Monday, June 4, 2007
After many years of leading NASCAR, Bill France Jr. finally succumbed to the health problems he had been dealing with over the last several years. His passing was not unexpected, but certainly comes as a shock to those of us used to his "presence" as the driving force in NASCAR racing. Both cable networks associated with NASCAR, SPEED and ESPN2, offered tribute programs on Monday evening. They were both worthy of watching.
Erik Kuselias hosted the NASCAR Now tribute show on ESPN2. The show featured Brad Daugherty and Tim Brewer on the set, along with a list of other reporters and NASCAR personalities on the phone, and in the ESPN Charlotte-area liveshot studio. It was a solid group of people speaking from the heart.
ESPN has decided to lock itself into a format that fans have been dealing with all year. It revolves around control. A friend of mine refers to it as the "passive aggressive studio host" format. The smiling studio host has everything possible at his fingertips in terms of people and resources, but never allows anyone to speak when they are not designated by him. And, no one is allowed to speak to each other at all during any program. Tonight, that continued.
Kuselias has a background in sports radio, where there is no script and things are dealt with on-the-fly. He and his brother Chris built up a regional radio following, and then Erik hosted The Sports Bash on ESPN Radio. He was known for his very intelligent ability to dominate conversations without appearing rude on the surface. This may have been aided by the fact that he is a lawyer from the University of Michigan and also a member of MENSA.
His ease in controlling an un-scripted conversation was on display in NASCAR Now's one hour tribute show to Mr. France. Billed as a regular edition of the show, the production staff moved almost all the news, highlight, and feature material out to make room for the France content. Kuselias managed a large group of people who came and went on both liveshots and telephone interviews quite well, showing off his radio skills. It was the content issue that was fascinating.
For many of us, nothing is more fun that to swap old NASCAR stories. They may be about television, a driver, a race, or a personality in the sport. There are lots and lots of stories to swap about Bill France Jr. and his life. Almost everyone in the sport has interacted with Mr. France, especially in the 1980's when TV was in the process of exposing this regional sport to the nation through a new cable network called ESPN.
In this program, the Bill France stories and the personal remembrances flowed from every guest. They included personal help from the France family, hard fought battles with legendary drivers, and lots of memories of a stern but fair taskmaster. As these memories went on, it was clear that the one person who was just simply blown-away by them was the host. Erik Kuselias was getting an education in NASCAR live on national television.
As the memories came from Rusty Wallace, Bobby Allison, Dr. Jerry Punch, and others, you could see Kuselias beginning to get a clue as to how big and what this sport is actually about. Erik is from Hamden, CT and is a Red Sox fan. Like myself, he attended lots of Hartford Whalers hockey games. Unlike myself, he has absolutely no background in NASCAR what so ever. This show was his wake-up-call.
The best moment came when Kuselias casually introduced Rick Hendrick, who was on the phone. It was clear from the start that Kuselias did not know Hendrick, and did not know the personal tragedies that he had experienced over the last decade. From his struggle with Leukemia to the awful airplane crash that took members of his family, death is the one topic that any knowledgeable TV host would slowly and carefully lead Hendrick through. Kuselias was as subtle as a hammer, and as flippant as any radio talk show host could be.
At the end of the interview, Kuselias asked Hendrick if he had a favorite story about France Jr. There was no doubt that Hendrick had reached his limit with the "racing illiterate" host. Hendrick asked "did you see Days of Thunder?" Kuselias eagerly replied that he had. Very dryly Hendrick said "that was me in the meeting." Kuselias did not get it. The look on his face never changed.
Hendrick politely explained how Mr. France had ended the war between Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt Sr. simply by getting them together with their owners and indicating if they wanted to continue as drivers in NASCAR, things were ending...right now. Mr. Hendrick put Mr. Kuselias in his place without a raised voice or an off-hand comment. Kuselias was hosting a TV show, while Hendrick's life story was already being made into movies. If there was ever a more priceless moment on NASCAR Now, I cannot remember it.
SPEED Channel has the advantage of being in the NASCAR world for many years now, and it showed. They selected Dave Despain to do what he does best, direct traffic and then get out of the way. Despain brought Larry McReynolds and Steve Byrnes onto the set for some open discussion about NASCAR, the France family, and the passing of Bill Jr.
The personalities featured on this broadcast were second to none. From Junior Johnson to Humpy Wheeler, SPEED had rolled out the manpower and resources to cover this breaking story in complete detail. Allowing the panelists on the studio set to ask questions of the guests was the best point of the program. Had ESPN allowed this, the dynamic of their show would have been completely different.
SPEED used their network resources that had remained at the track on Monday to originate RaceDay and Victory Lane to provide a lot of content. They also provided more detailed driver sound bites, and a better background of the France family to those who are new to the sport.
The ability of the host and production staff to understand the "inside" of the sport was evident when John Cooper was interviewed at length on the phone by Despain. As the former President of Daytona Speedway, Cooper more than almost anyone had a daily interaction with Bill France Jr. that let SPEED viewers understand what made this complicated man tick. Cooper described the many sides of France, and helped people to understand that this family-run business was a labor of love from people who grew up in racing.
This SPEED presentation was far-and-away superior to the ESPN show, but each network had moments that viewers enjoyed. The advantage of SPEED being in Charlotte, NC and having the resources of the Fox stations and manpower also helped greatly. These types of situations help to point out the fact that a lot of information is left on the table with ESPN basing the only daily NASCAR show in Bristol, CT.
Had SPEED passed on doing a "special," all of the original and exclusive information seen on SPEED would never had made it to air. Fans are better off having several media outlets to choose from for NASCAR information, and perhaps SPEED will use this absolutely wonderful show as a springboard to originate more quality NASCAR programming. Let's hope that SPEED makes this show available again on the air, and also on an InternetTV basis.
Both networks scrambled to put together programs for primetime with a lot of effort and logistical work involved. Fans who watched both are better off in understanding the tremendous effect Bill France Jr. had on the sport, and the people who surround it. Thanks to ESPN for shifting the NASCAR Now focus to the right place, and thanks to SPEED for producing a one-time special that was excellent to watch.
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It was a moment on a Monday in a rain-delayed race that perhaps not many Americans even heard. Mike Joy was the perfect person to break the news to the country that Bill France Jr. had passed away. Joy did it in a dignified manner, which we have all come to expect of this veteran TV professional.
The Fox team broke the news before it appeared on ESPN, CNN, SpeedTV, or any of the websites associated with these networks. They even beat our good friend Jayski on this news bulletin. In a way, you have to credit NASCAR for proceeding in this direction. The live Fox broadcast was the perfect place to allow the news to be delivered in a controlled way.
As the race continued to progress, it became apparent that things would have to be approach somewhat differently for the rest of the telecast. The Daly Planet will update what changes were made, and how the telecast progressed when the race is over.
Update: The entire NASCAR on Fox team dealt well with the difficult subject of Bill France Jr.'s passing. The race turned out to have some passing, and some strategy, but overall was the least interesting of the three events run at Dover this weekend. It certainly was not the type of ending that Fox Sports had in mind for its portion of the NASCAR season.
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ESPN's latest press release eliminates Doug Banks as one of the hosts of NASCAR Now, the daily show seen on ESPN2. Back on March 14th of this year, The Daly Planet wrote a column about Mr. Banks. It was entitled "the Doug Banks era begins...this should be interesting." As you may remember, Mr. Banks was a hip-hop urban DJ with a large following in the black community.
Mr. Banks sudden presence on a national NASCAR television show was never explained. There was never any information about Mr. Banks interest in the sport, his interest in television, or his sudden career move. It became apparent to anyone watching this program that Mr. Banks had absolutely no NASCAR knowledge at all.
Now, it seems that Mr. Banks has gone as swiftly and strangely as he arrived. He has not been re-assigned to any other TV role on ESPN, or any of its networks. We have not seen him getting more TV experience on ESPN News, or even doing reporting assignments in the field. Mr. Banks seems to have left the building.
If this was a daily national baseball or football TV show, the hiring and subsequent firing of Mr. Banks would have made headlines. It also would have been splashed all over the sports blogs from Deadspin to KissingSuzyKolber. But, this is NASCAR and not Baseball Tonight or NFL Countdown.
As viewers have been discovering, the NASCAR knowledge in the ESPN middle and senior management is limited. The experienced types are working on the races themselves, which have been fine all season long. This leaves a twisted bureaucratic mess of managers to try and develop both the on-site pre-race show, and the daily Bristol, CT studio show. With the programming executives sticking their hands in the pie on the production side as well, things are just plain horrible.
Mr. Banks seemed to be a nice guy. It was tough to tell because he was never allowed to be himself, only to read a script. Over-and-over again, he was forced to dance to the ESPN2 drummer. The NASCAR talk was bad, the reporter conversations were bad, and the interviews with NASCAR drivers were absolutely horrible. But, how is that his fault? Who knows what ESPN promised this man if he would come on board.
Let's hope for Mr. Banks sake that he is back in radio and rebuilding his career after this very strange trip to NASCAR land. As much as I would like to meet Mr. Banks and shake his hand for giving it a try, I just don't think I will be seeing him at a NASCAR race anytime soon. So, good luck to you Doug, it was nice almost knowing you.
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