Friday, September 26, 2008

Infield Pit Studio Worked For Punch On Friday

It was a long day for the ESPN on-air crew Friday from the Kansas Speedway. As it turns out, the on-track activity ended with an interesting twist.

Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree used the Infield Pit Studio as a base of operations while Punch hosted a variety of shows. While it was still the same task of analysis for Petree and Jarrett, it was a completely different environment for Punch. He has been used in a variety of roles for ESPN, as readers can see from a picture of his days as a top pit reporter years ago.

On this day, gone were his metaphors and catch phrases. Gone were the awkward silences and the TV moments where things were clearly off-balance. To even the most casual viewer, Punch was energized and in control. In other words, he was home.

Despite Punch's new comfort level, the ESPN coverage of Sprint Cup practice at 12:30PM was absolutely horrible. There must be some serious pressure on the ESPN Producer to "glamorize" practice or to try to make it "more interesting." The results have been a disaster and this one hour program was another example.

Almost instantly, the cars on the track became nothing more than background noise. Where SPEED focuses solely on the on-track action, ESPN offered a mind-altering amount of recorded video featuring last week's Dover highlights in painful detail, previous finishes of multiple Cup races at Kansas and even edited features from way back including one from 2007. All of this while Cup cars whiz by in the background. What is ESPN thinking in the heart of The Chase?

Punch led the live coverage of Cup qualifying next and this formula has been more successful for the network. The cars on the track are inserted into a video box surrounded by lots of graphics while another video box is used for everything from live interviews to pictures of crew chiefs and owners looking at the stop watch.

A lot of information comes at viewers during this program and Jarrett and Petree are very good at keeping the conversation flowing with Punch "directing TV traffic" from his host position. The pit reporters kept their interviews brief and showed a lot of hustle during this session. The casual attire instead of the ESPN firesuits works very well to set the only relaxed tone ESPN will allow during the weekend.

Punch saved the best for last and that was Nationwide Series practice. ESPN shelved all the bells and whistles and just showed the cars on the track. It was a lot of fun and really helped viewers to understand just how comfortable Punch can be in this infield role. Nothing brought this out more than the breaking news that happened during this live session.

Punch smoothly introduced Jamie Little with the bulletin that Juan Montoya's time had been disallowed and he was going to be moved to the back of the pack for problems with the shock absorbers.

Without missing a beat, Punch let Petree speak to this briefly and led right over to Tim Brewer in the Tech Center. Brewer had the part in question and explained the issue in easy to understand terms.

Once Brewer was done, Punch got a strong reaction from Dale Jarrett who backed NASCAR by saying a performance advantage should result in this penalty. Even as this program was slipping off-the-air, Punch was advising viewers to stay-tuned and that NASCAR Now was going to follow-up immediately with a full report. This is the NASCAR on ESPN crew in action that viewers enjoy.

Sure enough, NASCAR Now host Ryan Burr went on-the-air and sent it right back to Punch in Kansas. For viewers just tuning-in, Punch recapped the situation, let Petree and Jarrett comment and then led to a Jamie Little interview. Short and to the point, Little talked directly with Series Director John Darby who explained the situation and the penalty.

Once again, Brewer did a full explanation of the situation compete with the part in question and exactly what Montoya's team had done. Punch then wrapped the entire situation up very neatly before sending it back to Burr in the ESPN studios.

Viewers had seen very clearly what TDP has been talking about for months. ESPN has one of the top reporters in NASCAR on staff and on this day he was leading the broadcast from the infield studio and doing an exceptional job.

Regardless of what each show Producer had asked, Punch had responded. From the disjointed coverage of Cup practice through the heavy graphics of qualifying and into the relaxed telecast of the Nationwide Series, Punch had been able to adjust and deal with each individual set of circumstances.

He topped the day off with a breaking news story, transitioned smoothly between live programs and then presented an entire segment on-the-fly that featured two studios, five announcers and a live interview with a NASCAR executive.

In some ways, it will be a shame to see Punch again take the elevator to the broadcast booth to call the Nationwide Series race. His hard work and strong performance on Friday from the infield combined years of TV reporting experience with a perspective and knowledge of NASCAR that few possess.

On Saturday afternoon for Punch, it's back to calling the action in turn 2 with 100 laps to go.

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Kansas TV Coverage Suddenly A Second Priority

The hard-working NASCAR press corps has been trying to focus on building the excitement of The Chase this season. Topics from Greg Biffle's resurgence to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s struggles have been all over the radio, TV and Internet. Now, the media's hard work may simply not matter.

The crisis on Wall Street may be hard to understand for those without portfolios or a stockbroker. It gets a little easier to grasp when your local bank goes under, local restaurants close and another friend loses his house to foreclosure.

Suddenly, priorities change. NASCAR and sports in general begin to fade into the background. Many families have simply switched to "survival" mode.

ESPN, SPEED and NASCAR go into the Kansas weekend on the heels of President Bush's televised news conference about the economy. Bush did not mince words on the impact of this crisis when it comes to regular working Americans. What Bush did not mention was that lots of those Americans are NASCAR fans.

There have been times during a crisis when NASCAR has served as a rallying point to restore confidence and faith in the country and the American way of life. Somehow, the current situation does not have the feel of something that can be fixed in this manner.

Across the country on this weekend there is the very real possibility that people are going to be concentrating on putting the financial pieces of their life back together. Many folks simply seem to be shell-shocked over just how fast this financial crisis has taken the country to its knees.

Both ESPN and SPEED are going to have to be very mindful of the new financial reality of many NASCAR fans as both networks roll-out the usual schedule of practice, qualifying and racing.

This weekend, perhaps more than ever before in NASCAR history, there are a lot of fans looking at deep changes in their lives that they cannot control and unfortunately cannot escape. None of those changes are pleasant.

ESPN2 is first-up at 12:30PM ET with Sprint Cup practice. Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree will call the action. This trio hands-off to SPEED at 2PM when John Roberts will host NASCAR Live. Hermie Sadler and Randy Pemberton will be the reporters handling the interviews for this thirty minute show.

The TV coverage goes back on the track at 2:30PM with SPEED covering the Nationwide Series practice session. Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds will have the call with Wendy Venturini and Bob Dillner reporting from the garage area.

The "big show" is next at 4PM when ESPN2 rolls-out Sprint Cup qualifying. Punch, Jarrett and Petree will again call the action. ESPN has struggled with this coverage and will try to put the emphasis back on the cars on the track as opposed to interviews and features while cars continue to qualify in the background.

ESPN2 winds-up its Friday Kansas coverage with the Nationwide Series final practice at 6PM. The day ends with a 7PM edition of NASCAR Now from the ESPN studios.

SPEED also ends the day at 7PM with the one-hour Trackside show that will feature Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip as guests. Byrnes, Hammond, McReynolds and Elliott Sadler make-up the panel as this show continues to be a fan favorite.

With many Americans glued to the TV and radio for continuing news of the American financial crisis, both SPEED and ESPN certainly have their work cut-out for them. Commentary this weekend is going to have to be put in a much broader perspective in order to keep the TV viewers. Depending on what happens with the economy during the day on Friday, this weekend could be one to remember in more ways than just one.

This post will serve to host your comments about the Friday NASCAR TV coverage.

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