Tuesday, February 2, 2010

ESPN's Studio Disaster Now A Shining Star

Note: Leaving this column up for comments on the Monday start of NASCAR Now. The one hour show returns next Monday with host Allen Bestwick. His panelists will be Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Craven.

It was 2007 when ESPN thought it would be a good idea to take Connecticut lawyer Erik Kuselias and Urban Radio host Doug Banks and try to pass them off as NASCAR experts.

Unfortunately, they were going to be co-hosting the only daily NASCAR news and interview show on national TV. The results were disastrous.

Banks had no experience not only with NASCAR, but he had never been involved in a national TV series before. His problems were more with reading the Teleprompter than understanding NASCAR. It had been quite clear from the start that he had no racing knowledge of any kind.

Click here to read the TDP column titled "Where in the NASCAR world is Doug Banks?" Less than four months after his debut, Banks was silently released from his hosting duties. He was never seen at ESPN again.

Ryan Burr became the new co-host of NASCAR Now. Luckily, Burr had come over from ESPNEWS where he had plenty of experience with interviews and reporting on various sports. Burr never pretended to know NASCAR, but his professionalism and calm demeanor on the air kept the ship from sinking.

Meanwhile, Kuselias had by now upset some of the biggest names in the sport with his arrogant interviews and incredible ignorance of NASCAR history. Click here to read "Culture clash explodes on NASCAR Now." Reality and hype were on a collision course and the defining moment of this TV series was about to happen.

That came courtesy of a gentleman being interviewed via satellite from his race shops in Concord, North Carolina. His name is Rick Hendrick. Throughout the live NASCAR Now interview, Kuselias asked forceful and pointed questions as if Hendrick was at a deposition and Kuselias was representing the other side. Hendrick never flinched and then as the interview wrapped he turned the tables.

"Have you ever seen the movie Days of Thunder?" Hendrick asked smiling. Put on the spot, Kuselias did the only thing he could and enthusiastically said yes. Hendrick paused as perhaps only men like Roger Penske and Mike Helton can do. It's the kind of pause that gets your full attention very quickly.

Staring straight into the camera, Hendrick quietly said the now classic line. "You know, I'm the guy in that movie." Just like that, Kuselias was done. Exposed as a NASCAR fraud on national TV by the most powerful owner in the sport.

Fully released from the show after the 2007 season, Kuselias has been embroiled in personal and professional scandals at ESPN since that time that ultimately resulted in his suspension. ESPN should have known better than to put Kuselias and Banks in front of NASCAR fans from the start. A lot of time was wasted.

While Burr kept the show treading water, it was the arrival of Allen Bestwick, Nicole (Manske) Briscoe and Mike Massaro that pulled it back in the boat. 2008 signaled the start of an amazing recovery.

The series began to add regular studio analysts with NASCAR experience and move the Tim Cowlishaws of the world out to pasture. Marty Smith and Angelique Chengelis, who had both suffered through year one, were suddenly front and center as key reporters on NASCAR issues and breaking news.

After arriving from SPEED as a TV barbie doll, Briscoe stepped into her new ESPN role and never missed a beat. Moving out of the studio and reporting from the track, ESPN finally had the kind of versatile female anchor the network needed on the NASCAR beat.

By the time Massaro was asked to join the show in 2009, Briscoe and Bestwick had things pretty well sorted out. Bestwick had worked hard to put his personal stamp on Monday afternoons and given the series a firm foundation. He hosted countless panelists and through it all kept the kind of organized demeanor for which he is known.

Briscoe and Massaro settled into alternating studio hosting and traveling to the races. Voices like Ricky Craven, Ray Evernham and Randy LaJoie emerged as stars of the studio and favorites with the fans. Characters like DJ Copp emerged from obscurity to become important parts of the series. NASCAR Now finally had a personality amid the other vapid ESPN studio shows.

This season ESPN has already committed Shannon Spake to helping out with the show. The series still lacks a fulltime news reporter on the ground in the Concord area on the weekdays. Spake can fill that role as well as studio host as she returns from maternity leave.

Finally, the biggest NASCAR resource ESPN has in its possession has just been set free. Dr. Jerry Punch has been freed from the broadcast booth and returns to his correct role as a reporter. Letting Punch contribute to NASCAR Now may go a very long way to settling him into an assignment he should have had from the start.

With the studio line-up set, the reporters ready and the tremendous amount of storylines going into Daytona, this season may finally see NASCAR Now emerge as the kind of major daily television series ESPN envisioned back in 2007. It couldn't come at a better time.

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