The view from my couch

TV Materially Affecting Racing
by Cheryl Lauer, September 19, 2006

Since 2001 when Fox, NBC and TNT took over the NASCAR TV contracts, I've repeatedly pointed out how TV is materially altering the sport of stock car racing. Their affect has ranged from pushing NASCAR to move "happy hour" from the traditional time of after the Saturday support races to early on Saturday morning or even on Fridays, or demanding that the race schedules be altered in order to appeal to the casual fans, or in one instance, a television 'required' telemetry device catching on fire in a competitor's car and costing him the race. But in the last month, we've now seen TV causing sanctioning bodies to shorten races to facilitate the SPEED Channel.

It all started with an ARCA race last month at Nashville. To begin with, the track chosing to schedule the Craftsman Truck Series race immediately following the ARCA race seemed to lack foresight! The ARCA race was scheduled to start at 3:00 p.m. and the truck race for 5:00 p.m. In the last couple of months, the SPEED Channel has decided that their truck series broadcasts just have to have a 30-minute pre-race show. When the August ARCA race at Nashville ran a little long, TV apparently told the track or ARCA that they had to cut the race short in order for SPEED to show their pre-race show! How absurd is that? Instead of seeing guys in the ARCA series have a chance to race for the win with 7-8 laps left, ARCA suddenly notified the teams there would be a Green/White/Checker finish and then the race was over. How unfair to the competitors, not to mention the fans of that series of which I am one (I'm a fan of ALL stock car racing).

Granted, the majority of the fans filing into the Nashville Speedway were there to see the Craftsman Truck Series race, not ARCA. But what would it have hurt to let ARCA finish their advertised distance? Fans at the track at 5:00 for the truck race would've simply gotten to see the ARCA drivers actually race their entire race. TV viewers would've gotten to see the same and SPEED could have just cut their ridiculously long pre-race show by 5 minutes or so. It's bad enough to wait through the lengthy pre-race which has become the norm for the Cup Series, but now viewers have to wait through a long pre-race show for the trucks too? And most of is simply rehashing of last week's race and other stuff we don't need to waste 30 minutes on. No offense to Ray Dunlap who hosts the show, but it's just crazy that NASCAR, the 400-lb. gorilla in racing, is so important to TV that track promoters and other racing series are being pressured into shortening their races. Just so we can watch highlights and other nonsense such as a golf tournament? Of course, those of us who follow the truck series every week already saw the previous race, so we didn't need a highlight show. That brings me to the real motivation behind this new pre-race show for the truck series - it's really just another thing to entice the "new" or casual fans to follow the truck series. It's all about the ratings; the heck with racing, which is supposed to be the reason for the broadcasts in the first place.

Now we come to the most recent example of TV materially affecting the sport of racing. This past Saturday, there was, once again, a "support" race for the Craftsman Truck Series (which used to be the support race). This time it was NASCAR's own Busch East Series racing at Loudon. I'm one of those few fans who had the ability to watch this race live on HDnet (a speciality channel for viewers with high-definition TVs). When I saw this race on the TV schedule, I immediately knew there was going to be a problem again because of the poor scheduling. The Busch East race was scheduled to start at 12 noon and the truck race was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. NASCAR had already scheduled 25 less laps for the Busch East race as opposed to their normal 150 laps, but knowing that Busch East is a short-track series with a wide variety of driver skills, I had a feeling there would be a lot of cautions. I predicted that TV would ask them to shorten the race so SPEED could get in their truck pre-race show.

When the announcers for HDnet came on (Mike Hogwood and Dave Burns), they immediately told the viewing audience that the race might be shortened. Well, that was fine for the fans watching live TV but what about the fans in the stands? Did they know? I assume the Busch East competitors were told their race might be shortened. But I'm sure they weren't too happy since Loudon is one of this series' drivers chances to "audition" in front of the NASCAR Busch and Nextel Series car owners. I'm sure they wanted to be able to run the scheduled distance and show what they had. I won't even comment on the absurdity of the Busch East Series starting 46 cars for this race (when this series is used to running only 20-25 cars on 1/2 mile tracks). As predicted, numerous cautions ensued (73 laps worth) with only 31 laps being run under green. Some might say it was a mercy call that NASCAR ended the race after 104 laps. Regardless of the quality of the racing in the Busch East Series, it is still a sanctioned racing series whose participants are trying to make a living at racing. Yet their one day to "shine" in front of big money NASCAR owners was shortened so that the SPEED channel could show us another pre-race show consisting of highlights from past races and a golf tournament involving truck series drivers.

I guess this is what stock car racing has been reduced to in the 21st century. TV materially affecting the outcome of races because TV schedules now arbitrarily determine the length of races? Fluff shows trying to entice new fans and garner ratings are more important that the actual racing? TV and advertising executives dictating race starts, practice times, etc.? What's next dictating who wins because the drivers sponsor is a major contributor to the a TV channel? I know NASCAR and their drivers have always called their races "shows," but what has happened in the last five years and more importantly in the last two months just brings home that point to this fan even more.

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