Archive for Opinion

Sometimes when I watch NASCAR on ESPN the coverage makes me simply wince. But other times I'm on the verge of throwing something through my television set. Something... I don't know -- heavy.

Here are three things, in order of annoyance, that I think they could change to improve their presentation dramatically. I don't mean to pick on ESPN per se, since most of NASCAR's broadcast partners suffer from these same problems, but ESPN just seems to excel at them.

End the Spotter Jibba-Jabba

ESPN was sort of on the cutting edge of bringing in-car team communications to the broadcasts in the 1990s. I think it has very good applications. Sometimes it's nice to know what the crew chief and spotter are saying to the driver and vice versa. Of course the old saying "everything in moderation" should apply here. There are times when it's appropriate and times when it's not. It seems that ESPN has become very undisciplined in how it uses these communications.

Mr. T: Got no time for spotter jibba-jabba.

Mr. T: Got no time for spotter jibba-jabba.

Example: Often when covering restarts, they'll let the broadcast team relax from the mic and pretty much open wide all the teams' spotter communications -- simultaneously. The result is a mishmash on unintelligible voices that add absolutely no value to the broadcast experience. I truly cannot understand a thing that is even being said because there are ten half-muffled people all talking over each other. What is the point? When restarts come I find myself either muting the TV or changing the channel for a few minutes until the disaster is over.

Another problem is when an incident occurs. Typically when something happens on the track, they immediately open the spotters' audio of the cars involved. The problem is that the guys in the booth are also trying to call the race and the incident itself. Often they have to cut themselves off altogether just because they're competing with the spotter talk. And is broadcasting "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" really the best way to engage the viewer?

Stay Away from the Bumper Cam

Somebody in the truck must have a real fetish with the bumper-mounted camera. It's a nice shot, but it's also a very narrow shot, which means it's not practical for action moments -- like passes. I don't understand why the bumper cam is used to cover passes. I can't see what is going on. Shouldn't that be important? And especially on the restrictor plate tracks where the cars are nose to tail. It's not uncommon to be in a restart or a close pack of racing cars and what do we see? A big Chevy bowtie decal.  And, unfortunately... nothing else.

Scale Back the False Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm in a NASCAR broadcast is a necessity if the race is to be covered well. False enthusiasm, however, is easily identifiable and takes away from the show. It's almost embarrassing because it sounds like the commentators are trying to overcompensate for something that is lacking. The cast at ESPN are particularly bad in this area in my opinion, as is that at SPEED. Just call the race as it is and let the product speak for itself. It shouldn't need any extra hype.

And while I'm on the topic... how is Allen Bestwick in that silly pre-race trailer show instead of calling the race in the booth? Bestwick, probably due to his MRN background, is perhaps the only "new-school" commentator that understands how to call a race effectively and is, in my view, the best currently available television play-by-play announcer in American motorsports.  Somebody, please, put him in the booth!

These are three simply, easy, and non-controversial things that the television broadcasters can do to help improve the viewing experience. At this point I think every little bit that keeps people from flipping stations is going to help.

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More Imports Coming?

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Usually when NASCAR heads out to Michigan the buzz before the race is about which of Detroit's Big Three is going to earn bragging rights by grabbing the big win at the home track.

Of course this year the talk was about the depressing state of the American auto manufacturers, precipitated by GM's recent announcement that it was scaling back financial and technical support for the Nationwide and Truck Series. Brian France, CEO and chairman of NASCAR, was quick to assure the media that NASCAR was open to having more foreign manufacturers in the sport. And anyone who knows NASCAR knows that comments like that mean that something is probably already in the works.

A large portion of NASCAR fans groaned several years back when it was announced that Toyota would be coming aboard. Today, NASCAR is finding it harder to connect with those older fans, a problem evidenced by decreasing attendance and waning interest. They have to believe that reconnecting with those older fans is important for moving the sport back in the right direction. But how will those fans react if Ford and Chevrolet become also-rans while foreign nameplates dominate the fields?

Of the potential participants, Honda seems the most likely to join the fray. They have a well-developed racing program and already supply V8 engines for Indy Racing League teams (and not just some -- all of them). One possibility worth laughing over is Hyundai. Hyundai in NASCAR... that would go over real well, especially with the old-school folk.

Another badge given serious consideration has been BMW. Now certainly BMW has, like Honda, an established international racing program. But there would just be something odd about a European luxury sedan racing in NASCAR. Kind of a mix between yuppie and redneck. Think about it -- BMW's on the high banks of Darlington, SC? Ehhh... I don't think this is a step in the right direction.

I think NASCAR shot itself in the foot with its whole "common template" philosophy that culminated with the infamous "Car of Tomorrow". Scratching their heads, wondering where they fit in with the new NASCAR, The Big Three in Detroit were left with nothing more than providing push-rod engines and headlight decals for the front bumper.

So... who's excited about BMW?

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Is it just me, or does Tony Stewart seem a lot happier these days? And I don't mean just after snagging the top prize in the All-Star race or this past Sunday's win at Pocono. He seems to be in a much better mood for the whole year. Since forming his new team and taking on the owner-driver dual-role, he appears a lot more relaxed than in years past.

I remember when he announced last year that he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to start his own team. At the time, all sorts of puzzling questions popped up: Why would he leave one of the best Cup teams during the prime of his career? Doesn't he know how hard it is to be both an owner and driver -- while still being competitive? And what is my Dad going to do with his now obsolete Home Depot shirt?

It appears that Stewart has really taken a liking to his new roles. That's ironic considering the stress of being an owner-driver at the Cup level is usually enough to crumble even the best of men.

When the tour rolled into Daytona Beach in February, somebody with a smile was being interviewed for TV. Somebody... that looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. The graphic on the screen insisted it was Tony Stewart. Yet I don't think I've ever seen him with a... smile. I wondered for a bit if this was the same Tony Stewart I've been watching for the past few years. But about a week later I heard him trashing Goodyear, and that's when I knew it was really him.

Maybe he has a girlfriend or something.

Quick Facts

  • The last car owner-driver to win a Cup race (before Stewart's feat at Pocono) was Ricky Rudd in the Fall 1998 race at Martinsville.
  • Darrell Waltrip had five wins as an owner-driver of the #17 Western Auto Chevrolet -- two in 1991 and three in 1992, the last being the rain-shortened Southern 500 at Darlington.
  • Stewart currently leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup points. The last owner-driver to win the Cup Championship? Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Kulwicki fought off all the high-dollar big-name teams to take two victories and win the championship over Bill Elliott by one single lap. Kulwicki omitted the "Th" from the "Thunderbird" printed on his car's front valence to emphasize his position as the "underdog".
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Photo courtesy Bristol Motor Speedway,, CC 2.0.

Well we knew for some time now that "double-file restarts" were coming to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. NASCAR hopes the change will be a catalyst to kick-start a fan base that has fallen closer to a deep slumber. Of course, to be fair, they've always had double-file restarts, it's just that they've chosen a different way of lining up the "files". So what can we expect?

In some ways, I think restarts may be more exciting at times. I mean... if you like fabricated excitement and all. I think my primary fear is that we're going to see a lot more yellow flags. As we all know, watching one yellow flag after another is like watching... well... baseball... except without the home runs.

What has really surprised me is NASCAR's decision to implement this rule for the full race -- even down to the final two laps if necessary. I figured that with 25 laps to go or whatever they'd just restart single file. That would be much cleaner and it would allow the leader to maintain his advantage. Is it really fair that the leader gets to restart with his challenger directly by his side? Or is "excitement" more important than the integrity of the sport these days? Will the closing laps be yellow fever? How big will the pile-ups be at Talladega and Daytona?

And how much more controversy and "judgment calls" will come into play from drivers attempting to jump the restart? Or the leader brake-checking to make it appear that the second-place car is jumping the restart?

Matt Kenseth makes another good point: "If you're at Martinsville or Indy or some of these one-lane tracks and you're running fourth, and you start on the second row, outside, you're probably going to be in big trouble -- you're probably going to have a top-five run turn into a 10th- or 12th-place run."

But what should we not expect?

A bump in television ratings, for one. I suggest that there might be a small increase at Pocono this weekend (though probably not), but I suspect that in the long-term this will not filter down into higher TV ratings, attendance, or fan interest. I see this as more of a distraction from the genuine pressing problems NASCAR needs to be addressing, and I'm quite concerned that they came out of their little "Town Hall" meeting believing that this was the fix they were looking for.

Admittedly, fans seem to be in favor of the change. I find this a bit ironic since the All-Star race at Charlotte had used double-file restarts since as far back as I can remember and there was never a large upwelling of desire from the fans to implement this rule for all races. It seems like the TV folks at SPEED made such a big deal about it during the telecast and then the drivers and NASCAR chimed in to help hype the idea up. Before we knew it fans were being "polled" and voila -- the rule was changed.

Lapped cars might get a sweet deal out of these new restarts. If all the leaders ahead of them pit and they stay on the track, they'll be allowed to pass the pace car under the caution flag and restart at the tail end of the lead lap cars. More excitement, right?

My impression is that NASCAR knows it's in trouble and is trying to do everything it can to keep the sinking ship afloat. But they should know that cheap tricks and gimmicks don't make for a good long-term strategy.

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Anatomy of a Sprint Cup Interview

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Giving television interviews must be such exhaustive work these days. It's almost unheard of to witness one where the driver isn't required to take a couple swigs of his "favorite beverage" to make it through.

Here's how it typically goes:

Booth: "Now let's go trackside to pit reporter Jane Smith, who's with Joey Schmoey."

(The broadcast cuts to a camera located on pit road. On the scene are Jane and Joey. Joey is holding "The Official Soft Drink™ of NASCAR®" in his hand, about half-way between his face and waist, label facing outward towards the camera.  When Jane begins to speak, that is Joey's cue that the camera is live.  He unscrews the cap from the completely full bottle and takes a chug while listening to Jane's question, then screws the cap back on.)

Jane: "Joey, you're starting pretty deep in the pack today.  What's your strategy to get to the front?"

Joey: "Yeah.  I'll tell ya... the [insert primary sponsor here] [insert secondary sponsor here] [insert tertiary sponsor here] [insert car make here] [insert car model here] was running great in practice yesterday.  [Insert tire manufacturer here] brought a great tire today.  It's a long race.  We'll have to see how the day goes."

Jane: "Well there you have it..."

(At this point, Joey senses that the interview is coming to a conclusion and that Jane is ready to throw control over to someone else.  He quickly unscrews the cap from his bottle and takes another hit of the soft drink.)

Jane: "Now let's go up pit road to John Blow who's with Jimmy Jones."

(Joey looks straight into the camera and smiles as a sparkle of caramel-induced bling shines from his teeth.)

Well gee... thanks for that informative interview.

Maybe I'm just old school, but I prefer something more like this in an interview.

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Another “Competition Caution”…

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I remember in the 90s ASA used to have what was called a "competition caution" written into their rulebook.  Basically, if a race ran a certain number of laps consecutively under the green flag -- say, 75 laps -- they would automatically throw a "competition caution" to bunch up the field.  Yeah... that's kind of cheesy, but it was ASA so nobody cared.

Fast forward to today and suddenly NASCAR has embraced the term to cover a pre-planned caution period -- usually early in the race -- to check for tire wear.  (Anything for safety, of course!)  I'm seeing this tactic being used more and more and it's really inappropriate for a professional racing series in my view.

It appears that now if even a light rain shower falls on the track any time during the weekend -- even if teams have a practice session afterwards -- NASCAR is quick to have a "competition caution" 25 or so laps after the start of the race... "so that teams can assess tire wear".  This is supposed to be professional racing.  Crew chiefs and drivers are paid an exorbitant amount of money to do what they do.  If they're worried about "tire wear" then let them start with a conservative setup or let them pit whenever they want -- under the green flag.

Today at Dover they finally had a pretty good race for the lead going when it was interrupted by one of these stupid fake yellows.  It broke the momentum of the start of the race and I wonder how many people tuned out because of it?

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Eury Jr. Out, McGrew In

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Hendrick Motorsports announced today that Tony Eury Jr. will be replaced as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Lance McGrew will step in as acting crew chief effective with the June 7 Pocono 500.  Eury will move on to a research and development position within Hendrick Motorsports.

McGrew has one Sprint Cup win, the 2006 Talladega 500 with Brian Vickers.

"Our performance hasn't been where it should be," said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. "It's impossible to pin that on any one factor, but a change is the right decision at this point. We have a plan in place, and we're going to move forward with it."

This change has been a long time coming.  Earnhardt Jr. is mired back in 19th in the points standings and since moving to Hendrick Motorsports has only a single win on a fuel mileage run at last year's Michigan 400.  Meanwhile teammates Jeff Gordon (points leader), Jimmie Johnson (4th) and Mark Martin (12th) have experienced wins in 2009.

See the full press release from Hendrick Motorsports.

Town Hall Meeting?

Did anyone else get a little queasy when they heard that NASCAR held a "town hall"-style meeting on Tuesday?  The purpose of the meeting was to examine some of the difficulties facing the sport in recent times (read: declining interest / TV ratings).  I mean at first it sounded like a great idea... until I heard that it was going to be for car owners and drivers only.

I applaud NASCAR for acknowledging that there are problems and looking to address them before it's too late.  Ostrich-like behavior, after all, is rarely ever rewarded.  But NASCAR needs to stop listening to car owners and drivers and start listening to THE FANS.

Most of the tumultuous change heaped on the sport in recent years -- often pushed by the car owners and drivers through NASCAR -- has been met with much opposition by the fan base.  The "Car of Tomorrow".  The schedule "Re-Alignment".  All the crazy rules they have now.  Fans didn't want any of this stuff... they complained when it was proposed... they complained when it was implemented... and now they're voicing their complaints with their feet and remote controls.

Hopefully NASCAR will listen to the right people before it's too late.

Was Carl Long in Attendance?

Carl Long is both an owner and a driver... I wonder if he was invited to the town hall meeting?  His mere presence would have been enough to point out what's wrong with the new NASCAR.

Long is a throwback to old-school NASCAR: an average guy with not a lot of money running an independent team -- all for the thrill of racing.  He attempted to enter the non-points paying Sprint All-Star event through the Sprint Showdown qualifier.  Before the race he blew his motor and sent it to NASCAR for tech inspection where they found it to be oversized by 0.17 cubic inches.  Yeah, that's right -- 0.17.

His crew chief, Charles Swing -- another average guy --, was fined $200,000 (!) and both he and Long were placed on a 12-race suspension.  Long was also penalized 200 championship points, which is interesting since he currently has ZERO because he hasn't qualified for any 2009 events.

Now where the hell is this guy going to get $200,000?

It's clear: NASCAR's intention is to simply ruin the guy, plain and simple.

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