Saturday, June 16, 2007

ESPN2 Shows Only One Car Finish At Kentucky

Kentucky Speedway can turn-out a crowd like the Busch Series rarely gets to enjoy on its normal Saturday events. Often times treated like just an "after thought," viewers this season have seen the Busch guys put on a show for almost empty stands on several occasions. Phoenix in April was a good example.

After a strong pre-race show, the Busch drivers took to the track Saturday for a stand-alone weekend race televised on ESPN2. Only a couple of NEXTEL Cup drivers made the trip from Michigan to Kentucky to compete, allowing the Busch regulars to finally shine. As usual, Carl Edwards was the man to beat, but the race was any one's to win.

Marty Reid and Rusty Wallace provided the commentary, with a solid team of pit road reporters who cover this series like a glove. The chemistry between the pit road gang and the teams is one of the most outstanding elements of the ESPN telecasts.

On a hot night in Kentucky, NASCAR was smiling as finally some side-by-side racing was being show on national television. In primetime, the Busch Series put on some of the best racing of the year, and kept things clean and professional most of the time. It was clear that these guys like this track, and the fans were eating it up.

ESPN2 viewers of the Busch Series have a running joke about how many times Rusty will mention his son Steven, and how many times Steven will be mentioned because he hit something or someone during the race. Normally, they almost even out because Steven is definitely working on his car control and temper about as much as Rusty is working on promoting his race team. Saturday night at Kentucky was no exception.

The Busch Series has great human interest stories with its young drivers, and this Father's Day weekend proved to be a perfect scenario for this race. Young Brad Coleman is going to be huge in NASCAR in a couple of years, and ESPN pit reporter Jamie Little talked to Brad's father as Brad was leading the pack late in the race. One could see where Brad gets his patience and balance, as Mr. Coleman was a calm and supportive father to this young man.

As things strung-out, it became clear that the ESPN technical crew had again put on another sparkling race. The driver and crew chief interview by radio at the beginning is a great touch, and having the driver continue as the "in-race reporter" is a lot of fun. This week with Stephen Leicht was even better as he won the race.

Unfortunately, the ESPN production crew became caught-up in the excitement of having their "reporter" win the race. As Leicht came across the finish line, he was alone and unchallenged. The problem is that viewers only saw Leicht, and no one else finish the race.

Young Brad Coleman was not shown finishing second. Former Cup driver Scott Wimmer was not shown finishing third. It was amazing that ESPN would not show Aric Almirola or Marcos Ambrose, two high profile Busch drivers, finish the race in 6th and 11th respectively. This was a really big mistake, and it needs to be corrected.

Earlier this year, Fox Sports decided that after four hours of hard racing, the fans at home only deserved to see the winner cross the finish line in NEXTEL Cup races. It was suddenly more important to see one car slowing down and a pit crew jumping up-and-down than it was to see the remainder of the field screaming toward the checkered flag. Saturday, ESPN joined that club. No one other than the winner finished the race unless you were seated at the track and watching live. How fair is that to the viewers?

There was no graphic display of the cars as they came across the line, no "wideshot" on-camera to watch the beating-and-banging, and no thought given to the stories on the track that were still in-progress. As I type this late Saturday night, I feel as though I was cheated out of the end of a good book, or the last inning of a baseball game. I have no idea who was racing to the line, what happened in the last lap, or why my driver finished where he did. If you were pulling for someone other than the winner, you were just flat out of luck.

For a series chasing fans at half-empty racetracks on Saturday afternoons, this ESPN snub is a tough one to take. The Busch series was finally alone, in primetime, on the regular TV network home of the sport. The stands were packed, the cheering crowd was awesome, and the storylines were fantastic. One can only imagine the battling to the finish on this fun track under the lights. ESPN made that decision for us, and told us very clearly. If you wanted to see the finish of this race, you should have bought a ticket. Tough end to a great race on a good track for NASCAR.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

ESPN Finally Lets Mike Massaro Shine

Longtime NASCAR fans like to tell Mike Massaro stories. The time Massaro was drowned out by the helicopters because the only place he could do interviews was the helipad. Massaro soaked in the rain on the access road. Massaro leaning into car windows to ask drivers for comments. Race after race, with ESPN kicked out of the NASCAR race tracks, there was Mike Massaro by the side of the road...waiting.

Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, Mike Massaro had to wait no more. Finally, ESPN gave Massaro an opportunity to step-up from pit road and host the Busch Series pre-race show called NASCAR Countdown. The results were fantastic.

Alongside of Rusty Wallace, Massaro got right into the Earnhardt Junior story and aired the interview that he had taped on Wednesday with Junior himself. This included the RCR and the "three car" comments that were omitted from NASCAR Now by a technical error. This got the big news out of the way, and allowed Massaro to re-focus the show on the Busch Series.

Massaro made sure to include Brad Daugherty, who is either ESPN's expert analyst or the "voice of the fans," in the Junior comments. As the season has progressed, the racing issues being discussed are more serious and require the perspective of someone who has been there. Judging by the expressions of Rusty Wallace, he perhaps believes that Daugherty is just a little light on experience to be a NASCAR "expert" on national television.

When the Busch Series races as a stand-alone event, there is a feisty and fun spirit that exists in the garage area and on pit road. Its as though a bunch of teenagers have just realized no grown-ups are around and they have the keys to the car. ESPN's pit reporters have been excellent in capturing this spirit and having fun with the drivers. Introducing the new Busch stars was supposed to be an important key to why ESPN is back and telecasting every Busch race. This time, they actually did it.

Massaro has solid experience in dealing with a wide variety of broadcasting situations, and on Saturday that proved to be a big advantage. Massaro directed traffic between the booth, his analysts on the set, Tim Brewer at the cut-a-way car, and the pit reporters. Massaro looked at home on the new high-tech ESPN set, and hosted a fast-paced and fun thirty minutes.

With the impending arrival of Suzy Kolber as the host of NASCAR Countdown, this was a solid audition by Massaro as both her back-up, and the host of the stand-alone Busch Series race preview shows. Earlier this season, Allen Bestwick also stepped-up from pit road and hosted two solid and informative pre-race shows. So, for ESPN, its good to know they also have the worst case scenario covered.

Massaro also manned the infield studio anchor position for Busch qualifying and the race itself, giving the network a good look at his ability to deal with flexible situations in a live environment. Maybe, after all the years of hard work and long nights, ESPN might consider allowing Massaro to host some mid-week editions of NASCAR Now. You know, its always good to have an experienced back-up quarterback waiting on the sidelines. One never knows what trades management might be considering as the season progresses.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.

TNT and ESPN Need To Watch "The Set-up" On SPEED

For NASCAR fans, one of the key programs for all three of NASCAR's national touring series is the pre-race show. This one hour or thirty minute live show is the best source for fans to get the lastest information on events at the track and in the sport.

Earlier this season, the NASCAR on Fox gang offered up the tired Hollywood Hotel, while ESPN rolled-out NASCAR Countdown. Just last week, TNT began its NASCAR "mini-season" with a one hour "pre-pre-race" show followed by a thirty minute "countdown to green" pre-race show. Ninety minutes is a long time.

As readers of The Daly Planet may recall, Fox struggled to keep a disinterested Chris Myers from ruining the vital link to the fans that the Hollywood Hotel had become. His laughing and goofy "West Coast" personality often times served to paint Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip as "less than intelligent," and he regularly used his biting and arrogant "dry wit" to make sure NASCAR fans knew he was "better" than they were. Then, just like that, Fox was done for the year.

ESPN had great success with their event coverage, but absolutely hit the ground nose first where their pre-race show NASCAR Countdown was concerned. Debuting at Daytona with College Gameday host Chris Fowler at the helm, ESPN quickly found their own credibility being questioned. A verbose and uninformed Brent Musuburger filled the Jack Whittaker role as "telecast host," and former college basketball and NBA veteran Brad Daugherty was cast as the on-set expert analyist. Needless to say, things did not go well.

Almost immediately, ESPN began to scramble to identify the problems with NASCAR Countdown. ESPN had great pit reporters, a good announcing team in the booth, and great technical support. It seemed the the only issues were located on the infield set, and seated in chairs. Fowler was soon gone, and ESPN used Brent Musburger for one show. Musburger may like racing, but his days of high profile anchoring are long gone, and he did not know the Busch Series drivers, the series history, or any NASCAR news items. Needless to say, things did not go well.

Next, the network brought-in NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias. A former ESPN Radio talk show host, Kuselias had a strong following on his Sports Bash program, and his listeners were quite surprised when he left. Kuselias had always been dismissive of NASCAR, never discussed it on his show, and never displayed any interest in the sport. But, here he came to anchor a program all about the Busch Series. Needless to say, things did not go well.

Kuselias was soon back in Bristol, and the network asked pit reporter Allen Bestwick to step-up and host the show. Bestwick is a veteran, and his calm demeanor allowed ESPN to catch its collective breath. The show was calm, the information was good, and Bestwick re-labeled the naive Daugherty as "the voice of the fans."

Then, from out-of-the blue ESPN announced that they had found their host for both the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series pre-race shows. It was Suzy Kolber, the sideline reporter from ESPN's Monday Night NFL Football. In her first show, Kolber used her SportsCenter experience to smoothly anchor the infield set. The only issue was, she knew absolutely nothing about NASCAR. ESPN does not care, and she is in for the season. Needless to say, things might not go well.

During all this excitement, SPEED Channel has been laying low and producing the Craftsman Truck Series. This dynamic group of racers has been consistently putting on the best NASCAR racing of each weekend. Right alongside of the drivers has been The Set-Up, SPEED's thirty minute pre-race show. If there has been a better or more consistently informative and entertaining pre-race show, I have not seen it.

Krista Voda is the regular host, with Ray Dunlap and this week John Roberts filling in. SPEED has made this racing series the success it is, and The Set-Up has been a big part of the reason why. The SPEED set is outdoors, and not climate controlled like ESPN, or totally enclosed in a truck like the Hollywood Hotel. It really allows fans to get a feel of being trackside when the set is positioned at the end of pit road.

This season Voda has been a professional and supportive voice for her NASCAR series, while the Busch Series has often been totally ignored by ESPN in their pre-race show. The Daly Planet has published several columns documenting the hilarious antics of ESPN, who has spent entire Busch pre-race shows talking about the NEXTEL Cup race. It seems that the entire TV crew was auditioning for ESPN's NEXTEL Cup races later in the season at the expense of the poor Busch Series.

As we know, Fox had it's pre-race struggles this season, and TNT had a tough time with the rain delay at Pocono right out of the box. The tension between the gruff Bill Weber and the pre-race host Marc Fein was evident. Weber never even introduced Fein to the national TV audience before his first time on-camera. That's a feel good moment.

Through it all, Voda and her Set-Up gang have cruised with great features, solid interviews, and terrific information promoting the Truck Series. With veteran drivers flocking to the Trucks, its wonderful to see Voda with Mark Martin, Jack Sprague, Ron Hornaday, and Mike Skinner. This show "surrenders" itself to the activities and news of the series, and serves as a conduit for information provided directly to the viewer. By the time the race rolls around, the stage is set.

Voda has been a team player for SPEED for a long time, and viewers have fond memories of her from earlier NASCAR shows on SPEED that are no longer with us. Her calm personality allows her to mesh well with all kinds of guests, and she uses her solid knowledge of racing to her advantage, without letting her ego get in the way. As Fox Sports begins to put together its line-up for 2008, Krista Voda must be on the short list of personalities who might inherit the old Hollywood Hotel.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.