Tuesday, January 29, 2008

SPEED's Vegas Testing Shows: Where's The Beef?

Like lots of fans I turned on the TV Tuesday night very excited to see a whole slew of COT cars on the big fast Las Vegas Motor Speedway. SPEED was on-hand to document the continuing testing and now had good weather and a fast track.

Unfortunately, the coverage of the actual on-track activity was more than a little light. It was non-existent.

While testing may be old hat to Larry McReynolds, Jeff Hammond and the TV gang, the fans tuning-in wanted to see only one thing. That would be cars on the track. What they got was everything else under the sun.

Certainly, this is a first time effort, but one fundamental truth remains. It is as true for the fans that braved the cool weather at Daytona several weeks ago to sit in the stands as it is for the viewers who rushed home to turn on their TV sets Tuesday night.

They did not come to see the announcers on-camera, even more driver interviews, or fancy graphics. What they came for was to see lots of COT cars going around Las Vegas very fast.

SPEED did a good job at Daytona, and then jumped-in and gamely covered the Media Tour. But, those two things were different.

NASCAR fans knew this Las Vegas test would be very important to their favorite drivers and teams. They knew the Las Vegas oval would prove to be tricky for some drivers in these brand new cars. They were ready for action.

After the Tuesday evening show, the only question to the SPEED guys was "where's the beef?"

The video highlights of the Tuesday morning session lasted less than two minutes, and the afternoon session less than one. While there were "cut-a-way" shots and footage used for "B-roll" during driver interviews, there were no full speed laps shown and no groups of cars shown running together.

Fans got the impression that there was limited acivity on the track. Meanwhile, the NASCAR.com website reported that during the morning session there were 76 cars running. In the afternoon, there were 74. That does not match what fans saw on TV. It is not even close.

As if to add insult to injury, the SPEED crew then pointed out that Dale Junior had run perhaps the most laps of all. If so, where was he?

One lap at Las Vegas is about thirty seconds. Even a big field of cars or a line of team cars would still be lapping at thirty seconds. So, even one minute would buy almost two full laps of COT cars at SPEED for the fans at home. One minute.

Don't get me wrong, the info from the announcers has been outstanding. The tire story, the wind on Monday, and the high number of teams made for good content.

But, the Vegas test is a huge story and perhaps focusing on full laps with McReynolds providing information on what teams are doing during the run would work better than "SportsCenter style" highlight packages of the sessions.

There was no "at the track" feel to the Tuesday program. It was a NASCAR Live style show with video highlights, some driver interviews, and a feature thrown-in from both McReynolds and Dillner. It had the SPEED Stage vibe without the crowd.

There were lots of comments on earlier posts about this subject, and almost everyone said the same thing. We are happy to have this coverage, we applaud SPEED for "upgrading" the pre-season testing commitment, but...where are the cars?

Some viewers suggested that if time is an element for the coverage, the network should consider one hour testing shows that could mix the action and the features.

SPEED has committed to running a historic Daytona highlight, they have a daily Tech Tip feature, and they also produce a specific driver interview. Along with the promos for the track's ticket sales and the multiple SPEED program promos, thirty minutes goes by pretty fast.

Maybe "fast" was the wrong word to use. It seems a tad ironic that "speed" is the one thing sorely lacking in this otherwise solid testing coverage.

Wednesday will bring another 7PM Eastern Time program from Las Vegas, with the testing coverage moving to Fontana for Thursday and Friday.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply cick on the COMMENTS button below and follow the simple instruction. Thanks again for stopping by.

"Inside NEXTEL Cup" On SPEED Says Goodbye (Updated)

Updated: This story is now updated in a new post. Refresh our web page at The Daly Planet address to see the new story. Schrader and Waltrip will stay with SPEED for 2008. (1/30/08 10AM Eastern Time)

Updated: David Poole is reporting on Sirius Backstage that Steve Byrnes will be the host of the new show that will replace INC in that Monday timeslot on SPEED. No word yet on the format, or possible driver panel. (1/28/08 10PM Eastern Time)

When people think back on their favorite television programs, they see moments in time that have been imprinted permanently on their psyche.

Over a decade ago, when SpeedVision was a small niche cable TV network, then Executive Producer Bob Scanlon put a little show together about NASCAR. The format was simple. Get one driver from each of the three makes of cars, add-in an experienced host who knew the sport, and let them talk about the race weekend.

Airing the show on a Monday night meant that NASCAR fans would have somewhere to go after watching the action from the weekend. It meant that every fan would have a chance to hear "more" about what really went on behind-the-scenes.

The beauty of the show was that the people on-camera, the "talking heads," were actually real NASCAR drivers who raced over the weekend. The risk of the show was that none of the three would be trained TV professionals, and it might look a bit awkward.

MRN Radio's Allen Bestwick was tapped as the host. His die hard work ethic and unflappable manner would certainly allow him to control the "TV rookies" on the set, and keep the viewers informed with accurate information.

Michael Waltrip, Johnny Benson, and Kenny Schrader would comprise the panel and represent a good overview of the sport. They would be able to relate their own experiences in the race, and then expand on the racing in general and touch on other stories of the week.

Since viewers would probably get tired of hearing from these three drivers all the time, it would be a good idea to get a guest each week to actually drive to the studio in Charlotte, and sit down for a brief interview.

This sounded like a good format. It certainly had potential. There was also one little thing that made it just a little less pressure-packed. No one was watching.

SpeedVision's viewers could be counted on two hands, because the network was working very hard to convince cable systems to add the new service. Back then, it was car racing, motorcycle racing, and lot of programs about airplanes and boats. Four diverse areas of interest, one network.

Now, here we are in 2008. Fox-owned SPEED Channel is the fastest growing cable TV network in North America and in over 70 million homes. The entire network moved from Stamford, CT to Charlotte, NC. The planes and boats are gone as major programming, and cars and motorcycles dominate the network.

But, one thing has remained for SpeedVision and SPEED viewers all these years. In several forms, with several hosts and with several different drivers, Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup Racing has been there every NASCAR Monday. Except, of course, for the time it was cancelled. But, that is another story.

While reading this column, you may begin to think about moments on this show that you simply will never forget. Nothing was high-tech, nothing was glamorous, and nothing was shocking. For over ten years this little Monday night TV program delivered the one thing that is priceless.

That, my friends, is fun for the entire family in front of the TV set.

What was your favorite moment? Schrader asking Mike Helton how much he made....just for the record? Waltrip faking a microphone failure after his Daytona 500 win...and watching the entire studio almost have a stroke? Someone actually allowing three NASCAR drivers to get hold of a video replay controller? Any Michael Waltrip bad hair day? JB laughing so hard he could not talk?

My favorite moment was when the garbage truck picked up the dumpster behind the studio while the show was in-progress...every week.

Now, after a tough season on-the-air with the 2007 version of Inside NEXTEL Cup, the network has stepped-in and called a timeout. Veteran fans remember when INC was the anchor of an exciting and groundbreaking Monday evening of original NASCAR programming on SPEED.

The cooperation between NASCAR Images and SPEED resulted in fantastic shows that exposed both the good and the bad sides of the sport to fans like never before. In a way, it was a block of "NASCAR reality" programming.

In 2007, INC sat alone on Monday nights. Surrounded by lifestyle shows that reflected the new wave of SPEED management, it was only a matter of time before "TV reality" caught-up with the INC franchise.

What we know is that INC needed to change. What was debated in this forum was the "how," the "who" and the "what." Most of us knew the "why."

What we know right now about INC is that SPEED has ended the version of the program that aired in 2007. We also know that because of the NASCAR and SPEED connection, there is little doubt that a brand-new Monday night NASCAR program will emerge.

The needed changes were pretty simple...in theory. NASCAR has three national touring divisions, all three need to be covered. Because of all the issues in the sport, it would be good to have a weekly guest. Since SPEED has reporters at every race, why not use them to contribute to a weekly SPEED NASCAR program?

The other issue is not so clear-cut, and gets a whole lot of comments and email flowing. That is the choice of the people on-the-air from the studio. When Allen Bestwick was "released," many folks took out their wrath on new host Dave Despain.

In reality, Despain drained the joy and life out of this program like a sharp pin stuck in a big red balloon. The "change of course" from almost out-of-control with Bestwick to always totally in control with Despain was immediate, strange and just plain wrong.

As we have said many times, Dave Despain is a great broadcaster and a time-honored TV racing veteran. The issue is the program, not the person. Race teams use the word "chemistry," and despite the polite conversations and efforts to give honest answers, this program had sometimes become like watching paint dry.

Just as we have seen a major shift in two high profile network TV properties from the ESPN group, we are now waiting to see what SPEED will offer in the way of a new NASCAR Monday night TV show. Nothing will define this show more than who is selected by the network as the host. We should know that next week.

Name the new show what you will, schedule it when you want, and paint the studio set any color. NASCAR fans want fun content presented to them in a way that makes their knowledge of the sport and their love of the personalities grow.

Just like Mike Helton and Brian France promised to loosen the leash on driver behavior this season, it is time for SPEED to do the same. In this season of change, it should be interesting this coming week when the network announces what they have decided to create to replace this decade-old TV franchise.

As we wait for word of their decision, perhaps we could use this "unofficial end" of INC to ask readers to post their favorite moment, best memory, or most interesting interview from the past ten years of this program. When you think of this interesting cast of characters, what comes to your mind?

To add your comment, simply click on the COMMENTS button below and then follow the easy instructions. There is nothing to join, and we do not want your email address. We just want to know, what was your favorite moment from Inside Winston/NEXTEL Cup Racing?