Monday, August 13, 2012

Race Wrap: Sprint Cup Series From Watkins Glen On ESPN

It was not the wild affair that many predicted, with drivers guarding their points for the upcoming Chase. Still, road course racing at Watkins Glen is a different kind of treat for fans before the reality of the Chase comes along.

Nicole Briscoe started the day by hosting the pre-race show. Marty Smith rehashed the AJ Allmendinger news. Brad, Rusty and Ray covered the topics in the sport but did not bring up the Pocono lightning tragedy or Dodge pulling out of the sport in a timely fashion. ESPN's priorities often do not match the real world concerns of many.

Allen Bestwick called the action, but was slaved to the pictures chosen by the production team. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree added what they could, with Petree again right on the money with his comments. The pit road reporters were on target, but the strategy stories faded toward the end.

The coverage was typical follow the leader, with most incidents shown on replay. Several key moments were missed live despite the fact they happened just outside of the live camera range. That was frustrating to watch. It might have looked good in HD, but perhaps the content should be the most important factor in selecting the images to pass along to the fans.

There were lots of other sporting events in progress, so it should be interesting to see just how many sports viewers decided to tune into this race. On the final laps, the TV coverage never mentioned oil on the track but continued to debate fuel strategy or perhaps a low tire on the Kyle Busch car.

In the end, it was widely known that the drivers had been complaining about a track-wide oil down for several laps. TV viewers were never informed. Allen Bestwick did the best he could on the final lap, but it was clear no one told him of the oil situation. After winner Marco Ambrose crossed the finish line, the ESPN director cut to his in-car camera and none of the other finishers were shown.

I'm going to take some time off and see if I can continue to be a NASCAR fan after the frustration of today's TV coverage. Happy to have your opinion of the ESPN coverage. Thanks for stopping by.

Special: A Bitter Pill To Swallow

A popular nickname for the prescription drug Adderall is "college crack." Students use it as a pick-me-up that aids in staying focused for a long period of time. That makes some sense, since the drug was originally created to help control Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD.)

Adderall comes in both capsule and pill form, as shown above. It's easy to get illegally and has become one of the most widely-abused forms of prescription medication on college campuses. Away from studying, Adderall is also a hit in bars. Used for its mood-heightening and energy-adding effects, it makes users feel euphoric and takes away reality for a while. Hardcore users crush the pills and snort them like cocaine.

On Tuesday ESPN's Marty Smith posted an interview with suspended NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger. For the first time, Allmendinger disclosed his belief that his positive drug test was triggered by Adderall. On the Wednesday before the Kentucky race, Allmendinger says he ingested one pill given to him in the early evening by an unnamed friend while out on the town.

He later stated in other interviews that he had never done drugs and did not even know what an amphetamine was when told of his violation. He said only by retracing his steps that week did he discover that the friend had given him a prescription Adderall pill that matched the the type of drug Aegis Labs advised him had caused the violation. The friend was never identified.

So, the scenario put to the media is that while feeling tired, Allmendinger took one Adderall pill early on Wednesday evening thinking it was an energy supplement. Allmendinger felt nothing strange after taking it and on Friday afternoon he was given and subsequently failed a standard NASCAR random urine test. That story is tough to swallow.

The curious thing is that something else has emerged from his recent media interviews that perhaps paints a better picture of the situation. Despite having nothing to do with taking a random pill in a bar, Allmendinger has been speaking about his mental and emotional health.

In a Wednesday interview with reporter Bob Dillner shown on SPEED's RaceHub show, Allmendinger again referenced his struggle to deal with the world around him. "Things felt like they were spinning out of control," he told Dillner. "I've struggled for six years and haven't been happy."

Allmendinger told Lee Spencer at FOX Sports that his life was a disaster. "I’ve been through hell, I’ve created my own hell and I’m going through it," he said. "I’m still trying to figure out life in general."

In his interview with Smith, Allmendinger again said he had let things in his life get out of control. "It (NASCAR) has made me lose who I am," he said. "It is the most grueling thing I have ever had in my life."

These comments don't come from a person who took a random pill in a bar. They come from someone who is in big trouble. They come from someone who is screaming for help. They come from someone who is still at risk. They come from someone who may secretly be having very bad thoughts about life.

Aegis Lab is happy. The tests were right, the results were verified. NASCAR is happy. The violator is in the program, checks-in every week and is clean. Team Penske is happy. The problem is gone and the sponsor remained. In other words, the show goes on.

It seems that lost in the shuffle is Allmendinger. Outside of being a driver, he is a human being just as vulnerable as any of us to the mental health challenges life can present. Let us hope that as part of his current recovery program NASCAR is mandating professional counseling.

If is often said that wake-up calls sometime seem to come along at the right time. Maybe the mysterious friend of a friend will ultimately serve a much higher purpose for Allmendinger than just passing along some "college crack" in a Kentucky bar. Only time will tell.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Rewind: The Need For SPEED

The rumblings of change within the FOX Sports Media Group are growing louder. The switch of FUEL TV from outdoor and extreme sports to mixed martial arts and boxing is essentially done. The deadline is now approaching for a decision by NASCAR to allow the FOX Broadcast Network to continue to carry Sprint Cup Series races after 2014 and maybe even add some additional dates to the mix.

All of this brings us back to SPEED, which is owned by FOX. Race Hub on Monday through Thursday is the only NASCAR content even on the fringe of weekday primetime. After airing for a while at 7PM ET, the network moved the series to 6PM and promised an 11PM Eastern/8PM Pacific replay. Months ago, that replay was cancelled.

That means that this season, NASCAR fans who want news content from SPEED have to either watch at 6PM, watch a replay at 7AM the next morning or record the show. Years ago, NASCAR's other major TV partner, ESPN, moved the network's NASCAR Now program to 3PM on weekdays with no regularly scheduled repeat. NASCAR said nothing.

The column that follows was originally published on June 20 subsequent to a news story on the topic from the Sports Business Daily folks in Charlotte, NC. Since that time former FOX Sports Chairman David Hill, who made the original TV deal, has left that division which he founded. Hill is working on new programming for the Nat Geo Channel and other FOX properties.

Here is a second look at the column on SPEED and the network's role in NASCAR:

A recent story in Sports Business Daily reported that FOX Sports was involved in negotiations with NASCAR about a new TV contract. The current one expires at the end of 2014. A tweet from a FOX announcer then suggested the new deal may include even more Sprint Cup Series races than the current agreement. That started the ball rolling on a discussion about another key NASCAR TV partner.

SPEED is the cable TV network that facilitates the vast majority of the NASCAR TV programming throughout the season. The network is a staple at the track on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The coverage includes practice, qualifying and NASCAR news shows. SPEED is owned and operated by the FOX Sports Media Group.

The secret to the shows from the tracks is that these programs are not actually produced by SPEED, but are handled by NASCAR's own in-house TV team. That division used to be called the NASCAR Media Group but was recently downsized and renamed NASCAR Productions. Neither FOX or SPEED have an ownership stake in NASCAR Productions.

Over the past six years, we have repeatedly wondered what was going on at SPEED. Various management teams made decisions that virtually eliminated all traces of NASCAR programming on Monday through Thursday in primetime. "Automotive lifestyle" programming was the order of the day. No other network has aired and then cancelled more of these low-brow reality-style shows than SPEED.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, other broadcast networks have quietly gone about the business of building or buying a cable TV network for sports. CBS and NBC now have national cable sports networks that allow them to partner on programming just like ABC and ESPN. The odd man out at the table is FOX.

Click here for the story from the Sports Business Journal about the Fox Sports 1 cable network. Never heard of it? You may be hearing that name once the current NASCAR TV contract expires. In theory, it would replace SPEED on the cable dial and shutter the motorsports-themed network.

Rebranding SPEED and turning it into a national cable sports network run from Los Angeles would put FOX on an even keel with NBC, CBS and ABC. Any TV contract done for the FOX broadcast network could now facilitate what is called "shoulder programming" on cable. For instance, the Preakness might be shown on NBC but all the preliminary races and coverage of the entire day would be on NBC Sports Network on cable.

The sad part of this arrangement would be the end of SPEED as we know it. The network was originally launched as SpeedVision and featured programming split between cars, boats, airplanes and motorcycles. The subsequent purchase by FOX and move to Charlotte, NC was to turn the network into a dedicated NASCAR channel. Those plans never came to fruition even after the move.

It seems ironic that the network that hosted more "shoulder programming" for NASCAR over the past decade may be done. That raises the issue of just what kind of an extension FOX is trying to negotiate for Sprint Cup Series races. The door is open for all kinds of speculation.

Keeping all that weekend NASCAR programming on the new mainstream Fox Sports 1 network would seemingly be impossible. The season runs for ten months and SPEED airs hundreds of hours of programming from the Sprint Cup Series tracks.

It would also seem that other motorsports series from Grand-Am to ARCA would be impacted. The list of programming currently on SPEED also includes Formula One, AMA Supercross and the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auctions.

One peek at the current SPEED on-air schedule should convince skeptics that the network has effectively shuttered the development of new series. From five year-old Pimp My Ride shows to endless Dumbest Stuff on Wheels re-airs, it is clear that something is going on and it is not good.

It is important to note that FOX has two additional cable networks, FUEL and FX, that could be used to distribute additional motorsports programming. FUEL is already undergoing a transition with UFC shows airing while FX has been used in the past for NASCAR programming.

While it may seem that 2014 is far away, in fact the negotiations for the new contract are far behind schedule. Since the incumbents get first shot, it is interesting to note that very little information exists about the future of TNT and ESPN in the sport. Turner just returned all the digital rights to NASCAR and effective January 1 will no longer operate the website.

ESPN is loaded with college and NFL football content after September and has been struggling to give NASCAR a fair shake down the stretch. The final ten Sprint Cup Series Chase races are the prize to that network and that may be the only real item that is pursued.

Currently no comment from the FOX folks on the NASCAR or SPEED issue. Whatever happens, it is becoming clear that there will be substantive changes in the look of NASCAR TV after 2014 and maybe much sooner than that for the network we now know as SPEED.

For those asking about the changes in progress to shows like Trackside and Wind Tunnel, this topic is for you. While SPEED's primetime line-up is still dominated by non-motorsports scripted reality shows like Hard Parts: The Bronx, the opportunity certainly exists to help the sport grow by inserting some regularly scheduled NASCAR programming down the stretch.

There was a time when SPEED jumped on the bandwagon and surrounded the build-up to the Chase and the run down the stretch to Homestead. This year, no additional regularly scheduled programs or series have been added. Apparently, NASCAR racing reality still does not top the scripted reality that SPEED has force-fed motorsports fans for years.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.

Day Three: How Are Your NASCAR Vital Signs?

While we normally use television and media as the theme of these columns, this week things are different. The vast majority of feedback after this weekend was not only about ESPN, but NASCAR in general.

From the starting line issues with the Nationwide Series through the single-car dominance of the Sprint Cup Series race, this was a weekend that started a passionate fan conversation about the sport that is still in progress.

On Saturday, a bizarre dance played-out for those watching on television. In a event moved from nearby Lucas Oil Raceway, the Nationwide Series played to a virtually empty house at the big track. Instead of the racing stories, ESPN flew in Katie Couric to conduct a featured pre-race interview with driver/celebrity Danica Patrick.

ESPN and NASCAR combined to present Patrick once again as the Great White Hope, focusing squarely on her role as a woman in NASCAR. All of this happened on national television despite the reality surrounding both Patrick and the race.

In the real world, Patrick had been out-qualified in the event by 18 year-old Johanna Long, a female Florida resident with a long history of racing success. But in the very strange world of ESPN and NASCAR, Long simply did not exist.

Despite six months of racing this season, Couric's questions to Patrick were themed around her struggles as a woman in NASCAR rather than her Nationwide Series results. The supposed theme for the interview was the statement that Patrick had almost won the Indy 500. This set the tone for the comparison between the IndyCar tradition of the speedway and this NASCAR racing weekend.

The entire pre-race show was run as if there was a standing room only audience. The TV theme was that the Nationwide Series was making history, that all the actions on the track were historic. No references were made to the wildly successful history of the Nationwide Series racing at Lucas Oil Raceway or that the Brickyard was empty even after one year of promotion for this inaugural race.

The start reflected the pre-race show in that questions immediately arose about why the pole sitter did not cross the starting line first. No NASCAR officials made themselves available for comment and the race continued. The reality of what actually happened was never officially addressed.

Patrick's subsequent accident continued the tone as the TV announcers were reluctant to call out the experienced driver for actions her crew chief later called "stupid driving." Patrick's television interview was an exercise in marketing, which seemed to fit the tone.

Ultimately, the day would be dominated by the penalty given to Elliott Sadler on a late restart. Once again, no NASCAR official appeared on-camera as the TV team floundered for an explanation of a ruling that made little sense. Things got worse once the race was over.

ESPN left the air without an explanation of the penalty or even an interview with Sadler. Nothing was said on ESPNEWS and TV viewers were left in the dark. It was amazing to see ESPN sign-off after the hype and promotion of the event. This was not the kind of history that NASCAR wanted to create.

On Sunday the familiar pattern of past Brickyard races continued. After an outstanding TV pre-race show, the action on the track again was limited to restarts and pit road. Adding to this frustration was ESPN continuing to use in-car cameras and tight shots during those restarts. The only actual passing for position was lost on TV as the ESPN director tried to "make TV" instead of just showing the race.

Time and time again veteran announcer Allen Bestwick's call of exciting racing and key passes did not match the action seen on the screen. In no other professional sport would this type of television production be tolerated. TV follows the puck in hockey and the ball in other sports as a golden rule. In NASCAR, the choice of what pictures to show is subjective.

The Sprint Cup Series has been racing since February. Despite the hype, the Brickyard 400 is just race twenty of thirty-six. The key for fans is that the countdown to the Chase is in full swing. In the relatively new Sprint Cup Series points system, every single place is important. Ultimately, it's all about the finish.

In ESPN's reality, it's all about the event. From top to bottom, the Brickyard 400 was presented like ABC handles the Indy 500. This was never more evident than the during the finish of the race. The winner's car crossed the line, the camera zoomed to the checkered flag and in the minds of ESPN, the race was over.

Meanwhile on the track names like Earnhardt, Gordon, Hamlin and Stewart were still racing. Despite Bestwick's best efforts to break the production team from the script, most NASCAR fans who had been watching their favorite driver for three hours never saw his last lap or the run to the checkers.

With time remaining on the TV clock, an extended post-race show then talked to those very same drivers about their race and finish. Many of the issues discussed by the drivers had never made it into the ESPN broadcast. It was a fitting end to a very strange weekend.

So how is your NASCAR pulse? Is it still beating strongly, fading slowly or pounding with anger for what the sport has become? This is a good time to check-in on where you stand with the sport in general as we go down the stretch. We appreciate you taking the time to add your comments.