The view from my couch

The Busch Series
by Cheryl Lauer
April 4, 2004

All I keep reading about in newspaper articles this week and hearing about on racing talk shows is how bad of shape the NASCAR Busch Series is in these days. Now, I guess I'm just weird, but I think there are some very talented veterans and rookie drivers in that series and I really enjoy watching the Busch races every week. However, I don't like the trend that I'm seeing these days concerning the lack of coverage of the Busch "regular" drivers. Yesterday's Busch broadcast from Texas is a perfect example.

Ever since the "new" TV partners took over the NASCAR TV contracts in 2001, the Busch Series really seems to have been steadily going downhill. No, I don't blame TV entirely for this, I mostly blame NASCAR. They are the ones who seem determined to turn the Busch Series into a bargain-basement version of the Cup Series. This began about 10 years ago when NASCAR decided to switch the Busch Series from V-6 engines to the V-8s used in the Cup Series. Then they made them even closer in ratio to cup engines. Next, NASCAR decided to get rid of most of the standalone events for the Saturday races, which coincidentally happened to take races away from short tracks. All of a sudden, you had the Busch Series, which was suppose to be a low-cost series traveling to places like Pikes Peak, California, Kentucky Speedway, and the new Nashville speedway. Gone from the Busch schedule were tracks primarily located in the southeast and ones which provided some great short track racing, such as Orange County Speedway, Myrtle Beach, South Boston, Hickory, and even Martinsville Speedway. All of these changes made by NASCAR drove up the costs for the Busch teams astronomically. Not only were the teams now having to build Cup quality cars and have Cup quality engine programs, but these traditionally low-budget teams were having to travel all the way across the county, not once but several times a year. All of these things contributed to the escalating costs in the Busch Series. Then, you had the decline in the economy over the last few years which has caused many Cup teams to fold because of lack of sponsorship. Yes, the Busch Series costs quite a bit less for a sponsor to invest for an entire season. But so many sponsors would rather put their money into a Cup team, even if it is only as an associate sponsor. Particularly, I believe, because they felt they'd get more exposure on TV.

This brings us back to the new TV partners again. For some reason, it appears to me that Fox and NBC feel like the Busch Series is nothing but a necessary evil that they have to broadcast in order to have rights to the Cup Series on Sunday. On top of this, it seems like everything Fox and NBC do on Saturday must relate to the premiere division of NASCAR. Many times, they show us Cup drivers or Cup highlights during what is supposed to be the Busch pre-race shows. Many times, they even have Cup drivers in the TV booth with them, rather than a former driver in the Busch Series. It seems like TV just views the Saturday series as a prelude to the Sunday races.

Next you have the increase of Cup drivers running in the Busch Series. Yes, this has always been a practice by many top drivers, but it seems like it has increased much more in the last four years. Many of these Cup stars run a limited schedule, yet take away sponsors from drivers who are interested in making a career in the Busch Series and running for the championship. And now in the last couple of years, we have the Cup drivers who are running nearly every Busch race to try and help big money Cup owners win the owner's title in Busch (as Richard Childress did last season). I have a real problem with drivers and team owners cherrypicking in the Busch Series and think this is part of the failure and shutdown on many full-time Busch teams. There is a shortage of sponsor money already and much of that is going to fund part-time efforts by Cup drivers and owners.

Then you have TV's part in all of this. Increasingly over the last four years, but particularly this season, it seems like NBC and Fox are only concerned with the Cup drivers running in Busch events. If they ever show any Busch regulars on TV, they are the so-called "rising stars" such as Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, or David Stremme. Fox, particularly, seems to barely care about former champions of the Busch Series, like David Green, Randy LaJoie, or Johnny Benson, drivers who are all trying to make a career in Busch and win another championship.

So now we come to this weekend's broadcast of the O'Reilly 300 from Texas Motor Speedway. First off, I'm sure I'm risking the ire of the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans who think that every minute of every race broadcast should focus on their driver, but there are folks out there (like me) who like the Busch regulars and are avidly trying to follow the championship battle between the drivers such as Green or Jason Keller who are actually competing for the Busch Championship this year. Fox pretty much turned yesterday's race into the Dale Junior Show and he wasn't even running in the race this time! They placed him in one of their production trailers and let him operate the in-car camera controls for the car driven by his driver, Truex, Jr. An inordinate part of the Fox broadcast showed a split screen of Junior in the production trailer and the view of the camera he was operating in the Truex car. During this time, those of us who were actually interested in what the other 42 drivers on the track were doing had no choice but to watch this indulgence by Jr. and Fox. When we weren't watching it, the Fox commentators spent 75% of their time showing us or telling us about how the Cup drivers, such as Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Michael Waltrip, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, or Joe Nemechek were doing. Almost completely forgotten in most of this coverage was David Green who was second in points going into this race, I believe, and ran in the top 10 most of the day. Jason Keller was only mentioned after he made it into the top ten in the race. This is a driver who has finished in the top 3 in Busch points for about the last five years.

I just finished watching the show 'Pit Bull' on the Speed Channel and several motorsports journalists and Fox employee, Steve Byrnes, were discussing the so-called "demise" of the Busch Series. No, I don't entirely blame TV for bringing about this so-called "crisis" in the Busch series. A lot of factors caused to combine to create the situation the series finds itself in right now. Most of which were caused by NASCAR itself in it's almighty quest for more money. Someone had the bright idea that if almost every Busch race was a companion event that the tracks could sell weekend ticket packages along with the Sunday races. If they moved them from the short tracks in the southeast to the same "major markets" as Cup races, they could sell even more seats. If they made the cars almost identical to Cup cars, the series would provide a better training ground for future stars in the premiere series. The problem with all of these decisions is that NASCAR has now simply turned the Busch Series into a dress rehearsal for a lot of the Cup drivers, a way for them to get somewhat free extra practice for Sunday's race. These drivers are stealing all the sponsors away from up and coming Busch teams and causing talented drivers and strong teams to drop out of the sport entirely. To top all of this off, rather than showcasing the full-time Busch teams, the TV networks are concentrating almost entirely on the Cup whackers in the Busch races. Added to that are stunts like Fox did yesterday, by putting a top Cup driver in the production trailer and focusing on him throughout a great deal of the broadcast. No wonder the series is in trouble! TV is not helping it out a bit! It seems like they don't really want to cover the Busch Series unless Cup stars are involved. What a sad attitude towards a series that deserves so much. Forgetting drivers who race hard for every position every week and are doing so on a fraction of the budget that the Cup drivers running a limited Busch schedule are doing.

I'm sorry that this sounds so much like a rant against TV. I really do blame NASCAR for a lot of the problems within the Busch Series these days, but I do think TV could do a better job of giving the Busch regulars their due. I think they really do perpetuate the problem in the slant their coverage takes every week. Don't the racers making a career for themselves in the Busch Series deserve as much press as the Cup invaders each week? I guess I'll have to content myself with looking forward to the few standalone events coming up soon for the Busch Series. Hopefully, Fox will showcase more of the Busch regulars when most (but not all) of the Cup drivers are not in the fields at places like Nashville, Kentucky, and Nazareth.

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