Thursday, October 15, 2009
Unless you live under a rock, you know that NASCAR has been struggling with TV ratings and coverage issues as the Sprint Cup Series heads down the homestretch. Wednesday, the NASCAR Hall of Fame selection announcement provided a golden opportunity to get things pointed in a positive direction.
At the head of this effort for ESPN was Jerry Punch. As a Hall of Fame voter, Punch finished those duties and then appeared on both ESPNEWS and the NASCAR Now program. Mike Massaro hosted both from the ESPN studios and showed his maturity as he gave Punch the spotlight.
As those who watched the outstanding Ultimate NASCAR TV series can attest, Punch is best when speaking about the sport in the role of a reporter. Once again, this was the case as Punch spoke eloquently and sometimes emotionally about the history of NASCAR and the personalities involved.
Massaro interviewed a stellar line-up of Richard Petty, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Junior Johnson, Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy in the NASCAR Now program. It was the first time many NASCAR fans had seen Kennedy on-camera and while her comfort level was not high, it was important that she participated.
The high point of ESPN's coverage was Punch talking about his own experience of standing up and speaking about Dale Earnhardt Sr. during the deliberations of the voting panel. He relayed that Kennedy had become emotional while others were making comments about the impact her father and grandfather had on their lives.
This was the Jerry Punch that veteran fans knew and loved from the early ESPN coverage of the sport. Later on ESPNEWS, Punch continued to relay his personal experiences and provide a first-person account of this historic day. It was a nicely shining moment for ESPN in what has been a tough couple of months.
SPEED has recently discovered NASCAR...once again. A hastily added daily TV show debuted on Monday and the Hall of Fame announcement filled the network's schedule during the day and evening hours.
The afternoon program was fascinating and featured some of the best NASCAR content in recent years. The tightly controlled world of NASCAR was forced open during three hours of live TV. Led by Mike Joy, the panel of Kyle Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Ken Squier finally showed fans what is actually right with the sport.
They traded viewpoints and opinions prior to the announcement. Then, they captured the moment with interviews and the most powerful weapon of all, experience.
The panel welcomed France and Kennedy together for a live interview. There were many years of history between the family represented and the panelists. It showed in the interviews. Both France and his sister answered a variety of personal and professional questions.
It was a good moment especially for France, who was able to speak directly about his father and grandfather. Squier told the TV audience that Brian had also spoken during the deliberations. France had pointed out that his father would probably have preferred to have another driver included in the five selections rather than himself because it would sell more tickets.
Wendy Venturini and Randy Pemberton were reporting on this program and it was Pemberton who caught up with David Pearson shortly after the vote that left him out. Pearson advised that he was OK with not being selected, but there was little doubt he was the odd man out in this scenario.
While Teresa Earnhardt also made an appearance, it was Richard and Linda Petty joining the panelists on the TV stage that brought down the house. Ms. Petty has a wicked sense of humor and it was on display in stories that ranged from her husband's big wreck at Daytona to why in the world she let Michael Waltrip live with her family.
This type of living history lesson is sorely missing from the current NASCAR TV scene. The pathway of rebuilding the fan base for the future is clearly the past. These were not polished corporate spokespeople. They were regular folks just like us who liked racing. Isn't that how it all started?
In the end, this was a very positive day for the sport. Now, the action turns to the track. ESPN and SPEED are looking to carry this momentum into a weekend that will allow them not to compete with the Sunday NFL games but shine under the lights on Saturday night.
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