Monday, August 13, 2012
Day Three: How Are Your NASCAR Vital Signs?
From the starting line issues with the Nationwide Series through the single-car dominance of the Sprint Cup Series race, this was a weekend that started a passionate fan conversation about the sport that is still in progress.
On Saturday, a bizarre dance played-out for those watching on television. In a event moved from nearby Lucas Oil Raceway, the Nationwide Series played to a virtually empty house at the big track. Instead of the racing stories, ESPN flew in Katie Couric to conduct a featured pre-race interview with driver/celebrity Danica Patrick.
ESPN and NASCAR combined to present Patrick once again as the Great White Hope, focusing squarely on her role as a woman in NASCAR. All of this happened on national television despite the reality surrounding both Patrick and the race.
In the real world, Patrick had been out-qualified in the event by 18 year-old Johanna Long, a female Florida resident with a long history of racing success. But in the very strange world of ESPN and NASCAR, Long simply did not exist.
Despite six months of racing this season, Couric's questions to Patrick were themed around her struggles as a woman in NASCAR rather than her Nationwide Series results. The supposed theme for the interview was the statement that Patrick had almost won the Indy 500. This set the tone for the comparison between the IndyCar tradition of the speedway and this NASCAR racing weekend.
The entire pre-race show was run as if there was a standing room only audience. The TV theme was that the Nationwide Series was making history, that all the actions on the track were historic. No references were made to the wildly successful history of the Nationwide Series racing at Lucas Oil Raceway or that the Brickyard was empty even after one year of promotion for this inaugural race.
The start reflected the pre-race show in that questions immediately arose about why the pole sitter did not cross the starting line first. No NASCAR officials made themselves available for comment and the race continued. The reality of what actually happened was never officially addressed.
Patrick's subsequent accident continued the tone as the TV announcers were reluctant to call out the experienced driver for actions her crew chief later called "stupid driving." Patrick's television interview was an exercise in marketing, which seemed to fit the tone.
Ultimately, the day would be dominated by the penalty given to Elliott Sadler on a late restart. Once again, no NASCAR official appeared on-camera as the TV team floundered for an explanation of a ruling that made little sense. Things got worse once the race was over.
ESPN left the air without an explanation of the penalty or even an interview with Sadler. Nothing was said on ESPNEWS and TV viewers were left in the dark. It was amazing to see ESPN sign-off after the hype and promotion of the event. This was not the kind of history that NASCAR wanted to create.
On Sunday the familiar pattern of past Brickyard races continued. After an outstanding TV pre-race show, the action on the track again was limited to restarts and pit road. Adding to this frustration was ESPN continuing to use in-car cameras and tight shots during those restarts. The only actual passing for position was lost on TV as the ESPN director tried to "make TV" instead of just showing the race.
Time and time again veteran announcer Allen Bestwick's call of exciting racing and key passes did not match the action seen on the screen. In no other professional sport would this type of television production be tolerated. TV follows the puck in hockey and the ball in other sports as a golden rule. In NASCAR, the choice of what pictures to show is subjective.
The Sprint Cup Series has been racing since February. Despite the hype, the Brickyard 400 is just race twenty of thirty-six. The key for fans is that the countdown to the Chase is in full swing. In the relatively new Sprint Cup Series points system, every single place is important. Ultimately, it's all about the finish.
In ESPN's reality, it's all about the event. From top to bottom, the Brickyard 400 was presented like ABC handles the Indy 500. This was never more evident than the during the finish of the race. The winner's car crossed the line, the camera zoomed to the checkered flag and in the minds of ESPN, the race was over.
Meanwhile on the track names like Earnhardt, Gordon, Hamlin and Stewart were still racing. Despite Bestwick's best efforts to break the production team from the script, most NASCAR fans who had been watching their favorite driver for three hours never saw his last lap or the run to the checkers.
With time remaining on the TV clock, an extended post-race show then talked to those very same drivers about their race and finish. Many of the issues discussed by the drivers had never made it into the ESPN broadcast. It was a fitting end to a very strange weekend.
So how is your NASCAR pulse? Is it still beating strongly, fading slowly or pounding with anger for what the sport has become? This is a good time to check-in on where you stand with the sport in general as we go down the stretch. We appreciate you taking the time to add your comments.