Saturday, February 23, 2008

ESPN Talks NASCAR For Three Wet Hours

If there was ever any doubt that Allen Bestwick was the right man to put in the ESPN Infield Pit Studio, it was erased on Saturday night.

Hosting NASCAR Countdown at 7PM, Bestwick began a three hour journey that showcased the resources and deep racing knowledge that ESPN has finally been able to coordinate for their NASCAR coverage this season.

Hands down, this was a moment for the NASCAR on ESPN team that may serve as a rallying point for the rest of the 2008 season.

Between the Infield Pit Center announcers, the pit reporters and the race announcers in the booth, the network stayed on the air for three hours without a wheel turned on the track.

Now, during the year when ESPN runs into a difficult circumstance with their race coverage, they have something to reference that can serve to inspire the whole team. Simply by remembering that night when they all pulled together to fill three hours in the rain of Southern California, things are not going to seem all that bad when a "TV moment" happens.

Bestwick was simply masterful in organizing the troops, and credit needs to be given to the pit reporters, including newcomer Shannon Spake, who worked in the rain to get interviews and covered a tremendous variety of topics. Sometimes about news, sometimes about personal issues, and sometimes simply about goofy rain delay fun, ESPN got it right.

The amazing thing was that there were no SportsCenter cut-ins, there were no ESPNEWS updates, and there was not a Hollywood celebrity in sight.

This was "old school NASCAR on ESPN." We are at the track in the rain and we are going to stay until it's over. Dare I say, it was even fun to watch.

The cooperation of the NASCAR drivers was outstanding. Fans may have switched favorites after some of the extended interviews and frank conversations exchanged during this coverage. Once again, Rusty Wallace proved himself to be perfectly suited to the Infield Pit Center analyst role alongside of Bestwick.

These two have known each other for years, and Wallace knows that Bestwick will keep him from getting out of hand or too excited. Even Brad Daugherty was key in explaining his former role as a member of NASCAR's committee that serves to hear appeals of penalties for the national series.

Upstairs, Jerry Punch was very comfortable using his reporting skills to draw candid conversation from Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. It was especially nice to see Petree open himself up and show more of his true personality. Tim Brewer pitched in from the Tech Center, and only the bad weather kept him indoors.

In the end, the rain cancelled everything, but from one perspective that did not matter. Everyone on the NASCAR on ESPN TV crew now knows two things they did not last season.

One, they have a new leader in Allen Bestwick. Two, now they can handle anything.

Once everyone dries out it will be interesting to see how Fox and ESPN deal with the pending Sunday TV network scramble.

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Truck Series On Fox Just Not The Same

The NASCAR on Fox gang produced the Craftsman Truck Series race live on Saturday afternoon from the California Speedway that aired on the Fox Network.

This was a hybrid announcing team consisting of Rick Allen, Phil Parsons and Darrell Waltrip. During the regular season Truck Series coverage on SPEED, DW's little brother Michael serves an the analyst. Down on pit road, Adam Alexander carried over from the SPEED package, but Ray Dunlap did not.

Matt Yocum stepped-in to fill that role, and Krista Voda also reported from the pits since there was no pre-race show on this telecast. Normally, Truck Series fans have become used to a well-produced thirty minute show called The Set-Up before each race. Voda has worked hard to make it a success, and often has memorable guests as co-hosts.

With all the good stories coming out of the Truck Series after Daytona, it was a shame that SPEED could not have carried a pre-race show, and then switched fans over to Fox for the race.

Instead, it was Chris Myers and his Hollywood Hotel "act" that welcomed fans to Fox's Truck Series coverage. Voda and company have set a very professional tone over the last several seasons for these races, and that made Myers seem out of place. Luckily, Jeff Hammond kept things on an even keel with his strong knowledge and support of the Trucks.

Voda was playing sick, as several of the TV crew were ill with flu-like symptoms. All three pit reporters worked well and really provided the content that set the tone during the abbreviated pre-race coverage. It was definitely a big moment for Adam Alexander appearing on the Fox Broadcast Network.

Outside the Hollywood Hotel, Jeff Hammond did the first side-by-side comparison of the new COT and an existing Craftsman Truck. As Myers stood awkwardly alongside, Hammond ran down how the Truck Series had influenced and then changed the future of the Cup Series as we know it. That was a good little feature.

When Rick Allen and company took to the air, things were looking up. Parsons and Waltrip had a blast during this event, and "old DW" was especially on his game. Coming off his strong performance on the Daytona 500, he seems to be a lot more involved with the details and specifics of NASCAR than in the past.

When it is not raining, California Speedway makes great pictures, and the Truck race was no exception. Unfortunately, Fox had a driver name spelled incorrectly for the entire race on their graphic ticker, but sometimes the new computer software does not allow for changes when the program is in progress. I think we can assume this would not have happened with the SPEED Channel Truck Series regulars.

The announcers did their best to keep things interesting, even as it became clear that there were two completely different levels of performance on the track. It was nice to see Kyle Busch and Todd Bodine compete, but it was a shame that the trucks could not get themselves involved in an exciting finish.

As the Trucks crossed the line for the final time, viewers again saw the winner and then the NASCAR flagman shot from an infield camera position. Then, they saw a series of shots that focused on the reaction of the winning crew while the rest of the field began finishing.

Ultimately, the Producer and Director allowed TV viewers to glimpse some trucks as they crossed the finish line without any explanation or coordination with the announcers. Then, Fox suddenly focused on two trucks racing to the finish in the back of the top ten and viewers watched them cross the line. It was a mess. This is the Achilles Heel of the NASCAR on Fox crew.

Race fans do not change their loyalty to a driver during the race. If "your driver" has battled back to try and get a top ten position on the last lap, you deserve to see it at home. It could be the turning point of his season. It could be the end of a day of struggling with all kinds of problems. It could be huge.

To summarily dismiss the fundamentals of racing to "make drama" is a huge mistake that manifested itself last season in lower ratings. Why would fans return to a TV broadcast when their driver will not be shown racing to the finish line? If fans cannot see him, they might as well just turn on the race on the radio and go about their business.

The lure of NASCAR on TV is not to see the winner of the race. It is to see all of the drivers equally regardless of their position on the track and at the finish. If NASCAR cannot get this point across to Fox, things are not going to go well.

This moment really threw a wrench into what was a good and fun broadcast with an excited and interesting on-air team. Stripped of the pre-race show and with the Finish Line problems, this telecast came up a bit short of the normal quality we see on SPEED.

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In-Progress At Fontana: "NASCAR Countdown" And Nationwide Series Race on ESPN2

Live college basketball precedes the NASCAR Countdown show for the Nationwide Series race on ESPN2 Saturday night.

Countdown is scheduled for 7PM, but just ahead of it is Drake vs. Butler in live college hoops. Overtime would cause the Countdown show to collapse and the race start to remain on time. ESPN2 needs to get to the big Bassmaster Classic coverage at 10PM, or immediately after the race.

Allen Bestwick hosts the NASCAR Countdown shows this season. His in-studio crew consists of Rusty Wallace, Ray Evernham and Brad Daugherty. Tim Brewer is in the Tech Center as usual. Upstairs in the announce booth is Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree. On pit road is Mike Massaro, Jamie Little, Shannon Spake and Dave Burns.

This was an exciting and also dangerous race last season with lots of high-speed action. It was tough to integrate the production elements like Draft Track and in-car cameras into the telecast and still give the viewers an understanding of what was happening in the race. This race should be challenging for the ESPN2 gang.

This post will serve to host your comments about the Nationwide Series race from the California Speedway. To add your opinion, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are on the right side of the main page. Thanks again for stopping by.

In-Progress At Fontana: Craftsman Truck Race on Fox Sports

This is the first of two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races that will air on the Fox Broadcast Network this season. The other is the Martinsville, VA event.

Production for this race will be done by the NASCAR on Fox team that normally handles the Sprint Cup races. On this event, Rick Allen and Phil Parsons will be joined by the NASCAR on Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip. On pit road will continue to be Adam Alexander, but Ray Dunlap will be replaced, probably by Krista Voda since there is no thirty minute pre-race show. The Hollywood Hotel is on-site, and Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond will be along for the race.

The live program comes on-air at 3PM Eastern Time, and the track schedule indicates that the opening invocation is scheduled for 3:01PM. That would tend to limit the pre-race TV activities. Hopefully, good weather will allow this race to happen.

It should be interesting to watch for the subtle differences between the SPEED team normally assigned to produce the Trucks, and the NASCAR on Fox team that will produce this race. With Michael Waltrip being replaced by his brother Darrell, it gives Rick Allen and Phil Parsons a chance to get themselves on the big broadcast TV network with a high-profile star. This is a great opportunity for both men.

SPEED has been great in providing viewers a nice wideshot of the finish to allow all of the lead lap Trucks to cross the line. The same cannot be said for the NASCAR on Fox crew, who continue to fall victim to the false drama of who won the race being the big story. Every fan has a favorite, and that does not change depending on who is leading. NASCAR fans want to see their driver finish the race. That is the point of watching it on TV. We shall see how that plays-out Saturday afternoon.

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In-Progress At Fontana: "NASCAR Live," Nationwide Qualifying and Cup Practice

After the rainy disaster of Friday, SPEED opens the Saturday TV coverage from the California Speedway with a thirty minute edition of NASCAR Live at Noon Eastern Time.

This is followed directly by Nationwide Series qualifying on SPEED, and not ESPN2. Steve Byrnes, Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond will be along for that action as ESPN is tied-up with college basketball action right up until the Nationwide race itself.

SPEED takes a break for the Truck Series race which will be seen on Fox Sports, and then comes back on at 5PM Eastern Time to cover Sprint Cup practice.

This page will serve to host your comments about these shows on SPEED. There will be new posts up shortly for the Craftsman Truck Series race on Fox and tonight's Nationwide Series race on ESPN2.

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