Saturday, June 23, 2007

The "Allen Bestwick Show" Takes To ESPN2

This week on ESPN2's continuing presentation of NASCAR's Busch Series, the network was traveling light. The Milwaukee Mile did not bring out the network heavyweights, and the excuses ranged from being on vacation to just taking this weekend off.

Dr. Jerry Punch, Marty Reid, Brad Daugherty, Suzy Kolber and Tim Brewer were nowhere to be found. This left ESPN with no play-by-play announcer, no infield NASCAR Countdown host, no infield analyst, and no crew chief at the cut-a-way car. Amid all these MIA announcers, the network needed someone to step-up and run the show.

They did not call on an ESPN "name." They did not call on Erik Kuselias, the host of NASCAR Now. They did not "borrow" Mike Joy or another network play-by-play host. Instead, they turned to the one man who has been the "designated hitter" for ESPN's NASCAR coverage all season long. Quite simply, Allen Bestwick has been the story of the year in NASCAR TV.

In an early Daly Planet column, it was mentioned that fans had a hard time seeing Bestwick as a pit reporter for the Busch Series at Daytona. The memories of Inside NEXTEL Cup Racing and both TNT and NBC's NASCAR coverage were still fresh in their minds.

Bestwick lives and breathes racing, and has over twenty years of his life invested in NASCAR. Now, he was roaming the Busch pits far from the spotlight, and surrounded by an ever-changing cast of characters.

Those of us with a couple of years under our belts remember Bestwick as an organized and thoughtful reporter for MRN, NASCAR's radio arm. Those two characteristics have been hallmarks of Bestwick's career. They have also been his biggest downfall.

This season, Bestwick has gone from pit road to hosting the NASCAR Countdown show after Dale Earnhardt Junior's big "leaving DEI" announcement. He also flew to Bristol, CT, and hosted an edition of NASCAR Now. He is currently listed as a co-host of that show. Now, at Milwaukee, Bestwick steps into the play-by-play role for a primetime race while also hosting the pre-race show alone. The most asked question by fans on The Daly Planet is "why does ESPN not understand what Allen Bestwick brings to NASCAR racing on TV?"

ESPN is owned by Disney, and that corporation has slowly filtered itself through the many thousands of ESPN and ABC employees worldwide. ESPN executives no longer "search" for young announcers, they "cast" them. After working for ESPN on one assignment, announcers can be "re-cast" on another sport or program series. While this may work at Disney World, the results for ESPN have been catastrophic.

No where can this philosophy be seen more clearly than NASCAR. Jerry Punch, longtime ESPN loyal employee, was "re-cast" as a play-by-play announcer. ABC Radio announcer Doug Banks was "re-cast" as a NASCAR Now co-host, as was ESPN Sports Radio announcer Erik Kuselias. Brad Daugherty, the former college and NBA standout, was "re-cast" as an expert NASCAR analyst. Finally, after a long search, NFL Monday Night Football sideline reporter Suzy Kolber was "re-cast" as the NASCAR Countdown infield host.

All these people are "cast members," I kid you not. In the Disney corporate culture, it does not matter what you know, you simply read the script and "create TV." That lesson was painfully made clear to fans earlier this season with NASCAR Now, which featured two hosts who knew nothing about NASCAR. They simply read the script, and "created" a thirty minute show. It was almost scary.

Now, the wheels have fallen-off this entire approach to NASCAR, and ESPN is changing everything but the kitchen sink while taking it in the teeth from critics. ESPN executives have publicly promised change while NASCAR Now and NASCAR Countdown were ridiculed by fans on message boards and chat forums nationwide.

With ESPN's NEXTEL Cup coverage only a month away, the Milwaukee Busch race was a fascinating lesson in "old time TV." There was no infield million dollar set. That meant NASCAR Countdown was hosted by Bestwick from the roof of the track's tower.

Instead of Suzy Kolber, Brad Daugherty, and a "guest to be named later," fans got Rusty Wallace, Andy Petree, and all the pit reporters working hard to tell the stories of the day. What they also got the entire night was "The Allen Bestwick Show."

From the start, it was clear Bestwick would set a casual pace and let everyone talk. There were no "inside jokes," no snide digs, and no control issues. Bestwick did what he does best. He came organized, stepped aside, and let the other announcers shine. Wallace, Petree, and the entire pit road gang had a blast.

The windy pre-race show from on top of the tower was wonderful. It let Wallace and Petree finally set the table for a race they were going to call. It let pit announcers talk directly to each other, and do the kind of reporting that they were hired to do. Jamie Little and Shannon Spake worked hard all night long and went a long way toward removing their NASCAR rookie stripes at the end of the season.

Petree and Wallace embraced their freedom to talk, and let it flow. Though many fans still have trouble with Rusty's style, he is who he is. Petree does a very good job of keeping Rusty calm, balancing out the points he makes, and reinforcing the things he agrees with. Talk about the ultimate crew chief.

Added to the plot was the Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Scott Wimmer stories as the race unfolded. Ultimately, it made for a fun race on a nice night with a lot of action for the fans. It was the kind of race ESPN "used to do." Three booth announcers, a couple of pit reporters, and lots of good commentary.

As if to pay tribute to the old days, the ESPN Director took a wideshot and let the electronic graphics display as the top twenty cars screamed across the finish line. What a refreshing change from the NEXTEL Cup coverage of only one or two cars finishing. The technical parts of this event were solid, and the only production issue was not enough full field re-caps. That was a bit tough with the good racing.

Sometimes in TV, the best coverage is the simplest. In a couple of weeks, ESPN will unfold their massive coverage of the Brickyard 400. Again, "you are looking live at somewhere" will ring from Brent Musburger as "telecast host." Suzy Kolber will be hosting the high-profile NASCAR Countdown from the infield. She will be asking a lot of questions, as she has been to two NASCAR races...ever. Brad Daugherty used to be a part-owner of a Busch team. So, he will be the infield expert analyst for NEXTEL Cup. Jerry Punch will be in the booth, where talking for three hours has proven not to be his favorite activity. The word is, Allen Bestwick "might be" a pit road reporter.

When that happens, remember that Allen, Rusty, Andy, and three pit reporters brought you a preview show and race from Milwaukee with no infield host, no infield analyst, no infield crew chief, and no hype. They did not need a "telecast host," cut-a-way car, or a million dollar infield set that spins. All they needed was nice solid NASCAR racing on a classic track with good drivers and a professional ESPN production team. That's why ESPN got into this business, and on Saturday night at Milwaukee, it finally showed.

As the Milwaukee telecast closed, Bestwick said "what a night." Petree said "what a story, I'm glad I was here." Finally, Rusty Wallace said "one of the greatest races I have seen in a long time." Fans who like good racing and good TV should be able to agree with all three comments. What a fun night of racing on ESPN2, something that has never been said on The Daly Planet this year. Thanks Allen.

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