Monday, July 27, 2009
Randy LaJoie Sparks ESPN's Saturday Night
Randy LaJoie looks about as comfortable in a suit and tie as many NASCAR fans. His language is plain and sometimes a bit rough. He seems to be the kind of guy who would be a lot of fun at a party. He was exactly what ESPN needed on Saturday night.
ESPN split its announcing staff between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and O'Reilly Raceway Park this weekend. Marty Reid and Rusty Wallace were paired with LaJoie as the team calling the network's Nationwide Series race at ORP.
TV viewers had been sitting through hours of Jerry Punch and company over at IMS as long rain delays kept the action to a minimum. Once things dried out, Punch hosted a Sprint Cup Series qualifying session that contained no real excitement and featured the usual cast of characters.
It was the moment that Reid led his TV team onto ESPN that everything changed. Pit reporter Mike Massaro took charge of the pre-race show and informally hosted it while walking up and down pit road. Massaro has been having a great season on ESPN and showed once again that he is the kind of versatile announcer this type of coverage needs.
Instead of all Carl and Kyle, ESPN worked to spread out the pre-race content and did a much better than normal job of treating everyone equally. The real stories of the race were presented in an upbeat and casual fashion.
Once the action moved to the booth, it became clear very quickly that Wallace was going to have to shift gears to keep up with Reid and LaJoie. This is Reid's first season calling this group of Nationwide races and he has been a breath of fresh air. Nothing is going to shake his enthusiasm and ORP under the lights was the perfect location for this type of announcing.
Momentum is something talked about for race teams, but it was very clear that the entire TV crew caught Reid's enthusiasm. They delivered one of ESPN's best NASCAR telecasts of the season. Suddenly, NASCAR on TV was fun again and that has not been the case for a long time.
One great TV element in use was the blimp. Used by the director for wideshots and restart coverage, this ultimate high camera really helped viewers get a perspective of this facility. The ESPN director also resisted the urge to overuse the in-car cameras and kept the coverage moving through the field.
It was easy to watch and listen to this race as even the pit reporters began to get caught up in Reid's enthusiasm. Even normally polite and low-key Shannon Spake got fired-up and put in a solid performance on pit road. It should be interesting to see how her Saturday night experience carries over to Sunday's Cup Series race.
Reid again called out the start and park cars the moment they pulled into the garage. This exposure is the only way to get a handle on this problem. The TV team was also aggressive in getting interviews with drivers out of the race after several accidents. That was appreciated.
LaJoie was simply a blast. When the pace car pulled out early and caused an accident on the track, he asked if maybe it was battery powered. Nothing like a little swing at the Sprint Cup hybrid version. LaJoie delivered many classic lines and great humor all night long. Simply put, ESPN needs him on the Nationwide broadcasts.
Wallace is more at home in the infield with Allen Bestwick, but he hung in there and enjoyed watching the success of his teams during the race. This type of telecast really does not need a third announcer in the booth. Reid and LaJoie together may be a pairing that can bring this series home over the next several months.
A great combination of elements came together for an enjoyable NASCAR telecast from ORP. Hopefully, someday soon network TV will figure out a way to guarantee viewers a full post-race show regardless of the time. Kudos to ESPN for staying focused and listening to the feedback of the fans. We can only hope the Sunday Sprint Cup telecast builds on this success.
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