Tuesday, May 1, 2007

SPEED Channel: "Inside NEXTEL Cup" Continues To Survive

Many NASCAR fans remember that Monday nights on SPEED used to be "must view." The hilarious and irreverent Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing set the table for several hours of great NASCAR programming. It was a powerful block of TV that re-aired right away, and sometimes was fun to sit through twice. It was almost perfect, and it put SPEED on the map. This was long before the Craftsman Truck Series, RaceDay, or Victory Lane. Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing was a cornerstone of the network.

Alan Bestwick was the "ringmaster" for three naughty and misbehaving NASCAR drivers who barely had a clue to the format of the show. Johnny Benson, Kenny Schrader, and Michael Waltrip were often like three guys "just sitting around talking." They liked to play with the remote control machine, loved to harass the guest on "the hot seat," and basically talked about the weekend from the perspectives of three guys who were there. Every year when NASCAR President Mike Helton was a guest, Waltrip or Schrader would always ask him how much he made...just for information purposes. It was plain and simple and fun.

Then, change occurred in the most unusual way. A new SPEED TV executive decided to put his "mark" on this program by "freshening it up." Instead of quietly making changes in the off-season, he demanded change immediately. Bestwick and Johnny Benson were summarily dismissed from the program in an awkward and demeaning way. Alan was dignified as always, and Johnny was hurt. It was ugly.

Installed by the new regime was WindTunnel host Dave Despain, and NASCAR newcomer Brian Vickers. The program format was changed to reflect a tightly scripted environment where Despain was in complete control, and spoke over-top of anyone who dared to pipe-up out of turn. He often times looked very distressed on the air when it was apparent that his "control" was slipping away.

Kenny Schrader and Michael Waltrip were the surviving "Musketeers." They related directly to each other, and secondarily to Despain and Vickers. As the season progressed, they could barely contain their disgust for what the program had become, and began a hilarious campaign of purposefully throwing Despain off his train of thought. It wasn't all that hard to do.

Poor Brian Vickers was put in a no-win position from the beginning. Other than the one perspective that detailed "his car, his race, and his team," he had absolutely nothing to offer. Kenny Schrader and Michael Waltrip just spoke right around him, often completely contradicting what he had just said without even batting an eye.

Now, in late April of 2007, the current group of "survivors" soldiers on alone and uninspired. After Talladega, both Schrader and Waltrip speak on the panel as non-participants. Greg Biffle, the current third panelist, patiently answers the scripted questions put to him by Despain, who is the ultimate survivor.

There is no laughter, there is no fun, and there is no "new" content to attract NASCAR fans. Any regular SPEED viewer has already seen the NEXTEL Cup highlights on The SPEED Report, Victory Lane, and Wind Tunnel before Inside NEXTEL Cup hits the air. When you tack on NASCAR Now, SportsCenter, ESPN News, and the local TV station sports, its pretty much assumed that the last thing fans want on Monday night is the same highlights of the same race...again.

When the show is over, there is no additional NASCAR programming. There is no "block of NASCAR" for fans looking for original shows. NASCAR Images and SPEED have not re-built the Monday night line-up, and that is certainly a shame. Inside NEXTEL Cup now sits as an island, surrounded by Pinks and the re-airs of car auctions. Once a cornerstone, now alone and desolate.

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