Saturday, March 31, 2007

Readers: A Response To Your Anger Over Eric Medlen's Passing

First of all, thank you for taking the time to express to me your frustration and anger with the media coverage of the untimely passing of Eric Medlen. I am an avid fan of the NHRA, and have been for over thirty years. It has also been my pleasure to have been involved with the NHRA in many capacities during my television career. They are truly a wonderful group of people.

The sentiments expressed to me about television's inability to cover, explain, and then follow-up on Eric's death are also shared by me. As we know, there is currently a significant credibility gap between the TV groups producing the events in the field, and the studio production staffs at the cable network news shows.

Even though ESPN hosts the NHRA coverage, and does an outstanding job, that does not translate to a base of racing knowledge back in Bristol, CT. Even though SPEED dedicates an hour to The SPEED Report, it does not increase the understanding or racing knowledge of the current hosts. Even though CNN covers the world, that does not allow them to understand how personal an incident like this becomes to those of us who live through racing...and how we yearn to know...why?

In my early days, we lost racers through a wide variety of problems that have been addressed, and fixed, over the years. Today, we are much more deeply upset when someone we value loses their life in racing. We all believe that these things are now, somehow, prevented from happening by our modern technology.

In time, the NHRA will release the information about how and why a normal testing run at an approved and safe facility can turn so fast. In the meantime, we can only continue to provide our support through the internet racing sites and There are several moving video tributes created by fans available on by typing Eric Medlen in the search function.

At this time, I am going to continue to limit the content of this site to NASCAR racing for the season. I greatly appreciate the fact that so many concerned people turned to The Daly Planet after this situation occurred. Perhaps, in the future, we will expand this media project to include TV coverage of other forms of racing. In the meantime, thank you again for taking the time to email us, and I join all of you in mourning this loss of a fine young man.

Fox Sports: Rick Allen Steps-Up To The Plate

NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series was racing this Saturday at Martinsville, and the NCTS announcing team from SPEED Channel got an opportunity to move up to the major leagues. The race was telecast live on Fox Sports, who allowed SPEED's Rick Allen to call the action and Phil Parsons to provide the color. Added to the mix was Darrell Waltrip in the booth as an analyst, and Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond downstairs in the Hollywood Hotel.

This interesting mix provided some unexpected synergy that energized both the SPEED and Fox Sports teams. As mentioned previously by The Daly Planet, Phil Parsons is one of the most underrated color announcers in NASCAR. He blended easily with the Fox pros and felt confident in swapping opinions with Waltrip and Hammond.

Rick Allen and Chris Myers are very similar in their style and delivery. Not perhaps the two most exciting announcers in sports, they are low-key and possess a dry sense of humor. When Allen is working alone, he sometimes seems like a fish out-of-water. With Myers along for the ride, it helped Allen to loosen up and put in a solid performance on national broadcast television.

It certainly seemed that Hammond and Waltrip loved this race. There was lots of fun while the trucks slugged it out, and put on the usual good short-track show. The SPEED Channel production crew showed the Fox Sports audience that SPEED puts on a solid telecast, and handles things a in a slightly more relaxed manner than the Fox NEXTEL Cup shows. Lots of low angles, in-truck cameras, and track trivia made first-time NCTS viewers comfortable with both the series and the track.

As the race wound down, Parsons stepped-up to the plate and assumed control of the facts in the race, including the race strategy and issues. Waltrip and Hammond enjoyed Parsons, and one had the feeling that there was real respect in the air where Parsons was concerned. Normally, Parsons is joined on SPEED by Michael Waltrip, who speaks over top of Phil and is always on his own individual agenda. This change was a positive one for SPEED, Fox Sports, and NASCAR.

There is always one "odd man out" in this type of relationship, and this time it was Krista Voda. This season, Voda has hosted an outstanding pre-race show that has energized the NCTS and been a fan favorite. For this race, Fox Sports and SPEED chose to continue to use Chris Myers as the "infield" host. In retrospect, it certainly might have been an interesting moment for all concerned to put Voda in charge of the Hollywood Hotel for this event. She has already proven her worth as a studio host, a pit reporter, and now a top-notch event host. Many of us thought she would have been a natural for ESPN's NASCAR Now, but for the time being we can still enjoy her talents when the NCTS pre-race show returns on SPEED.

For a race fan, Martinsville Speedway is a treat with its excellent facilities, good food, and southern hospitality. Today, the speedway was also a treat for those fans watching on television.

Friday, March 30, 2007

ESPN: "NASCAR Now" Takes A Break...To Play Golf

The Daly Planet has documented the challenges facing ESPN and its new commitment to NASCAR in 2007. Sometimes, the coverage has reflected the hard work and dedication that ESPN's NASCAR racing crew has put into creating the television package for the Busch Series from scratch. Solid performers in the booth, on pit road, and in the production truck have allowed ESPN to return to covering racing action without a hitch. That's been a true success story.

In addition to the on-track coverage, ESPN has asked fans to watch NASCAR Now, the daily studio program that ESPN2 uses to cover the entire sport. While NASCAR Now has brought solid professionals in to cover the news and act as analysts, the remaining elements of this series are having a tough time. The Daly Planet has followed the struggle of the two studio hosts and the NASCAR Now production team, who are out-of-sync with the sport.

Past columns have documented the simple issues of credibility and versatility that ESPN must soon improve. NASCAR fans are smart, very smart. They can smell-a-rat a mile away and have flooded The Daly Planet email box with their complaints about this program. Hopefully, this weekend in Martinsville would allow ESPN to put their best foot forward as the sport comes to this critical race. There are many key stories in progress to report.

Much to my surprise, my DVR recorded LPGA golf on Thursday instead of NASCAR Now. The day before qualifying at Martinsville, there was no NASCAR Now for the eastern and central time zones. Now, on Friday, I find that NASCAR Now has gone missing once again. A quick check of the schedule finds it hiding at 1 AM Eastern Time...on Saturday. The ESPN2 Programming Department cancelled the 6:30 PM NASCAR Now on both Thursday and Friday for the early rounds of a woman's golf tournament. Um...what just happened?

Today, SPEED Channel aired almost eight hours of live NASCAR coverage from Martinsville. All kinds of things happened. Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers failed to make the race. Denny Hamlin got the pole in a COT. Greg Biffle officially skated on his low car from Bristol. The COT carbon monoxide and other design problems were discussed by NASCAR. The Trucks got ready for qualifying and their race Saturday. Its a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing weekend...and nothing less.

This situation leads to one simple question. Why would ESPN step away from their commitment to a sport on which they have spent millions of dollars acquiring rights? The answer is a simple one. There is no Busch Series race this weekend. ESPN has no "vested interest" in NASCAR this week, because they are "not involved." No ESPN Busch race, no problem. We will be happy to move NASCAR Now and show women's golf...because the LPGA pays for the air time.

Is NASCAR Now driven by ESPN's own agenda? This is the case with the formerly outstanding program series College Gameday. Suddenly, Chris Fowler and company started previewing ESPN/ABC games and excluding others, regardless of that team's ranking or the significance of the game. This change in direction came from the highest levels of the company. So, let's ponder the issue staring us in the face. If there is no Busch race, should ESPN consider Martinsville as a "less important" weekend? When push comes to shove, is it truly all about whether or not ESPN is involved that weekend?"

If this troubles you, it should. We have been asked to accept NASCAR Now as a full-time commitment by ESPN to NASCAR news. Now, on one of the key weekends of the year, the show is moved for golf as if it is an infomercial. The best part is, over on ESPN they covered no NASCAR stories in a ninety minute SportsCenter, and never crawled any NASCAR info on the bottom of the screen. One cannot help but get the feeling watching the drooling anticipation of baseball and the Final Four that ESPN is really having some serious issues with fitting NASCAR into their own agenda. Let me say those words again...fitting NASCAR into their own agenda. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to find out...who is really driving this bus?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

NASCAR Now: ESPN Without A Parachute

Several times over the last few weeks, the NASCAR Now set has been vacant except for the host. Today, Doug Banks found himself in that position with a lot of racing news and information to pass along. Unfortunately, Mr. Banks is a talented hip-hop "urban DJ" with a national radio show...but not one ounce of NASCAR experience. It seems strange then, that ESPN would put him in the position of shouldering the burden of their flagship NASCAR show all alone.

Logic aside, Banks took the challenge and waded into a program deep in tech talk and racing issues. ESPN has moved to an entirely scripted program in order to help Banks, and it really takes the life out of a show like this. Its one thing if Banks is just reading a script over some highlight video, but interviews are just brutal. And who should show up as the first interview but Jimmy Johnson.

Unfortunately, Banks had to read each and every question word-for-word to Johnson in a painful display of NASCAR Now's credibility gap. When Banks was forced off the script by Johnson, he could not even begin to remember how to "talk NASCAR." This interview had all the excitement of a legal deposition.

Then, the legendary Ricky Carmichael stopped by to check-in after his recent stock car debut. Mark Martin is helping Carmichael develop his oval track skills, and Ricky's debut was a little less than stellar. It appeared that not only did host Doug Banks not know exactly what happened in the race, he also did not know the magnitude of Ricky's motorcycle career. About halfway through the interview, Carmichael began "helping" Banks understand that he was just a little more than a good "dirt bike rider." "I've been a racer since I was five...I won the (national) championship ten years in a row." It didn't help. Finally, as if NASCAR Now could not dig itself any deeper, Banks asked Carmichael about the fact that he and his wife just had twins. "Getting any sleep?" said Banks. To which Carmichael replied, the twins were born a couple of weeks early and they are still in the hospital. Tasteless and ill-informed on ESPN's part.

Finally, Marty Smith and Terry Blount appeared on video to respond to several scripted questions by Banks about news items. Even during this discussion, which could not be totally scripted, Banks was lost. He does not know the NASCAR officials and racing names the reporters use, and quickly exits the interviews as soon as if relieved.

ESPN has the perfect right to craft this program series anyway they want. They have the perfect right to use any on-air talent they choose, and feature any content they select. Several ESPN executives have been critical of my columns, because I am not sensitive to the "learning curve" that ESPN2 is going through. As a former ten year ESPN employee...I appreciate the spin, but I am not buying it. Not for one long network second.

ESPN and ABC had plenty of time to ramp-up and rehearse this effort long before they unleashed Erik Kuselias and Doug Banks as the new faces of NASCAR to the nation. Now, they are behind the 8-ball and having no luck in digging themselves out. Its time for a change. This is only the tip of the NASCAR iceberg. By the time July rolls around, there will be three or four times the information and news stories going on than there are now.

NASCAR itself cannot be pleased with this freshman effort from their brand new major TV partner. This is their face ESPN is putting forward, and the sport is taking it right on the chin. ESPN's coverage of the racing is great, and the at-track news programs have been professional and interesting. What happened in the studio? Wrong people? Wrong location? We all have situations in our lives that do not work out the first time. In order to make them work, we change them. Let me say that order to make them work, we change them.

ESPN2 & SPEED: NASCAR TV Needs A Face-Lift

Please don't let this headline leave you scratching your head. While it is true that NASCAR events have practice, qualifying, and racing covered live, one other thing is also true. ESPN2 and SPEED Channel are struggling with the Monday through Friday balance of programming for the sport.

On Mondays, the racing world catches its collective breath and takes a look back at a weekend of on-track activity. SPEED used to offer a multi-hour block on Monday Nights anchored by Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing. Now, all of the shows other than INCR are gone. The day after a NASCAR weekend, fans get one hour of tired highlights with three tired drivers...and that's it.

ESPN2 comes with NASCAR Now, a thirty minute studio show based at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, CT. From the beginning, this show has disappointed. In my conversations and emails with reporters, columnists, and fans the same sentiment is echoed over-and-over again. They just don't get it.

There are two central elements that have been missing from both ESPN and SPEED's Monday through Friday NASCAR TV coverage. The first is follow-up. NASCAR leaves a mountain of stories on the table as the cars cross the finish line of each race. This is the reason The Daly Planet has been so vocal about the TV networks showing the finish of all drivers. The story of this sport is not the winner of the race, and both SPEED and ESPN have forgotten that. It is time to follow-up on all the "stories" of the race, throughout the field.

The second missing element is the fans. What happened to their voice? SPEED Channel shows fans on camera briefly, but only allows selected calls on one hour of WindTunnel each week. ESPN avoids fans like the plague, and started the season with Brent Musburger in the "Fan Zone" at Daytona...with the fans standing a safe distance away behind a rope. Nice touch.

This sport is a dialogue, and the conversation begins at the end of each race. Tony Stewart, Matt Yocum, and all the other radio show hosts are laughing out loud at SPEED and ESPN. How is it possible that NASCAR radio is alive and well during the week and NASCAR TV is a wasteland? Even as SPEED continues to bring us more "lifestyle" programming like Pinks, Unique Whips, and SuperBikes, NASCAR radio is blazing ahead at full speed. The recently added "SPEED Road Tour Challenge" is no more than a poorly done MTV clone. SPEED has created and then cancelled over ten NASCAR shows in the last several years. Remember NASCAR Nation with Leanne Tweeden?

There are thousands of NASCAR-themed websites like this one, thousands of NASCAR video clips on, and over one hundred hours of NASCAR-themed radio delivered during the weekdays. How are the two NASCAR "partner" cable TV networks missing the boat? Here are some suggestions from the tons of email delivered to The Daly Planet.

Give Dave Despain a break, move him off INCR and let him host a two hour Monday Night WindTunnel that is strictly NASCAR-themed. Place it after Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing, so that the highlights of all two or three races over the weekend would already be done. Despain is great at letting fans talk, but the Sunday WindTunnel is a swirl of motorsports, and NASCAR is not the theme. SPEED needs to understand that the fans are already interacting with broadcast and satellite radio, posting to websites, and putting their videos on the net. All of these elements should be incorporated into this show, and it should embrace the new technologies that both SPEED and NASCAR Images have been avoiding. Its called a multi-media platform.

On the ESPN side, there is no doubt that NASCAR Now needs to move to the Mooresville, NC area. Just as ESPN originally discovered with RPM2Nite, there is no credibility to using Bristol, CT staffers for a sport that lives in one geographic area of the country...just go there. With ESPN making a major multi-year commitment to the sport, its time to extend that commitment into a studio presence in the area. Life would be a lot easier for NASCAR Now if drivers could literally just "stop by" for an interview. In addition, the synergy of a Mooresville headquarters would spread out through the other ESPN networks and technology applications like The availability of information and content would be exactly what NASCAR Now needs to right itself.

I know its hard to comprehend, but ESPN is in trouble. NASCAR could be one of the key elements that helps to end this slump. The recent failures of technology applications like ESPN Mobile, the essential shuttering of ESPN Classic, and the mess at have taken the wind out of this group's sails. They are losing the BASS war, have their own ESPN News taking a bite out of SportsCenter, and ESPN 360 is still without focus. Step up to the plate, invest in NASCAR, and watch the fans return to the ESPN family as quickly as they left. Our memories of John Kernan have not yet faded.

Monday, March 26, 2007

NASCAR Now: No ESPN Race Highlights on ESPN

Mondays on NASCAR Now are tough. The weekend expertise of both the ESPN and Fox Sports announcers is replaced by the other set of "Bristol Boys." Host Erik Kuselias and sidekick Tim Cowlishaw are obsessed with the "cheating issues" in NASCAR. They talk about it like steroids in baseball or a corked bat.

Stacy Compton seems to be holding his own and continues to be a plain-speaking voice-of-reason among the "hype kings." Compton explained the last two laps of the NEXTEL Cup race and reminded viewers of the fact Jeff Burton is a gentleman racer. This is a fact that is lost on Kuselias and Cowlishaw. Compton calmed everyone down about the COT, and basically rebuffed the ESPN host's attempts to generate "controversy," which seems to be the goal of this program. "Shut up, sit down, and drive" he said.

David Stremme called in to help the perspective on the COT, but Kuselias demanded he "grade" the car. Kuselias then tried to bait Stremme into talking down about his teammate Juan Montoya. "Aren't you jealous?" Kuselias asked. The Daly Planet has called for Stacy Compton to do these interviews since this program began. Why use racing amateur Erik Kuselias, when the experienced Stacy Compton is right alongside in the studio? How is ESPN not grasping the concept of letting the expert ask the questions?

Marty Smith is the saving grace of this series, and should not have been shuffled to the end of the program. The updated news and inside information that Smith brings deserves to be featured in this show. How a David Stremme phone interview and a Tim Cowlishaw "opinion-fest" get higher billing is a head-scratcher. Smith's update was fantastic, and he ran the gamut from the Biffle car being low to the Toyota struggles this season. Kuselias tolerated Smith and then summarily dismissed him with one line, and no follow-up. Harsh.

As the Monday version of NASCAR Now, this show should have contained a recap of the Busch Race telecast by ESPN on ABC. Either Jerry Punch or Rusty Wallace should have appeared in that "wrap," reinforcing the ESPN presence in NASCAR as they build toward their NEXTEL Cup debut. It should not be assumed that viewers have watched the late night edition of the weekend show, and instead of David Stremme, we should have taken the time to review the Busch event. As NASCAR Now continues to define itself, we find the Baseball Tonight approach becoming the norm. Once again, this is NASCAR and everything happens over the weekend. Mondays are for looking back at the three days prior as one big racing event, not as individual "games."

Sunday, March 25, 2007

SPEED's Victory Lane: The Little Engine That Could

It sounded like a simple idea. Use SPEED's RaceDay crew to originate a low-cost hour of programming after the NEXTEL Cup race was over. To do this, NASCAR had to agree to place a small set directly in Victory Lane at the tracks. Their willingness to cooperate in this innovative idea has resulted in the sleeper hit show of 2007...Victory Lane.

John Roberts has cemented himself as a fan favorite because of his laid-back style and charming manner when hosting shows on SPEED. His ability to handle the chaos of Victory Lane is even more impressive. What started out as an opportunity to interview the winning driver, his crew chief, and car owner has turned into something much bigger. And fans love it.

This week, Bristol provided a setting that allowed Kyle Busch to come on-board and view the race highlights minutes after stepping out of the car. Busch is a great interview, and was treated as an equal by Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace, who comprise the panel on the show. In light of the past problems with Spencer and Kyle's brother Kurt, the frank and free-flowing conversation of the panel reinforced just how far this show has grown in stature.

Now, the show has added Bob Dilner on pit road, and allowed other drivers to come directly to the set in Victory Lane. This allows for a parade of drivers who only have this one media outlet to tell their story right away. It also clears up many of the loose ends that always exist after the host network does their brief winner interview, and leaves the air.

One of the unique features of this show is that drivers often times get to see the video of what happened to them on the track right along with the viewers. It really allows stories to be told and to develop live on-camera. By the time the other NASCAR TV shows roll around, this type of emotion and developing storyline is gone. That is the struggle facing Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing on SPEED...the emotion isn't there.

Victory Lane is a treat, and viewers who have not set their DVR for this program should add it to their list. Its fun to watch, even days after the race. If Kenny Wallace ever wins one of these races, it would really put the cherry on top for this hard-working crew.

Fox Sports: The Big Mistake At Bristol

There is no tougher feeling for a driver than to run a long NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race and fall out on the final lap. All those laps of hard work and dedication...ending in frustration. Three hours of undivided attention to one task...with nothing but anger as a result. Today, at Bristol, the production team at NASCAR on Fox left the viewers one lap short. This mistake was big.

Let's start out by making one thing very clear. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes in the top ten, and Kyle Petty in the top twenty, NASCAR fans deserve to see these drivers finish the race. They did not. What is going on? This problem began several races ago when the NASCAR on Fox Director decided that only the winning car would be shown on national TV. Let's say that again...only the winning car would be seen after three hours of racing.

When the snarling pack at Bristol started the last lap, the announcers were on top of the situation. As usual, the pros at Fox were calling the action with enthusiasm and professionalism. Then, as is often the case this season, the pictures suddenly did not match their words. No matter what was actually happening on the track, the NASCAR on Fox Director had already decided that we were only going to see the winner. Not Junior, Harvick, Biffle, Gordon or Johnson....absolutely none of the other drivers.

During the pre-race show, the legendary close finishes at Bristol were discussed by the team. With the late caution, it seemed that another good finish would be on the horizon. But, one thing Fox Sports cannot grasp is that the winner crossing the line is not the end of the race. The bigger story might be in the top five, the top ten, or even the top twenty. This season, after several years of outstanding coverage, the Fox Sports crew has let the fans down.

Several times I have written about this new singular focus on the winner, and the conscious decision to omit the other forty-plus cars. Who made it, and why? What is the point of showing Kyle Busch win the race and then act as if the event is over? The parade of drivers that appeared on SPEED's Victory Lane program after the race all appeared to be very happy. But, only Busch had won the event and all the others were, in the Fox Sports world, losers.

The technical aspects of this event were outstanding, and the quad-split on the pitstops was always on-the-mark. As usual, the pit reporters were solid and Jeff Hammond was on-the-spot with his infield tech talk. This telecast had all the earmarks of a solid live event for Fox Sports. But somewhere, somehow, in a meeting long before the race, the decision had been made to eliminate the entire field and only allow the NASCAR nation to see one car finish the race.

On Saturday, the ESPN on ABC bunch put up a wideshot and allowed the top twenty to cross the finish line as the computer displayed their final finishing results. It allowed all the stories told during the previous two hours to be completed, and allowed fans to see where their driver ended up. This capped off a solid performance by the crew that is set to take over NEXTEL Cup coverage later in the season.

In the TV world, we call the finish of a race "crunch time." The crew is tired, the announcers are drained, and the end of the race is in many ways, a relief. But what separates the contenders from the pretenders is how "crunch time" is handled. Whether its a last second shot in the NBA, a home run on the final pitch, or a long "bomb" into the end zone, this is how TV sports networks are judged. Its time for the Fox gang to put their heads together and solve this problem. By the way, Junior finished seventh.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

ESPN on ABC: The Boys Are Back In Town

One of our favorite sayings is, "there is just something about Bristol." The race weekends at Bristol, TN are always something to behold. In my day, it was the homespun hospitality of the locals, and the fact that people parked in the junkyard across from the track. Today, the "happening" that Bristol has become served to usher in the "coming of age" party for Jerry Punch and his ESPN "Punch Bunch." It served as a confirmation of the biggest challenge on the network's plate. ESPN is now ready for live NEXTEL Cup coverage. The boys are back in town.

Jerry Punch set the table with a dynamic on-camera segment with his partners Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree. Rusty was just jumping out of his shoes, partly because his young son Steven sat on the race pole. When Rusty is pumped up, things happen. Petree is the perfect compliment for Wallace, because his dry sense of humor fits well with Rusty's over-the-top enthusiasm. There were doubts about this threesome when the season started, but Bristol was proof that ESPN's broadcast booth is outstanding.

Rarely has one race had so much talent in the pits. Not the crews, drivers, or celebrities, but the ESPN pit reporters. This diverse group included the formerly goofy Dave Burns doing a great job...who knew? Ironman Mike Massaro continues to reap the rewards of his dedication to the sport and the network during the lean years without racing. He may have a future upstairs if ESPN adds any additional NASCAR product, and would be a good representative of the sport in the play-by-play role. Shannon Spake continues to fly under-the-radar while providing solid reporting for various media outlets. NASCAR newcomer Jamie Little has proven her mettle so far this season, and her friendly relationship with Juan Montoya has allowed viewers to grow fond of the new Colombian driver. I guess something good does come from "open wheel" land.

ESPN shares a lot of the TV components at races with the networks who produce practice, qualifying, and the other races. This does result in some very un-original event coverage, especially on a small track like Bristol. The answer to this dilemma is exactly what ESPN did on Saturday...hustle. The Director and Producer proved to be flexible and knowledgeable about this fast-paced bull ring. Rarely were the cameras behind the action, or the viewer confused about what cars on the track to watch. ESPN has proven to be more flexible in leaving the leaders and covering the action than Fox Sports, and also provides a live scoring graphic as the cars finish the race. This has been noticeably lacking from the Fox NEXTEL Cup coverage.

ESPN continues to provide solid event coverage out in the field. Perhaps, these same standards and level of commitment could be applied to NASCAR Now, a series with tremendous potential. But, one thing is certain. The excellent mix of announcers and production staff have put the NASCAR Busch Series on solid ground for the rest of the season. The boys really are back in town.

ESPN on ABC: Pre-Race Show On The Mend

In this first year of returning to NASCAR, ESPN has experienced the normal highs and lows of producing a high volume of programming originating from across North America. With both Mexico and Canada on the docket, the Busch Series gang will have covered a lot of territory come November.

This week, Brent Musburger calmed down. Perhaps, the absence of Chris Fowler helped Musburger, who likes control and is good at it. Right off the top of the pre-race show, a "whip-a-round" of the pit reporters showed off the solid TV skills of this diverse group. It really helped to establish the credibility of the broadcast, and things only got better. Kudos to Jamie Little, as the new kid on the NASCAR block, for holding her own with the veterans.

When Rusty Wallace appears in the trackside studio, ESPN rises to a new level. This show was no exception. Things really got interesting when Ray Evernham was again asked to be a panelist. Between Ray and Rusty, there is enough experience to allow Brent Musburger to get out of the way and let the boys talk. Finally, after several very difficult races, things on the pre-race show were smooth and informative.

What a surprise it was for veteran NASCAR fans to see vintage footage of Bob Jenkins, the late Larry Nuber, and a youthful Bob Varsha roll a VW down the Bristol banking. The original ESPN days were just classic NASCAR TV.

Fan favorite Shannon Spake presented what this author has been calling for since Daytona, pre-produced feature pieces that focus on one NASCAR topic. This week, Brett Bodine and his "Car of Tomorrow" project was shown in detail, using Bodine himself to explain the hows and whys of this new program. What a wonderful opportunity to continue this commitment to one feature in each pre-race show. In a strange twist, Musburger thanked EA Sports for production assistance in the feature, without noting what they provided.

Perhaps, ESPN has decided to have Rusty trackside for a part of the program, and also to bring in some help for Brad Daugherty. Ray Evernham is great on-camera, and works well with Rusty and Brent Musburger. This begs the one question that has been a hot topic on this site for two months now, what to do with Brad? I would suggest that he be given the opportunity to provide the show's feature piece, just as Shannon Spake did this week. Daugherty is smart, savvy, and has a perspective that is not held by others on the panel. Doesn't he deserve a chance to shine?

This was ESPN's best pre-race show to date, and contained hard news, a solid feature, experienced analysts, and good driver interviews. The only hilarious moment each race is good old Tim Brewer. Whenever Musburger introduces him, Brewer looks squarely into the camera and says...."thank you Brett." Somethings are just destined to become instant classics.

ESPN's NASCAR Now: Michael Waltrip's Free Pass

The Friday editions of NASCAR Now are always interesting. They demand a larger coverage of on-track activities, and a higher number of reporters to get the story. In the past we have seen Shannon Spake, Alan Bestwick, Angelique Chengelis, and Marty Smith in a wide variety of reporting roles trackside.

This week, with top stories looming large, ESPN assigned one non-NASCAR "general assignment" reporter named Bob Holtzman to cover the Bristol, TN hard news. Holtzman is a stick-and-ball guy from Cincinnati, OH who came from local news. He provided a shakey Jeff G. interview, various sound bites, and even an on-camera wrap of the track activity. So, where did the NASCAR Now gang go? Where was the team? Holtzman is not even on the ESPN NASCAR Media web pages. Was there a golf outing?

Rusty Wallace stopped by to demonstrate how uncomfortable trying to do a live interview with NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias can be. Kuselias continues to use his confrontational sports radio style, which does not work on television. Rusty was a little miffed at the questions, and the lack of respect from this former lawyer turned announcer. Kuselias cannot end an on-air interview with any style, and is horrible with the mechanics of live two-way video conversations. Rusty experienced problems with both of these elements during his segments, and did not look too happy.

Most curious in this program was the conscious omission of two huge news stories. NASCAR Now had been hounding Mark Martin to drive at Bristol since the first race at Daytona concluded. With Martin surrendering his ride to Regan Smith this weekend, the show should have featured Smith's qualifying attempt and subsequent twelfth place starting spot. In addition, the two troubled cars from Michael Waltrip Racing missed the show. For Toyota, NAPA, and Dominos, this is huge. For pure news, it might have led the show because there were basically no issues with the COT in qualifying.

Unfortunately, in a confirmation that "branding" and "product placement" drive the new ESPN, EA Sports rolled out Tony Stewart. In an interview they could have done during the week, NASCAR Now took five minutes out of this key show to listen to Tony praise a NASCAR licensed driving game. Stewart said the fake drivers are almost real, the fake tracks are almost real, and you can actually almost change the almost real springs and shocks. Unreal.

If NASCAR Now wants to regain any shred of credibility, they have to move these "shill" shots to mid-week, and give the fans some hard news on Fridays. Michael Waltrip should have been interviewed on camera, along with the Toyota executives,about the frustrations of this very expensive and very unsuccessful venture into NASCAR. For a company that has conquered every single motorsports series they have participated in, not to make a Bristol race where the cars were identical points squarely to the Toyota engine.

How does Michael Waltrip get a free pass on this one? Is it possible that Micheal Waltrip Racing: A New Era came into play? This Toyota sponsored series continues to run, even as Toyota continues to falter. In addition, ESPN has solid ties with EA Sports, who Tony Stewart was representing. So, its an easy choice. Give Tony five minutes to promote the game, and let Michael off-the-hook. NASCAR fans will never know the difference...will they?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

NASCAR Now: Mr. Obvious Meets The COT

What a fantastic and refreshing change to hear from the talented Shannon Spake directly from Bristol, TN right at the top of the show. Fans finally got reliable hard news trackside, and even some comments from NEXTEL Cup Series Director John Darby about the "Car of Tomorrow." Darby should be heard from on a much more regular basis as the season progresses. Spake and Darby provided exactly what NASCAR Now needs in large amounts...credibility.

The show then moved quickly into a telephone interview with a NASCAR driver about the COT. It seems strange that ESPN chose Greg Biffle, who has just become a regular panelist on Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing on the SPEED Channel. Biffle is solid all the way around, and his comments on the COT were well-stated and concise. This is exactly what SPEED needs for INCR.

After this breathless rushing around on the COT, ESPN could have called on any of their NASCAR analysts to put the COT in broader perspective. Instead, the collective moan you heard nationwide resulted from the appearance of the one and only Tim Cowlishaw. The switch from fact to opinion can be a harsh one, and Cowlishaw did not disappoint. This was Cowlishaw in full Around the Horn mode, completely talking racing off the top-of-his-head. Perhaps, others might suggest alternate locations as origination points. Let's fact it, where NASCAR is concerned, we call Cowlishaw "Mr. Obvious" for good reason.

Since his first appearance, DJ Copp has been a pleasant surprise. A pit crew member from DEI, Copp speaks in normal language with no hype and good facts. His updates on the COT problems with pit stops were interesting, and he does well to put the ESPN hype in perspective. It begs the question if we will see any other pit crew members given a shot on national television this season?

Transitioning to the Craftsman Truck Series, NASCAR Now co-host Erik Kuselias attempted to interview driver Tyler Walker. The past performance problems with Walker were well-documented on SPEED over the last several seasons. It was clear that Kuselias did not know Walker's background, and this made any follow-up questions impossible. What a shame, as Walker is a colorful character with lots of bridges burning behind him and many challenges ahead. Loads of information was left on the table.

Luckily, David Newton returned to report directly from Bristol in his pleasant and professional manner. Newton is just a fount of knowledge, and his updates are always an addition to this program that no one else can provide. It would be a pleasure to see more of him as the meat of the schedule begins this weekend.

Unfortunately, ESPN continues to shoot itself in-the-foot with the Vault (energy drink) Pick 'Em sales feature. The ridiculous premise is that the host gives Cowlishaw two drivers, and Tim picks one to do better on a particular weekend. This feature was humorous before a race like Daytona, where bumper cars and restrictor plates rule the racing. It is absolutely hilarious before the race in Bristol, TN. As Mark Martin once said, "a lap at Bristol is like driving an F-16 around a high school gym." Between racing luck and just plain dumb luck, there is no possible way to "Pick 'Em" for a race of survival...even for "Mr. Obvious."

Thank You Readers: Brad vs. Tim

Many thanks to my friends who wrote in, pointing out that our proofreader had changed Brad Daugherty to Tim Dougherty in a previous original post. As you know, we have been actively involved in watching ESPN use Brad Daugherty throughout the entire NASCAR season. He was, of course, the person in both references.

It is still puzzling why Daugherty has not been able to contribute any features, or focus on any NASCAR Diversity issues. He is never used to interview anyone. As I asked in an earlier post, just exactly what is this well-educated and wonderfully intelligent man supposed to do? Hopefully, that question will be answered soon.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

NASCAR Now: The Worst Studio Show in ESPN History

When I started these columns in February, it was understood that the entry of ESPN into the NASCAR scene was brand new. After being dropped by NASCAR in a clash of egos six years ago, ESPN then responded by cancelling RPM2Night and virtually eliminating NASCAR from SportsCenter and all other news shows. But, that was then, and this is now. There was new management at ESPN, and hope was on the horizon.

ESPN jumped into the deep end of the pool right away by mixing Rusty Wallace with Andy Petree and Dr. Jerry Punch in the booth. The results have been fabulous. Add in the strong pit reporters, and the ESPN race telecasts have taken-off with the fans. Even with the out-of-place Brent Musburger and the clearly bemused Chris Fowler, ESPN's trackside studio presence was nicely done.

Then, the network rolled-out its flagship program, NASCAR Now. This thirty minute daily show is key to the success of ESPN's racing efforts. It allows for the only tie to the NEXTEL Cup Series before ESPN itself picks-up coverage toward the end of the season. Up in Bristol, CT they refer to it as a "NASCAR programming platform." That basically means...they own it.

Since the first show, I have tracked the highs and lows of the very strange happenings with NASCAR Now. In the beginning, we got Rusty Wallace, Tim Brewer, Stacy Compton, and Boris Said as analysts. We met Angelique Chengelis, Terry Blount, and Marty Smith as reporters for the new and notes. Even old Tim Cowlishaw stopped by for his take on things racing. But slowly, throughout the last two months, the wheels have come off this series completely.

This was never more obvious than the Wednesday, March 21st edition of NASCAR Now. It was, quite simply, the worst studio show ever produced by ESPN in history. If it gets posted to, download it while you can, its going to be a collectors item.

Series host Doug Banks is new to NASCAR. To help him with today's racing news, ESPN brought in baseball's Tim Kurkjian, football's Mark Schlereth, and basketball's Brad Daugherty. From the top of the show, these four began a ten minute conversation that covered a lot of topics. They included graphite tennis rackets, the problems with hand-checking in the NBA, and the evolution of the forward pass in football. What they did not include, at any time in the entire conversation, was anything to do with NASCAR racing. The reason is simple... none of these four people know anything about it.

Banks later stumbled through two embarrassing interviews with Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray. Banks should never interview drivers alone, and his lack of knowledge and preparation caused both interviews to be legendary. Even as ESPN put the graphic "frustration mounting" under McMurray, Jamie explained he had been caught-up in two crashes and finished great in the two other races. Then, ESPN brought out the time honored "when are you going to win again" question. McMurray handled it like a pro, plugged his sponsor, and departed. No mention of why Jamie had a Vegas-style sportsbook behind him on the liveshot, and no graphic as to his location.

Casey Mears decided to be interviewed on the telephone, which perhaps was a great decision. Banks obviously had absolutely no idea who Mears was, what background his family had in racing, or what Casey had done so far this season. Banks read slowly from his script, again focusing on Mears failure to win as some sort of purposeful conspiracy. Then, he hit Mears with his apparent "scuffle" with Robbie Gordon as a major issue. Its unclear if Banks even knew that Gordon had made a now classic bonehead move and taken out three cars. Nothing about the reality of racing is even mentioned in the ridiculous questions that the production staff creates for these helpless anchors. It all focuses on losing, fighting, and the inability of athletes and teams to "win again." Sound familiar? MLB, NFL, or NBA anyone? SportsCenter, Gameday, Cold Pizza?

At the end of the worst show in ESPN history was a video highlight of the evolution of NASCAR vehicles over the years. This was the worst possible piece in which to insert a new show host who clearly had no previous NASCAR experience. Doug Banks trying to read a script about the evolution and technology of NASCAR racing was absolutely painful on so many levels.

Apparently, there is no end in sight to the chaos behind-the-scenes on this series. One call to an experienced host like John Kernan, Alan Bestwick, or even Eli Gold could put someone at the helm of this ship who had traveled this way before. Earlier this month, I would only have suggested that NASCAR Now is drifting slowly downstream without direction. Now, I would look you in the eye and say it is taking on water...lifejackets, gentlemen.

NASCAR Now: Dougie In The House!

Doug Banks seems like a very nice guy, and he has a ton of potential for hosting NASCAR Now. Its clear that he is comfortable on-the-air, and his enthusiasm is a welcome change from the high volume and cold mannerisms of Erik Kuselias.

The one thing that Doug does not know, is NASCAR. With the top story being Mark Martin not going to Bristol, the Producer of NASCAR Now made the decision not to bring in help for Mr. Banks. It was unfair to put Banks on the spot while trying to interview Regan Smith live. His questions were amateurish at best, and he left the meat of the issues about Bristol laying on the table untouched. He said bad things, like the COT has "never been driven." Of course, SPEED Channel actually covered the COT testing at Bristol in-depth. With the huge staff of experts on-hand at ESPN, how can the show host continue to be put in this awkward position?

Marty Smith should have been the first interview out-of-the blocks when the show started. Smith is the ultimate "Insider," and he needs to be included on the show regularly. If Marty Smith had been allowed to interview Regan Smith, we would have gotten a lot of scoop, and some good solid race talk. Maybe Marty needs to be given a studio presence more often.

Doug Banks next interview, again alone, was Matt Kenseth. Banks read his questions, Kenseth gave his political sponsor-driven answers, and things moved along. ESPN's Stacy Compton then appeared to talk about Chevy having a good year so far, but Compton should have done the Kenseth interview. Who is not getting the concept that the show host does not interview? Even in the 1980's, Brent Musburger threw to Irv Cross for the NFL interviews on CBS. This is not a new concept in sports television...walk down the hall and ask Brent.

Banks is photogenic, well-mannered, and the type of face the sport needs. But, as I mentioned in my post of March 7th, there is a big difference in what people really know, and what ESPN "says" they know. Simply by providing Mr. Banks the experts to handle the interviews and analysis, NASCAR Now could begin to right its ship and become the flagship NASCAR TV program that ESPN intended it to be.

If things continue at this pace, John Kernan should expect his phone to be ringing pretty soon. As the NASCAR season hits full-stride, the Connecticut-based production team will be hard pressed to get their arms around the stories and news that the entire NASCAR community generates. They have already shunned the regional series, the off-track activities, and the special family stories that this sport shows-off so well. With no email, no live phone calls, no on-camera questions, and no webcam videos, the other thing that NASCAR Now has the fans. But, we can wait until they get this first mess straightened out.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 Maybe NASCAR Images Has Dial-Up?

This post comes on the heels of my weekly surfing session through the NASCAR clips available on, the video hosting website. Apparently, the gang at NASCAR Images in Charlotte, NC is still using dial-up. That is the only possible explanation of why hundreds of video clips using copyrighted footage from NASCAR Digital Entertainment are still being posted on on a weekly basis.

Any user with an interface between his cable TV DVR and his desktop PC can edit their own race highlights, or simply upload a large chunk of video and audio directly to the Internet. What gives? This same footage is priced out of this world for local, regional, and non-NASCAR owned national TV sports shows.

In the television world, getting five minutes of quality edited race footage from NASCAR Images would set someone back about five house payments. How then, can any twelve year old kid upload the finish of the Atlanta NEXTEL Cup race to for global distribution with no problems? Am I missing something here?

In addition to the large chunks of footage, there are an amazing number of edited pieces that have a theme. Greatest crashes, historic footage, NASCAR's biggest crash in history, Jeff Gordon highlights, Tony Stewart's winning year, and the beat goes on. With millions of dollars invested by Fox and NASCAR in establishing NASCAR Images as the footage clearinghouse of the sport, someone has been asleep at the switch in the world of Internet video.

Why would someone watch Victory Lane on SPEED when it will be posted on YouTube in about an hour? Why watch the race when the highlights will be on the computer later that night? All of the post-race interviews, the edited highlights of each weekend's race, its all there...and its all free.

Major League Baseball, the NFL, the PGA Tour, and the other professional sports organizations have companies that handle their footage. We all know NFL Films, many of us know PGA Tour Productions, and several of us know NASCAR Images first hand. With over a billion dollars in domestic and international television rights fees being paid by the NASCAR TV partners, shouldn't someone at NASCAR Images get broadband and sign-up for Maybe they would discover why the amount of NASCAR programming being produced by NASCAR Images has plummeted this year.
It seems totally ironic that NASCAR Images has a website where you must pay for NASCAR footage by the second, and with one click of the mouse the same footage is being played on for the five millionth time. All because twelve year old Jimmy knows how to upload, and no one at NASCAR Images cares.

Monday, March 19, 2007

SPEED: Inside NEXTEL Cup - Atlanta

Two cars is what the Cup race in Atlanta came down to. Two is also the number of other NASCAR races that weekend. Finally, Monday night on SPEED there were two conversations going on. At the same time. On the same show.

The new driver panel featuring Greg Biffle in addition to regulars Kenny Schrader and Michael Waltrip are clearly feeling their oats. Biffle fit in almost immediately, and his tough racer mentality and solid knowledge of cars and mechanical issues has forged a strong alliance on the set. These three drivers are clearly ready for the rest of the season together, and they are going to make it fun again.

Left out of the alliance, as was Brian Vickers last year, is series host Dave Despain. Time-and-time again Despain interjected into on-going conversations between the drivers, only to be completely ignored. The NASCAR inside jokes and references were flying just like the show during its heyday on SpeedVision. All the host needed to do was step aside and let it roll. It didn't happen.

Fans had already seen the highlights countless times on SPEED Channel alone, and there was absolutely no urgency to "keep things on track" as Despain continues to say. That is the fundamental aspect of this show that makes it great. Getting three smart and funny NASCAR drivers together almost guarantees that things will never stay "on track." The things viewers love come not from watching day-old highlights, but from the comments about Michael's hair, Kenny lack of a thumb, or Greg Biffle getting bashed by the Pizza Car.

This show did not stay on the air as a fan favorite for ten years because of Dave Despain, or for that matter because of original host Alan Bestwick. It stayed because Bestwick knew when to shut-up and Despain simply does not. His interjections work perfectly on WindTunnel when the person talking is Bob in Idaho who had a few beverages and believes Jimmy Johnson is Satan. But Despain is over-matched by three millionaires who flew in on their private planes and are stopping by to "play on TV" before heading for their multi-million dollar homes for some rest. This episode was fun because the ghost of TV chaos poked his head in to test the waters. It was fun because no one paid attention to the host, as usual. It was fun because the video highlights always lead to discussions that have absolutely nothing to do with....the video highlights! That's what this show is, and that is what it can be again with the cooperation of the SPEED Channel production team and NASCAR Images. Good times for the network and this program can be on the horizon if someone in charge can just say..."let them play."

SPEED: The Curious Case of Dave Despain

This past Sunday evening, Dave Despain hosted a WindTunnel show that featured updates on the weekend racing activities. Bob Varsha and Steve Matchett stopped by to host a Formula-1 discussion and take live viewer questions. Tony George stopped by to talk about a wide variety of activities in his world, including the possible addition of MotoGP to the Indianapolis Speedway line-up.

With his diverse experience, Despain is best at dealing with a wide-ranging program that requires an experienced and controlling presence as host. Despain loves to talk about F-1, the IndyCars, and anything racing on two wheels. What he does not love, and makes no bones about it, is stock car racing.

NASCAR requires a full time commitment from both teams and announcers as the sport now runs from January testing through November's final race. This type of dedication is seen from the hardcore NASCAR announcers like Alan Bestwick, Wendy Venturini, John Roberts, and Matt Yocum. Other faces who have hosted NASCAR specific programs include Ralph Shaheen, Steve Byrnes, and Krista Voda. When you look at those seven talented announcers, and then consider Despain, you can see the problem. His priorities are elsewhere.

Tonight, Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing will once again take-up an hour of our time. It used to be the "can't miss" show on SPEED that was the talk of the water-cooler at work. Between Michael Waltrip's antics, Kenny Schrader's sense of humor, and Johnny Benson's "straight guy" routine, it was a TV classic. What put the cherry on top was the ultimate understanding of host Alan Bestwick that he had only one duty for the entire hour. Get out of the way. As the current host, Despain simply cannot follow the same path.

Bestwick's perceived inability to "harness" the cast to insert a commercial or show a highlight was the best part of the entire show. It worked because Bestwick gets NASCAR. He gets the culture, he lives the lifestyle. And no matter what his apparent level of frustration, it was clear that he was having fun with friends. It was part of the show, and it worked.

Now, over a year later, the series is in trouble. Last season, an inexperienced Brian Vickers was forcibly inserted into the "expert panel" with horrible results. He showed the lack of experience needed to deal with the variety of topics included in the hour show. To their credit, SPEED has now replaced Vickers with Greg Biffle. Finally, a veteran driver has rounded out the trio once again, and poised the show for a comeback. But, one problem remains and its clear to all involved...his name is Dave Despain.

In some situations in life, one person may indeed have the "skill set" to perform a certain task. Unfortunately, if that task is not being performed alone, that "skill set" might not be enough to get the job done. This is the case with Despain. Even with the best broadcast teams, sometimes changes are needed to get a good mix and find the right "chemistry."

It is time for a change on Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing. With the panel set, its time to audition some hosts by allowing them to "guest host" an episode. This would give the audience a reason to tune-in once again. Right now, with the other SPEED review shows on the air, there is absolutely no reason to watch INCR. It is time to give Dave Despain a break, and let him continue to serve SPEED and the motorsports community with his many talents.

This series used to be the "anchor" for an entire evening of NASCAR-related programming. It was perfect timing for fans who had just watched the races over the weekend. On Mondays they wanted some additional info, some insight, and some humor. Simply changing the host of this series can be the foundation to re-building the strong Monday Night line-up that the network used to enjoy. SPEED would do well to heed this advice as ESPN2 continues to eye a bigger piece of the NASCAR pie with several new projects in the works.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

SPEED: RaceDay - Atlanta

Let's face facts. RaceDay on SPEED is the best NASCAR show on TV. Host John Roberts stands back and lets people talk to each other, a skill that is lacking on other racing shows. The production team at SPEED has assembled a wonderful cast of characters that has resonated with both the fans and the drivers. This show is a pleasure to watch.

Perhaps the most talented interviewer currently in racing is Wendy Venturini. She is blessed with the same inquisitive nature as veteran Alan Bestwick, but can use her strong personality to handle very diverse reporting duties. It is a pleasure to see her deep in technical race talk with a driver, and then transition to interviewing celebrities from Pam Anderson to Kurt Russell. It has been suggested that she is a potential replacement for Dave Despain on Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing, a series that has been struggling on SPEED.

The management at SPEED has to be smiling, RaceDay is a franchise.