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.

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