lap-by-lap no one could pull away from anyone else. The key to the race was going to be gas mileage and while the action was high-speed it was less than exciting. No one could pass.

As the final laps wound-down, Scott Dixon seemed poised to win the Championship and was leading the race by holding the low line lap-after-lap. The ESPN Director chose to feature Dixon's cute wife Emma on the screen for the final laps. Rather than show the other racing action behind the leaders, ESPN was once again building the drama on a single car and driver.

Dixon came to the finish line with Helio Castroneves alongside. Reid was overjoyed that Dixon had won the race and the championship in style. Pictures of his happy wife were everywhere as she hugged and kissed her friends. Dixon was sent to Victory Lane and TV veteran Jack Arute was waiting for him.

While Dixon got parked and removed his helmet, ESPN replayed the great finish. There were lots of compliments for Dixon right up until the replay of the finish-line camera.

ESPN veteran Reid said it best. "Uh oh," he muttered.

Amid all the hype and pictures of Dixon's pretty wife, one little element had slipped through the cracks with the ESPN broadcast team. Castroneves had won the race.

Clearly flustered, the ESPN Producer went ahead with Arute's interview of Dixon in Victory Lane. Arute never told Dixon he had lost the race, but limited his awkward questions to the Championship. Dixon wanted to talk about the race. It was a TV mess of the highest order.

Next-up was an ESPN pit reporter catching-up with Castroneves as he left the garage area. Always smiling and gracious, Castroneves stopped to chat. The pit reporter said to him "you won the race." The awkwardness of this moment made the Arute interview seem like Sports Emmy material.

Castroneves is a class act. "I knew it," he said. This was a bitter pill for him to swallow after a season of second-place finishes. To be denied Victory Lane simply because the TV network and the IRL botched the finish was beyond embarrassing. Helio excused himself by saying he needed to go climb a fence.

Just who put the cart before the horse is still being debated. Dixon and Castroneves could both have simply been stopped on pit road until things were sorted-out, but that did not happen. Click here for the link to the official IRL explanation.

As the last race in the final season of exclusive ESPN coverage, this was not how the drivers and teams in this series deserved to go out. Whether it was time pressure from ABC that caused the ESPN crew to push forward without the correct information or just the lack of communication with the IRL officials, it certainly was a weekend that open-wheel fans would like to forget.

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Time For ESPN To Make A Change

We have watched the struggles of NASCAR teams who seemingly had outstanding personnel assigned to every position.

Even with an all-star line-up, sometimes things just do not turn out as expected. Crew chiefs, drivers and crew members have all been changed to try and sort things out for the good of the team. The bottom line is performance.

Over the past seventeen months, the NASCAR on ESPN team has been working hard to get the best possible TV coverage on-the-air for the fans. At the end of last year, the network executives made some changes that they felt would fine-tune the 2008 season.

TV viewers welcomed Allen Bestwick to the Infield Pit Studio as the new host. Bestwick quickly organized Brad Daugherty and took charge of the pre-race show. Fans also watched Rusty Wallace come into his own after being moved to the infield.

Finally free to express his opinion without the burden of race analysis, Wallace has been offering observations and commentary that have been consistently interesting.

Stepping into the high-profile role as Lead Race Analyst has been Dale Jarrett. He instantly set a new tone for the race telecasts and one key to his success has been the emergence of Andy Petree as an observant and experienced partner to Jarrett in the broadcast booth.

This season, ESPN's Director has committed to showing the field finish the race. The network has consistently made great pictures and sound. The graphics are evolving and even the pit reporters have been working hard to present as much information as possible.

Unfortunately, there is one change that ESPN did not make in the off-season that needs immediate attention. It is a topic that has been discussed across NASCAR message boards, Internet sites and blogs like this one for quite some time.

While change is usually easy to discuss, this subject is not easy at all. When it involves someone that is well-known and has a long history in television, change is just simply hard to make. Perhaps, the ESPN executives know that all too well right now.

The bottom line is, it is time to replace Jerry Punch as the play-by-play announcer for ESPN's NASCAR coverage. There is no way around it. We have tried to side-step the issue, to delay it and even to deny it. After Richmond, there is no way to avoid it any longer.

Before the Sprint Cup Series gets to Loudon and begins The Chase, Punch should step aside for the good of the sport.

Fans waited until Sunday afternoon for the rain-delayed Sprint Cup Series race from Richmond. This event had so many storylines and interesting angles that the coverage was bound to be exciting and entertaining. It was neither.

Hard-working pit reporters, vocal infield announcers and well-meaning analysts in the booth simply cannot make-up for a play-by-play announcer who is unable to lead a major live sports telecast.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sliding into Kyle Busch elicited nothing from Punch. Once again, it was Petree and Jarrett who provided the commentary for this incident as it happened. Punch never followed-up and seemed to be at a loss for what to do.

Fans who remember the commentary of the Fox crew during the original incident between these two drivers understand the contrast between the high-energy excitement of the moment on Fox and the drowsy monotone that Punch cannot change unless he is reading a promo or leading the network to commercial.

Later coverage of three-wide racing toward the front of the field elicited what NASCAR on ESPN viewers have come to know all too well. That would be silence. Silence when a multi-car accident sent cars spinning all over the track. Silence when cameras showed big clumps of cars racing hard under green.

Punch uses car numbers, names of the drivers and catch phrases over-and-over again during the entire telecast. Rather than add original commentary, Punch simply updates what he sees on the scoring monitor or is told to say by the Producer.

It is important to remember that Punch played a big part in the early ESPN history of NASCAR. Unfortunately, it is very clear that the many years he was away from the sport have taken their toll. His college football sideline reporter TV skill-set is not working where NASCAR play-by-play is concerned.

How this problem is solved is up to ESPN. Marty Reid, Allen Bestwick, Bob Jenkins and other ESPN names have been tossed around by fans for months now. What fans want is simply the excitement that comes with a veteran announcer painting a picture for the TV viewers that includes intensity and excitement.

While many thought that ESPN would wait until the season was over to make a change, this appears to no longer be a viable option. There are ten reasons why.

Punch is simply lost in his current role and may actually express relief if he is removed from it. If Punch and Bestwick swap roles or if someone else comes in to take-over, ESPN would be better off making the change this week.

ESPN has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in NASCAR and the entire focus of this investment is the next ten races. "The Chase" will be seen on the ABC Television Network live and puts the entire TV production team under a microscope and on the biggest sports TV stage possible.

ESPN has so many positive pieces in place to take the sport through the next ten races and end the season on a high note. Without a change in the play-by-play position, there will continue to be a need for Jarrett and Petree to describe the live action and for the infield studio to provide the updates on positions and standings. The rest of the team is forced to fill the void that Punch creates.

The Daly Planet has discussed this on-air situation many times before with readers, but without advocating change prior to the end of the season. Please add your opinion about this topic to this post.

Do you feel ESPN should stick with Punch in his current role, make a change right now, or simply wait and discuss any potential changes during the off-season?

To add your TV-related comment, just click the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.