The view from my couch

Broadcast Odds & Ends - USAR, BGN, and ASA
by Cheryl & Lou Lauer
March 28, 2004

These are a few observations we had concerning the broadcasts of stock car races in the last few days. Included is the Naturally Fresh 250 USAR Race from New Smyrna, FL, the Sharpie Professional 250 Busch Race from Bristol, TN and the SK Hand Tool 200 ASA Race from Lakeland, FL.

SPEED Coverage Naturally Fresh 250 from New Smyrna, FL

Booth announcers for this race were Rick Benjamin and Scott Sutherland and pit road was covered by Stephen Cox and mobile cameraman, Richard Campbell. The team did a very good job presenting this tape-delayed race which was run last Saturday night. The most impressive thing in this broadcast was the introduction of the split-screen at the start of the race. This way the viewers could see the green flag waving on one side, while the other shot followed the cars at the start of the race. This was excellent! Good job, guys! We've been waiting for this moment for years! Another good thing that the broadcast team does on the USAR races is they still a show graphic of the entire starting grid as the announcers mention the driver's name, hometown, and sponsor's name. Staying with this tradition (which Fox has dropped on their broadcasts this season), allows the viewers to familiarize themselves with the drivers and get a mental picture of where they are starting in the field. Another good thing that announcers, Benjamin and Sutherland, do is they don't feel they have to talk constantly. They let the viewer enjoy the racing without constant babble and self-promotion. When they spoke, it was to add valuable insight into the race or tell us more about the drivers, their sponsors, or give us background concerning the 2004 crop of rookies in USAR.

There were only a few negative things about this broadcast. Primarily was the addition of the trademark Fox "ticker" at the top of the screen. The USAR broadcasts were the only racing where the viewers were spared this clutter on the top of the screen. In the past, the production team would insert an unobtrusive graphic of the field rundown frequently during the race. Some folks really like this "old style" way of doing things. The Fox ticker covered up some of the racing and it only showed the top 10 or 20 positions when it was run. There were times the ticker was running when the production team chose to use the speedy cam located off of turn 4 and you could not even SEE the cars going by because using the camera and ticker together didn't appear to have been thought of before the race or the camera could have been re-pointed to accommodate the ticker. Add to that the fact that the "SPEED" logo and the 'Naturally Fresh' logo were placed to the left and right of the ticker and the ticker became pretty useless with barely a driver and a half showing at any given moment. Thankfully, it was not on the screen at all times. If this is a requirement of the Speed Channel because it is "sponsored," it should at least include a lap counter.

As with all programs on the Speed Channel, this broadcast was broken up by way too many commercials and the redundancy of them is particularly annoying. There were also occasionally insets of pre-recorded comments from drivers. These comments are interesting, but they would be better if saved for caution periods, so they do not cover up the racing.

Lastly, the race itself was marred by an extremely large number of cautions and we realize the broadcast is limited to a two-hour time slot; however, there were few replays of many of the incidents. It is understandable if replays were not available, but it would have been nice to have the commentators describe what happened, especially since the race was tape-delayed and they surely had access to the details of the incidents. One additional moment at the exciting conclusion of the race was also annoying. There's a great race going. The second and third place cars are hounding the leader and they have fresher tires. The camera is following them through turns 3 and 4, coming to the white flag. The second place car nudges the leader and starts to pull along side, but instead of having the camera showing this action, they switch to a needless shot from the turn 4 speedy cam for a few seconds and then switch back to cameras covering the lead battle AFTER they get to turn 1 and 2 and the second place car is along side the leader and taking the lead. Come on, that pass was the climax of the race and we're sure other viewers were probably a little frazzled by this choice.

At the end of the broadcast, Stephen Cox had interviews with the winner and second place driver as well as a clearly frustrated Clay Rogers. who led much of the race only to lose the lead on the final lap. Overall, the broadcast team did a very good job with this broadcast considering their tight budget, demanding production schedule, and limited resources.

Fox Coverage of the Sharpie Professional 250 from Bristol, TN

Overall, this was a poor broadcast for Fox, considering their resources and large production team. As we have seen in the last few weeks during Cup races, this broadcast appeared to be more like a highlight show than live coverage of the race. More than one restart was missed because Fox was at commercial and the only pass for the lead as well.

It was wonderful to see the race on the main Fox channel as we were able to watch it via our local digital channel which uses widescreen. And even if Fox still doesn't do high definition, it was a much better quality picture than we ever see on FX. Fox seemed to have replays of all the incidents of the day, even if they were at commercial when they happened. They seemed to have a lot of extra time at the end of the broadcast and used it well for a lot of post-race interviews, which was important after so much controversy at the end of the race.

The bad thing about this and any Busch broadcast these days is the infernal perceived need to highlight the Cup drivers running in Busch rather than the Busch regulars. This frustrates viewers to no end! Not only is it disrespectful to the wonderful drivers running every week in this series and vying for the championship, but it is an insult to the viewers. It seems like the network executives think no one tunes into Busch races except to see the Cup drivers. Some of us have no interest in following the Buschwhackers at the expense of the great drivers running for the Busch title.

There are a lot of talented people associated with the Fox broadcast teams who are race fans themselves at heart and it would just be nice to see the network executives let them focus on the Busch Series drivers more often. Overall, this was a poor effort on the part of Fox.

SPEED Coverage of the SK Hand Tool 200 from Lakeland, FL

If you thought the Fox team did a poor job with the Busch race on Saturday afternoon, they couldn't compare to the truly bad job this SPEED team did on the opening race of the ASA season on Saturday night! The good news was the race was shown live. The bad news was that as usual on SPEED and Fox, there were so many commercials, they interrupted the real flow of the race. It could also have been the extremely high number of caution flags that contributed to this disjointed broadcast, but probably not. The number of commercials would have still been the same, and we would have just been missing live action instead! Last year, SpeedCouch.com did a review of the opening race for the ASA Series and commented very favorably how impressed we were with the broadcast and production team that had been assembled to cover this series. At the beginning of the year they really were a breath of fresh air compared to the hype and self-indulgence that we see on Fox broadcasts; however, as the season progressed, the coverage changed a lot. Many times during the year, the producer chose to insert pre-recorded features on drivers during green-flag racing. Features like this are really nice, but they should never take the place of showing live, green flag racing. We could only suspect that this was the heavy Fox influence in trying to "personalize" the drivers more and give us human interest stories over live racing. This trend continued with this year's first broadcast. But this was only the tip of the iceberg for this show.

The on-air team for ASA returned from last season, with Greg Creamer and Jim Tretow in the booth and Rob Albright and Ken Stout on pit road. Yes, Creamer remains enthusiastic about racing; however, as last season progressed, it became clear that stock car racing was really not his background. Again, this continued to be obvious last night. Enthusiasm only goes so far and the use of big words is no substitute for real knowledge about the ASA Series and stock car racing in general. In addition, Creamer seemed to want to overwhelm the viewer with fancy words or fake-sounding enthusiastic adjectives.

The announcers started off the show by mentioning the changes on the ASA cars concerning the placement of car numbers on the rear quarter panel this year, so that the sponsor's logo would be more visible on the door area. It was known that there were also other major and controversial changes that had been proposed by the owner of the ASA. Rather than telling us about these changes at the same time as the number relocation, the SPEED team didn't cover the new restart rules until the first caution came out. Granted there was a caution after only 12 laps into the race, but it would have been more appropriate to discuss the changes at the beginning of the show instead of doing so many features on drivers and showing recaps from last season. It would have given the broadcast team one more time to try and figure out exactly how to explain these restart changes to the viewer, because they sure did a poor job of doing so the rest of the night. In addition, the announcers didn't made any mention at all about the reversal on the decision concerning Formula 1 style qualifying for this series. We think this was an important issue that should have been mentioned.

The production team showed a full graphic of the starting grid, with the announcers mentioning every driver, which was very good. There was no real mention of car sponsors, but a few tidbits on drivers and interviews were inserted during the rundown, however, during the race, the announcers frequently mentioned sponsors when referring to cars on the track. The pit reporters did a very good job all night long and always seemed to have timely interviews with crew chiefs and drivers knocked out of the race. The bad part about the pit reports was the horrible lighting that was used by the mobile pit road camera throughout the night. Either the lighting was so bad, the drivers' skin looked grey or the lights were way too bright. As with last year, the way the production team chose to show the honorary starter in an overhead shot, which also gives good view of the start of the race, is appreciated.

The new paint schemes and new position of the car numbers made it nearly impossible to follow the cars, and the broadcast team did very little to help with this confusion. You really couldn't see many of the car numbers. If this was ASA's attempt to get viewers more in tune with the car sponsors, they failed. Not only could you NOT see the sponsors most of the time, there were only a few cars whose number/paint scheme combo allowed the viewer to identify who was who. With so many new rookie drivers in the field, this new numbering scheme certainly seemed to have the opposite effect than intended. Car numbers belong on the doors of racecars where they can be bigger! While this design choice was not the doing of the broadcast team, it certainly fell into their laps to help the viewer through this new change and in that area they fell a little short. Maybe the numbers were more viewable for a fan sitting in the grandstands at the race (and from the looks of it, not many were there), but the main focus should be the TV viewer sitting at home.

The things that really bothered us about this race included at least three restarts missed. Missing a single restart is unacceptable, but three times just makes a joke out of the entire broadcast. Add to this the fact that the announcers made no attempt to tell us where at least the top few drivers chose to line up on restarts with the new restart rules. There were a lot of cautions in this race and it would be difficult to keep up with everything, but they didn't even try to reset the field on the very first restart. The new restart rule may have created a lot of confusion on the part of the announcers, but imagine how the people watching at home felt! Honestly, between not being able to see the numbers on the cars, tons of new drivers, new paints schemes, and then adding in these jumbled up restarts, it was easy to find yourself not knowing what was going on half the time!

Every break, we were subjected to the same annoying few commercials. We understand that SK Hand Tools sponsored the race, but SPEED showed their commercial at every single break, not to mention those silly Odor Eater commercials. The producer can't control when cautions occur, but the first commercial came in this broadcast after only 9 laps. When they returned, they showed the concession stands before telling the viewers that the race was under caution. Why do we need to see the food in the concession stands when we want to know what's going on in the race? Also, we don't believe the announcers ever gave a count of the number of cautions during the entire broadcast.

We're really sorry we can't give this broadcast a more favorable review, but there was just too much lack of continuity in the race because of the frequent breaks, the failed attempts to teach the viewer about the new restarts, and the misguided car numbering change by the series owner. It was really a disappointment too, because we had really been looking forward to the start of the ASA season. Hopefully, the ASA broadcast team will learn from their mistakes and improve before their next broadcast in May.

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