Monday, June 8, 2009
The Monday news release was easy to understand. "Red Horse Racing regretfully announces the closure of the #1 Toyota Tundra driven by Johnny Benson. The decision is effective immediately."
Just like that, the reigning Camping World Truck Series champion was gone. No sponsor, no dollars and no more hope.
The last race for the CWTS was in Texas and carried live on SPEED. Rick Allen and Phil Parsons have teamed-up for years as the TV faces of this national series. SPEED has a separate producer assigned to the CWTS and the telecasts for the last several years have been steadily gaining viewers. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the Texas race may have changed the way some NASCAR fans view both SPEED and its experienced announcing duo. Regardless of the reason, a decision was made prior to the start of the Texas race that is still mystifying. SPEED decided to ignore reality.
We all know times are tough. When IRL teams like Rahal-Letterman are parked and the NHRA is a shadow of its former self, that truth is certainly hammered home. While mergers solved some problems in the Sprint Cup Series ranks, the trucks have taken it right in the teeth. Last Friday may have been a truly defining moment.
The Texas race started 33 trucks, with several of the drivers being new names to the series. That in itself is not news, as the trucks often see teams try to qualify for a single race. Regional teams trying to make the move to the national level often choose the trucks as a first step.
Krista Voda presented the pre-race show with her usual smile and charm. Pit reporters Ray Dunlap and Adam Alexander updated the top teams and the stories of the day. Allen and Parsons then took over as the trucks moved out on the pace laps.
Once the green flag flew, SPEED inserted the ticker at the top of the screen that updates the positions of the trucks on the track. On this day, that single strip of electronic information would be the only thing at TMS speaking the truth to the television viewers.
As usual, a field of only 33 trucks got strung-out rather quickly on the big TMS oval. Then, it began. The ticker at the top of the screen started listing trucks at the back of the field as "off." While Allen and Parsons continued to talk about the action at the front of the field, truck after truck made the big left-turn into the TMS garage and simply parked.
Before lap 40, almost one-third of the entire Camping World Truck Series starters had parked. 10 trucks were in the garage packing to go home before the first pit stop for fuel. Click here for NASCAR's finishing order. Terms like handling, ignition and transmission were listed as reasons these teams left the race.
NASCAR fans know better than that. As ESPN's Randy LaJoie would say, these were the "valet parking" teams. They fully intended to start and then park as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, in the SPEED TV booth, things were all rainbows and roses. Allen and Parsons never referenced that 10 of the 33 competitors in a nationally televised race had simply parked. From high above TMS they had both watched as this unfolded, but never said a word about it. The reason is simple.
Everyone but the SPEED TV viewers and the fans in the grandstands knew about it in advance.
We often refer to SPEED as the little network that could. Chugging along after starting as Speedvision, the cable TV company was actually moved to Charlotte, NC to become a full time NASCAR cable channel years ago. It never happened.
Instead, the resulting TV hybrid is a mix of reality and lifestyle programming blended with pre and post-race shows from the NASCAR tracks. Throw-in a smattering of open wheel racing and special events and the network is a mish-mash of the highest order.
The only high-profile NASCAR series carried on SPEED is the Camping World Trucks. The network even produces and televises the post-season banquet. To many viewers, Krista Voda embodies the friendly and honest nature of this series full of colorful characters and good human interest stories. Allen and Parsons seem more like friends than announcers as they let the action on the track take center stage.
That may be why it was so tough to watch the Texas race unfold as racing reality and the SPEED on-air presentation took two very different roads. If NASCAR and SPEED decided to take this approach in some public relations move, they certainly paid a price. In the mainstream media, however, there was barely a whisper.
Click here for a good story from Truckseries.com that tells the tale. "This was hardly the Truck Series we've come to know and love," it said. Matt McLaughlin at Frontstretch.com also mentioned it in his outstanding Monday column.
The issue of hiding reality goes back this season to TDP's problems with SPEED in February. This column documented the sharp contrast between what SPEED was "selling" to the fans and what the personalities really thought. The only way the truth leaked-out was a technical mistake.
As the remainder of this season goes by, there has to be a reality check from the NASCAR TV partners and there is a good reason why. NASCAR fans are not stupid. They follow their favorite drivers and teams online and live in the real world every single day. The role of TV in this sport is to accurately report, not to manufacture a new NASCAR reality and hope to get away with it.
The truck series is heading for Michigan and will hopefully pick-up some additional teams as Sprint Cup drivers cross-over for this event. It will certainly not be the same without Benson, but the real question is whether SPEED will decide to step-up and begin to restore the credibility lost after the Texas telecast.
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