Tuesday, May 6, 2008

E:60 Takes An Unfocused Poke At NASCAR (Updated)

Update: Information given to The Daly Planet has revealed significant on-camera interviews were witheld by reporter Michael Smith and his producers. This new column details the issues now coming to light about this story and the credibility of those who produced it. (Updated 9PM Eastern Time 5/7/08)

ESPN's version of 60 Minutes is a interesting sports magazine show called E:60. It has a dynamic opening and then video of a conference room with the trendy reporters all present. It also has the obligatory cool video effects. What it rarely has is focus.

Comprised of a talented group of reporters and producers, it is a show in search of an identity on a network where almost every other program has a singular purpose. The ESPN description of E:60 is loaded with buzzwords like unique content and multimedia platforms.

What it all comes down to is a TV show that is chopped-up and posted online all over the place. For that reason, one feature is never connected to another. For sports fans, therein lies the problem. It doesn't feel like an ESPN show.

Since it began, there have been reports about the Mixed Martial Arts, people who vault off things for fun and an embarrassing interview of baseball player Miguel Tejada. There was the guy trying to do a back flip in a wheelchair and a rehash of Mike Tyson's never ending personal problems.

In this most recent episode, the show dipped its toe into the quasi-NASCAR water with a feature on a driver development school called the Full Throttle Academy. It was reporter Michael Smith who spoke with a family that had uprooted itself from Ohio to the Mooresville, NC area after being recruited by a Full Throttle executive.

Smith profiled the family's thirteen year old son who clearly had dreams of a future NASCAR career. The key word in the entire story was NASCAR. The school's staff used that word a lot. In return for an outlandish amount of money, the youngster was able to get some basic media coaching, turn some laps at a local Carolina short track and get some "expert advice" from the school's executive named Tom Baker.

Mr. Baker is featured on a website called Mindstar Academy where he is the President of that company and said to be focused on building brighter futures. His resume describes him as a Life Coach and Mentor.

Current Dario Franchitti NASCAR spotter Mike Calinoff is listed as the Vice President of Mindstar Academy.

Interestingly, it is the same Mr. Calinoff who is the President of Full Throttle Academy. This time, Mr. Baker is the Vice President. Calinoff is also listed as a coach for the young development drivers. Other than spotting, his resume features stand-up comedy and motivational speaking.

Calinoff does have one thing to offer, and that is the word "NASCAR." To a naive family from Ohio, NASCAR may have been the only word they ever heard him say.

Smith never presented anything to suggest that Full Throttle was shady until NASCAR veteran reporter and current ESPN play-by-play announcer Dr. Jerry Punch appeared on-camera. Punch suggested that this type of school really did not serve a purpose other than taking money from those naive enough to believe that this group somehow had a special pipeline to NASCAR.

Full Throttle Academy actually features the official NASCAR logo on all of its website pages. To many, it may appear that this "school" is officially sanctioned by NASCAR. To those in the marketing business who understand how closely NASCAR guards the use of its logo, this connection is curious. If Full Throttle was paying NASCAR a hefty fee to use the logo, it was never disclosed by Smith.

It was pointed out that in three years of operation, there was currently no driver racing at any level in NASCAR who had come through the Full Throttle program. What was never discussed or asked was how profitable the Academy had been in that same period. It is this type of credibility gap that E:60 suffers on a regular basis. It often feels like storylines are left incomplete and loose ends are not tied-up.

The feature ended with no conclusions. There were no other ESPN NASCAR personalities involved and Calinoff was never on-camera for an interview. Hearing from Calinoff rather then Mr. Baker the "Life Coach" was the key to unlocking this entire issue and getting to the truth of the matter. Why or how ESPN let Calinoff off-the-hook was never explained.

Smith had a lot of resources and knowledge only a phone call away. Between the NASCAR Now journalists and the ESPN analysts, Smith could have left viewers with enough information to decide if Calinoff and company were simply scam artists or well-meaning entrepreneurs.

Hopefully, E:60 will come back to NASCAR as the season progresses and again delve into some of the issues behind-the-scenes. NASCAR Now has turned its attention to news and interviews, with only Wendy Venturini on SPEED's RaceDay working on a regular basis to prepare features on different aspects of the sport.

It might be a smart move to have NASCAR Now follow-up on the entire driver development issue during the shows prior to the Cup race at Darlington. With several current drivers having young sons and daughters coming along in the sport, there may be some strong reactions to what Baker and Calinoff are doing. That effort might at least tie-up a couple of Smith's very loose ends.

Update: The video is on ESPN.com and this is the direct link. You can also watch the story discussion on the same page.

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Darlington "In The Dark" On Thursday

The NASCAR action starts at the famed Darlington Raceway on Thursday at 3PM. Both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series will be taking to the track for two practice sessions.

All of the stars of the sport will be on the newly-paved raceway trying to get their cars dialed-in for both qualifying and the two races. With afternoon and evening practice sessions, there should be some interesting stories for the NASCAR television partners to tell the TV viewers live on-the-air.

Unfortunately, none of that will happen.

As the exclusive TV network of the Nationwide Series, ESPN2 will not be televising any of the Nationwide practice sessions on Thursday or Friday. The network will also not be televising the qualifying for the series.

ESPN2 will be on-the-air at 7PM Friday for the Nationwide Series race. That is the total amount of the network's on-track NASCAR programming from Darlington.

The NASCAR on Fox telecasts of the Sprint Cup Series races are transmitted over the Fox Broadcast Network through the local Fox TV stations. This allows Fox-owned cable TV network SPEED to "partner-up" with NASCAR and show Sprint Cup Series practice and qualifying sessions.

The SPEED commitment to the on-track action has been significant. The SPEED Stage and the TV programs produced by The NASCAR Media Group have met with great success. One element of this presence that has been a big hit with the fans is coverage of selected practice sessions.

Analysts like Larry McReynolds, Jeff Hammond and Hermie Sadler have been outstanding in explaining what is going-on during this live coverage. Long runs, short runs, plug checks, qualifying trim and the myriad of adjustments taking place in the garage are almost overwhelming.

Once viewers have seen these sessions, they have a whole new perspective on qualifying. During practice, the TV reporters in the garage area can deliver the stories as they actually happen. Fans can know first-hand the issues and the struggles of the teams as they approach qualifying like never before.

On this Thursday at Darlington with speeds approaching two hundred miles an hour, those stories will once again be underway. Unfortunately, there will be no one on-the-air explaining them to the TV viewers.

Across the nation, the TiVo's and DVR's will not be humming. There will be no need to record the action to view after work. Darlington will be "in the dark."

During the early Sprint Cup practice session on Thursday, SPEED will be showing a mud race as Lucas Oil presents On The Edge. As the Cup cars take to the track under the lights in the evening, on-the-air will be another presentation of PINKS followed by Pass Time. That TV series is a drag-racing game show.

In the days before cable TV, professional golf was reserved for the weekends and the broadcast TV networks. With the advent of ESPN, TV golf veteran Frank Chirkinian brought live coverage of the Thursday and Friday rounds of PGA Tour events to the nation on cable TV.

Suddenly, America discovered that there was sometimes more drama in trying to simply make the cut than in winning the tournament. Sometimes, the favorites were in big trouble. Sometimes, an underdog was at the top of the scoring sheet.

This Thursday in Darlington, the NASCAR teams will be scrambling to make the cut and get in the race. They will be doing whatever it takes to get their car "in the show." Some of the favorites might be in big trouble. Someone no one expected might be at the top of the scoring sheet.

When SPEED finally comes on-the-air this Friday at Noon, the Nationwide Series practice sessions will have concluded. SPEED will televise the remaining daytime Sprint Cup practice and then transition into qualifying for both series.

What will be left on the TV table unseen is almost six hours of cars on the Darlington track at speed from Thursday in day and night sessions.

As both the sport and the TV technology that surrounds it continue to evolve, the fact that this on-track full-speed NASCAR action is not available to the public is quickly becoming an issue. With the NASCAR TV contract now in its second season, fans are starting to realize what they are missing with this "new" deal.

Over at NASCAR.com, there will be a live leaderboard during the Thursday practices. In the garage area, the NASCAR media will be walking around and looking to create their stories before raceday as they always do. The missing piece of the Thursday puzzle is television.

Whether the "dark" practices are uplinked by DirecTV, shown on ESPN Classic or put online at NASCAR.com, there will ultimately have to be a solution.

Discussing this topic in May when the Sprint Cup championship is still wide-open is one thing. Missing Cup practices at tracks like Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas during the height of The Chase in October and November is going to be quite another issue.

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"This Week In NASCAR" Covers Richmond And Darlington

"You can't just be that irresponsible" said Michael Waltrip. What a way to start the Monday episode of This Week In NASCAR on SPEED.

It was a four minute review of Richmond at the top of the show that featured Steve Byrnes hosting with Waltrip and Chad Knaus as the panel for an hour. Byrnes tried to cover as much ground about Richmond as possible. He knew what was coming.

Waltrip's point about Kyle Busch was that drivers must remain in control of their car, even late in the race. "This is unacceptable behavior," said Waltrip. "You can't just run over the leader and wreck them." Waltrip reinforced that Busch had a prior history of doing just this, and that somehow it was now just accepted by NASCAR.

Knaus had a different view, and took the time to point it out. Knaus was not so sure TV provided a good view of what happened. "Just because he (Busch) has a bit of a cloud around him right now, I don't think you can throw the whole Junior nation at him," said Knaus. His point was that it had happened many times before in the sport while going for the win, and it was not as bad as it was being made out to be.

"If you want to call it black-and-white, he screwed up," answered Waltrip. "Saturday night he was wrong and that is what I saw."

As usual in this show, once the momentum starts to build it is quickly deflated by the format. It was time to leave the emotion and the interest of the most recent race, and begin a long drawn-out preview of Darlington. You could almost feel the energy leave the room.

Although the NASCAR Media Group that produces the show turns-out wonderful features with outstanding editing, it is still tough to change gears and put the "preview" before the "review." Even with the drama and majesty of Darlington, the memories of the emotion surrounding Richmond in the first segment lingered.

It was twenty-two minutes into the show when Byrnes admitted to TV viewers that because of the test at Lowe's Motor Speedway, TWIN had been taped on Sunday. He introduced an "insert" from the Speedway featuring Waltrip and Greg Biffle.

Their discussion centered on the COT and the continuing issues of the car on the mile-and-a-half speedways. It was a nice point made by Waltrip that the COT is bigger than last season's car, and on narrow tracks like Charlotte it was going to get a bit crowded.

This week, the show got to the Richmond highlights before the thirty minute mark. Denny Hamlin was the early emphasis as Byrnes led the group through the video. Knaus and Waltrip worked well together on the issues in the race. They dealt with Hamlin lapping a lot of cars and the short track problem of seeing through the tire smoke in accidents.

When the topic got to the Waltrip accident, things got honest. "What you expect at that level is someone to not make that mistake," said Waltrip. "It was just unfortunate for me." Knaus tried to kid Waltrip that as he pushed Mears down the track Waltrip's rear tires were spinning and Mears has his completely locked-up.

Waltrip repeatedly said he felt like a 12 year old while he sat in the NASCAR trailer. Since he was wrecked anyway, Waltrip said that being parked by NASCAR was probably the best thing to do.

Byrnes chose to move the program ahead and did not ask Waltrip if he would do the same thing again now that he had time to think about it. Byrnes had raised the issue that the deliberate retaliation cost Waltrip a lot of points. Waltrip himself questioned whether his new COT car was really wrecked, or if he may have been able to continue after the first hit. That question will remain unanswered.

Things got interesting when the topic of Denny Hamlin stopping on the track came up. "You have to penalize him," said Waltrip. "He can't just pull up there and bring out a caution." Knaus and Byrnes were not so quick to agree.

"I don't know what happened." said Knaus. This did not go over well with Waltrip, who clearly believed Knaus and Byrnes were being politically correct. Knaus hung-on to the belief than when he "knew" the facts he could pass judgement.

"Is there any way we could just every now and then call it an ace?" asked Waltrip. "Just say he did it and that's what it is." Byrnes asked Waltrip when he had become the voice of reason. "I'm getting old," answered Waltrip.

As the final recap of the race, the panel once again reviewed the Busch vs. Junior accident. Waltrip again said Busch just got in over his head, and both panelists reviewed the strong race of Earnhardt's Hendrick team. They closed out the content portion of the show by complimenting Clint Bowyer both on and off the track.

The "scanner chatter" continues to be a strong feature on this show, and the "weekend review" and questions from viewers have been regulars since the new show began.

It seems that TWIN is going to stick with the "preview before review" format this season, and adding-in an update from the Lowe's Motor Speedway about testing was a nice touch for this show.

All three panel members are continuing to create the personal relationships that will define this program, and there is no doubt that TWIN has come a long way from its original episode. Both the program and the personalities involved continue to generate strong feelings from NASCAR fans.

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