Monday, July 2, 2007

Here We Come With More "NASCAR Now" Chaos

The familiar voices of Erik Kuselias and Tim Cowlishaw greeted NASCAR fans who tuned-into the one hour Monday edition of NASCAR Now. Also on the set, positioned as the "NASCAR guy," was former Crew Chief Tim Brewer. Taking the place of Stacy Compton, Brewer was the "designated voice of reason" among the very excitable Kuselias and Cowlishaw.

The slow pace and plain-spoken nature of Brewer makes understanding his concepts easy. Brewer is a guy who has "been there" before, and his summary of the NEXTEL Cup race at Loudon was straight forward. Good strategy, and why they did it.

Then, in a very strange moment, Kuselias got Denny Hamlin's Crew Chief on the phone and asked him exactly the same questions Brewer had just answered. Why not give Brewer a chance to do this interview? He was right there on the set. Kuselias asked ridiculous questions that added nothing at all to the story. What a complete waste of time. Did I mention that Tim Brewer was right there on the set? NASCAR Championship Crew Chief...Tim Brewer...who works for ESPN.

One of the toughest parts of the show for fans who want news is watching Kuselias read scripted questions very quickly to the NASCAR Now reporters. This is so rehearsed and structured it might as well be done on videotape and just mailed in. Monday, once again, Kuselias did not allow the reporters to talk freely, or to each other. Just like the situation with Kuselias interviewing Hamlin's Crew Chief, someone other than the ill-informed host should be in charge of this segment.

Often, its been suggested that ESPN favorite Marty Smith should host a daily news segment on NASCAR Now. Letting Smith bring-in the other reporters and give a good overview of the "real" NASCAR scoop would get rid of this scripted nonsense. When NASCAR Now has allowed the reporters to talk freely, and also allowed Mike Massaro to even "host" a news segment, things went quite well.

Massaro showed up next to present a great feature on DEI, and the changes since Junior's announcement. Much like Bill Weber, Massaro is great at putting together solid features on NASCAR topics, and he delivered. Then, he "tagged" the piece on-camera and unfortunately was forced to endure more scripted questions from the host. Kuselias then chased Massaro off the show without as much as a thank you. This guy is just plain "harsh." This is not sports radio...we can see you.

This weekend the Craftsman Truck Series put on a great show in Memphis. Travis Kvapil put the chrome horn to newcomer Brad Keselowski and won in controversial fashion. The Keselowski name is well known in racing, and Brad gave a heart wrenching interview after the finish. The race was exciting, and had a great field including Aric Almirola and Chad McCumbee, two of the hottest drivers in NASCAR. It was absolutely the best race of the weekend.

Unfortunately, the Trucks are on SPEED Channel. Monday, NASCAR Now decided to promote ESPN's drag racing coverage, run a feature on next weekend's Daytona Cup race, and interview Busch driver Eric McClure because he almost flipped his car on Saturday. That is what they did do.

What they did not do was show any highlights of the Craftsman Trucks. There was no interview with the winner, or the hard-luck rookie Keselowski. No "sound bites" from the other competitors, or anyone else. On the one hour show that they specifically expanded to show more highlights, NASCAR's third national touring series was purposefully ignored by ESPN.

Let's re-state some facts. NASCAR Now is the only daily TV show about the sport. ESPN is in partnership with NASCAR in several areas, including international programming and on-line ventures. They are now an integral part of whether NASCAR continues to thrive or whithers away and dies a slow death.

NASCAR Now does not promote any NASCAR races that do not air on ESPN or ABC. They do not cover the Whelen Modified Tour, or any other NASCAR regional racing. They have no "studio presence" in Mooresville, and rely on one "field reporter" Shannon Spake to cover the entire NASCAR community.

This season, they have already fired one "racing illiterate" co-host, and now cling perilously to another only because he is a former "ESPN Radio guy." Allen Bestwick, listed as a NASCAR Now co-host, has done two shows this entire year. Mike Massaro, Shannon Spake, and Marty Smith have never been given even one opportunity to host this show. Ryan Burr, from ESPN News, has never been a consistent presence as a co-host. Once again, as we come into July, NASCAR Now is a mess.

The ABC/ESPN family is a little over three weeks from taking over NASCAR. They will air both the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series races exclusively until the end of the season. They will provide the pre-race shows for both series from the infield. They will provide the only daily NASCAR show on TV. They will once again assume the lofty perch that the network occupied seven years ago. ESPN and ABC Sports will become the "face of NASCAR" until the season is over.

This is the final opportunity for NASCAR Now and ESPN itself to shift gears from a "branded" approach promoting only ESPN interests, to one that has the best interests of NASCAR at heart.

Should the only daily TV show about NASCAR continue to refuse to show the sport as a whole, ESPN's own fate with TV viewers and NASCAR fans will soon be sealed.

The big problem is that this time around...NASCAR's eggs are all squarely in ESPN's basket.

The Brickyard 400 is July 29th.

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Craftsman Trucks on SPEED Are The Best Show In Town

This season, The Daly Planet has been chasing around the bad things that seem to be happening more and more with NASCAR's TV partners. Sometimes, its good to go back and relax with an old friend. This past weekend, the Craftsman Truck Series was in Memphis under the lights. Krista Voda led a professional broadcast filled with emotion, information, hilarious fun, and good racing. Imagine that.

Voda brings her class and professionalism to this series, and having her on pit road for the pre-race show really sets the table for each event. She has been freezing in Daytona with Mark Martin alongside, and sun-baked on a pick-up truck tailgate with the fans in Milwaukee. In Memphis, a polished Voda hosted the show alone under the spotlight...literally. She is an on-air talent for SPEED that continues to shine.

Rick Allen has come a long way as a racing announcer since he first began with SPEED. Nothing has helped him to mature in the play-by-play role more than having Phil Parsons as a partner. Early on, Parsons would gently step-in and correct a mistake, or re-focus his rookie partner. Now, Allen has finally come into his own, and leads a solid event team that clearly works together well.

With apologies to Dave Moody, Parsons continues to quietly be the "godfather" of the Trucks. He has lent his strong support to the series when times were good, and now, when times are not so good. He continues to re-focus the TV broadcast on the racing elements that are really important, and avoids the temptation to "hype" incidents.

Ray Dunlap continues be a piece of work. One day he is on Tradin' Paint yelling about the state of racing, and the next he is in a Boris Said wig bowling with the Craftsman Truck guys. If you missed the new "Kingpin" of SPEED, you missed a lot of fun. "The Ray" was just toying with the drivers while dispensing his highly technical bowling advice. This included..."its all about the form baby." Absolutely hilarious.

The best part of SPEED's coverage is that the drivers are shown as "people," both on and off the track. Fans know Todd Bodine, Travis Kvapil, and Ron Hornaday. But SPEED greets the new faces, and makes them welcome. Brad Keselowski, Chad McCumbee, and Aric Almirola are drivers who have become better known because of their truck experiences.

SPEED's technical crew makes great pictures, and in Memphis that was complimented by outstanding audio. The big roar of the trucks and the dynamics of the track were really captured and poured through the TV speakers. On the graphics side, SPEED's in-race ticker moves at a good speed and with a good color selection that makes the information easy to see. With a track like Memphis, the in-truck cameras really worked well in the lighting. All-in-all, a super technical outing.

Finally, thanks to the SPEED Director for making the choice to show the viewers a wideshot of the finish line and allow the field to race to the end on-camera. This makes such a big difference, and on this night allowed the other stories of the field to be played out. SPEED has been the only network consistently covering the finish of the field, and fans can only hope this will continue for the remainder of the season.

Unfortunately, NASCAR Now on ESPN2, TNT on its race coverage, and ESPN while doing the Busch Series all refuse to promote the Craftsman Trucks. Instead of one big sport, its like rival fraternities at the same college. They might show highlights, but will never promote an upcoming event. On many cable systems like mine, SPEED languishes alone in the pay tier and is rarely visited other than for scheduled events.

Perhaps, some nudging by NASCAR to its TV partners to promote events, and not networks, would go a long way in raising the profile of the Craftsman Truck Series. Besides, if the TNT and ESPN production crews would catch a Craftsman Truck race, they might pick-up some pointers.

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Bestwick Back In At Daytona For ESPN

ESPN has just announced that Allen Bestwick will be replacing Brent Musburger as the host of NASCAR Countdown this week on Friday night in Daytona. NASCAR Countdown is the infield studio pre-race show for the Busch Series. Instead of Rusty Wallace and Andy Petree on the set, Bestwick will once again be joined by "the voice of the fans" Brad Daugherty. Dr. Jerry Punch will handle the play-by-play.

Hopefully, Bestwick will ask Petree to join him for the show, or invite another great guest. In Daugherty, Bestwick does not have the type of experienced analyst he needs to follow-up on the stories being reported. In the past Bestwick has brought Richard Childress and other high-profile NASCAR personalities on as guest analysts. His personal relationships with them really added to the content of the program.

With only weeks until ESPN and ABC Sports begin their critical coverage of both the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series run to their championships, Suzy Kolber is again nowhere to be found. She will debut as host of both Series pre-race shows when ESPN begins Cup coverage at The Brickyard 400.

TNT Promotes Itself And NASCAR Suffers

How many times in one TNT broadcast can you see Bill Engvall with his shirt off? How many times in one TNT broadcast can Engvall talk about being naked with Nancy Travis? How many times in one broadcast can Holly Hunter scare you, and Kyra Sedgwick just kind of creep you out? In TNT land, the answer is simple. As many times as they want.

From the start of the first of two pre-race shows on TNT from Loudon, New Hampshire, the story was not NASCAR. The story was not the fans, or the track, or the weather. The single biggest story was that TNT had only two more races after this one to promote every single thing shown on the network for the rest of the year. Time was winding down on this promotional season, and NASCAR was not going to interfere.

Engvall started the chaos in the pre-race by aimlessly wandering around the track and asking goofy questions that somehow related back to his new series on TBS. So, in addition to the promos for his show in the commercial breaks, fans got a pre-produced feature in NASCAR content time. Wonderful.

Also from TNT, lots of middle-aged NASCAR fans got to watch the cool rock band "Hinder" perform on the front stretch in the pre-race show. Nothing has a better fan reaction than screaming hard rock music for clean-cut families in baseball caps at noon on a Sunday. Most of them were still trying to tune their scanners. This reaction is also especially true when most of the fans are from New England. Needless to say, this party was somewhat less than hardy.

Coming off a total broadcast disaster in Sonoma, Bill Weber and company did not offer any apologies, or explanations. They actually had the gall to show highlights of the Sonoma race that were not even seen or explained on their own live telecast. This is the network that went off the air without even showing fans a final finishing order. I guess when the staff is so busy with planning the promotions, a small thing like the actual race broadcast can be overlooked.

TNT pulled itself out of the total basement with the return to the booth of Kyle Petty and the return to good health of Larry McReynolds. These two have been the heart-and-soul of every telecast, and that continued at Loudon. They are unaffected by the "inside jokes" of Weber, Dallenbach, and Snider. Petty and McReynolds have the uncanny ability to focus on racing, and leave the TNT sideshow behind.

The saving grace of the pre-race was an excellent feature on the Victory Junction Gang Camp. Finally, fans got to see campers having fun and being challenged to rise above the level of physical ability they had when they arrived. The Petty family provided the commentary and that is all race fans needed to get on-board this emotional train. I wish they had featured the computer lab sponsored by longtime NASCAR supporter Jay Adamczyk, who created

Just as Dallenbach was a good second voice to the late Benny Parsons, he is also a good partner for Kyle Petty. Dallenbach is an independent thinker, and responds well when challenged for his opinions. As the race turned into a boring no-pass affair, Dallenbach stayed focused and followed Petty's lead of trying to figure out the race strategy. Alone last week with Bill Weber, Dallenbach collapsed into a frustrated analyst who was not getting, or seeing, the information he needed to understand what was going on. On the big circle at Loudon, he just had to look out the window.

This TNT season has totally cemented the reputation of Larry McReynolds as an all-around NASCAR analyst. McReynolds is everywhere. He can show car details on the cut-a-way, update stats from his computer, or detail race strategy from listening to the scanner. He is basically a one man "think tank," and he is doing it all from the infield with a TV monitor and a calculator. In this telecast, the booth announcers felt free to call on him directly for all kinds of advice and information. He has clearly been the star of the TNT portion of the season.

The true test of a play-by-play announcer comes when things are just not exciting for the viewers. Guys like Mike Joy, Barney Hall, and Marty Reid can search around and find something to talk about that gets everyone energized once again about the event. This is not the strong point of Bill Weber. Often, in the follow-the-leader single groove action at Loudon, things were downright dull. Rather than "pump people up," Weber prefers to "wax poetic" about something obtuse. Only the strong voices of Petty and McReynolds served to keep this telecast on track.

TNT is in the process of promoting their "commercial free" telecast of the Pepsi 400 from Daytona next week. No one in their right mind believes for a minute that this telecast is going to be "commercial free," but rather that TNT has found a way to include more commercial content in a new form. They are calling it "wide open coverage."

The official word is TNT will "feature animated national sponsor messages, including original branded content and distinct sponsor vignettes." The scoop is they will use the lower third of the screen to fill it with sponsor messages and TNT promos, and use a "flying box" like the NASCAR on Fox gang used earlier this season to show replays. Only TNT will be showing commercial elements that have no time restraints. It should be interesting.

The only full screen commercials will be the ones inserted by your local cable or satellite company. That should be about three an hour. While this general approach sounds promising, the TNT track record this year with commercials and promos is dismal. With an existing score ticker and in-race graphics already on the TV screen, using the lower third for sponsor elements while actually showing some racing could be a challenge.

A big thanks from The Daly Planet to the TNT Director. He used a wideshot to show the cars coming to the finish line at Loudon, and inserted a live scoring graphic. Luckily, this approach caught the Kurt Busch incident and proved the need to watch the field cross the line. It was a very positive element for the telecast.

This race in Loudon allowed TNT's announce team to get back on track, while continuing to re-enforce the fan's belief that TNT is in NASCAR to promote itself, and not the sport. Come July 16th, the day after the Chicago Speedway race, TNT will once again flee NASCAR quickly, and then reflect on the amount of broadcast promotion they were able to do between that pesky racing stuff. For most fans, it will be good riddance.

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