The view from my couch

Racing "Reality" Shows
by Cheryl Lauer
May 24, 2004

Over the last several months, TV producers have jumped on the bandwagon of so-called reality shows. I guess I don't understand why a simple documentary following race teams or drivers has to be labeled a "reality" series. Now I've never watched shows like Survivor or The Bachelor, but from what I've heard, they are about as far from reality as you can get. But this seems to be the latest buzz word to attract the coveted 18-34 demographic that TV so desperately seeks. When I heard that stock car racing would soon have some "reality" shows, I cringed. But I kept my mind open and have been pleasantly surprised, for the most part, with the content of the three shows following race teams and drivers.

NBS 24/7, Monday Nights at 8 p.m. on the SPEED Channel

This show has been on since February I believe, and benefits from an extremely good timeslot following the popular Inside Nextel Cup on Monday nights. I like that the teams chosen to follow in this series are not the high profile teams of the Busch Series. Call me perverse, but I'd rather see teams that have to struggle a bit week to week. It gives me a real feel for some of the challenges drivers, teams, and car owners face. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a savvy enough fan to see that two of the teams featured on this show have strong ties to Cup teams.

First we have Braun Motorsports, that has a great deal of support from Ganassi Racing in developing Chip Ganassi's young driver, David Stremme. Then we have Akins Motorsports, that is fielding a Busch team for Ray Evernham's Cup driver, Kasey Kahne. It's quite obvious that this team has gotten a influx of money and technology via Evernham Motorsports. Especially since they hired and fired one crew chief before the first race of the year and have now hired former Winston Cup Champion crew chief, Paul Andrews. Lastly, we have Fitz-Bradshaw Racing, which might be the closest to a true standalone Busch team. This team is owned by Armando Fitz and Terry Bradshaw. Fitz seems to be the management side of the team, who is present in the shop while Bradshaw generally "phones in" his input on Monday mornings. Their drivers are Busch veteran, Tim Fedewa, and young Casey Atwood.

Okay, I'm a sucker for the underdogs and these two drivers epitomize the underdogs to me. After winning three Busch races over the last nine years, Fedewa was without a ride for the last few seasons. His name reappeared on the racing scene last year when he served as spotter and driving coach for the unsuccessful, Kerry Earnhardt, who drove for Fitz-Bradshaw. Apparently, his humility paid off and he was placed in the 12 car after Earnhardt was released by the team late last season. Casey Atwood, I'll have to admit is a long-time favorite driver of mine. He came on like gangbusters in the late 90s and won two races for Brewco Motorsports in 1999. All of the sudden, he was snatched up by Evernham Motorsports and thrown into a Winston Cup ride in 2001. I knew this was a mistake as he was rushed into Cup without enough seasoning in the Busch Series. In other words, he was set up for failure. After being shuffled to the 7 car as a stepchild of Evernham Motorsports in 2002, he was out of a Cup ride completely in 2003. Somewhere mid-season last year, he got picked up by Fitz-Bradshaw when they acquired the Navy as a sponsor for a second car.

Okay, enough about the history of the teams and drivers on 24/7, let's talk about the show itself. In general, I think it's a very good show, but definitely needs a longer time slot. You just get into the week's race when it's time for them to wrap up and show previews for the next week's episode. I don't know if the producers are under too tight of time constraints to get that weekend's footage edited by Monday night or what. Though I suspect this is the real problem as they only have a couple days to edit the show into a final cut. Whatever the reason, SPEED needs to give them more time or something. I realize that would mean giving up their favorable time slot, but I'd be willing to bet longtime viewers would have no problem if the show was moved until later in the week. I just find it frustrating that they take 5 minutes at the beginning of every show to give you a recap of what happened the week before and then just touch on the race from the past weekend, before it's time to go.

I enjoy the content of the show in general. They aren't going out of their way to make it overly dramatic and only a few people on the crews seem to be "acting out" for the camera. And then mostly, you can tell they're just having fun with it. Showing the consultant that has been brought in to help out Fitz-Bradshaw the last couple of weeks is quite interesting, though you have to feel for Casey Atwood, having his psyche discussed openly all over TV. But I'm assuming he signed a release that he and agent (if he has one) have final approval of what material is aired. If he doesn't, he's not as smart a young man as I give him credit for being. Maybe I just like that part of the show because I feel Casey was set up for failure with his rush to Winston Cup in 2001. I can certainly understand why he has "issues" about failure now.

Overall, I'd give NBS 24/7 a B+, with my only complaints being that it should be an hour show and the producers have too short a deadline to get timely material on the air.

The Drive, Fridays at 9:00 p.m. on Country Music Television (CMT)

Okay, right off the bat I'll have to explain that I'm prejudiced towards this show because it covers drivers trying to make it in two short track series, the United Speed Alliance Racing (USAR) Series, and the American Speed Association (ASA). My husband and I are huge fans of the USAR series and attend a lot of their races. We've actually given up tickets to many NASCAR races over the last 3-4 years to attend more and more USAR races. The drivers, teams, and officials in this series are not multi-millionaires; they simply just race.

It's good to see a program with racing content from the family of networks that used to include The Nashville Network (TNN), who broadcast many Winston Cup and ASA races in the past. I realize that CMT is now owned by MTV, but thankfully The Drive has very little "rock star" or "reality" overtones. This show simply chronicles the real life ups and downs of several drivers at very different stages in their racing careers. The only real problem I have with the lead-in to the show is that the tag line is "Life at 200+ miles per hour, seven drivers, one season, one chance, no guarantees " The "200+" is really inappropriate for this level of racing. These are short track racers for the most part. Granted the ASA series will be racing a few speedways this year, but the the 200 mph thing is already so overused in NASCAR. I guess saying that they're racing at 90 mph just isn't sexy enough for TV. But other than that, the rest of the lead-in is really appropriate for the group of drivers documented in this series.

Here's a short description of each driver in no particular order:

  • First you have Michael Ritch, a veteran of the USAR series from High Point, NC. Michael has good sponsorship from Jackaroo Sauces, but still had to sweat over whether the sponsor would re-up for the 2004 racing season. Michael is probably the most successful of any of the drivers features in this series.
  • Next, you have Michelle Theriault, a 17-year-old rookie in USAR racing. She was recruited by car owner, Steven Husketh, to run a second car for his team. While she was successful running late models back home in Atlanta, GA, her new car owner makes it clear that he wants to help a female driver succeed, but that she will have to produce to keep her ride.
  • Next comes Zach Niessner, a 22-year-old ASA driver from Washington state. Zach's story has already had many ups and downs in the four episodes of the series. He went from having a ride and a commitment from a sponsor prior to the 2004 to losing both and taking out a loan to start his own team this season. The challenges of renting a car and he and his crew working long hours to get it ready for the opening race of the season really gave you a taste of how much teams can struggle.
  • We have Davin Scites, from West Virginia. Davin won an ASA race in 2003, but finds also himself without a full-time ride in 2004. He runs whatever he can to stay around racing and finally agrees to a deal to be crew chief for an ASA team and rookie driver in exchange for a limited schedule of driving the car himself.
  • Mike Herman, Jr. from Kannapolis, NC. has run in USAR in the past and won a race a couple of years ago I believe. While struggling to find a full-time ride and sponsor in USAR, he also runs late models when he gets the opportunity.
  • Sarah McCune has moved from Indiana to North Carolina to try and covey her open-wheel experience into a ride in stock cars. She's still searching for a break into the male-dominated stock car ranks.
  • David Stover from Oklahoma ran in the USAR series in 2003, but a back injury from another series has side-lined him for 2004. He must make some tough decisions about whether to continue with his racing career or give it up.

    Each of these drivers has a different and compelling story. I find this show fascinating to watch. I'm not sure that when the producers signed each of the drivers to the show in 2003 if they had any idea what twists and turns each of their careers would take. But it has been fascinating to watch. From the lowest of lows for Neissner when he lost his ride and sponsor to the highs when his loan was approved to start his own race team. Through the struggles of getting a rented car prepared for the race to the triumph of winning the poll at that race. In the most recent episode, that triumph was replaced by tragedy when Niessner was collected in what looked to be a serious accident, not of his own making.

    Again as with NBS 24/7, the episodes are not very timely. I'm not sure why CMT is so behind on the actual races for the 2004 season. Through the current episode, the drivers involved in ASA are still at the first race of the year, which occurred in March and the USAR drivers are back at their first race which occurred in February.

    Also, I think CMT should have provided a little more background into the two series in which the drivers are competing. Granted I know all about ASA and USAR, but many of their viewers may not know that much about any racinng series except NASCAR. And believe me, these series deserve a little PR for their acceptance of the TV crews into their communities.

    I even like the music the producers chose as a soundtrack for the racing segments of this show. No, it's not country, but neither is it rap or heavy metal. The music is contempory and does an excellent job conveying the intensity and range of emotions felt by the competitors during a race. Overall, I think this is a great show and I hope that CMT stays with these drivers throughout the 2004 racing season. Right now, I hear they have a commitment to do eight episodes of the show. Let's hope more people watch and the network feels the ratings justify continuing it throughout the season. I definitely give this show an A.

    NASCAR Drivers 360, Fridays at 10:00 p.m. on FX (and Repeated Ad Naseum During the Weekend)

    Of the three "reality" shows about racing, this one comes closest to what I expected a reality show to be like. I guess I'm not very impressed with the first two episodes. I feel like it really should have been titled "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" or in the case of the Harvick's, "the Rich and Spoiled."

    Don't get me wrong, I like Rusty and Kenny Wallace a lot and Kevin Harvick if very talented race car driver. I just feel like this show doesn't really give you much insight into their real lives. Obviously being the successful drivers they are, they have a great of deal of say as to what footage is actually used for the show, so maybe they really don't allow the cameras that much personal information.

    Kenny Wallace seems to be the one of the three that lives a more down to earth life, attending his daughter's sports games, etc. We also got to see the range of emotions he experienced when his car failed to make the race at Rockingham in February. The show touched on Rusty Wallace starting up his own race team for Busch driver, Billy Parker. This was interesting and much better than the first episode where we watched Rusty and his wife pick out designs for a high-dollar barn on their estate. I'm sorry. I just can't feel for them in having such tough decisions to make. But the couple that everyone I've talked to agrees with me is the most annoying are Kevin and Delana Harvick. They seem to be acting for the camera whenever possible and I don't find their whining and bickering very interesting. Plus riding back from Las Vegas in a chauffeur-driven limo to a million-dollar motorhome just doesn't make me feel that their lives are too tough. Yes, I realize drivers at the Cup level are all millionaires, but I don't find the limited footage of their lives any more interesting than I would the fools vying to be Donald Trump's assistant. I just can't relate to that.

    Granted there have just been two episodes of this show so far, and hopefully it will improve in the coming weeks. Now if FX could just quit shoving promos down our throats during every race broadcast, I'd be a lot happier. But that is what FX does best: over promotes their movies and shows. Overall, I rate this show as a C-.

    After my comparison and contrast between the three shows, I have to say that The Drive is the best racing "reality" series out there, with NBC 24/7 coming in a close second. If you haven't checked out these shows, I highly recommend both of them. NASCAR Drivers 360, I think most folks could live without. But unfortunately, it's the one that most race fans will hear the most about since it chronicles several superstars in the top stock car series. But take my advice, flip on over to CMT and learn about some real folks just trying to make a living and you'll realize how the other guys on the estates and with the expensive motorcoaches are so removed from the actual reality of racing.

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