Tuesday, May 29, 2007
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 else...it 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.
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