Thursday, September 8, 2011
Allen Bestwick: The Quiet Man
In John Ford's 1952 film called "The Quiet Man," American boxer Sean Thornton played by John Wayne arrives in Ireland seeking a second chance. After an incident in the boxing ring, he is on a quest to regain a normal life.
Eventually, Thornton has to stand up for himself and show that his pride is intact despite the grim reality of his past. In the climactic fight scene, even his archenemy in town learns to respect Thornton and a friendship is born.
As the 2004 NASCAR season opened, Allen Bestwick was on top of the world. He had worked his way up from an MRN radio announcer into the TV side of the business. He was the lap-by-lap announcer for the races on NBC, TBS and TNT.
Since 1996, Bestwick had also been hosting a Monday night TV program first on SpeedVision and then on SPEED Channel. Changing names with sponsors, it had begun as Inside Winston Cup Racing and then incorporated Nextel and Sprint as the years went by.
The Monday show was a cult classic when it featured Michael Waltrip, Kenny Schrader and Johnny Benson as the "expert panel." With Bestwick playing the straight man as the frustrated host trying to maintain order, the program put Sprint Cup Series drivers into the TV spotlight as never before and launched a TV career for Waltrip that continues to this day.
In September of 2004, Bestwick was playing in a charity ice hockey game near his home in Rhode Island when he broke his leg. The injury and subsequent surgery put him on the shelf for only two races. NBC moved infield host Bill Weber into Bestwick's position.
Shortly after returning to TV, Bestwick was informed by then president of NBC Sports Ken Schanzer that he would be replaced by Weber upstairs in the TV booth for the 2005 season. Bestwick was offered the job of hosting the pre-race show from the infield.
In the blink of an eye, Bestwick's run as the face of Sprint Cup Series racing on NBC was over.
Later in 2005, viewers of the Monday show on SPEED saw a shaken group of panelists offer an off-balance and disjointed effort. Something was clearly wrong. In fact, former SPEED executive Chris Long had summarily fired Bestwick and Benson before the program. After almost a decade of work there were to be no goodbyes. It was an awkward and awful ending.
When ESPN returned to NASCAR in 2007 the network chose to promote three personalities in the national media. ESPN veteran Dr. Jerry Punch would step into the lead announcer role. He would be paired with new arrival Rusty Wallace who would be the network's lead analyst.
The third face was one the network said was familiar to sports fans nationwide. He would host the pre-race show, remain in the infield to offer comments during the telecast and then host the post-race show. His name was Brent Musburger.
Listed last on the press release were the names of the pit reporters. Behind Jamie Little, Dave Burns and Mike Massaro was the name Allen Bestwick. Three years after his hockey injury, losing his original NBC job and having his beloved series on SPEED cancelled, Bestwick was starting over.
Only four months into the first season, ESPN's NASCAR Now studio show was sinking fast. One host had already been fired and the tension between the teams and ESPN over reporting practices was building. Host Erik Kuselias and analyst Tim Cowlishaw were hype artists treating NASCAR as nothing more than fodder for redneck jokes.
On the last Wednesday in May frustrated NASCAR fans got a big surprise. The face hosting the show was none other than Allen Bestwick. Many employees at ESPN had never met a "real NASCAR guy." With only one program, Bestwick set the tone that got the show back on track both inside ESPN and with the personalities in the sport.
Click here for a TDP post on that day. Veteran reporters Marty Smith and Terry Blount were both doing liveshots via satellite and could not hide their smiles with Bestwick hosting the program.
After the show, one fan (Jules H.) offered this comment. "When I heard AB’s voice I stated jumping around the room like a kid on Christmas morning!"
Since that time, Bestwick has gone on to grow his relationship with NASCAR Now into becoming a vital part of that franchise. His "Monday roundtable" show echoed the format of his former SPEED series with various drivers, crew chiefs and reporters chiming in over the course of an hour.
Although ESPN at first changed the Monday panelists every week, Bestwick has now managed to bring back two NASCAR veterans as semi-regulars for the Monday show. You may remember them from a while back. Their names are Schrader and Benson.
It didn't take long for NASCAR fans to register their frustration with Musburger. Even when he moved into the new Infield Pit Studio, it was clear Musburger was a stick-and-ball fish out of water. ESPN tried several new faces before settling on in-house anchor Suzy Kolber as host. After one season, she was gone.
"Allen Bestwick Emerges From The Shadows" was the title of a February 2008 post at TDP. Click here to read it. After running out of options, ESPN had finally moved Bestwick from pit road to the infield host position for good.
Immediately, Bestwick tabbed Brad Daugherty as the "Voice of the fans" to help explain Daugherty's awkward role on the telecasts. Bestwick also helped Rusty Wallace with TV lessons in when to talk and when not to talk. That was an early struggle for Wallace as a TV novice.
As Dr. Jerry Punch faded in the booth time and time again, it became clear that ESPN needed to return the good doctor to pit road and bring in someone with a better play-by-play style of presentation. ESPN looked around and Vice President of Motorsports Rich Feinberg made a decision. It would be IndyCar and NHRA veteran Marty Reid taking over that role beginning in 2010.
Now in his second season, it's become clear that Reid's lack of a NASCAR history has handicapped him in the TV booth. After five months of Reid working the Nationwide Series telecasts this year, Feinberg finally made a move. Just a week before ESPN starts its fifth season of Sprint Cup Series races, a new face would head the team.
After restarting his TV career in 2007 as a Nationwide Series pit road reporter, Bestwick finally gets the chance to return to the spotlight. While Reid will continue on the Nationwide telecasts, Bestick will call the Sprint Cup Series races for ESPN and ABC.
It seems ironic that rather than utilize Bestwick in this role from the beginning, it has taken ESPN five years to put the pieces of the puzzle in the right places. Now alongside of Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree, ESPN is poised for the first time to come at the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races with Bestwick leading the charge.
In all the media releases, interviews and social media conversations over the past five seasons there has never been a moment where Bestwick has complained about his role, about any of his fellow announcers or even offered a negative comment.
During a media teleconference on Tuesday, Bestwick was asked how he felt about getting the opportunity to return to a TV role he enjoyed in a sport he cherished. He simply said it was an honor to get a tap on the shoulder from the coach asking him to get in the game and play.
As Bestwick walks into the TV booth for the Brickyard 400 telecast, you have to wonder what kind of thoughts will be running through his head. This saga of TV frustration turned into a triumph of success through hard work is simply amazing.
In many ways over the last five seasons, Bestwick has truly been NASCAR TV's own version of "The Quiet Man."
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