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?