Sunday, March 25, 2007

SPEED's Victory Lane: The Little Engine That Could

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fox Sports: The Big Mistake At Bristol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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