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 Speedtv.com? 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.

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