Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Allen Bestwick Rocks "NASCAR Now" To Its Core

It might have been a good thing that most NASCAR fans are used to watching NASCAR Now on ESPN2 while sitting down. Normally, this position was assumed so that if fans actually fell asleep, there were no traumatic injuries.

Often, the sleep came while Erik Kuselias, Doug Banks, or Tim Cowlishaw was talking. There was no defense for nodding-off while Erik and Tim "screamed" about the fact that the Charlotte race was "600 miles long!"

Some fans are still asleep from the day that Doug Banks spent quality interview time asking Kasey Kahne if he "stood by his statement that David Stremme was fat." That was an ESPN instant classic.

Wednesday, NASCAR Now opened the show and seated fans nationwide had a strange reaction. First, their heads snapped-up straight. Then, their shoulders straightened. Finally, they slowly began to rise to their feet and screamed in a loud voice "is that Allen Bestwick hosting NASCAR Now? It sounds just like him!"

Sure enough, the dreams of many NASCAR fans finally came true as Allen Bestwick stood in the middle of the High Definition Studio at the very core of ESPN. After an endless moving disaster of "NASCAR illiterate" hosts since February, one of the most respected NASCAR broadcasters was in Bristol, CT to show them how its done.

All Bestwick did in his thirty minutes was blow them away from start-to-finish. It may have been the first time for many ESPN staffers that they experienced a "true" NASCAR broadcaster hosting "their" show. While ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr is solid, having Bestwick in the building, and on the air, was meaningful in several ways.

Allen has a style that is well-known. This allows struggling on-air "talent" like Brad Daugherty to feel, perhaps for the first time, that he is being included in the "conversation" of the show. Bestwick went out of his way to include Brad in a comfortable and casual manner. He finally allowed Daugherty to "talk" with the host, after Brad had endured four months of nothing more than answering scripted questions. For the first time, NASCAR fans got a glimpse into Daugherty's personality. This has been the aspect so sorely missing from his many appearances on ESPN.

As the show progressed, Bestwick spoke with JJ Yeley from the Joe Gibbs shop. For fans who have watched NASCAR Now for months, they may have actually felt the planet stop spinning for just a moment. Bestwick and Yeley spoke freely, were obviously comfortable with each other, and covered all the bases on a wide variety of topics. There were no scripted questions, and no pregnant pauses. They just "talked."

One growing problem for ESPN has been the animosity between the NASCAR Now news reporters and the show hosts. Both Erik Kuselias and the "now apparently fired" Doug Banks would read a scripted question, wait until they "thought" the reporter was finished, and then ask the next one. I believe "sharp stick in the eye" was my quote from an earlier article. It was going to be interesting to see how the ESPN Producer dealt with Bestwick hosting the news segment. We didn't have to wait very long to find out.

Reporters Marty Smith and Terry Blount did the best they could to hide the smirks on their faces, but they knew well in-advance that there was a new sheriff in town. The best part was, he had a clue. Bestwick allowed Smith and Blount to speak freely and engaged them both in actual conversation for the first time since this show began. The only thing lacking was the ESPN technical crew not having a "three shot" split-screen. The next step is to have the reporters on-screen together, and to allow them to talk to each other. I am sure the guys over at Around The Horn are laughing. A couple of reporters on-camera talking is not a new concept.

With Kyle Petty stepping out of his car to do the TNT commentary, one of the drivers filling-in for him will be Chad McCumbee. Bestwick interviewed the twenty-two year old on the phone about this opportunity. If there was ever a moment in this show when the glaring difference between "those who know" NASCAR and "those who ESPN says know" NASCAR was front-and-center, this was it.

Bestwick guided this young man through a feel-good interview that allowed the driver to get comfortable, relate his experiences, and let the viewers see his personality. In order to do this, the host had to know a whole lot about racing. Allen Bestwick certainly does.

Last week, Erik Kuselias interviewed seventeen year old Joey Logano after his NASCAR Grand National win over Kevin Harvick in Iowa. Logano could have been an alien as far as Kuselias was concerned. Totally ignorant to the young man's history, Kuselias was forced to ask "talk radio" style questions. This included "did you ask Harvick for half of his million dollars?" To Kuselias, it was just another interview that would be over in three minutes and then he could go home. For Logano, it was a fantastic achievement to beat Harvick, and then be live on TV on ESPN. Logano was cheated, the fans were cheated, and the sport was cheated.

Bestwick then brought Daugherty back to discuss the fact that less than a full field of Busch cars are entered at Dover this week. Brad's opinion did not really address the issues behind this problem, including the COT car and the lack of true "Busch Series only" drivers. Bestwick accepted this naive opinion, and allowed Daugherty to walk away with his dignity intact. Maybe Daugherty will begin to rise to the occasion and focus on what role he really plays in the ESPN NASCAR coverage. This must be defined before the ESPN NEXTEL Cup TV coverage begins, or the media will eat him alive.

Then, just like that, it was over. Remember when Bob Jenkins never had enough time for SpeedWeek? When John Kernan used to crank-it-up on RPM2Nite from the moment the show came on the air? This is the pace that NASCAR Now had tonight. There was a ton of information, and then it was over. Can you imagine if ESPN used Bestwick on the one hour NASCAR Now Monday show? That would make any fan smile.

Tonight's show was the most positive step in the right direction this program series has taken since it started. Bestwick and Ryan Burr would change NASCAR Now into a completely different show if they were the co-hosts. Restoring the credibility lost with Doug Banks and Erik Kuselias can be done, but only with consistently good decisions in both talent and content.

Maybe, while Bestwick is still in Bristol, he can speak to ESPN about some other items that they might consider for NASCAR Now. These could include regional touring series highlights, behind-the-scenes team reports, a weekly feature on an interesting racing personality, or even video questions from the fans sent-in to the NASCAR Now experts.

If this was an audition of sorts for Bestwick, I hope he provided the ESPN executives with what they were looking for. Thirty minutes of fast-paced NASCAR news and information went flying-by in a snap with a knowledgeable host, good interviews, and smart reporters. NASCAR fans could get used to this, and wasn't that the original idea?

The Daly Planet invites comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

NASCAR Fans Are Screaming At Fox Sports

There is simply no way for NASCAR fans in today's corporate TV world to express their pleasure or pain with the performance of the NASCAR TV partners. Since The Daly Planet began publishing opinion-based columns in February, there has been a tremendous fan reaction to the TV issues being discussed.

Following the Coca-Cola 600 last Sunday night at Lowes Motor Speedway, that "fan reaction" has become a hurricane of anger. The Daly Planet was overwhelmed with emails and comments filled with personal and very direct emotion toward NASCAR and Fox Sports. The two questions that need to be addressed are, where should all this energy be aimed, and why did this have to happen?

Earlier this season, the sport's top drivers battled at Bristol Motor Speedway in a good solid NEXTEL Cup short track race. The NASCAR on Fox gang had a blast telecasting the event, and followed many stories as the race unfolded. As usual, toward the end of the race the drama was building, and the finish was going to be a good one. Then, something very strange happened. There was no finish.

With thirty seven cars still on the track, the final laps at Bristol are usually just a fantastic run to the checkers. Everyone guts-it-out on the final lap and brings whatever they have left to the run for the flag. In person, it is just a fantastic site. A driver might be running in twentieth place, but he wants nineteenth, and with clumps of cars heading for the stripe, its mayhem. There is a reason why tempers run hot after Bristol, and often it is because of the last lap.

In this race, the TV viewers were denied that pleasure. They were separated from the reality of what was actually going on by the one and only group with the power to do that. That group was the NASCAR on Fox television production crew. On the final lap, only the winning car was shown. At first, it seemed like a mistake, but then it became a harsh reality. The TV crew had decided that only the fans at the track would see the field finish the race. Everyone watching on TV only saw the winner, and absolutely no one else. It was mind blowing. Thirty-six of thirty-seven cars were never shown finishing.

Across the country, there was a lot of yelling. I know this because the hundreds of fans who flooded The Daly Planet email told me so. When you have a room full of Junior fans, he is battling for fifth place, and he is not shown on the final lap or crossing the finish line...there is going to be yelling. Many people also mentioned the words that they were yelling, but that is not really for me to relate. The NASCAR on Fox gang decided not to show Dale Junior, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears, Jimmy Johnson, and Greg Biffle finish the race. They were all in the top sixteen.

In every race, aside from the "big boys," there are great stories. At Bristol, they included Ward Burton and Kyle Petty finishing in the top twenty. Well, we assume they finished because we never saw them actually do it. Ward was returning to the sport after a hiatus, and Kyle ran strong to finish just ahead of the popular Kenny Wallace. A Petty car in the top twenty is still a big story.

Almost every major sports telecast has an "Achilles heel." Something that is just plain wrong when everything else is just so right. It sticks out, and it hurts. Sometimes it is a bad sideline reporter, an obnoxious host, or even an event that runs way too long. Everything else could be great, but this just bugs everybody.

This year, for the NASCAR on Fox gang, deciding to eliminate the entire field from being shown finishing the race is their "Achilles heel." And to those fans whose driver was battling for third, fifth, eighth, or anywhere really hurts.

This past weekend, NASCAR held its longest race at one of its most important tracks. The winner of the Coca-Cola 600 can claim "home field advantage" until the fall race. Lowes Motor Speedway is the closest track for almost every team, and the "600" is one of the most demanding races of the entire season. The stage was set for an interesting evening with a slick track and a hard tire.

The day before the race, Kyle Petty made a surprise appearance at the racetrack's campground. He was going to drive the Coke Zero Dodge in the race, and to promote that brand he had a gift for a couple of fans. Kyle picked a couple of folks to come back to the track, and ride with him in a two-seat stock car for a couple of laps. It worked great for Coke, and the fans ate it up. Petty is slated to step aside and work for the TNT announce team after Dover, so this would be his next-to-last race for several months. His Petty car was done in a special Coke Zero paint scheme for the race.

The "600" is a race best described as "mind-bending." We used to call it the "24 Hours of Charlotte" because it seemed to go on forever. If it is hard to watch, then it certainly must be hard to drive. Everyone puts their game face on, but after three hours it is just survival of the fittest. This year, the race featured a big wreck, lot of solo spins, and a whole lot of complaining about the tires.

The NASCAR on Fox guys have always had fun with this event. There are a lot of weird things that happen before the race, and lots of celebrities and dignitaries at the event. When you throw in the Armed Forces and Memorial Day, its big. Just the kind of thing that fits the "Fox attitude."

As usual, Mike Joy and his partners led viewers through this marathon with a keen eye for stories and a strong amount of good information. As the race went on, one thing began to be very clear. The Producer and Director were just not on their game. Several times cars on-camera would begin to spin or smoke and the telecast would just move along as if nothing happened. The camera would cut-a-way from a spinning car and Fox would have to replay the accident that they could have shown live...if anyone was paying attention. They missed a lot of action on the track, and the viewers knew it.

As the race began to wind-down, it was clear that it might turn into a fuel run after all this time. While situations like this are usually saved for huge ovals like Michigan, the combination of the tire and the track had brought up something very new for this race. Who had to peel off for fuel, and who would stick it out?

Fox was great on following this complex and developing story. They detailed who was diving into the pits for fuel, and who could "go all the way." Casey Mears emerged as the man-of-the-hour, and the situation behind him began to be the story. One by one the big boys stopped for fuel. Cars not normally seen in the top ten began to creep up the leaderboard. Sorenson, Vickers, Rudd, and a forty six year old driver named Kyle Petty.

On the last lap, the race revealed the survivors. Casey Mears would get his first NEXTEL Cup victory, and behind him was an incredible story of strategy and perseverance. The NASCAR on Fox cameras followed Mears as he made his final turns and headed for the finish line. When he crossed it, TV viewers saw more of his car, his crew chief, and then his pit crew celebrating on pit road. That is all anyone saw of the finish of the Coca-Cola 600...unless they were there.

As the pit crew did a lot of jumping up and down, a blur went by in the background. Then, there was another. As pictures came on the screen of Casey Mears slowing down, the remainder of the field for the Coca-Cola 600 was screaming to the finish line at full speed. But to Fox, none of the other cars suddenly mattered.

One of those cars had Coke Zero on the outside. That same car had Kyle Petty on the inside. The Coke Zero Dodge with Kyle Petty at the helm finished third under the lights in the Coca-Cola 600 after more than five hours of racing. Kyle's first top five in over a decade with the race sponsor on the door and the crowd screaming.

The NASCAR on Fox Producer and Director chose to ignore it completely. Let me say it again clearly. No TV viewer saw Kyle Petty finish.

Viewers also missed Brian Vickers giving Toyota a fifth place finish. They missed Tony Stewart, Ricky Rudd, and Earnhardt Junior battling to the line for sixth, seventh, and eighth position. They missed Jimmie Johnson edging out Mark Martin for tenth. Let's be realistic. Other than the winner, TV viewers missed everything.

In the Busch Series race at the same track one day earlier, ESPN managed to show a wideshot of the famous frontstretch "dog leg" and allowed viewers to watch the field stream across the finish line with electronic graphics revealing the cars info as they crossed the stripe instantly. Fans knew how their driver had finished the race because...they watched him do it. Then, ESPN picked-up the winner and had plenty of time before the burnouts and Victory Lane celebration began.

That, my friends, is how NASCAR TV is done for the millions of fans across the nation who have just invested hours of their life into this sport, and into the network televising the race. While I have several friends involved in the Fox telecasts, the sheer arrogance of the Producer and Director to "decide" that only the winner suddenly matters is amazing. As one emailer put it, "imagine televising the Kentucky Derby and only showing one horse finish."

Somewhere, Kyle Petty is savoring a third place finish at Charlotte. It may be his last moment in the sun before he steps aside as an active driver. It may be a momentum builder that changes the fortunes of the Petty teams. It may be one of his most prized NASCAR memories. I certainly hope he took a good long look at the scene as he crossed the finish line, because his memory is the only place he will see it again.

The Daly Planet invites comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS link below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

Monday, May 28, 2007

"NASCAR Now" Lets Mike Massaro Talk

ESPN has returned to NASCAR with many millions of dollars tied up in "rights fees," production costs, and technical equipment. Among the production costs are the fees paid to the announcers both at the races and in the studio. While there are usually nine announcers working on each Busch Series race, there is only one announcer who hosts the ESPN2 studio program called NASCAR Now.

Last week, we saw that the name of Doug Banks had been left off the ESPN media list of announcers who host NASCAR Now. Without any comment, ESPN shrank the studio announcer list to Erik Kuselias and Ryan Burr. Kuselias is still the man, and without knowing a thing about NASCAR, continues to host this program at least five days a week. Ryan Burr pops-up occasionally, and then is gone like the wind.

When ESPN first started this studio venture, the names of Allen Bestwick and Mike Massaro came immediately to the minds of many. Bestwick was a radio and TV veteran, perhaps best known recently for his NBC Sports work in both the announce booth, and on pit road. Many cable viewers watched Bestwick host Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup on the SPEED Channel for over ten years. At one time, it was the highest rated weekly show on the network.

Massaro had carved-out a niche for himself by serving as ESPN's "NASCAR guy" after ESPN lost the rights to televise the races. No fan can forget his determination to deliver driver interviews and news while very unceremoniously being shut-out of many tracks. Massaro showed himself to be a determined and well-balanced reporter, never mixing his personal feelings or his surroundings with the news of the day.

Bestwick has recently been given an opportunity to host NASCAR Countdown, the ESPN pre-race show for the Busch Series. Meanwhile, Massaro has been stuck on pit road as a reporter and occasionally files a trackside report for NASCAR Now. Monday, on the one hour edition of the show, Massaro was given the opportunity to finally "step outside the box."

Mondays normally mean show host Erik Kuselias dragging analysts Stacy Compton and Boris Said through a lengthy recap of the weekend action. Kuselias reads the script, then Compton and Said offer actual racing insight on a variety of topics. Clearly not a racing guy, Kuselias is not sensitive to the right topics, and likes to hype stories that are minor in nature. Its an endless cycle of dysfunction.

Also every week, Kuselias moves over to "speak" with various NASCAR Now reporters via liveshots on a studio wall. The pattern is that Kuselias reads a scripted question, lets the reporter answer, and then reads the next scripted question to the other reporter. After about four minutes of this, a sharp stick in the eye almost becomes a viable option. Its horrible. This week, it was less horrible because Marty Smith had good hair. Angelique Chengelis, a close second.

Then, a moment of clarity came to this troubled show. Mike Massaro appeared from an undisclosed location to introduce a story. He led into a piece on Casey Mears and his big win on Sunday night. From the word go, something was different. Massaro was happy and speaking to the viewers directly, without even a reference to the host.

He "framed" the story of Mears crew chief, Darian Grubb. Then, Grubbs joined Massaro by phone for a live interview. Watching a racing guy like Massaro talk to Grubbs was just great. Mike hit on all the key points by asking the right questions, and listening to the answers.

The best part was that his NASCAR knowledge allowed him to "talk racing" with Grubbs in sophisticated and informed terms. This is exactly what this program needs to do all the time. Allow informed reporters to speak with NASCAR guys, and not just the clearly un-informed host. Did I mention it was great?

When it was over, Kuselias would not even acknowledge the great job that has just been done. He picked up his script with "Mike Massaro reporting" and then moved on to some more reading. Anyone who watched this interview could not help but ask themselves why Massaro was not hosting the show, and Kuselias was not back talking stick-and-ball sports with the talk radio gang. With everyone else on the show neck-deep in NASCAR knowledge, Erik Kuselias is a fish out-of-water.

Hopefully, NASCAR Now will soon give Marty Smith the chance to host his own stand-alone segment dealing with news items. Smith does not need scripted questions, and his style of delivery works best with the fans when its off-the-cuff.

Change seems to be coming to ESPN, only very slowly in this case. NASCAR fans can only dream of Mike Massaro hosting, Stacy Compton and Boris Said in the studio, and all the news and feature reporters ready-to-go with good stories and info. Come to think of it, that might be easy to do with one more little change.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published.

RaceDay Celebrates NASCAR's American Hero

Today, we live a life of cell phones, Blackberrys, ATM's and cable TV in High Definition. We expect new podcasts on iTunes, trendy coffee drinks from Starbucks, and want movies on DVD to arrive by mail the next day. We drive-thru for meals, workout on a treadmill, and expect broadband Internet access everywhere. Sometimes, its nice to be reminded how we got here, and who did the heavy lifting.

Things were a little bit different in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1925. That was when Bud Moore was introduced to the world. It was a world in a continuing struggle to define the future of man on this planet. The very fundamentals of what we all take for granted today were still being discussed, and in a very real way.

Kids today at nineteen years old might be home playing Madden Football or Guitar Hero on the Playstation2. For Bud Moore, nineteen years old meant stepping off a landing craft in Europe and fighting for his country. With his South Carolina wits about him, Moore survived the fiercest battles of World War II on the front lines. His return home came with two Bronze Stars, Five Purple Hearts, and his life intact.

Once back home, the survivors of the conflict set about to build their new lives, and slowly put the horror of wars reality behind them. This time in US history ushered in a period of growth and change the likes of which the country had never experienced. Strong men like Bud Moore had returned to invigorate a nation, and they did.

Moore used his mechanical skills to transition to a new sport called NASCAR back before things got all fancy and serious. Moore debuted his team in 1961 with legendary driver Joe Weatherly at the helm in Daytona. They won their first race. From there, things just got better as Moore pushed into NASCAR with the same kind of courage and resolve that had served him so well in his military service.

This season, Wendy Venturini and her RaceDay production team have been putting together a segment each week called "The Real Deal." It is a totally pre-produced feature that has grown in value each week as the NASCAR season has progressed. She has been supported by strong TV production values that result in a lot of historic and rarely seen details appearing in "The Real Deal" reports. This week, for Memorial Day, she interviewed the now-retired Bud Moore.

To talk about heroes is one thing. To see them is quite another. People who go through things that you and I might not ever be able to even comprehend allow themselves to talk about their experiences up to a point. Then, there is no more. They will not unlock the secret room where they have placed the brutal and horrific images and experiences of war. It's how they keep their sanity.

I met Bud Moore back in the 1980's while doing NASCAR races with ESPN. To say he was a character is an understatement. Moore was a wheeler and dealer in NASCAR long before the team owners of today began to bring the corporate culture to the sport. Moore's two championships and sixty-three wins came with a wonderful variety of drivers in the sport from David Pearson to Bobby Allison and finally Dale Earnhardt Sr. Moore was one of the first multi-team owners, and is responsible for some of the best innovations, and most colorful stories, in the sport's history.

Venturini is continuing to define her style as the outstanding NASCAR reporter for this season. Credit John Roberts, the RaceDay host, as a person who stands back and lets Venturini take the spotlight on a regular basis. This partnership has provided the foundation for a very successful franchise for SPEED Channel.

In TV land, its easy to tell which feature reports have been thrown together on short notice for these types of "support" shows. They normally contain the reporter on-camera, interviews shot with news cameras, and some videotape to "show" what the person is talking about. This is called "B-roll" It all gets edited in the same type of standard package that sports TV shows have been pumping out for years. Luckily, for SPEED viewers, "The Real Deal" is different.

Well-crafted television uses the elements like the ones contained in the Bud Moore feature to bring the subject to life. Personal items like historic photos, family pictures, and military medals show the viewer the reality of the story. Old video footage that grabs the viewer and holds their attention because of its content is key. Finally, a well-lit and professional location where the reporter and subject can be seen as dignified and comfortable lets both the questions and the emotions flow. All of this was contained in this memorable feature, on this memorable day.

RaceDay is a program that contains tons of information shown over the live two hour "SPEED-a-Palooza" happening at the track. The antics of Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer could sometimes make Gandhi cringe, but "the guys" serve their purpose and have adapted well to their unique roles on the show.

The surprise this season has been the consistently high level of television production both in the pre-produced show elements and during the live show. ESPN's NASCAR Now and NASCAR Countdown would do well to put RaceDay on the DVR. I am hoping the Fox guys already watch it in the Hollywood Hotel.

As this season continues, let's hope SPEED assigns even more resources to "The Real Deal" in terms of production dollars and time. As for Wendy Venturini, her name keeps coming up when the struggling Inside NEXTEL Cup show is mentioned. So far, the SPEED execs have been mum on that topic.

With the quality presence she currently enjoys on RaceDay, SPEED might just want to think about expanding that franchise onto Monday nights. A dash of class might be just what the doctor ordered, and its just what Wendy Venturini brings.

The Daly Planet invites comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

No Indy 500 Commentary

Readers: Thank you for the many emails, but I am going to politely decline to offer a commentary on the ABC Sports coverage of the Indy 500. This year, The Daly Planet will remain focused on the NASCAR TV partners, and the interesting season that viewers have been watching with great interest. Perhaps, in the future, we may expand our commentary to include the IndyCar and NHRA broadcasts. Thanks again for the email, I certainly understand the very valid points that have been raised, but I think I will leave them for Robin Miller and the Wind Tunnel gang.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Kyle Petty Gets No Respect From Fox Sports

It was a long day and night in Concord, North Carolina. Between the SPEED Channel shows and the NASCAR on Fox coverage of the NEXTEL Cup race, most of the TV crew had been working for over twelve hours. As the longest of all NASCAR races dragged on, it was apparent that a tired crew was running on empty. Unfortunately, the victim of their biggest mistake was Kyle Petty.

After years of breaking new ground in NASCAR technology and innovation, the NASCAR on Fox crew is going out this year on a strangely sour note. Beginning with the short track races at both Bristol and Martinsville, the Producer and Director of the NEXTEL Cup races made the decision only to show the first one or two cars cross the finish line. Just like that, it was decided that the race was only for the win, and nothing else mattered to the millions of NASCAR fans watching on TV.

This left a bad taste in the mouths of fans after Martinsville, but all hell broke loose after only the winning car was seen crossing the finish line in Bristol. Among the cars not shown were Dale Junior and Tony Stewart, both of whom finished in the top five. As the entire field came across the finish line beating and banging for every position, viewers were treated to shots of the winner's wife, crew chief, pit crew, and in-car camera. Basically, all the people we would see in Victory Lane anyway, including the driver. Not one other car was shown from the entire field.

The Daly Planet received several emails from friends indicating that this issue was being discussed in Fox Sports production meetings. It was assumed that this initial attempt at manufacturing some drama would go by the wayside. It was assumed that cooler heads would prevail and that the lead lap cars being shown crossing the finish line would be returned to the telecast. Fans of the lead lap drivers would get to see the stories that the on-air announcers had been documenting for several hours finally pay off. Wow, were we wrong.

What made this all so confusing was that Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip were often still calling the action of the other cars in the field racing to the line while the NASCAR on Fox cameras were showing all the "artsy" reaction shots of wives and pit guys. Even stranger was the fact that PRN Radio was still calling a race that was fully involved in heavy competition by the rest of the field roaring to the line.

Often times, watching the NASCAR on Fox pictures while listening to the Radio broadcast led one to believe that these people were at two different races. How could we be watching the in-car camera of the race winner slowing down on the track, while The Radio Guys were calling a side-by-side battle of two NASCAR Champions for a top five finish? Sound strange? Well, it happened already this season.

Lots of "conspiracy theory" folks have been emailing me this year with their ideas on why this very strange decision was put in place. One theory is to drive NASCAR fans to the DirecTV Hot Pass package. Only by buying the package of their favorite driver could any fan be guaranteed of seeing him finish. Fox can always say, "well we showed the winner, what more could you want on free TV?" If you want to be sure to see your driver finish, buy the package.

As "conspiracy theories" go, that's a pretty good one. With no pay-per-view package on either the Busch or Craftsman Truck Series races, both ESPN2 and SPEED make sure to show a ton of drivers crossing the line at the finish. There has never been an issue in the other two national touring series, even when they are produced from the exact same production truck with the exact same crew. This is a conscious decision by the NASCAR on Fox executives to "eliminate" the entire field no matter what the circumstance before they cross the finish line...unless they win.

The other working theory is that after several years of doing the same races on the same tracks with the same crew...things got boring. Since there is very little opportunity to change the "in-race" television production, the Fox Sports Producer and Director decided to use the football and baseball TV models to "build drama" and crown a single winner.

Lots of dramatic shots suddenly pop-up of the coach, the quarterback, and the team. Then, one long pass for the winning touchdown. Its a nice idea, and its always great to see the Wide Receiver make the catch, but this is NASCAR. As fans know all too well, every position in every race can make or break a team for "the chase."

In the overall scheme of things, someone who did not win may clearly be the story of the race. Sunday, at Lowes Motor Speedway, the NASCAR on Fox gang did a great injustice to Kyle Petty. The worst part is, they did it on purpose.

Kyle Petty is slated to step-out of his car and assume a broadcast position with TNT after just one more race. He has been working hard with SPEED at a television career this season, and his racing has been continually mediocre. Many assume that this is his last season as an active driver.

Sunday, just days short of his 47th birthday, Kyle Petty finished third in the Coca-Cola 600, one of the biggest races of the year. Other than the people in the stands and on pit road, no one saw him finish. Fox Sports got caught up in the excitement of Casey Mears first Cup win, and then got lost. What may become Kyle's last moment in the sunshine was ruined by this strange focus on the winner. Once again, no other cars were shown finishing the race...including Kyle in third.

With only one race left in Dover, the NASCAR on Fox gang leaves a great legacy behind this year of drama, change, and excitement. Those elements are generated by the forty-three drivers that take to the track each race to provide the "content" that Fox Sports needs to make its millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

The ultimate irony is that often the cars "eliminated" by Fox because they did not win the race are sponsored by the heaviest advertisers in the Fox telecast. That leads to a very good question. I wonder if the Fox Sales Department ever watches these races?

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

"NASCAR Now" Rocks "The Spot"

Sometimes, as the long NASCAR season begins to grind on those associated with it, things become funny a lot easier. TV people have a warped sense of humor, and the things that just "happen" along the TV trail make it all the more fun. This week at Lowes Motor Speedway, ESPN had a long trail of people standing in one line. They were not giving things away for free. It was not the line for the restroom.

The line included news reporters, NEXTEL Cup drivers, newspaper columnists, feature reporters, pit crew members, and Busch Series drivers. They were all in line to appear on NASCAR Now, ESPN2's daily racing program. The line was very straight and orderly because there was only one location where everyone had to go. One small round circle that everyone who appeared on this show all week had to stand in. That place became known as "the spot."

Halfway down pit road, twenty feet or so behind the pit wall was the single "cable drop" that ESPN used for every driver interview, every news report, and everything else that required Bristol, CT to communicate with Concord, NC. It was a hilarious keystone cop act that often times required the quick change artistry of Houdini to move one person off "the spot," and another person in.

According to my sources on the ground, ESPN was so "thrifty" that they even used the same microphone for every liveshot all week. One "spot" person would go "off-camera," and while the Bristol-based host was speaking, the new "spot" person would get their earpiece hooked-up and grab the mic. Erik Kuselias would say, "and we go back to the track for..." and the next person would start talking.

After a while, it became more fun to watch the action behind the person speaking than to listen to what they were saying. Viewers got to watch Legend Cars racing, caution flags waving, and lots of people on cell phones waving hello. Sunday, on the one hour edition of NASCAR Now, viewers got to watch laughing crew members negotiate their way around the long line of "spot" people waiting to appear on the show.

Marty Smith showed us empty pit wagons ready for the race, Mike Massaro showed us military men in camouflage, and then Tony Raines showed us security guards in golf carts. "The spot" was suddenly a happening place. Shannon Spake stepped-in and showed us that pit tours had started and the first officials were trickling onto pit road. Spake had been in "the spot" so many times this week she might have been dizzy by now. "The spot" can do that to people.

That led to NASCAR Now's "Mr. Obvious," Tim Cowlishaw in "the spot." Behind him, the first teams were peeling the covers off the pit wagons and laying out equipment. Cowlishaw appears on this program only to add "opinion" to the mix by doing his best Around The Horn impression. As Cowlishaw made his race pick, the crews were testing equipment and marking off their areas. As I watched them, I never heard a word Cowlishaw said. "The spot" has good things about it as well.

His report marked the end of "the spot," and added to the legend that ESPN is so dysfunctional they could allow all their on-camera interviews at a huge speedway to originate from the In TV land, when you have multiple reporters that have to share the same location, you simply "pan" the camera to the left or right a bit to "create" a new background for the next reporter. Its called "re-framing" the liveshot. I learned that in high school in the 1970's.

What made this production problem worse was the fact that ESPN in Bristol has a new High Definition TV studio and a high dollar NASCAR Now set. The contrast between the high-tech studio and the liveshot participants standing amid the noise and trash of pit road was glaring. The drivers being interviewed actually had a crew member headset "placed" on their heads so they could hear over the car and crowd noise.

Perhaps, the "spot effect" could have been softened a bit if someone...anyone had taken thirty seconds to "re-frame" this shot with other background scenery even once during this three day period. In a way, it kind of showed the low level of respect that the Bristol production team has for the "NASCAR gang." No one took a second to whisper into the cameraman's headset "why don't we re-frame that liveshot?" In other words, unless it is "our studio" at "our headquarters," we really don't care. My congratulations to all in Bristol, you certainly convinced us you don't.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ned Jarrett On ESPN Brings Back Wonderful Memories

At first glance, Ned Jarrett appears to be a bit more fragile than many of us remember him. Saturday, Jarrett made a "guest" appearance alongside son Dale as an analyst for the ESPN Busch Series race from Lowes Motor Speedway.

Once Dr. Jerry Punch had welcomed Ned and asked his first question, something magical happened. We were all quickly reminded that age may be a function of time, but knowledge does not fade. Instantly, it was clear that Ned was running on all eight cylinders and was ready for a race. The fire still burned.

While it was a "guest" appearance, Ned began with his first comment at Lap 3, and then made the most of what he had been given the opportunity to do. Everything was still sharp, observant, and most of all, kind.

The trademark of the early ESPN coverage was good humor and good racing. I was lucky enough to be a part of those days, and back then there was little glamour in being in Darlington, South Carolina at the height of summer working a twelve hour day. By today's standards, the track facilities were crude, and the TV equipment was worse. I vividly remember Ned walking on the tin roof of the grandstand at Darlington in 100 degree heat to get to the "announce booth." It was also tin, and there was no such thing at Darlington as "air conditioning." These men had character.

Ned was a self-made broadcaster, and retired early from driving with that purpose in mind. He had adopted a manner of relating to people in person that he could very easily translate into the cable TV broadcasts of the 1980's. In the early days, Ned became a standard by which all other NASCAR radio and TV broadcasters were measured.

Many fans remember Bob Jenkins, the late Benny Parsons, and Ned Jarrett as the people who introduced them to NASCAR. Ned and Benny used their own versions of "Southern Charm" to help cable viewers nationwide to understand the strange sport of NASCAR racing. A "young man" named Jerry Punch was a reporter on pit road.

As the Charlotte Busch Series race progressed, Ned became involved in all aspects of the telecast, and offered the kind of low-key but simple and informative commentary that is sometimes missing from today's broadcasts. It was clear he had watched all the Busch Series races, and knew the drivers and teams. It was great.

In the old days, there were a lot of rough characters who needed someone to help them relate to this new "animal" at the track called ESPN. Ned was often seen in the garage, helping drivers and team members with TV advice long before everyone had "PR guys" and assistants. He taught "TV 101" on a constant basis with absolutely no tuition charged.

Ned was constant in his admiration for the Dale Carnegie public speaking course that had helped him to work with the media and public relations aspects of the sport. He often suggested to others that Dale Carnegie could help them in their professional career. Son Dale followed his father's advice, and is also a Dale Carnegie graduate.

Today's race was particularly touching because many believe that Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree have developed in a short time many of the same positive aspects that Ned and Benny Parsons had in their day. It seems that they both are well-informed, comfortable with themselves, and positive in their comments about the sport. This is a far cry from other announce teams that rely on "personalities" to get the job done. When Rusty Wallace returns to NASCAR after the Indy 500 coverage, he may find himself working hard to regain his role as the lead analyst.

Originally, I thought Ned was going to "sit in" on the coverage and offer his opinions of the action as a "guest." However, it became clear during this entire telecast that Ned, Jerry Punch, Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett were having a great time even with four voices in the booth. There were no egos clashing, no one speaking over each other, and only good solid racing information being offered to the viewer. When Ned stepped aside late in the event, it was sad to see him go.

As a young man in my twenties, there were many times when a kind word or a concerned comment from Ned Jarrett kept my head on straight and put a smile on my face in the demanding world of sports television. To see him now well over seventy reminds me of a time when the world was a very different place, and NASCAR was a very different sport. It also reminds me to continue the practice of showing concern and paying attention to the now "young people" in my life who could use a kind word, or just a moment or two of attention from an "adult" like me. Thanks Ned.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to drop by.

Update: Many thanks to Jayski for fixing the broken link from his stories/articles page. I emailed him an incorrect link, and appreciate him taking the time to fix it.

An Old Ghost Haunts Allen Bestwick

The familiar tones of Allen Bestwick welcomed Busch Series fans to the ESPN2 pre-race show on Saturday night. The fans had come to Lowes Motor Speedway for one of the highest profile Busch Series events of the year. Some of the NEXTEL Cup drivers remained at the track to watch the Busch race. Unfortunately, one of them decided to appear on ESPN2's NASCAR Countdown.

The cameras revealed the new ESPN infield mobile studio and the cast of characters for the pre-race show. In a good move, Andy Petree was present to add the credibility that the infield show has been lacking from an analyst. Also on the set was Brad Daugherty, who once again did not interview, report, or originate any type of content in this program. He should be hanging onto the "Voice of the Fans" title bestowed on him by Bestwick with all his might. He has long since confused race fans with his perspectives and commentaries.

As the host, Bestwick sat on the set knowing that after only one show he had been replaced by ESPN. Announced even as he hosted another classy show, Bestwick had been moved aside for another anchor who ESPN felt was more "familiar" with this role. Her name is Suzy Kolber, and she is currently the sideline reporter for ESPN's Monday Night Football.

She has never appeared on any NASCAR telecast. Kolber will not only host the Busch Series pre-race show, she will also assume the second highest profile seat on the upcoming NEXTEL Cup broadcasts. She will host the NEXTEL Cup pre-race show and continue to be the infield studio host throughout the races. In essence, she was "given" the Busch and NEXTEL pre-race shows before ever having attended a race.

Finally, the last man on the set was revealed by the ESPN cameras. With the three other panelists wearing suits and ties, Michael Waltrip appeared to have just crawled out from under one of his Toyotas. He was wearing an ill-fitting polo shirt and a sponsor's baseball hat...indoors. Prior to air, Waltrip should have been attended to just like the other ESPN announcers. No hat, an agreed-upon shirt, and combed hair should have been demanded prior to allowing him on this program.

For Bestwick, this had to be "deja vu all over again." Many credit Bestwick's calm and professional "straight man" demeanor with allowing Michael Waltrip to perfect his TV personality over the years on Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup Racing. This unique series raised the profile of Waltrip far beyond his driving abilities, and allowed him to craft a very nice niche in a sport that had formerly treated him as a second class citizen.

When Bestwick was summarily removed by SPEED Channel as the host without warning, Waltrip chose to continue on the show, rather then stepping aside in protest. For many, this cemented the fact that Waltrip had changed. Even today, the program limps along with Waltrip and Schrader trying to reproduce their "act" every week with disastrous results.

Saturday on NASCAR Countdown, it was impossible to take Waltrip at face value as he answered questions both as a driver and owner. As a driver, he had failed to make numerous races, and had just crashed in qualifying and missed the Charlotte NEXTEL Cup event. It was not the slow time of his Toyota that kept him from the race, both he and Reutimann simply wrecked as drivers.

As an owner, Waltrip also had David Reutimann in the Busch race that he and the panel were previewing. Waltrip was treated with kid gloves by Bestwick, who respected the struggles of MWR and Toyota a lot more than many of the fans. In another cruel twist of fate, Reutimann's Busch car began spewing steam on the parade lap, and imploded only laps into the race.

As usual, the pit road reporting was solid, the driver interviews were interesting, and the features helped to put the race into perspective. What the pre-race show needed was more integration with the booth announcers, and less conversation with Mikey. The time has come for Mr. Waltrip to step out of the media glare and only return when he has his own professional and personal houses in order. It seems, sometimes, that Waltrip is his own worst enemy. A fact that Allen Bestwick knows only too well.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

ESPN Enters The Danger Zone

ESPN2's daily program called NASCAR Now returned to the air Friday with Erik Kuselias at the helm as host. This was the key preview show leading into the big Memorial Day racing weekend. In the past, ESPN has carried many different types of racing over this four day period.

For NASCAR Now, the weekend held the Busch Series race on ESPN2, and both The Craftsman Trucks Series and NEXTEL Cup races on Fox Sports. While the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series race at Lowes Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, the Trucks are at Mansfield Motorsports Park in Ohio.

As is customary on this weekend, The Indy 500 telecast begins Sunday at noon on ABC Sports. As we know, many other racing series also take to the track over this holiday weekend. Luckily, NASCAR Now is focused on the NASCAR side of the sport, and can offer a preview of the three NASCAR series racing this weekend. Well, that sounds good in theory. Wait until you hear the reality.

NASCAR Now has secured one microphone and one camera at the Lowes Motor Speedway. The "drop" is behind the pit wall about halfway down pit road. They have used this one position over-and-over again as the single camera shot for every story and interview. After a while, its hilarious.

Someone stands in "the spot" and is interviewed, then when the interview is over the Bristol studio host comes on for a minute and then throws back to a new person who is standing in the same spot with the same mic. Same exact spot.

Then, after a commercial, yet another feature reporter comes on to introduce a videotape report. You guessed it, "the spot." In this show alone we had Reed Sorenson, Marty Smith, Shannon Spake, David Green, DJ Copp, and Casey Mears. All from the exact same spot, and all using the same mic. The poor drivers actually had a Stage Manager's headset that was "placed" on their heads so they could hear over the roar of the Legends Cars racing in the background. What they were hearing was Erik Kuselias asking scripted questions. This re-defined bad television.

The NASCAR Now location production from Charlotte was amateurish and embarrassing. With all the TV equipment on the ground for an entire weekend of racing, the only thing NASCAR Now can come up with is one place for everyone to stand? If that track can accommodate more than one hundred thousand people on race day, perhaps it can provide more than one location for the entire NASCAR Now show. What happened to the brand new NASCAR Countdown million dollar studio trailer? I almost felt like suggesting that the NASCAR Now crew walk over to SPEED and use any of the multiple sets that they bring to the track each week.

What we were hearing from NASCAR Now was called "cross-promotion." This allows ESPN to use this "NASCAR" show to focus attention and promotion on the Indy 500 on ABC Sports. Yesterday, Janet Guthrie came on the show to talk about "Women in NASCAR," but she could not remember the name of even one. She was there to promo the Indy 500, the three women in the race, and did so for several minutes...on NASCAR Now.

Today, Chip Ganassi was promoted in the opening segment as having a "big weekend" with a clear reference to Indy. His driver Reed Sorenson and former driver Casey Mears both appeared from "the spot," but would not comment on Ganassi's IndyCar program. Leave it to the drivers to keep the focus where it should belong.

Next, in the NASCAR "News and Notes" the first item was that Richard Petty was going to the Indy 500 in person. That's right, Petty at Indy. Talk about grasping at straws. Moving along, the Craftsman Truck Series got a fifteen second "reader" by Kuselias about the Mansfield race because Craftsman bought a commercial, and NASCAR Now was "forced" to include it. That led directly into a promo for...not the Truck Race, but the Indy 500!

One of the reasons we talked earlier in the year about moving NASCAR Now to Charlotte was the political pressures faced by the Bristol, Connecticut production staff. If your boss tells you to promote the Indy 500 in a NASCAR show, you do it. ESPN is in a tizzy over Indy, and its getting very weird.

This is a big NASCAR weekend. All three national series are running, the Whelen Modifieds are at Stafford, and the high-profile NASCAR Canadian Series kicks off the season at Cayuga Speedway in Hamilton, Ontario. This new NASCAR venture has never even been mentioned by NASCAR Now. But, the Indy 500 certainly was.

The ESPN Busch Series race was promoted, but not the NEXTEL Cup or Craftsman Truck Series races. No networks, no start times, and no features on either race. As we know, that is a pretty clear sign these races are not on ESPN. They must be ignored, and they were.

ESPN is stepping into the danger zone. NASCAR Now will either be about NASCAR and what is "actually" going on in the sport, or it will be about what "ESPN says" is going on. As we know, these two things are remarkably different. If this show continues to cater to ESPN-only programming interests, and continues to drift off-course, it faces continued low ratings and poor performance.

With the Internet, Sirius Satellite Radio, and sites like, who needs NASCAR Now? If you alienate the NASCAR audience with continued ignorance of the sport, and obvious twisting of fact and reality to ESPN's needs, who winds-up watching?

Its unclear what audience ESPN is trying to reach, but inserting other ESPN programming interests into a NASCAR show while ignoring NASCAR's own interests is going to be a problem sooner or later. As we move through May, and head toward June, I believe the later is turning quickly to sooner.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tony Stewart May Change NASCAR TV...Forever

There are some things that TV networks just don't do well. It happens to be the nature of the beast. One of the things at the top of that list is promoting a special event that does not make them any money. Other than PBS, every network is a big business with profit-and-loss pressure on the management. This is why you may not have heard of the "NEXTEL Prelude to the Dream."

If you have, you are probably a die hard NASCAR fan who gets their information from the Internet or radio. Around the sport, this upcoming special one-night-only Late Model Stock Car race is absolutely setting the NASCAR world on fire. Everyone involved in the sport, each with their own reasoning and perspective, will be watching this one race, on dirt, at Eldora Speedway in Ohio.

No, its not for the race date, its on Wednesday June 6th. Its not for the track, Eldora has been around for a long time. Its not even for the type of racing, as Late Models have been circling through our world forever. Most NASCAR industry types will be watching for only one reason. To see if it works.

Tony Stewart has joined forces with HBO to offer the first prime time live pay-per-view racing special. It features an "all-star" cast of drivers specifically chosen to attract attention to this event. There are no points, there are no big purses, and there are no NASCAR tech officials in sight. This is the "Woodstock" of racing.

HBO feels as though NASCAR fans will purchase a pay-per-view package just like the style of all-night boxing that HBO has made so successful. For less than twenty-five dollars, fans get a Wednesday night "happening" that they can watch and record for posterity. HBO is bringing the TV "stuff," and handling all the pay-per-view details.

As the host, all Tony Stewart has to do is bring the drivers and announcers. The line-up of talent is going to be key to the success of the entire project. From where I stand, things are looking pretty darn good. Let me re-phrase that...things are looking spectacular.

So far, Tony has confirmed Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, and Bobby Labonte. Stewart says there will be more announced before race day. Just for spice, Stewart added a little pepper to the mix. Cruz Pedregon, the classy NHRA driver is on board. Pedregon is a dirt track veteran, and owns several midget and sprint car teams.

Finally, as if there can be anything more comes Juan Pablo Montoya to a dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio for a Wednesday night Late Model Show. That, my friends, will truly be a moment in time to be remembered.

Tony and Sirius Satellite Radio sidekick Matt Yocum will co-host the event, with Tony departing when his driving duties beckon. Veteran Mike Joy is going to be joined in the broadcast booth by his NASCAR on Fox colleague Darrell Waltrip, and the co-founder of the Victory Junction Gang Camp Kyle Petty. On pit road, none other than the original Dick "Dr. Dirt" Berggren will be handling the duties. What a line-up.

TV Update: NASCAR on Fox Emmy Award Winning Pit Producer Pam Miller will be producing the event, with her Fox partner Artie Kempner calling the shots as the Director.

The "hook" for the potential participants was that the entire evening will benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp and the Tony Stewart Foundation. That's right, its for charity and that makes it different. No sponsors can whine, no car owners can cringe, and no ESPN anchors can ask "what if he gets hurt?"

The way is clear for a good solid night of heat races, the "B" main, and then the feature. Its going to be dirty, nasty, ugly, fender-bumping, caution-throwing, lots of complaining short track dirt racing. Every fan deserves to see good dirt action, even if they have never seen a short track race, never been to a race in person, or only want Tony to spin Jeff on every lap he can. Face it, this is going to be fun.

The bigger picture is also on the horizon. These are a bunch of professional racers from NASCAR and the NHRA getting together on an "off-day" to race. What if they wind-up generating several million dollars in pay-per-view revenue? What if they outdraw the biggest boxing matches ever on HBO and make tens of millions? Does this mean that the Hendrick vs. Rousch pay-per-view package from Humpy Wheeler's dirt track at Lowes Motor Speedway can be far behind? The potential success of this one night of racing could serve as the catalyst for huge changes in racing on television.

If they got the top twenty NEXTEL Cup, the top twenty Busch, and the top twenty Craftsman Truck drivers together...would you watch them race at Homestead on Christmas Eve? Why not bring along the Indy 500 winner and the top twenty IndyCar guys? Its nice and balmy at Homestead during the Christmas season. What if they opened the stands for a one night "Christmas Eve in Florida" event? Heat races, eliminations, fan voting, and all of this on pay-per-view. See where I am going with this?

Tony has a great idea, and I certainly hope for good weather and great racing. If it works, the charities are going to be much better off, and NASCAR fans never let charity down. If it is super-successful, then look-out for lots of new "TV ideas" to come your way soon. While TV networks do a lot of things poorly, one thing they do copy success to make more money. Can the Jimmy Spencer vs. Kurt Busch match race be far behind? The Brickyard...under the midnight. Two men enter, and only one walks away the winner.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ryan Burr Brings "NASCAR Now" Back To Life

After a long hiatus, ESPN News anchor Ryan Burr returned to host the Wednesday edition of NASCAR Now. Burr is a tremendously professional anchor, and he finally brings to the table a slice of credibility that this show has been lacking.

Burr keeps the pace hopping, and he "threw" right away to Marty Smith for the news updates, including the hilarious fact that Jeff Gordon's team is now "driver shopping" for replacements while Jeff and Ingrid have their first baby. With Mark Martin probably stepping in for Gordon, things in the sport get more curious all the time.

The COT announcement for 2008 came next, and unfortunately NASCAR Now should have had an interview with a NASCAR representative. If Robin Pemberton was not available, then Jim Hunter, Mike Helton, or Brian France should have been shown to fans addressing this key issue for the future of the sport. This was a big mistake by NASCAR, as this program is the only daily outlet for TV interviews. Marty Smith came by to update the story, but it was not the same.

Ray Evernham is a frequent guest on ESPN, and he was interviewed by phone. This helped to put into an owner's perspective what the change to the COT in 2008 will mean both logistically and financially. Ray has recovered from his personal struggles, and appears to be getting his operation back on track.

Unfortunately, ESPN continues to offer Brad Daugherty as an expert, and he is not. While he is knowledgeable and a former Busch Series owner, having him follow Ray Evernham is just not a good idea. While Brad was playing ball, Ray was slugging it out on the racetracks of North America to cement his reputation as an outstanding racing mind.

Daugherty's comments were redundant, and his place in this show is confusing. On NASCAR Countdown, Daugherty is offered as "the voice of the fans." Here on NASCAR Now, he is an "Insider" and an "expert." Sooner or later, ESPN will have to explain to Daugherty what exactly they want him to do. Right now, they specialize in making him look foolish while denying him any opportunity to prepare feature reports, interview guests, or pursue his own story ideas.

Daugherty was pressed into service again to speak to the biggest changes in NASCAR history. He was brought into the program where NASCAR announced the COT full time in 2008 and beyond. Does that tip you off to what he should have addressed? Instead of the COT, he discussed the "Chase for the Cup." It was a disaster. Instead of speaking about the evolution of NASCAR vehicles and technology over the years, he spoke in PR terms about "the Chase." After his rambling and confusing answer, he was dismissed by Burr very quietly.

ESPN is showing the Indy 500 on ABC Sports, and forced NASCAR Now to provide promotional time. In having Janet Guthrie as a guest, Ryan Burr did his best to tie-in the women who have raced in NASCAR over the years. But, even with the graphic on the screen that said "Women in NASCAR," Guthrie addressed everything from an open-wheel perspective. Burr did his best promo, and let Guthrie talk about the women in the big race. This was a bit hard to take.

NASCAR Now has categorically ignored the Truck Series, often times the Busch Series, and completely ignored the NASCAR regional touring series. Suffering the same fate as College Gameday, Burr did not promote the Charlotte NEXTEL Cup race anywhere in the show. It is these types of ill-advised decisions that continue to hound this series. ESPN is slowly making this series about ESPN, and not NASCAR. If it continues, there will be trouble.

Luckily, the return of Ryan Burr overshadowed the other issues. Burr is smooth, great on live interviews, and knows the sport. He has a blast hosting this show, and viewers know it. Now, if the production team can define what items need to be addressed as the sport hits the summer, things will be well on their way to changing for the better.

If, however, they continue to promote only the events on ABC/ESPN and ignore the Cup and Truck Series, they will have made a choice that will come back to haunt them. Last time bad energy started, ESPN lost NASCAR completely. Its an easy recipe to follow for success. The sport comes first, the network comes second. Now if only we could get Chris Fowler that message.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

SPEED Channel's Dysfunctional Family Reunion

It began with the drop of the green flag. Well, in this case, it was the camera pulling out to show the studio set. There, in awkward stiffness, sat Dave Despain's dysfunctional family. It was the "All-Star Weekend" in Charlotte, and the family was holding a reunion. Like most family reunions, once all the hand-shaking and back-slapping was over, things got ugly.

Welcome to the "All-Star" edition of Inside Nextel Cup Racing on SPEED. On the far right is Michael Waltrip, having the worst year of his life. Next to him is Kenny Schrader, who just lost his NEXTEL Cup ride to Bill Elliott, Jon Wood, or a combination of both. To his left is Greg Biffle, who is confused. He does not know if he should follow the conversation of Kenny and Michael, or the scripted droning of the host. To make the reunion complete, to Biffle's left sits Brian Vickers.

Mr. Vickers replaced Johnny Benson a while back and quickly proved that limited NASCAR experience on the track translates quite well into limited NASCAR knowledge on TV. By the end of the year, Waltrip and Schrader were openly mocking him unmercifully.

Finally, there he is once again, the loneliest man in NASCAR, Dave Despain. A great veteran broadcaster put in the worst no-win situation since Floyd Landis.

The sniping between Vickers and Waltrip began early, and was very real. Does SPEED know that these two guys do not like each other? We do. The decision to return Vickers to this set, and this show, is certainly an interesting one. SPEED gave Despain a nice substitute for Vickers in Greg Biffle. He is more experienced, older, and has a nice demeanor about him on TV. This helped to soften the blow of both the out-of-place Despain, and the horrible show format that he is locked into. Adding a fourth voice for this program made Despain's work a lot harder.

By the second segment, the battle over control was on full bore. There was lots of finger pointing, asking of random questions, and talking over-top of one another. Finally, it really did feel like a family reunion. Despain's nervous laughter hid the fact that this program had disintegrated into chaos. With a lot of racing in the "Open" portion of the "All-Star Night," SPEED once again chose to show only wrecks. Vickers tried to make a point, and Waltrip jumped right in and asked Greg Biffle a question as if Vickers did not exist. Despain was so flustered by the end of this segment he did not have a clue. Time for a commercial, and possibly some Valium.

"Why would I ever want to say anything when I have Mikey sitting next to me?" said Schrader to open the next segment. Waltrip talked over the host, his pal, and Vickers as if he was daring anyone to tell him to be quiet. As usual, no one did. Despain dutifully returned to the highlights, and Waltrip and Vickers continued sniping in the background. Kenny Schrader took a very, very deep breath. I think the thrill of this "TV stuff" is just about over for him.

In the middle of the next segment, Waltrip spoke over Despain and dragged Vickers into plugging the changes Toyota was making in their engines. It had nothing to do with the highlights, was not brought up by the host, and showed once again who has the ultimate power in this show. That person is Michael Waltrip. He continued to speak freely on topics not connected with Despain's script. As Waltrip has said quite often, this is "his" show. At this moment in time, he is certainly correct.

As if to prove a point, Waltrip forced a nice big dramatic sneeze in the next segment as poor Brian Vickers once again tried to make a point. Any point. Any kind of random wandering not really on the topic but I have to say something point. And Waltrip was having none of it. He then proceeded to follow a Goodyear Tire discussion by saying the opinions of Vickers and Biffle were um..."ill-informed."

At one point in the show, Scrader and Waltrip were talking among themselves, Biffle and Vickers were chatting, and Despain was trying to use his baritone to restore order and get back to the script. In TV land, we call this a problem. Make no mistake about it, this show was one hour of solid problem.

The finale came when Despain asked if Harvick taking the Segment 4 lead was "a big deal." After allowing Vickers and Biffle to give their views, Waltrip looked at Despain and said "I guess it was important, it was the last lead change." While some may have missed it, what Waltrip said in TV language was "that was the stupidest question I have ever heard you ask while you have been sitting in Alan's seat." Schrader chimed in with "seemed like it may have been a big deal." In TV language, that was "just what Mikey said!"

Waltrip took another broadside shot at Vickers about the idea of a "floating race" on the schedule, simply to make the young man look stupid. There was no other reason. Then, Vickers had his moment. In the final segment Despain said they had about one and a half minutes left. Without missing a beat, Vickers asked "would you like all of it Michael?" Despain almost fell out of his chair. The family reunion was officially over, and Junior had finally taken a shot at Pops. What a day to remember.

Since we have seen absolutely no changes this season, it must be assumed that SPEED is just going to let this series play out, and decide if they are going to bring it back for 2008. I think that is a shame. Why not make a move now to change the host, and try to re-energize the panel? Its like changing a crew chief, or a driver. If something is not working, make a change and give it a chance. Lord knows, Dave Despain won't mind.

This program has been on the air for over a decade. It was up and running just fine long before any of the current SPEED Channel executives were hired. Just because it got stale does not mean it should be allowed to wither and die on the vine. How about Randy Pemberton, Wendy Venturini, Steve Byrnes, or someone else in the SPEED stable who can pump these guys up and get a handle on Michael? What does the network have to lose?

Inside NEXTEL Cup is the only NASCAR review show of its kind on the air. ESPN does not have one, TNT does not, Fox Sports does not. What should be remembered was the time when this show was cutting edge on a small niche cable network called SpeedVision. The commitment of the crew, the drivers, and the host to get back to Charlotte and put together this program for Monday nights was amazing.

Over the years, it has featured tremendous guests, great interviews, and lots of absolutely hilarious moments. How about adding a guest each week? How about a bunch of fan video questions sent through There are so many easy and fun things to do with this show to freshen it up that I am sure the only thing it needs is some attention. For right now, it has our attention...for all the wrong reasons.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

Monday, May 21, 2007

One Hour Of "NASCAR Now" Does Not Double The Pleasure

A while back, ESPN2 expanded the Monday edition of NASCAR Now. The press release mentioned the fact that a one hour show on Mondays would give NASCAR Now the opportunity to recap all the NASCAR racing from the weekend, give fans more news, and present more behind-the-scenes coverage. In fact, it has turned out that the Monday hour has only done one thing for ESPN2. It has doubled the amount of commercials that fans must watch to see the same information.

This Monday, ESPN decided that the Craftsman Truck Series did not exist. Despite the fact that there was no Busch Series race, ESPN decided that they would fill almost the entire hour of NASCAR Now with NEXTEL Cup "All-Star" hype. It did not matter that the Trucks put on a great show right there in Charlotte on Friday night. Right there where the ESPN reporters were standing. Right in front of them.

Ron Hornaday pulled off one of his classic re-starts to beat the likes of Mark Martin, Ted Musgrave, and Kyle Busch. The race was live on SPEED under the lights and was much more exciting than the newly formatted All-Star Challenge. NASCAR Now viewers should have seen a full-length highlights package, and then heard interviews with the winner, and several others who had good stories to tell. They got nothing.

Instead, Erik Kuselias was alone on the set for a full hour of disjointed "hype" about everything from the Busch brothers to Juan Montoya. Somehow, even after all these disasters on Mondays, NASCAR Now continues to shoot itself in the foot. This show featured nothing but Kuselias and Boris Said. Kuselias "hyped," and Boris translated things back into reality. "600 miles!" Kuselias screamed when talking about the next race. "What do you do to get ready?" Boris before you get in the car...because you get hungry. Now, that's drama and insight.

Often times, when there is a Busch Series race on ESPN2, NASCAR Now will not show highlights on Monday. They began this practice a long time ago, and have stuck with it. Let's remind ourselves, these are highlights of their own race, on the same channel, at the same network. Does the left hand vs. right hand joke fit here?

With three ESPN announcers in the booth, four on pit road, two in the infield set, and a multi-hour telecast of every Busch race, you think the network might like to...see it again in highlight form. In the old days, the booth announcers would provide a "wrap-up" of the night after the show was off the air specifically for other ESPN news shows. Interviews would also be "fed" so that there would be new content when it came time to put together the highlight package. If we could do this when I worked at ESPN in 1985, what might be the problem in 2007?

For the past couple of months, The Daly Planet has been hammering away at the "Bristol Boys" that NASCAR has several outstanding regional touring series. Today, NASCAR Now finally caved and invited young Joey Logano on for a live interview. Logano had just edged out All-Star winner Kevin Harvick to win a combined division Grand National race. It was in front of a sell-out crowd at Iowa Speedway on Sunday. The kid is sixteen.

Unfortunately, Erik Kuselias did not know Joey Logano from the man-in-the-moon. His questions of this youngster were absolutely embarrassing. Logano has a great story, great connections with top drivers helping him, and a super future in the sport. The stuttering and stammering Kuselias was forced to ask ridiculous questions like "did you ask Harvick for half of his million dollars?" Every second in a limited TV interview is precious, and Kuselias should have let Boris Said handle this interview. It was very clear from the start that a sixteen year old "boy" was talking over the head of Kuselias with every racing term he used. Logano said he won by "saving his stuff until the end." The look on Kuselias face told the true story. Logano could have been speaking Chinese. Kuselias has no clue to "stuff."

As we reported yesterday, NASCAR is going to have to pow-wow with ESPN pretty soon. We are beginning the time of the year when every decision about what highlights, interviews, and features to show on NASCAR Now will be remembered and critiqued. The play time is over. Fans want to see Busch and Truck highlights on Mondays, they want to know what happened after the race. They want information on the Grand National, Modified, and Busch Regional touring series. They want feature reports prepared on the people behind-the-scenes. Basically, they want what you promised ESPN. This is our sport, and you committed to cover it. Now do it.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

ESPN And NASCAR On A Collision Course

This year, with much fanfare, ESPN announced its return to NASCAR. The press releases detailed a commitment to televise the entire Busch Series, including a high-profile pre-race show. In addition, ESPN would step-in and take the "Chase for the Cup" down the stretch by covering the last seventeen NEXTEL Cup events.

ESPN even promised to put the NEXTEL Cup events on ABC Sports for the highest level of television distribution. The NEXTEL coverage would also include a pre-race show just like fans had come to expect from the other NASCAR TV networks.

In addition to the race coverage, the biggest shot in-the-arm for the sport was ESPN's announcement of a return to a daily motorsports program. This time, instead of covering all types of racing like RPM2Nite, ESPN2 would carry a program that focused solely on NASCAR. Seven days a week, NASCAR Now would be the TV "platform" for all the NASCAR racing series. This would finally allow a singular focus on one of the most "content rich" sports in North America.

Most people felt that ESPN might need some time to work out the bugs in all this new programming. But, from the first Busch Series event at Daytona, the race coverage was solid. ESPN was showing us their best skill, called "event coverage." The booth announcers were solid, the pit road reporters were great, the camera shots were wonderful, and the ESPN reputation for outstanding audio was well-served.

As the races rolled-on, ESPN began to substitute some announcers, because many of them were involved in other ESPN-related projects. Marty Reid came in for Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett stepped-in for Rusty Wallace, and several of the pit reporters rotated to help on the Indy 500 coverage. Still, ESPN showed a consistent and strong presence on the Busch Series events. The Daly Planet has mentioned many times that the race coverage on ESPN has been solid from the word go.

Unfortunately, away from the racing, two problems were developing that would rock ESPN's reputation for quality sports programming. This situation has begun a chain-reaction of frustration and anger that will ultimately result in some type of NASCAR response.

Despite what might be said in public, the problems at ESPN are being closely monitored by those connected with NASCAR. At The Daly Planet, we know all too well that these same problems have already made the fans completely nuts.

The situation most recently in the news is ESPN's continuing struggle with its pre-race telecast. This program is called NASCAR Countdown, and has been a disaster from the start. "ESPN Implodes At Daytona" was the headline of the column I wrote after the first NASCAR Countdown show produced by ESPN. NASCAR fans were presented with Brent Musburger, Chris Fowler, and Brad Daugherty as the ESPN pre-race team. Fowler couldn't stop grinning, Daugherty couldn't stop talking, and Musburger wore a funny hat. It was a mess.

Since that time, ESPN has struggled to identify a viable anchor for the pre-race show. They have also been unable to explain why a Busch Series race needs a "host-master general" like Musburger. In fact, Musburger has tried his hand at the anchor position, as has NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias. Both have failed miserably. They may be great guys, and even good TV announcers, but they both share one common theme that is breaking the back of ESPN's NASCAR credibility. Neither of them knows the sport.

Finally, two weeks ago, ESPN returned to an old favorite of NASCAR fans and brought Allen Bestwick up from pit road. Bestwick is an old pro with a familiar style, and like him or hate him there is no denying his credibility and knowledge. His first show aired the week of Dale Junior's big DEI announcement. Bestwick had Richard Childress on the set, interviews with all the participants, and led the show with ace reporter Marty Smith talking directly to Junior himself.

In just a few minutes, the memory of the earlier mayhem this season was gone. People were talking racing, not creating hype. Bestwick had calmed everything down, and moved the focus back to the facts about the race, and the news of the week. NASCAR seemed to be fun again, and Bestwick let the pit reporters joke around with the drivers and got himself out of the way. Fans bombed The Daly Planet with emails thanking ESPN for the change, and Bestwick for his professionalism. Then, just like that, he was gone again.

Several days ago, ESPN announced that they had named a permanent anchor for both the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series pre-race shows. This person would host all the shows down the stretch, and would be the high-profile ABC Sports pre-race host for "The Chase for the NEXTEL Cup." To the surprise of many, it was not Bestwick. It was not one of the pit reporters. It was not someone from another network's NASCAR team. It was the sideline reporter for ESPN's Monday Night Football. Her name is Suzy Kolber.

ESPN quoted her in their media release as saying "NASCAR has always interested me." Last week at Darlington she was on the ground meeting people and "taking notes." The ESPN release went on to say that Suzy Kolber, Brent Musburger, and Brad Daugherty would be the pre-race anchors for ESPN's first "Chase for the Cup" coverage. While NASCAR has allowed ESPN to struggle with the Busch Series pre-race show, this line-up for the NEXTEL Cup might get their attention. Why Bestwick was moved is anyone's guess. But, one thing is for sure. He is not an ESPN "branded" announcer, and Kolber is. As they say in Bristol, she "drank the Disney Kool-Aid."

Kolber's appointment is curious, as these races fall mostly during the NFL football season. ESPN has said Kolber will continue to do the Monday Night Football games. This means she must "prep" for two NASCAR pre-race shows, and one NFL football game every week. Allow me to suggest one word for that...impossible.

The Monday Night Football game alone normally requires the reporters to be on the ground at the game site when Kolber will be doing NASCAR shows. The huge amount of info to be organized for an NFL football game, including the on-going storylines and the pre-production duties are all done while Kolber will be in NASCAR land. Something is just not right with this whole deal.

So, in June at Dover Downs, Kolber takes the helm of NASCAR Countdown blissfully unaware of the firestorm of fan reaction swirling on every NASCAR forum and chat site. This should be an interesting run to the flag for all parties. Maybe Brent will wear his hat.

The biggest dissapointment of the season for ESPN has been NASCAR Now. ESPN made a very bad strategic move by locating the studio portion of this daily show in Bristol, CT. NASCAR is the only sport where almost everyone lives within forty miles of one location. Not just the drivers, but the owners, crew chiefs, reporters...everyone. That location is Mooresville, North Carolina.

Had ESPN made a commitment to a studio in Mooresville, everyone and anyone in the sport could simply "drive over" to be interviewed. By locating the studio in Connecticut, the "NASCAR guys" are isolated because the sport itself takes so much personal time to be involved in. Not a lot of weekends off between February and November. This leaves one "beat reporter" named Shannon Spake to file reports every day as if she is visiting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh. As this program found out very early, one reporter or fifty reporters on the ground is not going to cut it.

ESPN compounded the situation by deciding to bring in as hosts two announcers who had no experience with NASCAR. Erik Kuselias was a good ESPN Radio host, and Doug Banks was a hip-hop "urban" radio DJ with a huge following in the black community. These two guys were put in the ultimate no-win situation. They can read the teleprompter, but when asked to make conversation about the sport, or participate in any type of interview, they are lost.

Over-and-over again this season, these two have been asked to interview the biggest names in NASCAR. They painfully read the scripted questions, wait until they think the guest is done, and then read the next question. When the Mooresville-based NASCAR Now reporters appear to update the news, the hosts do it again. One at a time, they read the script, and the reporter answers. Its like a root canal with a lug wrench.

By now, the secret is out. The reporters and the guests love to interject and ask the anchors a quick question. Its a hilarious joke within the NASCAR community. Several weeks ago, reporter Mike Massaro asked Erik Kuselias to help him with a driver name because he was so tired from traveling and a night race. The answer was Jimmy Johnson, and it was not hard to provide. Kuselias was flabbergasted. He had no clue. Then, Marty Smith rebuffed a point Kuselias had made earlier in a show during his liveshot, and asked Kuselias about it. Is there such a thing as a "human-in-the-headlights" look? If so, that was it.

NASCAR Now also employs driver Stacy Compton on the set as an analyst, and sometimes the hilarious Boris Said. Compton spends the entire half-hour completely disagreeing with anything that Kuselias or Banks tries to hype, and good old Boris just laughs and shakes his head. With the two drivers on the set, Kuselias interviewed Gordon's Crew Chief Steve Letarte after Darlington. His first question to Steve was "how close were you to blowing up?" You could just hear the muffled laughter in the background. The look on Letarte's face was priceless.

The Bristol-based production team at ESPN has also compounded the situation by continually making serious errors in news judgement. NASCAR Now reporter Terry Blount appeared one day with breaking news at the top of the show. Dale Earnhardt Junior was leaving DEI. Blount also suggested that Junior might start his own team, and that a press conference was going to be held the following day. Blount was professional, and had great inside information. Then, he was gone.

NASCAR Now host Doug Banks returned to reading his script, and for the next twenty nine minutes absolutely nothing was mentioned about this story. Nothing. At the end of the show, Banks had to deviate from the teleprompter to announce ESPN2 would be carrying Junior's press conference the next day. He stumbled through his words, and signed off. In one hour after this show, The Daly Planet had over one hundred screaming emails. One message simply said "who are these guys and why are they doing this to us?"

The answer is to both these situations is simple. ESPN is excellent at "event coverage," but their "program" production is a battle over control. Simply put, it is ESPN vs. NASCAR. ESPN will "bring in" NASCAR reporters, analysts, and commentators with no problem. What they will not do is "surrender" the anchor chair for either NASCAR Countdown or NASCAR Now to a non-ESPN "branded" announcer. Its going to be an "ESPN anchor," and not a "NASCAR anchor." There will be no NASCAR influence, and that has been made clear. ESPN does not care about experience in the sport, they just want "one of their own."

Could you imagine Bob Jenkins in the Brent Musburger position? What memories of ESPN past would that bring to the fans? Imagine the video that could be used of those old days, and how things have changed. If Bob showed-up for the "Chase" the fans would just be floored. Now, there would be a "host-master general."

How about the duo of Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick hosting NASCAR Now? Massaro single-handedly kept ESPN in the sport after the contract was lost, and hung-in there when he was repeatedly thrown out of tracks during a contract dispute over footage. What opportunity does he get for all his hard work? Bestwick has been a solid NASCAR guy for years. He is buttoned-up, dry as toast, and makes no bones about who he is. He can handle studio duties like he did for a decade on Inside NEXTEL Cup, and the anchor chair like he did for NBC Sports. The best part is, he has a level of trust and respect in the sport that is un-matched.

Finally, if someone like Randy Pemberton, Eli Gold, or even MRN's Dave Moody showed up to host the pre-race show, would that be a problem? How about giving Shannon Spake an opportunity after all her hard-work this year for ESPN? This list goes on and on. This job could offer someone who is working hard in NASCAR TV at this time a nice opportunity. It would be fun to watch someone who cared about the sport begin a relationship with the fans that would continue through the ESPN TV contract.

Sooner or later, NASCAR is going to have a conversation with ESPN. NASCAR Now refuses to show Busch Series highlights, refuses to acknowledge the other NASCAR touring series, and uses in-house commentators like Tim Cowlishaw to "talk" for NASCAR. Their coverage of the Truck Series is pathetic. Do you think they know that 16 year old Joey Lagano just outran Kevin Harvick in Iowa? They have never even mentioned the Grand National division on the air this year. What a shame.

Once Kolber, Musburger, and Daugherty get going, NASCAR is going to have to listen carefully. This is critical time for the struggling Busch Series, and how these races are previewed will determine if they continue to be viable, or become just a NEXTEL Cup practice session with a checkered flag at the end.

In the ESPN2 Busch Series pre-race show from Talladega, the Busch race itself was never even mentioned. The ESPN focus was on Sunday's NEXTEL Cup race that was already going to be previewed and telecast by Fox Sports. ESPN was so obsessed with the Cup race, they never even mentioned their own Busch race. Does that not just hurt your brain?

With the All-Star break now done, we begin the business half of the season where the smiles fade, the drama builds, and the money is on the line. If ESPN continues to have problems, it is the sport that will suffer. If ESPN steps-up and makes changes, there is still time to put a solid roster in place that will take this team through the playoffs. Right now, we continue to ponder the question posed by our email friend. "Who are these guys and why are they doing this to us?"

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.