Sunday, August 10, 2008

Road Course Challenge Not Just For Drivers

It seems that the recent Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen have had a number of great stories for the TV network broadcasting the race to tell.

The Saturday Nationwide Series first-time winner Marcos Ambrose was starting shotgun on the field. Kyle Petty had stepped aside to allow ESPN commentator Boris Said to take-over his ride. Sprint Cup qualifying was rained-out and Said was unable to race his way into the event. Up front, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be pacing the field. This was going to be a good one.

Allen Bestwick hosted the hour-long pre-race show which consisted of many more driver interviews than normal. The network did include the Saturday Nationwide Series race winner Marcos Ambrose and showed some good historic photos while giving a history of the race course.

The program's big story was on Kasey Kahne and his roller-coaster season. It featured ESPN commentator Ray Evernham. The network also focused on "wheel hop" and the gravel traps on this course. ESPN offered much of the same content SPEED has just reviewed on RaceDay.

Bestwick passed-off to Dr. Jerry Punch and things began to take shape as the race began. It was quite a surprise that no full course caution flags flew early in this event. The cars were simply racing and ESPN was working hard to keep-up with all the storylines.

Early in the race it was again a tough time on-the-air for Punch. The transition between the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races proved to be rough, as facts from Saturday trickled over into Sunday. There is always so much going-on in a road course TV broadcast that some things are bound to get lost in translation.

It may have been due to the Olympics, but ESPN inserted the lower-third sports ticker called The Bottom Line during the entire race telecast. In past races, viewers have gotten the 18/58 updates but enjoyed a clean screen for the event. The NASCAR on ESPN graphics package uses a continual upper-third crawl that is a different speed than The Bottom Line. It certainly makes it tough to watch two continually changing unrelated graphics crawls on the same screen at the same time for several hours.

This potentially exciting ESPN telecast lost some steam early when there were no accidents that slowed the action. It was tough for Punch to keep the excitement level even at a minimum as the cars raced. It was as though it was a practice session. Fans listening on the radio or DirecTV Hot Pass were enjoying an entirely different NASCAR experience.

Coming out of commercial break, Bestwick and his infield crew would sometimes take-over and reset the field. The music would blare and Bestwick would get things pumped-up with Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. Those two may have their detractors, but they worked hard to generate excitement every time they had the opportunity.

Following a critical restart with 25 laps to go, Punch spoke about all kinds of news stories involving driver changes and season point standings. What he did not do was echo the excitement of the infield crew and call the action on the racetrack. This "reporter" style is not working very well on these telecasts.

Popular NASCAR Now reporter and Petty pit crew member DJ Copp was wired with an HD camera and microphone to show viewers the opposite direction pit stops in this race. After Copp was introduced in the pre-race show, he was never heard from again. Punch never referenced his absence.

The ESPN pit reporters rallied to have a much better Sunday than Saturday. While Jamie Little is still making things a bit bigger than they sometimes are, they worked well to reset the field several times and really helped the TV viewers to understand who was where in this scramble of pit stops and tires.

With eight laps to go the big wreck stopped the race. ESPN cut to the accident and followed-up with replays from every angle. Jarrett and Petree spoke about everything that happened and tried to put things in perspective. This duo has really clicked in just the right way this season for ESPN as The Chase approaches.

The final restart was going to be key. ESPN's pictures followed the action until the end and the final lap was great. Good racing always has a nice effect on a telecast. The ESPN Director held the finish line shot and let the field race across the line.

Next week the ESPN crew moves to Michigan for the superspeedway action. The weekend at Watkins Glen turned-out to be a bit of a struggle, but the road course portion of the ESPN Sprint Cup Series is done. That might be a big relief to many on both sides of the TV screen.

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NASCAR's Own Echo Workplace Concerns

There was quite a build-up to the Sunday morning episode of ESPN's news program entitled Outside The Lines. As it turned out, there was a good reason why.

ESPN anchor Mark Schwarz hosted this program while series regular Bob Ley was on vacation. The Lead Reporter for OTL is Kelly Naqi, an ESPN veteran who worked her way up through the ranks.

The premise of this week's episode was that NASCAR had filed their response to the Mauricia Grant lawsuit and it was time to talk to other minorities who work in the NASCAR world and get their perspectives. ESPN got an earful.

This week, stories have been published documenting Grant's personal legal struggles over the years. From a drunk driving arrest to a long since expired restraining order, the public interest into Grant's real motivation has begun.

ESPN took this weekend as the opportunity to dive right into the issue as a whole. It was time to talk about workplace treatment of minorities in NASCAR on national TV. NASCAR fans knew well in advance this was going to be interesting.

Naqi spoke with several professional employees, beginning with Mauricia Grant. Unfortunately, the feature on Grant had been seen before on ESPN and that was disappointing. Starting the show with a repeat of an earlier ESPN feature was perhaps not the best way to open-up this topic.

Naqi transitioned to additional interviews with DEI's Max Siegel and others. Siegel is a powerful speaker and his words made a lot of sense where integrating the sport is concerned. Chris Justice, Antonio Morrison and Michael Hayden are African-American and also current pit crew members. Their comments echoed Siegel's in terms of being in the middle of a slow transition of NASCAR to today's real world.

Nicole Starzynski was a former computer technician for NASCAR and her comments were explicit. She was very clear that she had experienced workplace harassment first-hand. Naqi documented this former employee's issues in very clear terms. This was a new face in the NASCAR workplace issue and perhaps the most interesting of the program.

Naqi followed-up with other women like Lisa Smokstad and Katie Muir who are currently employed in the sport. Smokstad and Muir are both women navigating their way through a very diverse sport. Their comments showed the wide variety of experiences employees can have in a workplace with thousands of personalities involved on a regular basis.

Marcus Jadotte joined the program as the NASCAR representative. He is currently the Director of Public Affairs and Diversity. Jadotte was the most effective NASCAR representative that has been heard in public on this issue. He addressed these topics in a professional manner and left viewers feeling that they had perhaps identified someone who was dealing with these very issues on a day-to-day basis.

Unfortunately, Schwarz was drawn into asking Jadotte about why there are no black or female drivers. This was a bad mistake. He then tried to badger Jadotte on issues like attending races and Jadotte indicated he had attended more than half of the Sprint Cup races. The tide had turned and Schwarz came away as ineffective.

This show left more on the table than it should have and Naqi's use of the older footage of Grant was unfortunate. Where damage to NASCAR is concerned, Jadotte addressed every issue raised by Schwarz. It was an effective response to say the least.

As suspected, OTL lumped all the NASCAR series together even though there had only been allegations against the Nationwide Series officials. In the end, ESPN's news division came away as offering some new footage addressing these issues, but did not effectively present any real evidence that might back-up all of the claims Grant makes in her lawsuit.

Whether Grant's claims are excessive, she is an isolated case or everything she states is true will ultimately be decided in civil court. It will be interesting to watch the NASCAR programs on TV today and see how they follow-up on the OTL program.

What are your thoughts on this episode? We are not asking for your opinion on the lawsuit, only on the Outside The Lines episode of Sunday morning. It should be interesting to see if NASCAR offers Mr. Jadotte to other TV programs throughout the day.

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TV Viewers Get The Post-Race Blues

There has been one subject that has been hotly debated by the fans since the new NASCAR TV contract began in 2007.

Over the years, NASCAR has tried bending to serve the needs of the television networks as the amount of money paid for NASCAR TV rights has risen. This season in particular, fans are being hit hard as the result of one of those concessions.

The start times of the NASCAR races have been pushed back for TV. The classic 1PM Eastern Time start is now a thing of the past. Fans reading may tune-in at the time listed only to be met by an hour-long pre-race show and then another twenty minutes of pre-event coverage before the start of the actual race.

Normally, this type of issue does not affect the general sports fans because they can adjust their viewing habits or even commit to recording the event and watching it later. NASCAR's problem does not fit that pattern. The TV viewers watching the entire race are helpless when it comes to solving this one issue.

Fans are offered four hours of live pre-race programming on national TV for each Sprint Cup Series race. Shows like NASCAR Now, RaceDay and NASCAR Countdown repeat the same stories on different networks with different reporters three times before the green flag falls.

This extended pre-race programming is done for only one reason. The TV networks can schedule it. They know it will be on-the-air at a designated time. What none of the NASCAR TV partners can figure out is how to make sure that NASCAR fans who have watched the four hours of pre-race TV and then the four hours of racing get to hear from the athletes after the event.

It is the lack of guaranteed post-race coverage that is driving fans crazy. This is not NFL football, so just interviewing the "player of the game" will not work. NASCAR fans do not change their loyalty depending on where their favorite driver finished.

There is an entire story to tell that features teams that finished well outside of the top ten. There are issues between drivers, incidents during the race and questions asked during the live TV coverage that are still unresolved. The whole story is not being told once the race itself is over. There is no time.

Once again at Watkins Glen, the post-race was abbreviated because of the clock on the wall. ESPN has SportsCenter and they were going in that direction right away. The ESPN gang hustled through interviews with the winning crew chief, the second and third place finishers and then the winner. It was a good effort. Unfortunately, that was a drop-in-the-bucket where the story of the race was concerned.

Let's say it very clearly. NASCAR fans deserve a live dedicated post-race show on TV of one hour in length. It is the only way to tell-the-tale of what actually happened during the previous three or four hours of racing to each fan's favorite team. offers an online post-race show hosted from the Atlanta, GA studios of Turner Broadcasting. While there is some limited content from the track, this is primarily an interactive show where viewer comments are read and opinions are voiced.

SPEED offers Victory Lane, which is a tape-delayed one hour show that usually airs at 8PM. While the network hosts the winning driver, crew chief and owner on the show, it is only reporter Bob Dillner who chases down additional interviews.

Right now, this show is the closest thing to a live post-race program that fans get. When the Cup Series races on Saturday, Victory Lane is held and only airs on Sunday night. Same problem as before, a guaranteed timeslot on the TV schedule.

ESPN2 offers a Sunday night NASCAR Now at 10PM, but it only airs during the seventeen Cup races on the ESPN networks. While SPEED's Victory Lane is the most timely, the Sunday night hour of NASCAR Now is the most polished. Unfortunately, neither is live.

The biggest issue in dealing with this subject is that the Sprint Cup Series is cut into three pieces where TV is concerned. Fox, TNT and ESPN all originate their own broadcasts on their own networks and have their own clear-cut agendas.

When the race is over, fans begin the process of looking at Internet websites to try and figure-out what really happened to their driver and his team. They use radio reports and posts made to other websites to gather information. Television is long gone and Victory Lane is hours away from air time.

This problem has been aggravated by the fact that today's TV coverage focuses on the leaders of the race. Because all three Sprint Cup TV networks have a continual ticker updating the field during the race, it has taken away the former mandate of the TV play-by-play announcer to do it manually.

Watching older NASCAR races on ESPN Classic or FoxSportsNet brings a very different style of broadcast. Those announcers tell the whole story and treat the 35th place car just like the leader. My, how times have changed.

Next week the Sprint Cup Series moves to Michigan. lists the start time on ESPN as 1PM. Actually, there will be a one hour pre-race show and then fifteen more minutes of pre-event coverage. The race should begin around 2:15PM ET. Once again, ESPN has SportsCenter scheduled for 5:30PM.

As the NASCAR season hits crunch time and the final races tick away before The Chase, fans may once again be seeing baseball highlights and the continuing Brett Farve saga instead of learning what happened to their driver in the Cup race at MIS.

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In-Progress At The Glen: Sprint Cup Series (ESPN 1PM)

A refreshed ESPN crew is returning to the Watkins Glen road course after a very long Saturday of live TV. That is the Infield Pit Center pictured above. It may play a big role in the Sunday coverage. Click on the picture to see it full-size.

Already this morning, the ESPN family of networks has presented a thirty minute Outside The Lines program focused on NASCAR and the morning preview edition of NASCAR Now. Up next on ESPN's NASCAR agenda is the one hour NASCAR Countdown pre-race show.

Host Allen Bestwick should have lots of topics to choose from where this program is concerned. Joined by Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty, Bestwick can pick from a list that includes Daugherty's future team winning the Nationwide race, Wallace's son continuing his learning curve in racing or the Sunday weather forecast.

Bestwick has been doing a solid job of leading Wallace and Daugherty through this pre-race show since the season began. Now, with the Sprint Cup Series coverage underway, Bestwick has a host of on-air talent that can contribute to this show.

Once the pre-race is over, Bestwick and company will continue to interact with the "upstairs" announce team of Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarret and Andy Petree. These three will face a very different style of racing that has all kinds of twists and turns associated with it. From pit stop strategy to fuel mileage, the Sprint Cup race should be loaded with good stories.

Tim Brewer will also be along in the Tech Center, where he faces the challenge of showing the viewers the many changes in the COT that a road course brings. From carburetors to shocks, Brewer will be on-the-spot when the coverage begins.

The challenge today for the TV crew is to try and tell the multiple stories of the cars throughout the field, not just the leaders of the race. A backmarker playing the fuel strategy game may well become the winner. The normal network focus on two or three cars that seem to be the fastest on the day will not work.

Rain is in the area and Watkins Glen is not a circuit with lights. The race would be run on Monday if things did not reach the halfway point when it was halted. The telecast is scheduled until 5:30PM with a live 90 minute version of SportsCenter following the race. ESPNEWS will have live coverage of the post-race news conference from the Infield Media Center as it happens.

This post will serve to host your comments about the Sprint Cup Series race from Watkins Glen on ESPN. To add your TV-related opinion, just click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.