Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Untimely Death Of "Wind Tunnel" (Updated)

Update: Lots of comments on this column, including several from media members who suggested I was indicating that Wind Tunnel was going to be cancelled. Here is the quote from this very column: "So, goodbye Wind Tunnel. My time as a viewer is done." Pretty sure that statement makes things clear.

The long and winding road of the cable TV network that started life as SpeedVision continues to twist. The latest victim is the Sunday night motorsports television franchise called Wind Tunnel.

The original idea behind the series was to echo the success of the Larry King Live show on CNN. King made a living mixing high-profile guests with the common man through telephone calls from viewers around the world. CNN had King on seven nights a week and for many years he was untouchable.

Dave Despain became the Larry King of Wind Tunnel because of his broad experience in motorsports. Despain paid his dues and grew into a lovable TV curmudgeon by using his dry sense of humor and inability to accept what the motorsports PR types tried to pass along as being the truth.

At one time Wind Tunnel was also on multiple nights a week and attracted a wide variety of motorsports personalities from seemingly all types of racing. That was also a time when the SPEED management was committed to building a TV network around racing. Those days have been long gone for many years.

Despain wound-up with an hour of his franchise on TV Sunday nights and an extra chunk streamed online when the TV show was done. It was an interesting mix, but one that allowed the voice of the fan to be heard clearly as an integral part of the show. Now, that voice has been silenced.

SPEED has quietly ended viewer participation in the TV hour of Wind Tunnel. No more phone calls, no more emails and selected tweets jammed painfully into a moment late in the show. The network that prides itself on being interactive has slammed the door on its own fans. The ability to ask a question of a guest is gone and so is the very spirit of the program.

For many years SPEED's senior management steadfastly refused to produce a NASCAR news and interview program on weekdays. No one would watch, they said. Then, along came Race Hub. There was a time when SPEED panned the concept of trying to create a general motorsports news and highlight program on weekends. Now, we have SpeedCenter. These two programs now have the network spotlight.

Left in the lurch is Despain. The last few weeks have seen him pushed aside in no uncertain terms. The most embarrassing a co-hosting appearance by James Hinchcliffe that put the IndyCar driver literally into the host position and Despain to the guest seat. The pain on Despain's face was easy to see.

The fundamental appeal of live TV done in this setting is the uncertainty of what would result. Over the years, Despain and his callers have drawn-out some amazing responses on hot button topics from a wide variety of motorsports personalities and executives. For many years, news was made on Wind Tunnel.

Now, following the controlled model of Race Hub, there is no sense of the unexpected. There is no emotional topic that has tempers running hot. Appearances are prearranged, focused and planned. Even zingers from contributors like Robin Miller or guests like Paul Tracy cannot breathe life into this format.

Despain never had co-hosts for the hour because most motorsports experts focus on only one area. With the new format of SPEED personalities being involved viewers get Tommy Kendall talking NASCAR diversity and Ralph Sheheen sharing his Formula One expertise. It's not fair to those involved or the viewers to force these contributors into this role.

It's been wonderful to watch Wind Tunnel over the years. Those TV memories, both good and bad, were pure and spontaneous. The current crop of talking heads fits the SPEED mold of politically correct guests who say the right thing and move along. There are SPEED programs to promote, marketing agendas to be met and network personalities who need more exposure.

The bottom line is that without the strong voice of the fans, Wind Tunnel is nothing. The self-serving rehash of events from the weekend with FOX and SPEED personalities commenting makes little sense. Before Wind Tunnel, fans see an hour of SpeedCenter and then an hour of NASCAR Victory Lane.

Instead of making news and pushing hot buttons, Despain is now slaved to repeating racing topics and showing scripted video highlights for the third time in the same evening. It must be a bitter pill to swallow for a man who developed this franchise from the start.

So, goodbye Wind Tunnel. My time as a viewer is done. Memories of this outstanding series can now join the others that SPEED has successfully managed right into the ground. When marketing and promotion push spontaneous and honest commentary aside, the results are almost never good. This version of Wind Tunnel is quickly proving that point.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From Bristol On ABC

There was lots of action, but ultimately Denny Hamlin won the race. The big winner, however, may have been NASCAR. After a season of lots of talk but little action, there was hard racing from start to finish at the "new" Bristol Motor Speedway.

Nicole Briscoe had some Little League World Series issues, but the NASCAR Countdown show featured Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham. As in years past, the problem with this race is that once the pre-race is over there is literally no time for this group to get on the air again. 15 second laps and critical pit stops combined with a heavy commercial load make on-camera time almost impossible.

Allen Bestwick was the other bright spot of the night. He called a race with enthusiasm from start to finish and coaxed the best out of Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett. While the pit road group was adequate, Bestwick was the person who really shouldered the load and made it work.

The racing on the track was constant, but ESPN's philosophy of showing two cars at a time continued. It's almost embarrassing to have to replay an incident at a tiny track like Bristol, but that certainly was the case on Saturday night. Zooming-in to make pretty pictures results in missing the moments that make up the race.

For once, the stars of the show were the drivers. Pushed into a new situation at a critical time in the season, they responded with hard racing instead of some of the points racing we had been seeing earlier this year. The results were the elements fans want to see. Intense action and good storylines with some caution flags along the way are the elements that built the sport.

Missing from this telecast were the beautiful wideshots of the track after restarts with the cars running almost all the way around the race track. Instead, the hyper-tight shots of single cars were mixed with in-car cameras and replays of the incidents that were missed. It's a formula.

Sunday night SPEED will return with three hours of motorsports. It should be interesting to see the driver, owner and media comments that SpeedCenter, Victory Lane (replay) and Wind Tunnel will relay to fans. This race is going to cause a buzz that will last for days. That is just what the sport needed.

We welcome your opinion of the ABC/ESPN coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race from Bristol. Comments may be moderated prior to posting. Profanity, hateful speech and derogatory comments are not in the spirit of this blog. Thanks again for stopping by.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sprint Cup Series From Bristol On ABC

The media loves it when Kyle Busch starts talking and he has been talking this weekend in Bristol. He hates the track changes, refuses to admit Chase pressure and seems to be ready for some rough racing tonight.

The ESPN telecast crew will use ABC for the broadcast, which has caused some problems. First, there are six TV markets that will be carrying local NFL pre-season games. Secondly, TV markets in the Central time zone with local news will be preempting the pre-race show. Finally, the approaching Tropical Storm Isaac will get non-stop coverage on the ABC affiliate in Miami tonight.

The good news is that all six NFL conflict markets have alternate viewing options available. Also, none of the local stations airing news will miss the green flag. Finally, Miami viewers can turn to their ESPN cable channel and will find the ABC coverage of the race. For a full breakdown of this information, check the previous post on this blog. Thanks to ESPN for keeping us updated on this topic.

Nicole Briscoe gets Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham in the Infield Pit Studio for the NASCAR Countdown show. Rusty is clearly under pressure to ramp-up his intensity and has responded with some controversial statements. Brad remains a cheerleader, but Evernham has begun to insert his opinions into the telecasts. This pre-race show should be one to watch.

Allen Bestwick has Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree alongside as usual. Unfortunately, ESPN often framed only two or three cars on-camera when covering the Friday night Nationwide Series race. It was awful. On a tiny track like Bristol, staying wide and then moving in after an incident or to cover a pass is the right way to operate. It's fundamental. This style of production makes effective play by play almost impossible.

What Friday night viewers saw and heard was PXP man Marty Reid following the pictures on the TV monitor instead of looking out the window and calling the race. Reid could not locate cautions on the small track until he saw the pictures. There was an awkward delay when the caution lights came on and while ESPN searched for a replay of what had happened.

While Bestwick has his work cut out for him, the pit road gang is really in the worst environment possible. Hand signals will be the order of the day once the green flag flies. The noise in the Bristol infield is intense. Keep an eye on Jerry Punch, Mike Massaro, Vince Welch and Dave Burns as they try to provide info under green flag conditions.

ESPN paid the money and the network has the right to present the sport as they see fit. The battle is clearly between the HD-driven images being produced for the "younger set" and the need to provide perspective and information for those of us who are hardcore fans. It's been an ongoing conversation.

Keep your eye on how the restarts are presented. Wideshots that show the field vs. in-car cameras and tight zooms for dramatic effect is the battle. Pitstops under green should be presented in a split-screen video box, so that both the race and the pitstop can be seen. This is easy to do with the small track.

Ultimately, the chief complaint of this race is commercials under green. Lap after lap goes by as the two and three minute commercial pods roll slowly by hour after hour. Of all the tracks on the Sprint Cup Series circuit, Bristol makes the fans crazy when things happen during commercial and the TV coverage comes back to caution on the track. Look for that to happen tonight, as there are no split-screen commercials in the coverage.

The good thing is that the changes to the track have generated a buzz. The truck and Nationwide Series races have proven to be interesting, but no real conclusions of how the Sprint Cup Series cars will be affected could be drawn. Also, Danica Patrick is in the field and will no doubt be a topic of the TV coverage tonight.

As usual, we chat live on Twitter during the race by using the #TDP1 hashtag for TV comments. We invite you to join us. Comments will be updated on this post during the race and there will be a Race Wrap post after the race for your opinion on the coverage. Thanks as always for dropping by.

Alternate Plans In Place For NFL Conflicts (New Info)

Update: ESPN has advised that due to Tropical Storm Isaac, the Miami TV market can see the Sprint Cup Series race tonight on the local cable channels for ESPN. The ABC affiliate advised ESPN that they will be providing non-stop storm coverage, so ESPN made the switch. Great move by both parties.

The powers that be assure us that NASCAR fans will not get run-over Saturday night by local NFL preseason games. Before the regular season starts, some local stations get to actually produce and cover these semi-meaningless affairs. This Saturday, several areas will be affected.

There are six TV markets in the country that have NFL programming conflicts. All of them have made alternate viewing arrangements for NASCAR fans.

The easiest way to solve the problem is to switch NASCAR fans to the ESPN cable channel in their area. ESPN is not carrying the race nationwide, it's just a local market temporary channel switch. Buffalo (NY), Tulsa (OK), Quincy (IL) and Westlaco (TX) are the areas where fans just switch to their regular ESPN cable channel for the race.

Update: In the four markets where the race will be on ESPN, the race will also be on DirecTV channel 210, and DISH channel 145.

In the major market of Detroit, the ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV will move the NASCAR race to the station's digital tier 2 channel and the main station will join the live race when the Detroit Lions game is over. WXYZ's D2 channel is called “Live Well Detroit” and in the Detroit area is channel 7.2 over the air, 437 on Charter, 297 on Comcast and 127 on Bright House.

Update: More locations for WXYZ-TV tier 2 "Live Well Detroit" viewing:

ACR Cable Beacon Hill: Channel 8
Lamont Digital Systems: Channel 144
WOW: Channel 101
Wyandotte Cable TV: 141

In Rochester, NY the local station WHAM-TV will do the same and carry NASCAR on its digital 2 tier channel. WHAM-TV’s D2 channel is also the CW affiliate. It is Time Warner Cable Channel 16 or Channel 1016 for CW-HD, Digital Over-the-Air: Channel 13.2.

Due to the time zone issues, there are a handful of ABC stations that have news at 7PM ET when the NASCAR Countdown show is on. In Little Rock (AK), Corpus Christi (TX), and Omaha (NE) the news will end and NASCAR will be joined at 7:30PM before the green flag.

Local stations have their own agendas and sometimes that just does not mesh with live national sports. Over the years, ABC stations have preempted NASCAR races for everything from local charity telethons to the Mummer's Parade in Philly. That is why the move of most of the Sprint Cup Series races to ESPN and away from ABC was a good one.

Needless to say, the Watch ESPN service cannot be used as this telecast is on ABC. All those fun features fans get when telecasts are on cable go away in the broadcast network world. Thanks to Andy Hall from ESPN for providing the specific information on Saturday night's issues.

We will be here on Saturday and also on Twitter monitoring the situation. Stop by and drop us a line if there is a problem. Happy to have your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From Michigan On ESPN

It was not the day that contenders like Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin or Joey Logano had in mind. Instead of a total fuel mileage race as we have seen in the past, Sunday's race contained an interesting mix of stories from start to finish.

Nicole Briscoe worked hard with her trio of Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham to create some interesting pre-race content. Rusty called out Jeff Gordon, Daugherty tried to explain his car oiling down Watkins Glen and Evernham once again stood head and shoulders above them both. It was muted, but had potential.

During the race, NASCAR Now Lead Reporter Marty Smith appeared on-camera to toss-up a topic for discussion that originated from a viewer tweet. It was a twist that perhaps tipped off the fact that ESPN is moving toward an interactive environment to solve the issue of fans feeling left out of the coverage.

Allen Bestwick was joined by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree to call the race. Petree has emerged as the dominant analyst as Jarrett has simply faded into the background. Bestwick is the master of keeping things in order and has eliminated any confusion during the races that happened with both Jerry Punch and Marty Reid in that role.

The pit reporters were again solid, with Jerry Punch handling some key interviews with his normal style and grace. Having a senior person among the pit road team makes a lot of difference. As ESPN heads into the Chase, Punch is going to have a key role with interviews of the top contenders.

ESPN was outstanding in using a split-screen for green flag pitstops. The network replayed the incidents that were missed and seemed to give up the scripted approach and just covered the race for the final 50% of the telecast. The problem continues to be the tendency to zoom-in when any race fan wants TV to zoom-out and let the racing be seen.

The ticker continues to be the source of information for fans of drivers not in the top ten. This has to change. Field recaps can be done in minutes and there are plenty of minutes available where the network currently follows the leader. Each driver in the race has fans and they should all be respected.

The late drama of Jimmie Johnson's motor failure left the network in position for an exciting finish and Bestwick got the most he could out of the final three laps. The director allowed viewers to see some of the lead lap cars cross the finish, but it could have been so much better. In the end, NASCAR got some great storylines to build on as the sport heads for the Chase.

We invite your opinion on the ESPN coverage of the Sprint Cup Series race from Michigan. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sprint Cup Series From Michigan On ESPN

Jack Roush used to rule the track, but things have changed. Jimmie Johnson said today the groove is only one car wide around the entire track and it is going to be tough to pass for the Sprint Cup Series cars. The race may well be won on pit road or a restart.

Nicole Briscoe has Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham with her in the Infield Pit Studio today. Allen Bestwick will call the race with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree alongside. Mike Massaro, Dave Burns, Vince Welch and Dr. Jerry Punch will handle pit road. Tim Brewer will watch from home.

ESPN has a big challenge. Once the field stretches out, the coverage has to find a direction and a theme. It can't be in-car cameras and tight shots. ESPN is going to have to work to tell the stories, recap the standings and tell lots of stories to fill these four hours.

The good news is that the announcing team is up to the challenge. The bad news is that the production truck continues to make one bad decision after another. No aerial shots or wide angles, few updates on drivers not in the top ten and no follow-up on drivers working their way back through the field.

Goodyear says there are no tire problems, so the only issues we should see may be engine related. There are eight start and park teams in the race today, so the actual competition for the win should come down to the usual suspects. The weather is good and even though Ryan Newman is reported to be under the weather, he has confirmed he will start the race and intends to see it all the way through.

We are going to be on Twitter with our live stream of TV/media comments on today's telecast. Please take a moment to join Twitter and see what all the fuss is about. We have drivers, teams, media and NASCAR officials all contributing to this live stream. Just type #TDP1 in the search box to see our conversation live and continually updated. Add #TDP1 to the end of your tweets to automatically be included.

There will be a post on this page when the event is over for your comments. Thanks to all of you for your patience while I was on vacation this week, looking forward to seeing how ESPN will handle this challenge today. Thanks to Roush PR for the picture at the top of the post.

NASCAR's Start And Park Weekend

This weekend features two races on Saturday and one on Sunday. While the Chase is only weeks away for the Sprint Cup Series teams, the real theme of this big weekend for all three top series is starting and parking. As our friends at All Left Turns documented in this picture, only a tool box is needed on pit road for a start and park team.

Click here to review a Car and Driver article by Bob Zeller called "The Quitting Game." The story talks about the start and park teams that were operating back in 2008 and how NASCAR squelches any mention of this reality.

Click here to see FOX/SPEED's Larry McReynolds offer to then Miss Sprint Cup Monica Palumbo his reasons why teams start and park. McReynolds contends that these teams really want to race and also offer jobs to those who would otherwise be unemployed without the weekend of qualifying, starting and parking.

Click here to read Eddie Gossage's comments in 2010 that start and park teams in the Sprint Cup Series are literally stealing money from the sport and adding nothing to the show. Gossage further stated that NASCAR had an obligation to stop this practice.

Here are the starting grids for this weekend from the Jayski website:

Click here to see the Sprint Cup Series starters. Note the cars highlighted in red.

Click here to see the Nationwide Series starters. Note the cars with the asterisk next to the entry.

Click here to see the Camping World Truck Series field. Of the 35 entries, note the teams with the asterisk.

In other professional sports on national television, the live telecasts document the reality on the field of play. Every injury, penalty and decision is reviewed, discussed and often replayed. In NASCAR the reality is the opposite. Television has somehow morphed into becoming part of the marketing arm of the sport.

This weekend, keep an eye on all three races and see how the different TV teams choose to deal with the start and park issue. The difference between reporting what is actually happening in the race as a whole and making a conscious decision to exclude relaying information about start and park teams certainly is interesting to watch.

Happy to have your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From Watkins Glen On ESPN

It was not the wild affair that many predicted, with drivers guarding their points for the upcoming Chase. Still, road course racing at Watkins Glen is a different kind of treat for fans before the reality of the Chase comes along.

Nicole Briscoe started the day by hosting the pre-race show. Marty Smith rehashed the AJ Allmendinger news. Brad, Rusty and Ray covered the topics in the sport but did not bring up the Pocono lightning tragedy or Dodge pulling out of the sport in a timely fashion. ESPN's priorities often do not match the real world concerns of many.

Allen Bestwick called the action, but was slaved to the pictures chosen by the production team. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree added what they could, with Petree again right on the money with his comments. The pit road reporters were on target, but the strategy stories faded toward the end.

The coverage was typical follow the leader, with most incidents shown on replay. Several key moments were missed live despite the fact they happened just outside of the live camera range. That was frustrating to watch. It might have looked good in HD, but perhaps the content should be the most important factor in selecting the images to pass along to the fans.

There were lots of other sporting events in progress, so it should be interesting to see just how many sports viewers decided to tune into this race. On the final laps, the TV coverage never mentioned oil on the track but continued to debate fuel strategy or perhaps a low tire on the Kyle Busch car.

In the end, it was widely known that the drivers had been complaining about a track-wide oil down for several laps. TV viewers were never informed. Allen Bestwick did the best he could on the final lap, but it was clear no one told him of the oil situation. After winner Marco Ambrose crossed the finish line, the ESPN director cut to his in-car camera and none of the other finishers were shown.

I'm going to take some time off and see if I can continue to be a NASCAR fan after the frustration of today's TV coverage. Happy to have your opinion of the ESPN coverage. Thanks for stopping by.

Special: A Bitter Pill To Swallow

A popular nickname for the prescription drug Adderall is "college crack." Students use it as a pick-me-up that aids in staying focused for a long period of time. That makes some sense, since the drug was originally created to help control Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD.)

Adderall comes in both capsule and pill form, as shown above. It's easy to get illegally and has become one of the most widely-abused forms of prescription medication on college campuses. Away from studying, Adderall is also a hit in bars. Used for its mood-heightening and energy-adding effects, it makes users feel euphoric and takes away reality for a while. Hardcore users crush the pills and snort them like cocaine.

On Tuesday ESPN's Marty Smith posted an interview with suspended NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger. For the first time, Allmendinger disclosed his belief that his positive drug test was triggered by Adderall. On the Wednesday before the Kentucky race, Allmendinger says he ingested one pill given to him in the early evening by an unnamed friend while out on the town.

He later stated in other interviews that he had never done drugs and did not even know what an amphetamine was when told of his violation. He said only by retracing his steps that week did he discover that the friend had given him a prescription Adderall pill that matched the the type of drug Aegis Labs advised him had caused the violation. The friend was never identified.

So, the scenario put to the media is that while feeling tired, Allmendinger took one Adderall pill early on Wednesday evening thinking it was an energy supplement. Allmendinger felt nothing strange after taking it and on Friday afternoon he was given and subsequently failed a standard NASCAR random urine test. That story is tough to swallow.

The curious thing is that something else has emerged from his recent media interviews that perhaps paints a better picture of the situation. Despite having nothing to do with taking a random pill in a bar, Allmendinger has been speaking about his mental and emotional health.

In a Wednesday interview with reporter Bob Dillner shown on SPEED's RaceHub show, Allmendinger again referenced his struggle to deal with the world around him. "Things felt like they were spinning out of control," he told Dillner. "I've struggled for six years and haven't been happy."

Allmendinger told Lee Spencer at FOX Sports that his life was a disaster. "I’ve been through hell, I’ve created my own hell and I’m going through it," he said. "I’m still trying to figure out life in general."

In his interview with Smith, Allmendinger again said he had let things in his life get out of control. "It (NASCAR) has made me lose who I am," he said. "It is the most grueling thing I have ever had in my life."

These comments don't come from a person who took a random pill in a bar. They come from someone who is in big trouble. They come from someone who is screaming for help. They come from someone who is still at risk. They come from someone who may secretly be having very bad thoughts about life.

Aegis Lab is happy. The tests were right, the results were verified. NASCAR is happy. The violator is in the program, checks-in every week and is clean. Team Penske is happy. The problem is gone and the sponsor remained. In other words, the show goes on.

It seems that lost in the shuffle is Allmendinger. Outside of being a driver, he is a human being just as vulnerable as any of us to the mental health challenges life can present. Let us hope that as part of his current recovery program NASCAR is mandating professional counseling.

If is often said that wake-up calls sometime seem to come along at the right time. Maybe the mysterious friend of a friend will ultimately serve a much higher purpose for Allmendinger than just passing along some "college crack" in a Kentucky bar. Only time will tell.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Rewind: The Need For SPEED

The rumblings of change within the FOX Sports Media Group are growing louder. The switch of FUEL TV from outdoor and extreme sports to mixed martial arts and boxing is essentially done. The deadline is now approaching for a decision by NASCAR to allow the FOX Broadcast Network to continue to carry Sprint Cup Series races after 2014 and maybe even add some additional dates to the mix.

All of this brings us back to SPEED, which is owned by FOX. Race Hub on Monday through Thursday is the only NASCAR content even on the fringe of weekday primetime. After airing for a while at 7PM ET, the network moved the series to 6PM and promised an 11PM Eastern/8PM Pacific replay. Months ago, that replay was cancelled.

That means that this season, NASCAR fans who want news content from SPEED have to either watch at 6PM, watch a replay at 7AM the next morning or record the show. Years ago, NASCAR's other major TV partner, ESPN, moved the network's NASCAR Now program to 3PM on weekdays with no regularly scheduled repeat. NASCAR said nothing.

The column that follows was originally published on June 20 subsequent to a news story on the topic from the Sports Business Daily folks in Charlotte, NC. Since that time former FOX Sports Chairman David Hill, who made the original TV deal, has left that division which he founded. Hill is working on new programming for the Nat Geo Channel and other FOX properties.

Here is a second look at the column on SPEED and the network's role in NASCAR:

A recent story in Sports Business Daily reported that FOX Sports was involved in negotiations with NASCAR about a new TV contract. The current one expires at the end of 2014. A tweet from a FOX announcer then suggested the new deal may include even more Sprint Cup Series races than the current agreement. That started the ball rolling on a discussion about another key NASCAR TV partner.

SPEED is the cable TV network that facilitates the vast majority of the NASCAR TV programming throughout the season. The network is a staple at the track on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The coverage includes practice, qualifying and NASCAR news shows. SPEED is owned and operated by the FOX Sports Media Group.

The secret to the shows from the tracks is that these programs are not actually produced by SPEED, but are handled by NASCAR's own in-house TV team. That division used to be called the NASCAR Media Group but was recently downsized and renamed NASCAR Productions. Neither FOX or SPEED have an ownership stake in NASCAR Productions.

Over the past six years, we have repeatedly wondered what was going on at SPEED. Various management teams made decisions that virtually eliminated all traces of NASCAR programming on Monday through Thursday in primetime. "Automotive lifestyle" programming was the order of the day. No other network has aired and then cancelled more of these low-brow reality-style shows than SPEED.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, other broadcast networks have quietly gone about the business of building or buying a cable TV network for sports. CBS and NBC now have national cable sports networks that allow them to partner on programming just like ABC and ESPN. The odd man out at the table is FOX.

Click here for the story from the Sports Business Journal about the Fox Sports 1 cable network. Never heard of it? You may be hearing that name once the current NASCAR TV contract expires. In theory, it would replace SPEED on the cable dial and shutter the motorsports-themed network.

Rebranding SPEED and turning it into a national cable sports network run from Los Angeles would put FOX on an even keel with NBC, CBS and ABC. Any TV contract done for the FOX broadcast network could now facilitate what is called "shoulder programming" on cable. For instance, the Preakness might be shown on NBC but all the preliminary races and coverage of the entire day would be on NBC Sports Network on cable.

The sad part of this arrangement would be the end of SPEED as we know it. The network was originally launched as SpeedVision and featured programming split between cars, boats, airplanes and motorcycles. The subsequent purchase by FOX and move to Charlotte, NC was to turn the network into a dedicated NASCAR channel. Those plans never came to fruition even after the move.

It seems ironic that the network that hosted more "shoulder programming" for NASCAR over the past decade may be done. That raises the issue of just what kind of an extension FOX is trying to negotiate for Sprint Cup Series races. The door is open for all kinds of speculation.

Keeping all that weekend NASCAR programming on the new mainstream Fox Sports 1 network would seemingly be impossible. The season runs for ten months and SPEED airs hundreds of hours of programming from the Sprint Cup Series tracks.

It would also seem that other motorsports series from Grand-Am to ARCA would be impacted. The list of programming currently on SPEED also includes Formula One, AMA Supercross and the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auctions.

One peek at the current SPEED on-air schedule should convince skeptics that the network has effectively shuttered the development of new series. From five year-old Pimp My Ride shows to endless Dumbest Stuff on Wheels re-airs, it is clear that something is going on and it is not good.

It is important to note that FOX has two additional cable networks, FUEL and FX, that could be used to distribute additional motorsports programming. FUEL is already undergoing a transition with UFC shows airing while FX has been used in the past for NASCAR programming.

While it may seem that 2014 is far away, in fact the negotiations for the new contract are far behind schedule. Since the incumbents get first shot, it is interesting to note that very little information exists about the future of TNT and ESPN in the sport. Turner just returned all the digital rights to NASCAR and effective January 1 will no longer operate the website.

ESPN is loaded with college and NFL football content after September and has been struggling to give NASCAR a fair shake down the stretch. The final ten Sprint Cup Series Chase races are the prize to that network and that may be the only real item that is pursued.

Currently no comment from the FOX folks on the NASCAR or SPEED issue. Whatever happens, it is becoming clear that there will be substantive changes in the look of NASCAR TV after 2014 and maybe much sooner than that for the network we now know as SPEED.

For those asking about the changes in progress to shows like Trackside and Wind Tunnel, this topic is for you. While SPEED's primetime line-up is still dominated by non-motorsports scripted reality shows like Hard Parts: The Bronx, the opportunity certainly exists to help the sport grow by inserting some regularly scheduled NASCAR programming down the stretch.

There was a time when SPEED jumped on the bandwagon and surrounded the build-up to the Chase and the run down the stretch to Homestead. This year, no additional regularly scheduled programs or series have been added. Apparently, NASCAR racing reality still does not top the scripted reality that SPEED has force-fed motorsports fans for years.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Day Three: How Are Your NASCAR Vital Signs?

While we normally use television and media as the theme of these columns, this week things are different. The vast majority of feedback after this weekend was not only about ESPN, but NASCAR in general.

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.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sprint Cup Series On ESPN from Watkins Glen

All eyes are on Junior as he continues to try and save the sport with yet another top five finish. NASCAR is painfully aware of what is about to happen in a couple of weeks when the NFL season starts. Football is going to lower the boom once again.

The Watkins Glen road course offers the sport an opportunity to put on a good show with some emerging storylines. Nicole Briscoe will host the pre-race show with Rusty Wallace, Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham alongside. There is no Tech Garage with Tim Brewer, which is a shame because this is one of the tracks where his explanations of changes made to the Cup cars made a lot of sense.

Allen Bestwick is having a strong season, but has been dragged down time and time again by poor production choices. The ESPN team pushes the fundamental aspects of the sport aside to trick-up the TV coverage with in-car cameras and tight shots of high-profile personalities.

Bestwick will be joined in the TV booth by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. While Petree continues to voice the same type of strong comments he has voiced for the past five seasons, Jarrett is the polite and politically correct presence who adds supportive comments but rarely steps out with bold statements.

Since Jamie Little had her baby this week, it will be Mike Massaro joining Dr. Jerry Punch, Vince Welch and Dave Burns on pit road. This group should get quite a workout as the road course strategy is completely different from the oval tracks. Look for lots of comments on the challenges to the pit crew with the cars pointing the opposite way from normal on this course.

"Back cutting" is the term used when the director leaves the leaders and moves back in the field to catch some good racing. On an oval, this is easy. On a road course, with cameras strung out around the track, this is anything but easy. Trying to keep track of several different racing groups as the move through the camera positions is tough. Keep an eye on how often this happens live vs. how often replays are used to show cars other than the leaders.

As opposed to many tracks on the circuit, Watkins Glen has the risk of serious accidents. Over the past several seasons, there have been some hard hits and this year there are some changes to the track in reaction to those incidents. Look for the TV team to point out those differences as the race goes on.

This is perhaps the final race for ESPN before the familiar "Chase hype" begins. The chaos of the road course does not lend itself to inserting endless graphics about the season point standings. Hopefully, today is a breath of fresh air for ESPN and lets things get back on track before the real grind begins.

We live blog the race on Twitter using the #TDP1 hashtag. Twitter is free, easy to use and takes only minutes to load and set-up. Happy to take your comments here, but if you want to be in the action with the teams, officials and media come on over to Twitter and have some fun.

There will be a new post up once the race is done for your comments.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Nationwide Series Gets Center Stage

The Nationwide Series takes center stage on Saturday from Watkins Glen. It is a same-day qualifying and race show. The weather is said to be clearing, but the cars did not get much practice on Friday due to rain.

It is a pretty fascinating field of 48 entries trying to make the race. Click here to read Jayski's entry list. There are all kinds of agendas coming together in this one. Fresh races, a handful of well-funded regulars and even some road course ringers round out this field.

Including the newly promoted Sam Hornish Jr., there are seven Sprint Cup Series drivers trying to make the race as well. Nationwide regulars include Danica Patrick, Austin Dillon, and Elliott Sadler. It should be both an interesting qualifying session and race.

ESPN brings the network's regulars as well in Marty Reid, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree to call the race. Nicole Briscoe hosts Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty in the infield pit studio for the pre-race show. Since Jamie Little had her baby on Thursday (it was a boy - Carter Wayne Selman), designated hitter Mike Massaro will join Dave Burns, Vince Welch and Dr. Jerry Punch on pit road. Once again just a reminder, Tim Brewer and the Tech Garage were discontinued by ESPN months ago.

Reid is having a tough time coming back to NASCAR in this limited role. He fumbled with words and had trouble selecting phrases during the last race telecast. This week's road course race should be particularly challenging depending on how many of the unfamiliar faces make the field. Reid may need a scorecard.

The nature of the racing will force ESPN to follow the field on restarts and the leaders once things settle down. The real storylines of the race have not emerged, but perhaps qualifying will start that ball rolling. Patrick did not particularly please anyone with her Indy performance and subsequent crash. As one of the most high-profile teams in the race, expect to be updated on her position on a very regular basis.

This is the time of the year right before college football comes along and once again swallows the Nationwide Series whole. Saturday is a good opportunity to put on a solid show for race fans and sponsors since the telecast will be carried on ABC. Qualifying will be on ESPN2.

We invite your opinion on the race telecast and broadcasters. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Monday: Pocono Speedway Media Release

Here is the complete Pocono Speedway release on the incidents involving NASCAR fans, weather alerts and the aftermath:

As reported yesterday, a long time member of our Pocono Raceway family, a spectator has passed away following a lightning strike. According to Monroe County Coroner Robert Allen the name of the deceased is 41 year old Moosic, Pennsylvania resident Brian Zimmerman Additionally; nine other individuals were transferred to local hospitals as a result of two separate lightning strikes.

On behalf of the entire staff here at Pocono Raceway, we are deeply saddened by yesterday’s tragic events. As mentioned, our fans are like family to us and we express our deepest condolences to the individuals and families involved, especially Mr. Zimmerman’s.

We work in conjunction with NASCAR regarding safety of fans, teams and other attendees throughout the course of our race weekends. Additionally, we are in constant communication with local and national agencies regarding weather conditions and emergency services.

At approximately 5:01 p.m. Eastern Time, the first lightning strike occurred on property inside our Grandstand Parking area, located near Gate 5A. A Pocono Raceway Grandstand Fire unit was stationed in the vicinity and witnessed the actual strike. The response was immediate as the unit reported the incident to our control tower and advised spectators were injured. CPR was started immediately to Mr. Zimmerman by a friend on the scene.

Within a matter of 3 minutes, medical personnel and additional emergency services reported on the scene and took control of treatment to individuals. EMT responders were approached by additional individuals who reported symptoms related to the lightning strike. Those affected were taken to the Raceway Medical Centers, where they were examined and transported to local area hospitals for treatment and further evaluation. A total of nine individuals were treated as a result of the initial lightning strike.

At approximately 6:35 p.m. Eastern Time, the control tower was notified of a second possible lightning strike in the vicinity near Gate 3. The individual was immediately transported to Pocono Raceway’s Infield Medical Center where they were initially treated for minor injuries before being transported to Pocono Medical Center in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania for further evaluation.

As stated last night at 7:40 p.m. Eastern Time, Mr. Zimmerman was confirmed as deceased. Additional information regarding the other nine individuals involved was not yet available.

At this point in time, the one individual that was in critical condition has now been upgraded to stable. Some have been treated and released. Others involved are pending release as early as today and all are in good spirits.

The safety of all guests to Pocono Raceway is of the utmost importance to our entire staff. This tragic event is at the forefront of all of our thoughts and prayers. We will learn from the incident and continue to implement strategies to help ensure the safety of fans and all attendees at future events at Pocono Raceway.

 We are in the process up establishing a Memorial Fund is for victims of this incident. More information will be released a soon as possible.

There are many story links to this tragedy online. The picture above is from Twitter via Charlotte Observer reporter Jim Utter. Comments may be added below.

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From Pocono (Updated: Fan Death)

Well, it's over and Jeff Gordon won. The race was delayed by rain, which put the ESPN Infield Pit Studio team on overtime. Nicole Briscoe and Ray Evernham were featured in this portion of the program. Evernham's analysis and opinions of current issues in the sport is a welcome addition to the studio team.

Junior fans were upset that ESPN was in commercial twice when he took the lead, but once again we have all seen the same commercial rotation from the three Sprint Cup TV partners for six years now. ESPN will begin the ESPN Non-Stop split-screen format for the second half of each Chase race.

Early storylines were out the window and prior to the final rain delay it was a battle of pit and fuel strategies. Pocono has again proved to be a track that has racing for a few laps after restarts and then settles into strategy. Mother Nature is the only thing that can change it, apparently.

Funny moments included the pit studio leaking from the rain and Marty Smith just getting soaked on pit road while standing in the downpour. During the post-race, the Pocono site went off the air due to lightning, but returned after a commercial break. Bestwick and Briscoe cannot be rattled and both dealt with a wide variety of situations in this telecast.

Post-race update: Here is the story from Brian De Los Santos of on the lightning stike.

A lightning strike in the parking lot at Pocono Raceway after a NASCAR race Sunday killed one person and injured nine others, racetrack officials said. It wasn't immediately clear if all 10 people were actually struck by lightning in the parking lot behind the grandstand, nor was it known whether one or multiple strikes occurred.

Two people were taken to the hospital in critical condition after the strike, racetrack officials said. President Brandon Igdalsky said one of them later died at Pocono Medical Center, but he provided no further details.

"Unfortunately, a member of our raceway family here, a fan, has passed away," he said. One person remained hospitalized in critical condition at Lehigh Valley Hospital Center, said Bob Pleban, a track spokesman. The other five people were taken to various hospitals with minor to moderate injuries, he said.

The race was called because of rain, with 98 of the 160 scheduled laps completed. The track posted warnings on its Twitter page near the end of the race encouraging fans to "seek shelter as severe lightning and heavy winds are in our area."

Thanks to ESPN the Magazine's Ryan McGeee for the above photo via Twitter. We invite your opinion on the telecast. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pocono: Rain, Speed And Storylines

Rain is in the area and NASCAR has already moved up the start time of the race. ESPN and SPEED have both mentioned in pre-race shows that weather is going to become a factor today. The track is fast, passing is at a premium and NASCAR is trying hard to create some storylines as the Chase approaches.

The full ESPN crew is on-site and ready for what could be a long day. There are no lights at Pocono, so the race will be called eventually due to darkness and run on Monday is weather stops the action before halfway. At the moment, the race is all about rain strategy as opposed to the normal fuel mileage.

We live blog the TV coverage of the race using the #TDP1 hashtag on Twitter. After the race, a new post will go up here for your post-race comments on "Race Wrap." Happy to have your comments before and during the race on this post as well. Thanks.