Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday's Spin Doctors Dominate NASCAR TV

There were only two experienced members of the NASCAR media on the Monday TV shows. Allen Bestwick was the host of NASCAR Now and Steve Byrnes was the host of This Week in NASCAR.

ESPN2's show featured Ray Evernham, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty. That makes two current Sprint Cup Series owners and one current Nationwide Series owner offering comments. Evernham retains his partial ownership role. SPEED's program had Greg Biffle and Michael Waltrip as panelists. One current Sprint Cup Series driver and one current owner/driver.

NASCAR Now put Daugherty in the seat normally occupied by an ESPN reporter on the panel. There is no doubting Daugherty's enthusiasm and dedication where the sport is concerned. The problem is that alongside of Wallace and Evernham he does not have a role.

Bestwick tried to advance Daugherty as "the voice of the fan" last season, but ESPN put a stop to that. When he is in the infield, Daugherty's on-air enthusiasm really works well. Unfortunately, surrounded on a review show by experts, he is left to simply restate the obvious. This program really missed a journalist on the panel.

It's no secret that Wallace and Evernham disagree on almost everything. Each of these men has a super-ego and it is a challenge for them to play well with others. Bestwick did a good job of getting them talking and offering opinions on what many felt was a disappointment of a race from Indy.

Evernham offered what may have been the best explanation of how NASCAR determines speeding penalties on pit road, but once again ESPN had no video to go with it. Just like the race broadcast on Sunday failed to explain the mechanism behind the penalty, NASCAR Now had no video on Monday. Machinery, print outs or even pictures of the embedded wires on the pit road segments would have helped.

"It's definitely a valid penalty," said Wallace. "It's all electronic, it's on a computer. NASCAR doesn't have anything to do with this decision." Wallace went on to say that simply by missing the original manual setting of the pit road speed limit prior to the race, Montoya may have well put himself in the situation of exceeding the 5 mph limit that NASCAR allows for an over-run.

Former crew chief Evernham was pointing the finger at Montoya and his crew chief. With a five second lead on the track, clearly the best car and the race winding down, Evernham questioned why anyone would take a risk of speeding on pit road.

Strangely, TWIN's Chad Knaus was a telephone guest on NASCAR Now. Knaus was interviewed by Bestwick and he first raised the point of limited passing. Unfortunately, that issue was lost among the continued political answers by Knaus about Hendrick Motorsports. Bestwick never asked Knaus if Johnson could have won without Montoya's mistake.

The subject of Kyle Busch got the panel fired-up briefly. Daugherty continues to be eternally optimistic and predicted a "mini-run" from Busch to get him in the Chase. Wallace was clear in his view that Busch was not going to make it. Evernham picked Busch to win the championship, so he was all in.

Give credit to Bestwick for bringing up the COT. Evernham still wants the crew chiefs to have some more adjustments available to them. Wallace wants mandatory weight distribution to stop the crews from building light and moving all the lead weights in the frame rail to the left side. Finally, some real racing talk on this episode.

The best races of the weekend were the trucks and the Nationwide Series. NASCAR Now offered quick highlights, but no driver soundbites. In closing, Wallace offered that the ORP race was "a defining moment" for his son in his racing career. The only time Steven was shown in the highlights was when he rear-ended the leader under caution.

After last week's reporter roundtable, this show was a snap back to the reality of deeply-connected NASCAR personalities walking gingerly through pre-selected topics in a well-scripted hour.

Michael Waltrip set his chaos meter on high and simply dominated This Week In NASCAR from the first moment the program hit the air. Greg Biffle should have just stayed home and called it in. Waltrip's extended rant on the Montoya speeding penalty at the top of the show just started the monologue that this program has become.

Steve Byrnes gets credit for consistently trying to bring Biffle into the conversation by aiming questions directly to him. During these fleeting moments, Waltrip just simmers and then eventually explodes.

Biffle tried to explain how drivers set the pit road speed limit from the pace car prior to the race. "Forget the pace car," said Waltrip. "That's almost irrelevant." Waltrip went on to again disregard Biffle's answer while making sure to plug the fact he would be on Twitter after the show to offer even more of his opinions.

In watching the show, it becomes clear when Waltrip is in this mood that Biffle will never have the last word on any topic. Waltrip will not allow it. Byrnes is a TV veteran and enjoys a good conversation, but Waltrip was the star of this show long before Byrnes came along as host. It's very clear who is driving this bus.

The shame of this is that Biffle is an experienced racer who has good opinions and observations. He has learned to stay calm when Waltrip is like this and just let him talk. Biffle managed to get one good opinion out about Goodyear's tire improvement and that was about it.

Walltrip completely ducked Byrnes asking about the overheating problem on the #55 car and moved into a team promo for MWR featuring David Reutimann. After offering lengthy explanations on topics concerning other teams and cars, Waltrip owed viewers the same on his day in Indy.

One strength of this program from the start has been the pre-produced features from the NASCAR Media Group. This week, in addition to the regular race reviews there were features on a young Bobby Labonte and a rare glimpse into the brief career of the late Tim Richmond. Both were outstanding and reminded us again that the lack of NASCAR Media Group programming like this on SPEED is glaring.

In a way, Waltrip is beginning to experience some of the problems of his older brother on TV. Michael offers some great opinions and has some great perspectives on the sport just like Darrell. Unfortunately, those comments now often come wrapped in endless self-promotion and petulant behavior that is tough to watch.

Both Monday shows walked the NASCAR line and avoided the reality that without the Montoya penalty, only one late race restart might have added a hint of excitement to a track that may well be losing its luster for some NASCAR fans.

Which show did you watch? We welcome your opinion at TDP. To add your comment, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for stopping by, have a great week.

Sprint Cup Series Continues To Baffle ESPN

The build-up to the Sprint Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was outstanding. It began with an exciting Camping World Truck Series race and peaked with a tremendous Nationwide Series event. Then, the green flag waved at IMS and everything changed.

Rick Allen and the SPEED team had delivered a fun truck series race from nearby O'Reilly Raceway Park for the fans. That was no easy task as the trucks had lots of new faces and almost a third of the field did not finish the race. With only two pit reporters and three announcers in the booth, Allen and his team drove home the excitement of this series by concentrating on the racing action and chasing the stories.

ESPN walked into ORP on Saturday night, where Marty Reid led his team on one of the best NASCAR telecasts in recent memory. Reid set the excited tone from the start and had Randy LaJoie alongside contributing great comments. Rusty Wallace stepped-up and did a credible job amid those two high energy guys. Down on pit road Mike Massaro, Shannon Spake and Jack Arute hustled to cover the stories.

Reid is a versatile announcer with extensive play by play experience. His role was to describe what was happening on the track, lead the analysts into commenting on the action and get the pit reporters to work hard.

Sunday morning, ESPN offered one hour of NASCAR Now and then ninety minutes of NASCAR Countdown before the Brickyard race began. These shows contained outstanding interviews, emotional features and a live introduction of the drivers that really set the tone for the race.

The telecast then shifted to the broadcast booth for the actual race. The speedway is notorious for being a single-file track for the larger NASCAR cars. This is no surprise to the fans. Apparently, it was to ESPN.

Once the cars strung-out and the strategies began, the announcing team settled into a very familiar rhythm. Jerry Punch was calling his third NASCAR race at the Brickyard for ESPN. His style has been the subject of columns on TDP for one reason.

Punch is miscast in the play by play role and once the coverage began, that was driven home to NASCAR fans watching on TV very directly. The pattern is for Punch to return from commercial, briefly offer a reset of the track, the lap and the leaders. Then, the interview begins.

Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree spent the better part of this telecast answering questions asked of them by Punch. There was absolutely no play by play call of this race at any time. Regardless of the level of excitement or passing on the track fans deserve a competent announcer who can keep them excited for the telecast and updated on the stories of the race. ESPN could not deliver this all afternoon.

Once again, Jarrett and Petree jumped into the play by play role when things got to the point of complete embarrassment. Awkward silence is something not normally heard during a live race at the speedway. Thankfully, both Jarrett and Petree have become very familiar with helping out during these telecasts.

Over-producing is a term that is used when too many cooks are in the TV kitchen. ESPN missed the race into the first turn after talking about the start for hours. The much hyped bat-cam was useless and rarely used. Instead, ESPN concentrated on playing back all types of content while avoiding the actual racing.

Viewers saw endless drivers in pre-recorded comments talking about all kinds of subjects while the actual live racing was presented over their shoulder in a video box. The drivers were front and center while the racing was in the background. This was the theme of the coverage. The racing was nothing more than background noise.

Time and time again, recorded radio conversations were played back after Punch introduced the driver and the topic. Pit reporters acted like fans were getting inside information when most of the comments were beyond obvious. This format needs to be abandoned and fast. Nothing breaks the momentum of green flag racing like stopping to play back a radio conversation from laps earlier.

Cars that fell out of the race were mentioned and several drivers were interviewed in the garage. Unfortunately, following up on these stories proved to be impossible for the TV team. Fans emailed and sent comments again complaining that they had to turn to the radio broadcast and online scoring websites for information.

Speaking of the radio, once again there was an incredible difference in the amount of information and excitement provided by the radio team vs. the TV announcers. Energy provided by the radio broadcasters really drove home the point of how badly ESPN needs a change in the booth.

Punch hosted a fantastic Ultimate NASCAR TV series. He handled the rain delay programming from the infield on Saturday without missing a beat. Eventually, he may be honored in the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport in the 1980's. Unfortunately, no one has been able to muster up the common sense to sit down with Punch and end this fiasco.

There are sixteen races left in the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. All of them are either on ESPN or ABC. Jerry Punch is assigned to them all.

We welcome your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for hanging in there with us on this tough day.

Randy LaJoie Sparks ESPN's Saturday Night

Randy LaJoie looks about as comfortable in a suit and tie as many NASCAR fans. His language is plain and sometimes a bit rough. He seems to be the kind of guy who would be a lot of fun at a party. He was exactly what ESPN needed on Saturday night.

ESPN split its announcing staff between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and O'Reilly Raceway Park this weekend. Marty Reid and Rusty Wallace were paired with LaJoie as the team calling the network's Nationwide Series race at ORP.

TV viewers had been sitting through hours of Jerry Punch and company over at IMS as long rain delays kept the action to a minimum. Once things dried out, Punch hosted a Sprint Cup Series qualifying session that contained no real excitement and featured the usual cast of characters.

It was the moment that Reid led his TV team onto ESPN that everything changed. Pit reporter Mike Massaro took charge of the pre-race show and informally hosted it while walking up and down pit road. Massaro has been having a great season on ESPN and showed once again that he is the kind of versatile announcer this type of coverage needs.

Instead of all Carl and Kyle, ESPN worked to spread out the pre-race content and did a much better than normal job of treating everyone equally. The real stories of the race were presented in an upbeat and casual fashion.

Once the action moved to the booth, it became clear very quickly that Wallace was going to have to shift gears to keep up with Reid and LaJoie. This is Reid's first season calling this group of Nationwide races and he has been a breath of fresh air. Nothing is going to shake his enthusiasm and ORP under the lights was the perfect location for this type of announcing.

Momentum is something talked about for race teams, but it was very clear that the entire TV crew caught Reid's enthusiasm. They delivered one of ESPN's best NASCAR telecasts of the season. Suddenly, NASCAR on TV was fun again and that has not been the case for a long time.

One great TV element in use was the blimp. Used by the director for wideshots and restart coverage, this ultimate high camera really helped viewers get a perspective of this facility. The ESPN director also resisted the urge to overuse the in-car cameras and kept the coverage moving through the field.

It was easy to watch and listen to this race as even the pit reporters began to get caught up in Reid's enthusiasm. Even normally polite and low-key Shannon Spake got fired-up and put in a solid performance on pit road. It should be interesting to see how her Saturday night experience carries over to Sunday's Cup Series race.

Reid again called out the start and park cars the moment they pulled into the garage. This exposure is the only way to get a handle on this problem. The TV team was also aggressive in getting interviews with drivers out of the race after several accidents. That was appreciated.

LaJoie was simply a blast. When the pace car pulled out early and caused an accident on the track, he asked if maybe it was battery powered. Nothing like a little swing at the Sprint Cup hybrid version. LaJoie delivered many classic lines and great humor all night long. Simply put, ESPN needs him on the Nationwide broadcasts.

Wallace is more at home in the infield with Allen Bestwick, but he hung in there and enjoyed watching the success of his teams during the race. This type of telecast really does not need a third announcer in the booth. Reid and LaJoie together may be a pairing that can bring this series home over the next several months.

A great combination of elements came together for an enjoyable NASCAR telecast from ORP. Hopefully, someday soon network TV will figure out a way to guarantee viewers a full post-race show regardless of the time. Kudos to ESPN for staying focused and listening to the feedback of the fans. We can only hope the Sunday Sprint Cup telecast builds on this success.

TDP would like your comments on the Saturday night Nationwide Series telecast on ESPN. To add your TV-related opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.