Sunday, November 16, 2014

ESPN Implodes at Daytona

Update: Originally published on 2/18/07

It had all the essential ingredients. Brent Musburger was at the host position, Chris Fowler was on the set, and Brad Daugherty was on-hand to provide the commentary. There was only one problem. This was not Chapel Hill, Providence, or Georgetown. This was Daytona, and no one was playing college basketball. Apparently, this was not a problem for ESPN.

The network decided to move its successful Gameday franchise to Daytona, instead of investing in an original NASCAR-based concept like Raceday on SPEED or the Hollywood Hotel on Fox Sports. ESPN was clearly declaring that the story of Daytona this year was that ESPN had arrived, and then there might be some racing, some cheating, and a whole lot of "good old boys."

Brent Musburger in the NASCAR Fan Zone looked like Rush Limbaugh at a ACLU Meeting. There were no fans in sight, just Brent in his big hat looking as uncomfortable and out-of-place as it is possible for a human being to be. His unfamiliarity with NASCAR was obvious, and his inability to speak in racing terms made his interaction with others on the program embarrassing.

For some reason, good guy Chris Fowler found himself at Daytona surrounded by the likes of Rusty Wallace, Alan Bestwick, Jerry Punch, and Andy Petree. Fowler is a professional, but eventually couldn't stop grinning and chuckling at the antics of both the drivers being interviewed, and his temporary co-host Boris Said. One had the feeling Fowler was going to call his wife later and say "I went to the NASCAR race at Daytona!"

Seeing Alan Bestwick in a firesuit as a pit reporter for ESPN can turn the stomach of any veteran NASCAR fan. Bestwick has more NASCAR knowledge than Musburger, Fowler, Daugherty, and Punch combined. Unfortunately, he has not been on College Gameday, so he is apparently unable to be featured by the network. Only Bestwick could handle a live interview with the volatile Bobby Hamilton Jr. after an incredibly weak taped tribute piece aired by the network about his father.

While strong in her host role at SPEED, Shannon Spake was over-matched in her debut at a live reporter for ESPN. Perhaps, she will gain the technical knowledge and on-air presence associated with live network television over the course of the season. Unfortunately, ESPN did not choose to use her skills in reporting stories, but limited her to brief interviews and introducing pre-produced features.

Finally, the Brad Daugherty issue has to be addressed. While certainly a pleasant and well-spoken television presence, he has little NASCAR experience. That showed in his mis-placed comments about the "danger" of the Daytona Busch Race, and the prediction of ten caution flag periods. Daugherty has never raced a car, never been a crew chief, never been a team member, and never worked as a reporter for any type of NASCAR media. So, what is his role, and why is he there? By the end of the pre-race show, his contributions were limited to thirty second comments prior to commercial. He was not used in any pre-produced features, interviewed no one, and never interacted with any fans or drivers throughout the telecast. If ESPN is going to commit to this classy gentleman as a fulltime Busch telecast regular, they need to step up to the plate and challenge him with feature assignments and interview duties.
Rusty Wallace had a year to cut his teeth on the ESPN/ABC coverage of the little watched IndyCar Series. Other than the Indy 500, Rusty was below the radar trying to analyze the action between Dario, Helio, Marco, and Kosuke. Wallace is so relieved to be back in NASCAR that nothing phases him. He was clearly annoyed with Fowler and Daugherty's amateurish comments in the pre-race show, but corrected them and finally dashed off to the place he longed to be, the broadcast booth. Wallace, with his credibility and outspoken manner, will be ESPN's saving grace during their first season back in the NASCAR world.
ESPN enjoys "feature presentations" like the over-hyped deubut of the Busch Series at Daytona. But, reality has a way of sneaking in when the season is only halfway over, its one hundred degrees, and you are in Memphis, TN. Hopefully, by then ESPN will have realized that NASCAR fans would tune in if the race was on the Lifetime Network between weepy chick flicks. The network needs to bring the content and focus that viewers have become accustomed to, and understand that NASCAR did just fine without them for the past six years.

ESPN Faces Season Six Challenge

Update: Originally published on 7/28/12

It's that time of the year once again. FOX and TNT are done with the Sprint Cup Series and now ESPN adds that coverage to the network's ongoing Nationwide Series effort. In other words, it's crunch time.

The Worldwide Leader returned to NASCAR in 2007 and quickly found that times had changed. The on-air product was just not clicking with the fan base. As a result, there have been many changes in key on-air personalities over the years. This season, former crew chief Tim Brewer has been quietly phased out and his Tech Garage has been parked.

Starting with the Brickyard 400, it will be Allen Bestwick calling the Sprint Cup Series races with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree alongside in the TV booth. Marty Reid will step-in to call the Nationwide Series races. Once again this season Jarrett and Petree will do double-duty on both series.

Nicole Briscoe will anchor the telecasts from the infield with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. The versatile Briscoe has been co-anchoring the "NASCAR Now" news program and also working as a field reporter for ESPN since coming to the network from SPEED in 2008.

Moving Dr. Jerry Punch back to pit road from the announce booth was a solid move. It let him return to his best role as a reporter. This season Punch will be joined once again by veterans Vince Welch, Dave Burns and Jamie Little. Also working on pit road assignments will be Mike Massaro and Shannon Spake.

A welcome addition to the Brickyard 400 coverage will be Ray Evernham. Located in the infield, Evernham will provide a unique perspective that Wallace and Daugherty simply cannot. Evernham is long since removed from controversy and now can speak to a wide variety of topics as a major figure in the sport's history.

In terms of technology, ESPN's Sprint Cup Series coverage will once again use ESPN Non-Stop. That is the network's name for the split-screen commercial format shown above. During the second half of each Chase for the Championship race, the national commercials will be shown this way. That means the first seven races, starting with this weekend's coverage, will be presented in the traditional full-screen fashion.

14 of the final 17 Sprint Cup Series races will be on ESPN with the other three on ABC Saturday nights. The ESPN races will be available online through WatchESPN, but only to select ESPN cable TV subscribers. The WatchESPN service basically allows the cable network's feeds to appear on laptops, tablets and smart phones. The good news is that it makes ESPN's family of networks portable. The bad news is that not all cable companies offer it.

While ESPN did not update this information, all 14 of the ESPN Sprint Cup Series races as well as the Nationwide Series events will have the online RaceBuddy located at the website. This property is managed by Turner Sports, so ESPN chooses not to include it in any media materials about NASCAR.

Just like last season, the transition between the tech-heavy TNT and the traditional ESPN coverage should be a tad rough. Hopefully, this weekend RaceBuddy will be aided by the fact that both MRN and PRN radio networks stream every Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series race online for free. Unfortunately, those things cannot help with the biggest TV issue of the season.

The amount of TV commercials shown in Sprint Cup Series races has not changed, but the expectations of the fan base certainly have. Now informed by social media, fans are acutely aware of just how much race content and information is being swept aside during commercial breaks. The tipping point was the TNT race from Kentucky, where one-third of the racing was covered by what seemed to be the same three or four commercials.

In the ultimate irony, TNT then presented the Daytona race without any full-screen commercials and used the "Wide Open" coverage to show the real potential of modern TV production techniques. The final TNT race from Loudon quickly restored the grim reality of what ESPN will face at Indy. That is trying to integrate commercials into a race where passing is done on pit road and long green flag runs are the order of the day.

In the past, ESPN has over-hyped the Brickyard 400 by trying to make it NASCAR's version of the Indy 500. This year, instead of the Infield Pit Studio, Briscoe and her three analysts will be sitting outside on a terrace of the famed infield Pagoda for the pre-race show.

One of the Saturday pre-race features will be reported by Katie Couric, now an ABC journalist. She will speak to part-time Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick. The topics Patrick will discuss are listed as "her transition to NASCAR, how people perceive her as a person and possible sexism she might face on a daily basis at the racetrack."

The hype of 74 cameras, a Super Slo-Mo cam for pitstops and the return of the 80 mph frontstretch "bat cam" will be over after the Brickyard. What comes next is something so familiar to fans it has become a running joke. The focus on the Chase for the Championship begins right after Indy.

For the past six years, ESPN has taken out the Chase hype stick and beat fans over the head with it for the better part of four months. We have repeatedly answered that loyal fans of one driver do not make a change if their driver is not in Chase contention. Eliminating TV coverage of these drivers simply eliminates the fans of that driver as TV viewers.

Fans of Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya want to see coverage of these drivers. All three may miss the Chase. Should that change their TV coverage? If history repeats itself, all three may not be even mentioned in an entire race telecast during the Chase unless leading the race or crashing.

The fundamental problem with NASCAR's "playoff system" is that all the teams are still out there racing. While TV tries to show the race leaders and also constantly update the Chase, the sad reality is that entire teams fall off the radar. This year those teams may be from Hendrick, Ganassi and other powerhouse players in the sport.

As it has for the last several seasons, ESPN must ultimately decide to cover the race or feature the Chase. We certainly know what that choice has been in the past and welcome your comments about ESPN returning to Sprint Cup Series coverage for season six.

ESPN Closes Tech Garage

Update: Originally published on 7/17/12

Tim Brewer was the youngest crew chief ever at Bowman Gray Stadium in his native Winston-Salem, NC. He called the shots for local driver Ernie Shaw. Brewer was 14 years old. Four years later, he became one of the youngest crew chiefs in NASCAR history when he joined the Cup Series team of a popular driver named Richard Childress.

Since 2007, younger NASCAR fans know Brewer for a very different reason. He has been stationed inside the ESPN Tech Garage at both Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races carried by the network. ESPN made a larger commitment of resources to the Nationwide Series telecasts than any network before. That included Brewer's mobile garage and a full infield studio of three on-air personalities.

When coming back into the sport, then ESPN president George Bodenheimer called the Nationwide Series a diamond in the rough. Now, during season six, that diamond seems to have lost some of its luster. The network has confirmed that Brewer's recent hiatus from the Nationwide Series coverage will be permanent.

ESPN returns to Sprint Cup Series coverage in July with the Brickyard 400. The Tech Garage will also not be part of that coverage. This year the final seventeen Cup Series races will be without Brewer on TV.

"It has been a great feature of our NASCAR coverage," said a network spokesman. "We will continue to look for places to showcase the garage where appropriate."

That means that while ESPN did not sell the Tech Garage, the unit is parked. Unfortunately this also affects more ESPN team members than just Brewer. In addition to the camera crew inside the studio, the Tech Garage also had "runners" who grabbed damaged pieces of cars during the race and brought them back for Brewer to explain.

The upside of the Tech Garage was that Brewer presented information that was custom-tailored to each race. During the pre-race show, Brewer's role made a lot of sense and he could show-off the decades of knowledge he had about the sport. His timely reminders of what could go wrong often ultimately told the tale of the race.

It was once the green flag flew that Brewer's role became convoluted. At many tracks, the live action just did not lend itself to creating an opening that made time for Brewer's updates. Often, he became a presence on the air that seemed forced. There are only so many times that tight, loose and push can be explained to the same audience.

With the significant commercial load that NASCAR's TV partners carry, there was often just no natural break to insert Brewer into the coverage. Instead, forcing him in meant missing green flag racing while a technical explanation about a part failure or team change was done. It sometimes meant missing key pitstops while an update on a relatively simple topic was repeated once again.

Brewer's insertions into the live racing became a running joke, especially if there had been no accidents, engine failures or mechanical issues on the track. The producer was once again made to use Brewer who now had no choice but to once again repeat his keys to the race or a basic NASCAR topic.

Perhaps, Brewer's personality and knowledge were used best on the now defunct one-hour Monday NASCAR Now roundtable show. Brewer got feisty at the drop of a dime, never minced his words and kept the old school racing mentality that he developed in North Carolina on display. Host Allen Bestwick clearly loved it.

One truth about sports TV is that comfortable goodbyes rarely happen. Normally, parting is awkward and rarely done under circumstances chosen by the person leaving. This seems to be the case for Brewer, who quietly went on hiatus weeks ago and now will not return for ESPN's stretch run.

His on-air look was unique from his hair to his jewelry. He made no apologies for who he was and never got flustered under fire. It's too bad he never got a TV series that could show-off his knowledge about the sport to the fans and let his personality come out as well.

So, thanks to Tim Brewer. He kept a level head and sense of humor through it all and ultimately ESPN's NASCAR coverage was better off because of his presence. As they say in TV, see you down the road.

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Diamond In The Rough" Not Shining On TV

Update: Originally published on 7/12/09

It was 2006 when the details of the new NASCAR TV contract were released. In addition to the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races, ESPN was going to be televising the entire Nationwide Series beginning in 2007. It was a wonderful opportunity.

ESPN President George Bodenheimer praised the series as a diamond in the rough that would be polished by the single-minded attention of the NASCAR on ESPN production team.

Friday night, TV viewers saw just how polished the coverage of the Nationwide Series has become as ESPN televised the race from Chicagoland Speedway.

It was NASCAR TV pro Allen Bestwick who led his team of Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty through the pre-race show. Bestwick used his pit reporters to offer interviews with selected drivers and let Wallace and Daugherty crank-up the enthusiasm. Then, the race coverage began.

At Chicagoland, the field gets strung-out and it is up to the TV network to scan the track for racing and storylines. Right from the start, the production approach was a familiar one. Tight shots of selected Sprint Cup Series drivers were mixed with in-car camera shots to create yet another forgettable telecast.

Quite simply, it feels like ESPN has given up on the Nationwide Series and is patiently awaiting the network's return to the Sprint Cup telecasts. This monochromatic approach is led by Jerry Punch, who once again rattled off car numbers and driver names while leaving any attempt at excitement to analysts Andy Petree and Rusty Wallace.

These telecasts are led by the producer, who instructs the director on how to present the race and then leads the talent through the live event. Quite simply, nothing was shown on the TV screen for the vast majority of the race except camera shots of single cars. There was a lot of zooming on this telecast and none of the cameramen were zooming out.

When the pit reporters took a moment to recap the top ten, it was as if TV viewers were being introduced to teams that they had never seen before and would probably not see again. Where ESPN is concerned, the Nationwide Series is about Sprint Cup drivers and nothing more.

There is a fundamental belief that what TV viewers should be seeing at home the vast majority of the time is what the fans in the stands at the race are watching. It was highly doubtful that fans were cupping their hands around their eyes to watch either Joey Logano, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards one car at a time.

The "racing perspective" was never established and the stories of all the teams on the track were never told. As TDP has said for the past three seasons, NASCAR races are not about who is leading at lap 50 when there are hundreds of laps and several fuel runs left in the event.

Regardless of the driver names, the Nationwide Series teams all deserve TV coverage and not just a mention in passing. Good racing in the middle of the field is more interesting than single-file cars holding the top five positions. How has this not translated itself to the ESPN production team three years into this TV coverage?

Give credit to Petree and Wallace who tried with all their might to inject some excitement into the race. When they paused in their commentary, however, the emotionless monotone of Punch continually sucked any energy from the telecast. Even two hours into the race, Punch was still offering car numbers, driver names and lap counts.

How can it not have sunk in to ESPN that every Nationwide Series team running the entire race needs an opportunity to be on national television? In a multi-hour event, this should not be a problem. It seems ironic that ESPN took the time to discuss Brad Daugherty's team starting and parking, yet never took the time to show the other teams who entered to actually race.

Two moving sports information tickers, fancy graphics and snappy video bumpers leading into commercial cannot take the place of telling the story on the track. Single car camera shots more suitable to practice coverage can never relate the story of where that car is on the track and what is actually going on in the race.

Next Saturday night at 9PM, ESPN will telecast the Nationwide Series stand-alone race from Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis, MO. It is the final event before ESPN starts coverage of the Sprint Cup Series. The race is in primetime and should have a strong field.

This will be an outstanding opportunity for ESPN to change the superficial coverage of this series and work hard to get the remaining TV viewers to continue watching down the stretch.

Fundamental lessons learned from the TNT coverage this summer include keeping a broader perspective, moving through the field to find the racing and telling the stories of the event as they unfold regardless of the driver's popularity rating.

TDP welcomes your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

ESPN Pushes NASCAR To The Back Burner

Update: Originally published on 10/28/07

This is a hard topic to discuss without opening a big can of worms. Unfortunately, after this weekend's efforts by ESPN to present live NASCAR racing, this issue now must be discussed.

It also desperately needs the input of NASCAR fans speaking clearly and in concise terms about what they expected from ESPN this season, and what they have gotten.

Back in the spring, The Daly Planet ran a column suggesting that ESPN use their faltering ESPN Classic Network to handle the logistical problems that the network would encounter with NASCAR all season long. We were almost laughed off the Internet.

What we suggested was that the company use the actual ESPN Classic "channel" to create an temporary "ESPN3" Network to handle the logistical nightmares that routinely come with NASCAR.

Anyone, like me, who has been sitting in the rain at Daytona at midnight still waiting for the Pepsi 400 green flag can relate. Rain and red flags cause problems for this sport with TV, and always will.

That said, NASCAR has done a great job over the years of picking TV networks as partners that did not have other programming issues that conflicted with the races.

We all remember the days of TBS Sports, TNN, and even NBC. Fox and TNT are good examples in the current contract. We are not talking about coverage issues, but just a big "broadcast window" being made available to cover the races even if it rains or the event runs long.

Now, NASCAR finds itself involved with ESPN2 on the cable TV side and ABC on the broadcast side. Both of these networks had been functioning just fine before NASCAR came along. They were full of quality programming, and profitable.

When the NASCAR contracts were announced, TV types like myself were left scratching our heads and asking the same thing over-and-over again. Where are ESPN and ABC going to put all that programming? Over the last several weeks, it has been made very clear to NASCAR fans exactly where they are going to put it.

Very slowly, the network has pushed NASCAR to the back burner on the ESPN/ABC stove. Race fans know exactly what I am talking about. Now, with empty stands at Busch races, TV ratings for NEXTEL Cup down, and a continued distain for NASCAR on SportsCenter and other ESPN shows, one thing is very clear. The NASCAR pot on the ESPN back burner is cold, and no one seems to care.

The year began with ESPN losing Friday NASCAR practices and qualifying to live Women's Tennis in-progress. Sometimes, it was fun just to hear ESPN tennis announcer Cliff Drysdale try to segway between an Elena Dementieva backhand and trying to promote the Busch Series at Nashville. This was the first sign that things were going to be interesting for NASCAR on ESPN. There would be a lot more to come.

When ESPN2 began their live Cup coverage of practice and qualifying, veteran fans noticed that ESPN had quietly eliminated the first Cup practice. Suddenly, it was clear to NASCAR fans that this big company of multiple networks was juggling a lot of programming that had nothing to do with NASCAR.

Then, a funny thing happened. ESPN got caught with other live events like the Little League World Series in-progress at race time. Since NASCAR was going to start the races anyway, ESPN had to show them somewhere. Where did they move them?

That would be directly to ESPN Classic. Somehow, the laughter that The Daly Planet heard when we suggested this network for NASCAR programming was quickly dying down.

As the college football season got underway, things got ugly quick. Scheduled between two live games, the Busch Series was sitting in "No Man's Land." When the preceding football game ran long, there was only one network where NASCAR could go...that's right...ESPN Classic. Think about that for a moment.

The Busch Series has sometimes hopped between three ESPN networks in one single race. ESPN, ESPN2, and the good old ESPN Classic. NASCAR fans who are trying to watch the race live can sit and click the channels when told, but this is 2007 and every move from network to network kills all TiVo's, DVR's, and even the old VCR's loyally grinding away so fans can come home and watch "their" sport.

This weekend, ESPN's scheduling woes had already eliminated the practice and qualifying for the Busch Series in Memphis. This was tough, because this stand-alone race featured a wide variety of drivers trying to get in the field. Qualifying would have been outstanding at a great track for the Busch Series like Memphis.

Then, as luck would have it, overtime in college football once again pushed the Busch Series pre-race telecast to ESPN Classic. Announcer Marty Reid is an ESPN veteran, and he led a small group of viewers who were watching live and had ESPN Classic through the start of this thirty minute show. But, on this day, there was a problem.

ESPN Classic already had a live college football game scheduled in thirty minutes. This meant that a very interesting moment for both ESPN and NASCAR was finally about to occur. If the game that forced NASCAR to ESPN Classic was not over, ESPN would have to choose between college football and NASCAR. ESPN had three live in-progress programs for only two national cable networks. Can you guess who lost?

In Memphis, the caps were off, the heads were bowed, and the prayer before the race was underway. Then, suddenly on ESPN Classic...NASCAR was no more. College football on ESPN took to the air right in the middle of the NASCAR prayer. Does it get any worse than that? In the middle of the prayer and without Marty Reid saying a word.

NASCAR fans quickly grabbed their remotes and switched back to ESPN2...only to see live college football. Switching to horse racing. Ladies and gentleman, The NASCAR Busch Series had left the building...and the network...and the airwaves.

NASCAR had been told where it stood very clearly, and only a nice tackle by a young man from the Iowa Hawkeyes ended the ESPN2 game a short time later and allowed NASCAR to once again return to the air. But, the point had been made clear to race fans.

The stick-and-ball world of ESPN will never come to NASCAR. This season, the sport has lost its practice and qualifying both on the Busch and Cup sides. It has been pre-empted for news about sports, even though ESPN has its own ESPN News Network.

Races have been shifted between ESPN's cable channels like no other sport. Crucial races on ABC have been pushed off broadcast network TV to protect the ABC News. Races have been ended with no interviews, no follow-up of events, and have even left crashed cars on the track with absolutely no explanation. It has been insane.

Then, to add insult to injury, no live post-race coverage from the track is offered on ESPN News because they are caught-up in the very same college and NFL football coverage. Can you image that?

All the ESPN NASCAR people are in-place at the track, the satellite feed is up and there are stories to tell, but the lack of communication at ESPN between those who produce the events and those who produce the news is mind-boggling.

When viewers tune-in to SportsCenter, they are greeted with ill-informed anchors who often openly mock the sport itself. Last week many time champion Jeff Gordon was called "Gordo" and when a pit crew member dropped a catch-can, the anchor said with a snide grin..."whatever that is."

Let's face facts, aside from debating the quality of the coverage, the "network logistics" of this season on both ESPN and ABC in this first year of their NASCAR TV contract have been a disaster.

Rain and red flags have been a part of NASCAR for decades. These simple issues should not be throwing for a loop the company that considers and promotes itself as the "Worldwide Leader In Sports Broadcasting."

While Iowa Hawkeye fans are thanking junior defensive back Drew Gardner for a game-saving and possibly season-saving overtime tackle, NASCAR fans should be thanking him as well. Without his help, the Busch Series race in Memphis would have started with absolutely no national TV coverage from ESPN.

Just how much more of this treatment can NASCAR fans take? Apparently, we will all find out together. Next Saturday, the Busch Series is again following an Iowa Hawkeye live football game. Let's hope Mr. Gardner stays healthy.

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Day Two: The Silent Tears Of IRP

Update: REPOST FROM 7/27/12

Built in 1960 on farmland seven miles down the road from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the motorsports complex known to veteran fans as Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) is legendary. The facility contains a drag strip, a road course and a flat oval track with the famous length of .686 of a mile.

On Labor Day weekend, the NHRA holds a celebration of speed known as "The Big Go." Just before the IndyCars race at the Brickyard, the USAC midgets stage "The Night Before The 500" race. When NASCAR comes to town in late July, the Kroger Speedfest gets underway with three nights of racing.

Designed as a companion event to the Brickyard 400, Speedfest became a mandatory destination for fans. Three classes of USAC and the ARCA series raced on Thursday. The Camping World Trucks raced on Friday and the Nationwide Series was the star of the show racing on Saturday night. It truly was short-track heaven.

The grandstands were full, the drivers loved it and watching the trucks and Nationwide Series battle it out at the bull-ring made for great TV. It was the perfect lead-in to the Brickyard 400 and the spectacle of the Sprint Cup Series teams racing on a track made famous by the IndyCars.

One year ago,'s open-wheel reporter John Oreovicz reported news of a change in plans. Click here to read his story. In order to deal with sluggish ticket sales at the Brickyard, NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) were expanding the racing being offered on that weekend.

Two of NASCAR's in-house properties, the Rolex Grand-Am and Nationwide Series, would start racing on the Brickyard 400 weekend at the big track. In order to make sure the fans focused on IMS, NASCAR also cancelled the Camping World Truck Series race that weekend. Just like that, it was over for IRP.

"It was a complete shock and obviously we're pretty disappointed by it," IRP general manager Wes Collier told Oreovicz. "This was pretty much NASCAR's decision and there wasn't a thing we could do about it. We were willing to do whatever it took to keep the event here. But it was a business decision between NASCAR and IMS that left us on the outside looking in."

The new pitch for the Brickyard 400 weekend is three races for fans to see. The Grand-Am cars race on the infield road course Friday, the Nationwide Series on Saturday and the Sprint Cup Series on Sunday. What is left of Speedfest at IRP is the ARCA series and three classes of USAC open-wheelers.

The current title sponsor at IRP is Lucas Oil. Company founder Forrest Lucas is not happy about the change. "They're going to give up a really good race where the fans love the racing," Lucas told "It's good television and the fans can watch it. There are some races that are better to watch on a short track. They might make that weekend bigger to have all three classes there, but I can't see 'em having any fans."

"I hate to see it move," ESPN NASCAR analyst Dale Jarrett told Oreovicz. "Races like that one that are separate from Cup races helped give the series its own identity and I think they need more of those." There are currently seven Sprint Cup Series drivers who will cross-over and race on Saturday at the Brickyard.

NASCAR's goal is to elevate the relocated Nationwide Series race to high-profile status. The race gets ESPN exposure on Saturday with the network using all the special TV equipment brought in for the Sunday event. It's also important for ESPN to pull-out all the stops for another reason.

During the Nationwide Series pre-race show, ABC journalist Katie Couric will interview Danica Patrick in a pre-produced feature as the centerpiece of the program. The ability to promote a media star like Patrick on a big stage is what ESPN does best. The ultimate script for NASCAR, IMS and ESPN would be for Patrick to finally get her Indy win in the inaugural Nationwide Series race at the Brickyard.

Meanwhile, over at the small track the beat goes on. The loss of the two NASCAR races will not sink the facility. In fact, Lucas Oil is staying on as title sponsor and there will be over one hundred events on the calendar this year alone.

Change is certainly a constant in life, but after 30 years of NASCAR racing with more than 15 in support of the Brickyard 400, the silent tears of IRP are easy to understand.

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

Friday, June 27, 2014

Flashback: The Most Painful Dale Junior Interview In TV History

Update 6/27/14: This column was originally published in July of 2007. Just giving our friends at ESPN Motorsports a little trip down memory lane. NASCAR Now has been cancelled after airing at 2am for this season. The network cannot run away from NASCAR fast enough after boasting of its return in 2007. Enjoy a little Junior flashback.

Original column: Dale Earnhardt Junior looked like he was having a long day. He sat patiently in his Sharpie shirt in front of a Sharpie background on what was clearly a Sharpie "satellite media tour." This is the process by which a driver sits in one location and various media outlets interview him while he wears the sponsor's shirt and shows the sponsor logo on TV.

TV folks get to ask questions only if they also agree to allow the driver to mention the sponsor's own agenda, which usually consists of a special promotion. To say the least, its usually not a lot of fun for the driver. Tuesday, it was almost unbearable.

Earlier this season, Sharpie and Junior inked an endorsement deal that resulted in Sharpie releasing a customized Dale Junior black Sharpie aimed at NASCAR fans. They also appear as a sponsor on his NEXTEL Cup car in Bristol, TN. Part of this deal is the fact that Junior must do "appearances" for Sharpie.

Tuesday evening, ESPN's NASCAR Now teased a "feature interview" with Junior. When he finally appeared, show host Erik Kuselias never said where Junior was located, he just kind of "appeared." Viewers immediately noticed the fact that the Budweiser logo and the color red were missing from his attire.

Instead, he wore a Sharpie shirt and appeared in front of a Sharpie background in his mysterious "studio" location. It was pretty easy to tell, something Sharpie was going to be promoted.

Instead of being up-front with viewers and explaining this agenda, NASCAR Now tried to "sell" the fact that this was a "feature interview" with Junior. They somehow believed fans did not see the Sharpie shirt, or the wall with Sharpie logos all over it.

The number one problem for ESPN is that NASCAR fans have a clue. They knew something was up from the start, and the look on Junior's face really gave it away. It was something between being at the dentist and standing in line at the Motor Vehicle Department. This fun-loving and easy-going guy was having absolutely no fun, and it was very clear that the going...was not easy.

The person being interviewed can hear the "network feed" in their earpiece, and to lead into Junior, NASCAR Now ran an embarrassing video package on his decline this season, his possible failure to make the chase, and his leaving DEI. What a nice way to make a person feel welcome to NASCAR Now.

Kuselias introduced Junior as "NASCAR's most popular driver," and then without allowing him to even say hello just laid into him with one of the most bizarre NASCAR questions on network TV in quite some time. Kuselias asked Junior about Indy "if you don't have the engine trouble, could you have won that race?"

After a brief grimace, Junior politely responded "there's no telling, we were in the top five, so we had a shot at it." Wouldn't we all like to know what was actually running through Junior's mind? Either he was thinking that ESPN has no clue to racing or he was holding himself back from the Geico Caveman answer...."what?"

Next up, Kuselias fired off "how confident are you that the eight is going to make The Chase?" What is the only answer for any driver on any team working hard to do their best every race? Junior said "very confident...we are just having bad luck" Patiently, Junior pointed out that the team was running well in the races they did not finish. This was a point omitted by the host.

"How is the fact that you are moving-on impacted the team this season?" was a follow-up from Kuselias. Again, what is the answer when you are talking to the person who is leaving? Should he say everything is a mess and I am to blame? Junior replied that this change was motivation for the DEI gang to show it could send him out on a high note and also prove that they are a top-notch professional team.

As if things could not get any stranger, Kuselias referenced the DEI/Ginn merger, and actually asked Junior that now that Mark Martin is his team mate, "what do you guys talk about?" His assumption was that since Junior and Mark were on different teams, they routinely did not speak to each other.

Veteran NASCAR fans might have had to be helped-up off the floor, as Junior and his late father had known, and grown-up with Mark and his family for over twenty years. "It would be kind of boring I think" said Junior. He was then nice enough to reference for Kuselias his experience with Mark in the Busch Series and the help he received coming up through the ranks.

Kuselias did not get it. These two guys had known each other for a long time. They have already talked about life and racing for many years with each other. In his unrelenting manner, Kuselias asked "what specific things would you focus in on with Mark Martin?" He was referring to "getting info" from Martin before leaving DEI, and presumably, not talking to Martin again as he would no longer be a team mate. How priceless is that question?

Junior took a very deep breath. Then another. "That's kind of a tough situation there" he said about the question. Then, a funny thing happened. As we all have at some time in our life...Junior just made something up. It was about learning Martin's "set-ups" for his cars. If you were a fan, it was a hilarious answer. A guy going to Hendrick needs help with "set-ups." The message could not be sent any clearer. But, if you were ESPN, this was great information.

Then, Junior was gone. No thank you or sign-off, just Kuselias saying that Junior would be back later in the show "to talk more about the news involving you." Does that make any sense? Well, of course it does. Junior had to get in his promo for Sharpie, and after taping the entire interview, NASCAR Now just sliced that part off and kept it for the end of the show.

This way, they could pretend that this had been a "feature interview" with NASCAR Now, and not just another TV interview on the Sharpie "satellite media tour." How low can this bunch get?

Sure enough, Junior popped-up at the end of the show again. Kuselias asked about the merger of the JR Motorsports and the Hendrick Busch teams. Junior tried to say that if he is writing a two million dollar check, and Hendrick is writing a two million dollar check for his own team, then putting them together will be cost effective.

Unfortunately, after Junior finished saying "two million dollars," Erik Kuselias started to laugh. He thought Junior was joking. Patiently, Junior finished his answer. Once again, the lack of any racing knowledge on the part of Erik Kuselias was revealed to the national viewing audience. Junior was not joking, it was a two million dollar expense.

Finally, Kuselias said that people at ESPN were showing him their "8" tattoos and asking him if Junior was going to "keep his number." After asking him if he had any news on that, Junior quietly replied "Not really, we don't have any. That's not something that I have any influence on." That is bad news. Apparently, all those Connecticut TV executives with Junior tats will have to wait a little while longer before booking an appointment for "new ink."

Junior then looked relieved when the Sharpie "drive you back to school" initiative was brought-up as ESPN's time wound down. Junior carefully explained this promotion for education and it was, in fact, a great idea. Then, without mentioning Erik's name, Junior was gone.

Several times this year, we have seen drivers on "media tours" appear on NASCAR Now wearing specific sponsor gear, and sitting in an unknown location surrounded by sponsor logos. Each time NASCAR Now has tried to make it appear that the driver was just an interview, when in fact it was a paid media appearance. The trade-off for the "mandatory sponsor TV mention" is that the driver has to answer a couple of questions. This was the case with Junior and Sharpie.

The funny thing is, fans like to hear from Junior. If ESPN had just said where he was, and what he was doing, there would have been no problem. Everyone understands sponsorship, and the cause was a good one. It would have been nice if ESPN had pitched-in and promoted this on their own NASCAR website.

ESPN is now the network covering the NEXTEL Cup Series for the rest of the year. What they seek from fans and viewers is a return to the credibility they had back in the 1980's and 90's. Deception like this on their daily NASCAR show is not going to help that cause. Things need to be explained to viewers for what they really are.

For this program, and the network, to gain any kind of momentum as the NASCAR season hits its peak, there has to be a committment to accountability and honesty. And just maybe, a little less nervous laughter.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

2014 Flashback: NASCAR Now: A Disaster in Bristol

Update 6/24/14: NASCAR Now has been cancelled by ESPN. It has been airing at 2AM or later since ESPN made clear its intentions to run from the sport. Here are some flashback articles from the time ESPN jumped back in with an agenda to save NASCAR and build the sport to new heights. There will be a new flashback column each day just to help with the trip down memory lane.

Original Post from March of 2007: ESPN2's NASCAR Now showed up on Wednesday with a new host. Original host Erik Kuselias was never even mentioned on the program. Doug Banks quickly confirmed the problems in Bristol, CT with his attempt at hosting this show. Kuselias had been the face of this series since Daytona. Why was this change made and where was he? This is a high-profile national sports show, and the viewers deserved an explanation.

Banks was joined by NASCAR "Insider" Boris Said, who is a Connecticut native and a sports car racer. Boris is a NASCAR road course "ringer" who has never been a regular in any NASCAR series, and never developed the level of NASCAR knowledge that should allow him to comment on this sport. Where was Stacy Compton? Tim Brewer? Marty Smith? Alan Bestwick? Rusty Wallace? Andy Petree?

Banks then introduced Michael Waltrip as "the driver" of the 55 car. In fact, Michael is the owner of MWR Motorsports, and the face of Toyota's NASCAR effort in the US. Banks then asked him, from a prepared script, "What is your team going to do to make sure that you make the race this weekend in Atlanta?" Waltrip's answer, "Well, there is nothing you can do to make sure you are going to make it." Mr. Banks question was mind-bending. And it only got worse.

Banks then welcomed series regular Angelique Chengelis by mis-pronouncing her name. He then slowly read prepared questions from a script for Chengelis, who answered them and was immediately asked another scripted question. For ESPN, this was beyond amateur. After several answers that contained no news content, Chengelis disappeared just as awkwardly as she had popped-up.

Banks next led into a taped feature about Jon Wood's first NEXTEL Cup race that had all the bells and whistles ESPN's field production crew is famous for. And then, a classic piece of sports television history unfolded. Jon Wood and his father Eddie appeared live on-camera side-by-side. Throughout the entire disjointed interview, Jon Wood displayed all the mannerisms of a drug addict in need of his medication. He twitched, scratched, made bizarre faces, rocked back and forth, and could not put two thoughts together. Meanwhile, his father beside him barely acknowledged his presence, and seemed to be disappointed in his child as both a driver and a human being. If there was ever a moment where NASCAR should consider a drug test, this was it. For those us of with experience in drug and alcohol addictions, it was frightening.

Finally, this disaster had to come to an end. Banks signed off. There was absolutely no mention of the Busch Race in Atlanta. ESPN spent millions to acquire it, and will spend hundreds of thousands to produce and show it live. No mention of the Truck Race in Atlanta, which SPEED will televise and is often the best Truck race of the year. There was no discussion of anything that remotely resembled the NASCAR news being carried on the racing websites, publications, or radio.

I have had my issues with parts of this series since its inception, but there have always been efforts to right the ship. The Monday show was excellent, and the potential was there to surround the Connecticut-based host with NASCAR experts who could help to restore the network's credibility. Watching this edition of NASCAR Now was mind-boggling. A host who did not know anything about NASCAR, an expert who is not an expert, an interview with a freaked-out twitching problem child, and a question to Michael Waltrip that left him shaking his head. ESPN has a problem, and its serious. When NASCAR figures it out and calls the network, things are just going to go from bad to worse. And frankly, I just don't see how they can be much worse.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Repost From 2013: Why SportsCenter Hates NASCAR

Take a good look at the picture above. You can click directly on it to see it full-size. On the right in the tie is a young Bob Ley. The man standing in the middle of the picture with the glasses is Stephen Bogart. He looks to be producing the show being prepared and yes, he is Humphrey and Lauren's boy. On the left seated and also in a tie is "Sweet Lou" Palmer.

On the desk to the right is a stack of 3/4 inch video cassette tapes. On the bench under the windows are the two record/play machines wired to two TV sets. Those papers hanging on the wall to the left are called wire copy. The AP and UPI sports stories look to have been neatly assembled by Production Assistant Steve Dirks, the man in the blue jeans.

Those things on the desk are called typewriters. On those single line telephones, you had to dial "9" to get an outside line. There is trash on the floor, boxes crammed under desks and Hank Aaron swatting the big one out on the wall.

The room is full of dedicated people making little money who believed in creating something new. The year is 1979. That is the ESPN newsroom.

This is SportsCenter.

The concept was simple. Take a look at what was going on in sports that day. Then filter out the news items and edit the videotape highlights. Run to the studio and put on a show giving sports fans nationwide a rundown on what happened.

SportsCenter was fun, hectic, irreverent and loved by cable TV viewers for all those reasons. Ultimately, it was the programming franchise that built ESPN. It added words to our vocabularies and faces to the national television landscape.

Now, over thirty years later, SportsCenter is seen on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. There is often over twenty hours of SportsCenter content spread between these networks daily. The early evening show is from Bristol, CT. The late show is from the ESPN studios in Los Angeles, CA. The daytime show is now done live and features the power duo of Hannah Storm and Kevin Negandhi.

Along the way, the franchise has changed. ESPN has gone from reporting the stories to becoming part of them. No longer is ESPN's news operation an interested observer with an accurate report. The thrust of SportsCenter is now to use the power of the ESPN family of television networks to feature and promote the topics that tie into ESPN's own programming.

When NASCAR and ESPN said a bitter goodbye in 2001, the reality of SportsCenter and credibility was immediately driven home. In the blink of an eye, NASCAR went from a SportsCenter staple to a memory. Angry that NASCAR had struck a deal without ESPN involved in the top series, this major professional sport was relegated to barely a mention.

The current crop of SportsCenter management remember this all too well. They actively participated in trying to wipe NASCAR off the map. It might have been a choice ESPN tries to defend as related to track access, but in fact it was a purposeful campaign to make NASCAR pay for leaving the mothership.

Well, a funny thing happened to that plan. NASCAR thrived on FOX, TNT and NBC. Despite the smear campaign, guess who came right back to the bargaining table for the next NASCAR TV contract? ESPN was first in line with cash in hand. ESPN came away with the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races and the entire Nationwide Series.

Now, these same SportsCenter types who had openly mocked NASCAR for years had themselves a little problem. Not only was NASCAR returning to the mothership, but ESPN had the Chase for the Championship for years. At the height of the college and pro football seasons, SportsCenter now had to report on NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

In came familiar names like Marty Smith, David Newton and Ryan McGee. Bolstered by others who lived outside of New England, SportsCenter grudgingly tried to integrate NASCAR content back into the news franchise that started it all. The result has been a complete, miserable failure.

Now five years into the current NASCAR TV contract, the open contempt and outright hatred of NASCAR by SportsCenter anchors is not only tolerated, it is encouraged.

It was SportsCenter anchor John Anderson who came on immediately after the Nationwide Series race from Chicagoland Speedway. That same day the Camping World Trucks had raced in Kansas and Richard Childress had gotten into a little dust-up with Kyle Busch after the race.

Anderson was annoyed from the start that NASCAR lead SportsCenter. He started by calling the highlights of the Nationwide Series race complete with all the same mistakes made live by announcer Marty Reid. It was pathetic and it was painful, but Anderson was just getting warmed-up.

Marty Smith is a patient man. After five years of dealing endlessly with SportsCenter talent who know nothing about NASCAR and could care less, Smith's "phoner" into the show carefully explained the Busch and Childress history and NASCAR's perspective on boys having at it.

Anderson then told Smith he was appalled that there could be a fight after a race. He was amazed that an owner would possibly act that way. He was even more confused as to how two professional drivers like Carl Edwards and Justin Allgaier could possibly run out of gas on the track? Don't they get that for free?

Once Anderson's four painful minutes of NASCAR highlights and speaking with Smith were over, his smug look of disgust turned into a grin. "Now...we have some baseball!!" he screamed with delight. In the SportsCenter world, things were back to normal.

The bottom line is that SportsCenter hates NASCAR because the ESPN management allows it. Any interruption of the flow of the stick-and-ball seasons by racing will be met with the arrogance we now know as a trademark of the group that promotes itself as the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

It's always interesting to look at how something got started and where it is today. As someone once said, it all seemed so simple back then.

We invite your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Repost from July of 2008: Thinking of Petty Family This Weekend

It will be ESPN's Shannon Spake who will anchor a one hour NASCAR Now special from Petty Enterprises in Mooresville, NC on Tuesday at 6PM on ESPN2. She will be on-hand with Richard Petty and others to celebrate his fifty year anniversary in the sport.

Just like the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., anyone who has been around NASCAR for a good while has some Richard Petty stories. His Southern charm, big smile and natural way with all types of people has carved a legacy which will last forever.

Petty was a casual friend to all of the ESPN crew members back in the 1980's when that network first started covering the sport. As a TV person from Connecticut in my 20's, I felt as out-of-place at a NASCAR track as was humanly possible. Petty was kind and nice to all of us as we tried to bring the sport to a new audience...cable TV. He could make you smile on a sweltering hot day in North Wilkesboro and that was no easy task.

Later in my career, we originated This Week in NASCAR with Eli Gold from the Petty Museum in Level Cross, NC. We were in a spot as to how to feed the TV crew until Lynda Petty and her church friends solved the problem with homemade food. We had our own covered-dish church social amid the trophies and I discovered pecan pie and the Petty hospitality.

Petty's contributions to the sport in terms of being an ambassador are unmatched. He unlocked new markets and won-over new fans with his aggressive driving and his self-effacing manner. That cowboy hat and smile are known well beyond the American borders.

Spake has a good opportunity to explore the past for fans who do not remember the full-size cars or the fact that NASCAR actually ran convertibles. That is the series where Petty started, and hopefully the show will have some additional photos and footage for fans.

This should be a good opportunity to record a TV program that may have a lasting memory once Petty retires as an owner and gets back to the piece and quiet of Level Cross. ESPN should be commended for allocating time and resources to participate in a well-deserved anniversary celebration.

I would invite you to add any memories or thoughts you may have about Richard Petty for the ESPN crew producing this show or just for other Daly Planet readers. Click on any of the pictures to see them full-size.

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