The view from my couch
The Sounds of Racing
by Cheryl Lauer
October 16, 2003
I was fortunate enough to be in Charlotte for the ARCA, Busch and Winston Cup Races this past weekend. Every serious race fan knows about the added enjoyment that having a scanner can bring to your racing experience while at the track. You can listen to the drivers, the MRN radio broadcast, race control, and the live TV feed as well. Since the old ESPN and TNN days, I've always enjoyed listening to the TV feed from time to time. Not only do you get to hear them describe incidents that you might not have caught during their replays, but you can hear what's going on behind the scenes in the production truck and broadcast booth. Sometimes the most enjoyable part of this "eavesdropping" is catching some candid remarks from the broadcast team while TV is at commercial. Since I started writing reviews of the TV broadcasts for the past three seasons, I've been even more interested in hearing what goes on behind the scenes with the Fox and NBC broadcast and production teams. This past weekend at Charlotte was no exception to my eavesdropping on my trusty Bearcat scanner. I particularly wanted to write this column to help explain what was going on behind the scenes Saturday night when NBC went off the air so abruptly after the checkered flag. The Internet this week is rife with complaints and criticisms of the NBC broadcast team. As usual, most fans are blaming the most visible group of people, the announcers and the producer of the TV broadcast. Most fans seem to forget that decisions on timeslots and commercials originate with the powers that be back at the network.
I want to point out right away that absolutely no one on the production team at the track seemed happy that Saturday's race ran over the time slot alotted by the network people at NBC and that they would have to leave the air quickly. As early as 10:00, producer Sam Flood told the broadcast crew that they were "in crisis mode" and they would probably not have time for any post-race. My husband overhead this on his scanner and relayed it to me. Near the end of the race, I switched my scanner over to the NBC feed and heard Flood urgently and repeatedly telling Bill Weber to "put a note in front of Zippy" (Tony Stewart's crew chief), that they wanted to "use his radio." I knew this meant that NBC wanted to do a quick interview with Stewart over the radio while he was still in the car doing his victory celebration on the track. Being a long-time race fan, I remember ESPN doing this occasionally if one of their races ran over the scheduled timeslot. So this is nothing new for a TV network. No, I don't like it any better now than I did back then, but I can understand that the TV folks at the track had no choice. They were simply following the orders they received from the network.
Unfortunately, in this instance, NBC was thwarted in their efforts to communicate with Stewart over his radio. My husband and I had been frustrated most of the night at the inability to get Stewart's correct frequency as well. The reason was that the frequency that was published for Stewart for the weekend was not the channel the Joe Gibbs' team was using that night. Now my husband is a resourceful guy, although I often chide him for being a packrat, but his keeping of old frequency sheets handy, paid off in this instance. When it became clear that Stewart was making a charge to the lead, we both wanted to lock out every driver except Stewart and Ryan Newman and listen to the their comments as they raced for the lead. So Lou began his quest searching through old frequency sheets and eventually his efforts paid off when he discovered Stewart's voice on an old frequency of his teammate, Bobby Labonte's. Anyway, I know I am digressing a bit here, but my point is that NBC did make a concerted effort to talk to Stewart at the end of the race. Their efforts just proved frustrating because Stewart's team was not using the frequency they said they would be using for this race. So personally, I thought that the NBC team did everything within their control to at least try and interview Tony in some fashion before they were forced to go off the air. Okay, short of having my husband as one of their research assistants. :-)
As to the need to make such an abrupt departure from the air, I place the blame fully on the network executives at NBC, who make programming decisions. This is where I have to get on my soapbox for a bit and place the blame where I think it belongs. The NBC network executives obviously still have no clue as to how long a race can run. This particular race was a relatively clean race, with very few cautions, and yet the people who made the scheduling decisions failed miserably in allowing enough time even with few cautions. I'm betting if you asked Allen Bestwick or Benny Parsons or even director, Mike Wells (who has years of experience working races with ESPN), they would tell you that races don't fit into a nice little primetime slot from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. From everything I've read, NBC asked to have this particular race moved to Saturday night so they could increase their ratings and avoid going head to head with football on Sunday. Bruton Smith accommodated them and changed the race this year. NBC asked for the race to be moved, yet in their na´vetÚ did not allow enough time in their Saturday night schedule for a 500-mile race and post-race interviews. Yes, the viewers at home got to see the entire race, but even with only five cautions (with only one of them being very long), the race still went past 11:00 p.m. Had NASCAR not moved the start time up somewhat because of the possibility of bad weather in the area, the race would have gone even further past 11 p.m., the ending time that NBC allowed.
Network executives made the decision on the allotted timeslot and network executives made the decision to pull the plug on the broadcast as soon as Tony Stewart crossed the start-finish line. Just as the folks presenting the race to you from the track are not to blame for the number of commercials sold by the advertising people at the network, neither are they to blame for an inadequate timeslot. I understand that the network had to go to the local news at 11 p.m. as this timeslot is reserved for use by their local affiliates. Fine, then if NBC must have night races, then they need to start them earlier, as they do with the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte in May. We all know that more and more races are being moved to venues and times at the "request" of the TV networks. While I feel these type changes are an injustice to the fans, my biggest fear is that next we will see 500-mile races reduced in length to accommodate the networks and fit nicely into their packaged primetime lineup. If this happens, will Bruton Smith reduce the price of my ticket from it's already exorbitant price of $99.00? I'm not naive enough to see that happening. Okay, enough from atop my soapbox. It's way too high up there and I'm too short to get down without some help.
After all this serious stuff, let me finish up with some fun things I heard on my scanner while eavesdropping on NBC at Charlotte last weekend. Probably the most relaxed and entertaining night for scanner listening was Friday night during the aborted attempt to get the Busch race started. Through our fall "swing" of races I've attended live, I've found that the NBC broadcast team seems to have developed a lot of chemistry and obviously have a lot of fun working together. They may be a lot more serious when they are commentating "live" on TV, but personally I enjoy that type of approach by the announcers and pit reporters over the constant silliness we hear on the air during Fox portion of the season. Sam Flood and his group are constantly overheard making jokes and little jabs at each other when the TV world is at commercial. But when it's time to be serious, they are "up on the wheel" to put it in racing terms. They rarely miss a beat.
Now Friday night was suppose to be a tape-delay of the Busch race to be shown on Saturday at noon. So, I guess the production team didn't really think any of the fans would be tuned into their frequencies. It was quite clear that my husband, my friend, Robin, and I were listening in on some very candid "tap dancing" by the NBC crew. Hey, we had to do something to entertain ourselves while we sat there in our raincoats enduring yet another rain shower at a race track. While NASCAR attempted to keep the track dry by running all 43 of the Busch cars on the track under caution, the NBC commentators, pit reporters, and technical personnel attempted to entertain themselves. Someone pointed out that Brian Vickers had taken the lead from Kevin Harvick according to the scoring pilon and they even listened in to Vickers radio where his crew chief informed him of this fact and, jokingly, asked him if he was saving fuel. Vickers' team had several humorous conversations about "How is the car handling?", "What are your temps?" Someone (in the TV crew I think) even joked about how they were going to run the first half of the race behind the pace car and then would reverse directions for the second half. NBC also caught the so-called "boring" Matt Kenseth on his radio telling a blond joke to his crew. (Not to worry - it was perfectly "PG" rated) Who'd of thunk it, Matt has a sense of humor? Someone in the broadcast booth had us all laughing our heads off suggesting that they tape the rain soaked track with the cars circling at night and then quickly switch to the expected sunny skies on Saturday and go "green, green, green!" when they showed the tape-delayed broadcast the next day Okay, you had to be there, but believe me, it was funny at the time. Anyway, my point here is sometimes you can find your entertainment in the funniest places. We eventually realized that the race was probably going to be postponed when the rain intensified just as NASCAR planned to throw the green flag and we heard Allen Bestwick recording a promo for the race being shown at 11 a.m. the next day. At this point, we were tired of sitting in the rain (who says race rains are too dumb to know when to get our of the rain) and trudged back to the campground.
I guess the reason I felt compelled to write this article was to let some fans who weren't fortunate enough to be at the race this past weekend know that the TV crew really seemed to do everything within their power to get some sort of post-race interview with the winner. They can only control so much. But it's also good to know that the NBC broadcast team has a lot of fun bringing us the races we see at home. And I wanted other fans, who don't have the advantage of listening to them on a scanner at the track, to know a little of what happens behind the scenes. It also irritates me when people claim that Allen Bestwick and others are "boring" in comparison to DW and the Fox gang. I guess, to me, NBC is focused on the race when they should be and relaxed and having some fun when it's more appropriate.
I'll again be fortunate to be attending the races live at Martinsville this weekend. One of my long-time readers and good friend, Vivian Simmons, has finally agreed to write the race review this weekend (after much coaxing on my part). So please tune in early next week for Vivian's review as I think she will provide an excellent perspective on the race broadcast. In the meantime, I'll again be eavesdropping on the race teams and TV folks at the best track on the Winston Cup circuit - Martinsville Speedway!
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