The view from my couch

TNT Coverage of the Sharpie 500
by Cheryl Lauer
August 26, 2003

I was so looking forward to the NBC/TNT team's broadcast of the Bristol night race. The broadcast team had been doing so well the last few weeks with their comprehensive coverage of pit stops and keeping the viewers up to date on everything happening on and off the track. This week, they seemed to totally drop the ball. I understand that the race had 20 cautions and there was a lot happening all night, but it seemed like TNT chose every caution as an opportunity to load in as many commercials as possible. Yes, I'd rather see the commercials during cautions, but what happened to at least updating us verbally on pit stops and damage to various cars after they came back from commercial?

The Pre-Race Show

Bill Weber came on and immediately updated us on the latest news on the Kurt Busch/Jimmy Spencer incident, including a live interview with Busch. After this, Bill talked about the audio from Busch's in-car camera and how it was not suitable for some viewers. Next, he reported that NASCAR had released this audio to the media. The entire subject kind of ended abruptly after this. After his remark about the material not being suitable for some viewers, I was actually expecting that TNT would play the audio, so the abrupt ending to the subject was rather disappointing. Why not say, “Because of the language, TNT will not be playing the audio?” The whole thing kind of seemed pointless to mention if they had no intention of playing it, yet they told us it had been released to the media. Isn't TNT part of the media?

Wally Dallenbach's ride around the 36 degree banking at Bristol was really great! High banking at tracks always amazes me and the viewers got a real feel for it from the in-car camera. Next was a very interesting feature on a black trainer who works with the pit crews for several Winston Cup teams.

TNT seemed to want to provided Kurt Busch a little positive PR and ran a feature on the late Chris Trickle, from whom Kurt inherited his first Winston West ride back in Las Vegas. This was interesting and I'm not sure if this feature was already planned before the incident between Busch and Spencer or not, but it seemed a bit odd in light of it.

TNT came back from commercial and made sure to replay the booing Busch got during driver introductions. This was just a little too much hype for my taste. It seemed to set the tone for the “angry driver” theme that Allen Bestwick and the crew had to keep reminding us of all night long. Unfortunately, after that big build-up, TNT was destined to be disappointed that no drivers expressed their displeasure towards other drivers during the race. Bill did have a cute turn of the phrase while passing off things to the announcers in the booth. He said, “Tempers will flare. Some might throw a punch and that's just in the broadcast booth.” This was really funny and I enjoyed it!

I was pleasantly surprised that the booth went down the whole starting grid this week. A lot of viewers write me complaining about the fact that the TV networks just sort of abandon the starting grid after the first few rows and I have to agree. Yes, we can read it for ourselves, but it's kind of hard with the guys in the booth talking over it all the time. Thanks, TNT!

The Race

TNT had good replays of most of the incidents on the track this week, starting with the first caution brought out when Jeff Green got into Steve Park and collected the 54, 45, 43, and 41 cars in the aftermath. Several replays were shown before TNT went to the first commercial of the night. When TNT returned, there was an interview the Todd Bodine, who was involved in the crash. They also showed repairs being made to Steve Park's car. Unfortunately, this was about the best post-crash coverage we would see for the rest of the night. Also, TNT didn't even bother to tell us who pitted while they were away at commercial. Someone simply said something about none of the top cars coming in for pit stops.

It seemed like TNT really took the attitude that only the top cars were important in this race and that really bugged me. For example, Tony Raines, who happens to be in an unsponsored car and needs all the coverage he can get to attract a sponsor, qualified in the twelfth position for this race. At the drop of the flag, I saw that he dropped back dramatically on the ticker, as far back as the 30s. TNT didn't bother to tell us what happened to him until much later in the race. At one point, Benny pointed out that Raines was hanging with the leaders, despite being two laps down because of “obvious” problems. Well, the problems certainly weren't obvious to those of us at home. It wasn't until about halfway through the race that we got a report from Matt Yocum that Raines had a tire going down early in the race and an unscheduled pit stop put him down two laps. Also, when Raines got wrecked late in the race, TNT never even bothered to show us a replay. When Bobby Labonte spun in the aftermath of the fifth caution, TNT didn't show a replay of it for a long time. They also did not tell us whether he was able to get back on the track because of the damage. This is someone who was the pole sitter last week and a Winston Cup Champion just a couple of years before. I would think TNT could have covered his problems a little more thoroughly. It wasn't until he behind the wall for a second time that TNT told us about his problems.

The same thing happened when we got a brief shot of Ricky Rudd's hood being all curled up after a wreck where we didn't see him involved. TNT had a shot of Rudd, but before they explained what happened to him, they had to cut away to show us “repairs” to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s car. Next thing we knew, Rudd was out of the race and behind the wall. This lack of follow-up really annoyed me. TNT also didn't bother telling us that Dave Blaney had problems and was behind the wall for 55 laps until he returned to the race. I understand that a lot was happening during this race and it presented a challenge to the TNT crew, yet, to me, it seemed like the producer totally abandoned the excellent pit road coverage and updates on the field this week. Allen never seemed to “reset” the field for us and give us updates on who had pitted or pit strategies, an area in which NBC/TNT has excelled during the last two races. To me it appeared that this was because each caution gave TNT an opportunity to shown long blocks of commercials instead of updating the viewers on what was going on in the race. This contributed to a fragmented race which lacked continuity for the folks at home.

There were also a couple of missed and nearly missed restarts while coming back from the long blocks of commercials. After the second caution, TNT missed the restart and Allen told us “The green flag was just waved,” yet you could clearly see the cars were already on the backstretch. Other times, TNT was busy showing us replays until the point where the cars were taking the restart flag at the start/finish line. Call me picky, but I'd like to have a little more notice that the race is about to restart. Another time, Allen didn't tell us that Sterling Marlin had not pitted and was the leader of the race until just before the restart. When both Marlin and Mark Martin were leading the race, TNT barely showed them. I guess they just weren't important enough to bother with, even though they were leading the race. Later when Martin had a problem on pit road and had to make an extra stop which caused him to be mired in the back of the pack, we did not hear about it until he got wrecked by Johnny Sauter.

The good news is that because of the 20 cautions, the video highlights segments were all shown while going to commercials during caution periods this week. Unfortunately, the Virtual Garage was shown during green flag racing, just when the leader was lapping several cars. But we got to hear about it afterwards. Again, maybe I'm just being picky, but I'd much rather have seen the leader negotiating past people like Johnny Benson and others. Lapping cars on a short track is always tricky and particularly so since Benson had a pretty strong car this week. But TNT thought it was more important to show a prolonged shot of repairs to Robby Gordon's car and then go to this Virtual Garage which is really just a commercial for Home Depot. So, effectively, they got in commercials for both Cingular and Home Depot while we could've been watching some interesting action on the track. Another “commercial” was the huge Lowes' graphic associated with the “Movers” and “Snoozers” lists, that covered up some of the green-flag racing action.

I'm sorry to dwell on the negative things in the race, but they really affected my enjoyment of the entire event. However, there were many good things that TNT did during the night as well. These included catching a good shot of the glowing brake rotors in Busch's car early in the race. Also one of the booth announcers pointed out that Michael Waltrip had chosen the first pit stall on the backstretch and this enabled him to beat several cars out of the pits. Throughout the night, the announcers would point out when someone with a backstretch pit beat out someone with a frontstretch pit. Also, Benny was quick to alert us about Waltrip's wreck and the director quickly switched to a shot of it, so we got to see Waltrip sliding down the track for a frightening impact with Rusty Wallace. This was great camera work and Marty Snider was on top of things in the pits to get a quick interview with Waltrip. Later, Marty also told us that Wallace was being transported to the hospital for precautionary reasons. There were also some good bumper cam shots from Jamie McMurray's car during the race. Early in the race, there was report from the pits that Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt were running hot during caution periods, and Allen explained that the caution speed was only 35 miles per hour and this probably caused the problem. I appreciated this kind of information. Benny speculated that the rear end gear was most likely the problem on Robby Gordon's car when we saw smoke coming from it. The producer quickly switched to the radio communications for that team and we heard Richard Childress say that he thought it was the rear gear as well. Later, Bill confirmed that this was what the team discovered when Gordon pitted. Benny also pointed out that Kenseth had slowed suddenly and this was what caused the fifth caution of the night. One of the pit reporters reported that he had heard Kenseth saying that he had a tire going down on the radio. Later, Dave Burns confirmed that it was a broken valve stem on the 17 car. These are all examples of excellent heads-up reporting on TNT's part.

After the accident involving Ted Musgrave, the producer played some good radio transmissions where Kenseth discussed with his team what changes they should make to his car. At one point, Bill pointed out to us that Dale Jarrett's tires were very old and that he'd only taken tires on his last pit stop. This explained why everyone was passing Jarrett at that time. Bill also reported that Ken Schrader's car fell off the jack during a pit stop and Wally pointed out that there was also a problem with the lugnuts on Jeff Gordon's car, so he had a slow pit stop as well. At lap 324, Bill reported that Martin needed 10 caution laps to make it the rest of the way on fuel. After Bobby Labonte's second spin, TNT did offer us the kind of interesting information that they've done in previous weeks. This included Allen telling us that Marlin stayed out on the track and Wally told us that Casey Mears and Martin only took fuel. Another good tidbit that the TNT crew provided was Allen telling us that Busch had been warned that if he was involved in anything with a car in front of him, he would be brought in for a penalty. This was after Busch had wrecked Marlin when Marlin was running second in the race. After the caution where Jeff Gordon wrecked, Bill reported that Schrader had slowed down because he thought he had a tire going down and this contributed to the wreck.

TNT didn't get a chance to do a Through the Field until lap 414, and Allen explained that every time they had planned to do one earlier in the race, a caution came out. There was a lot of pixelization and break-up of the regular camera shots and in-car camera shots all night long. I suspect this may have been caused by the “stadium” shape of the Bristol grandstands and the amount of metal they contain. The picture from the track disappeared completely for a few seconds at 12 laps to go, but the ticker remained on the screen, so obviously the problem was on the video at the track.

During the waning laps of the race, Matt Yocum reported on a possible ignition problem on Busch's car. This was interesting information.

In the last few laps of the race, as has become the tradition with the new TV partners, the director switched from a battle for position to show the leader running alone on the track. This time, Kenseth was attempting to pass McMurray for third position and the shot switched to following Busch for the last couple of laps. Yes, I'd like to see the leader take the checkered flag, but do we need to follow him for the entire last two laps if there is no one close enough to fight him for position? Wouldn't the viewers be better served to show the closest battle within the top five?

I’m sorry I can’t give the folks at TNT a better review this week. I know they are doing the best they can within the constraints they have. As with prior years, it seems the advertising folks at TNT sold way too many commercials for the Bristol night race. So much so, that the flow of the race and pit strategy got lost in the need to fill every caution period with as many commercials as possible. Yes, we rarely had a commercial during green flag racing, which is a good thing, but with 20 yellow flags, there should have been plenty of time to get in commercials and still give us updates on accidents and cover all the strategies on pit road. Somewhere along the way, a lot of information seemed to get lost in the shuffle. In my opinion, the TNT advertising folks need to be aware that when they sell so many commercials just because it is a 500-lap race, that the continuity of the race ends up suffering. I guess my last question is if Bristol really is the "hottest ticket" as TV keeps telling us, why are they showing it on a cable station that needs more commercials to support the broadcast, instead of on NBC?

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