The view from my couch

Fox Coverage of the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 from Darlington

Overall, I saw some positive improvement in this week's broadcast over the last couple of weeks. The commercial spacing continues to be good and the use of the dreaded Fox Trax was down a bit (which is always a good thing). The Darlington track and the drivers provided some excellent racing, so Fox did not have to work so hard in convincing the viewers that the race was exciting. This week, it truly was an exciting race, so that made the broadcasters' job a lot easier.

Before I go any further into my review, I've got to get up on my soapbox just a bit. I really believe the powers that be at Fox and NBC need to think again about their big push to take NASCAR racing to "new markets." If they want high ratings and high advertising revenues for their race broadcasts, they just have to watch races like today's race at Darlington and last month's race at Rockingham. These races will give them a quick lesson on what stock car racing is all about and what NASCAR racing is suppose to be. Darlington and Rockingham consistently provide the kind of racing action that fans at home love to see. It may be true that, traditionally, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are good TV markets. Perhaps, just once, the TV executives should "think outside the box" and stop doing everything in their power to take away races from places like Rockingham and Darlington. Stock car racing is a unique sport and doesn't fit neatly into the boxes they want to put it into. If TV can advertise battles like the one today between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch, and go to venues that actually follow through with that kind of excitement week after week, ratings will continue to rise and advertising dollars will also flow in by the truckload. If the TV networks insist on changing that formula, they will find that they've killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Since Fox like cliches so much, I thought they'd appreciate one of my own.

The Pre-Race Show

Okay, for once I have some very positive things to say about the use of music and video montages during today's pre-race show. I absolutely loved the use of Tom Jones' She a Lady to describe the Darlington track! Fox also made an excellent choice in using the Boston song, Smokin as a backdrop for a feature on the engine woes of the Roush teams. That song always runs through my head when a car is seen smoking during a race, so it was great to see the TV folks make use of a timeless classic. At the end of the pre-race show, Fox also used This Old House by the Brian Setzer Orchestra in a segue to commercial. On the downside, I was not happy that from the moment Chris Meyers came on the air that he used words like "ancient" to describe the Darlington track. He also asked the question "Has it held up over time or outlived it's usefulness?: I couldn't help but think these comments had a lot to do with TV and NASCAR's agenda to take a race from Darlington because they want to move to perceived "better" TV markets. I won't belabor this, but you get my point, as Fox - saw the "old" Lady in Black spoke loud and clear for herself today. The pre-race also had a good feature on car owner, Joe Gibbs, highlighting his talent for picking good people.

Another one of my pet peeves this week concerned the fact that the Fox advertising people sold the "presentation" rights to the broadcast to Michelin Tires. No, they are not the first network to do this, and yes, I remember many races on CBS where the network did not mention the company sponsoring the race at the track. But Fox has turned this kind of practice into an art form. The Darlington race was sponsored by the Carolina Dodge Dealers and not one single time did I hear Fox mention that during the broadcast. Oh yes, once they did actually show a camera shot of the name on the track wall at the start/finish line, and this was about three-quarters of the way through the race. Fox does not seem to be concerned that if a track cannot attract title sponsors for it's races, this could have an adverse impact on the track itself and the purse money paid out to the drivers in the race. When companies sign on to sponsor races, they do so thinking their product will be mentioned on TV. Fox does not do so unless that company also buys advertising time on their network. CBS may not have mentioned the title sponsor on their broadcasts, but I don't believe they went so far as to solicit another company's business so they could say "presented by." And what exactly does Michelin Tires have to do with NASCAR racing anyway? Absolutely nothing, but they sure did get a whole lot of mileage for their advertising dollars today. Point in fact, during the pre-race show, when Jeff Hammond was talking about how abrasive the Darlington track surface could be, he used a piece of a tire to illustrate his point. Chris Meyers was quick to tell the viewers "Michelin gave us this tire to work with." Talk about taking advantage of a situation for another shameless plug. I didn't pay any attention, but were the pit reporters even allowed to say the name "Goodyear" as they usually do when describing the tires actually used on the cars in the race? Maybe Goodyear has been getting free advertising all these years, but isn't that part of the essence of NASCAR? Isn't that why companies participate in the sport? Yet, Fox has taken things to a new level that may just have long-term effects on the health of the sport that the TV networks do not realize, or even care about.

The Race

When Mike Joy came on the air, he mentioned that when the track was built in 1950, the intention was that the cars would run down on the apron and the banking would be used as a cushion, but that the drivers found the opposite to be more effective in a race. I found this very interesting and something I had not heard before. Joy also finally told us there was "no rain in sight." I had wondered about this because of the weather predictions for Darlington today and the dark clouds we had seen all morning over the track.

All day long, the producer was on top of replays and the viewers got to see multiple replays of every incident on the track, starting with Jerry Nadeau hitting the wall early in the race. We also saw that Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth had also been involved in an incident at the same time. As they went to commercial, Larry McReynolds told us that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had pitted for tires. I really appreciate not having to wait until after a commercial to hear this kind of information. I don't always have to see the pit stops, but it was great that Larry interjected that bit of information for the folks at home. Unfortunately, the commercials ran long and Fox missed the first restart. When they returned, Matt Yocum reported on a conversation Nadeau had with his crew after his incident.

The Fox technical crew was really on the ball and caught Jack Sprague spinning and we saw several replays of the incident as well. This time, the producer stayed with the pit action and Matt told us some of the crew member names as they performed pit stops. On the next restart, unfortunately, Fox chose to use the pointers. Most times, I really enjoy the information the producer is trying to provide to the fans, such as intervals, speeds, etc., but why can't we just have a small block above or under the car to show this information rather than the infernal pointers?

The next incident was between Jimmy Johnson and Sterling Marlin, with several other cars such as Bobby Labonte being caught in the aftermath. The viewers got to see a couple of good replays and Larry was right on top of things, telling us which cars were coming into the pits. There was a quick graphic, showing which cars were involved in the wreck. The downside is that someone decided to switch to Chris Meyers, who immediately starting trying to talk up a "feud" between Johnson and Marlin because of a prior incident at Las Vegas. This was quickly dispelled by Marlin when he was interviewed by Dick Berggren. Marlin said he didn't blame Johnson for what happened and that he thought Johnson had simply gotten loose. I guess this didn't meet the Fox need to sensationalize everything because Berggren questioned Marlin by pointedly asking "So it was nothing deliberate," as if he was disappointed in Marlin's comments. As the race restarted, I was also frustrated that the commentators did not give the viewers more information on the fate of Marlin and Labonte's cars for quite a long time. In addition, the ticker did not show if they were "off", "out" or how many laps they were down for a quite a long time (not until about lap 80, I think). Sometimes it seems like the ticker just doesn't bother to display information when it gets to the back of the field. If Fox refuses to show the cars outside the top ten on camera and the ticker only sporadically shows the status of these cars, how are the fans suppose to know what is going on with the entire field? Again, in this broadcast, Fox seemed to only mention or show drivers in the top ten most of the day. Dale Jarrett was rarely shown, unless it was after a UPS commercial. Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd were almost never shown and Bill Elliott wasn't shown or mentioned until he somehow climbed up into the top ten. These are big stars of the sport, all former champions, who can win races, and they barely get shown during a race. Then we have other drivers, such as Larry Foyt, Tony Raines, Todd Bodine, and Brett Bodine who never get shown or mentioned at all, even if they drop out of the race. Since the Fox tendency is not to mention perceived "backmarkers" even if they drop out, I was surprised to see Brett Bodine still in the race near the end. But then, we only get a glimpse of guys like this is they happen to be passed by someone in the top ten or are near a "camera" car.

There were good replays of Tony Stewart getting sideways when Jeff Burton's car blew up, and eventually, Fox returned from commercial and showed part of what led up to this incident. This was a few laps before when Ricky Craven got into the back of Stewart's car. Steve Byrnes had a timely interview with Burton's crew chief, Paul Andrews, who told us exactly what he thought had failed in the engine of the 99 car.

Here's another pet peeve of mine and, apparently, many other fans, since I get letters about this topic. Why does Fox not show what lap the race is on? They insist on showing "XX laps to go", like they can't wait for the race to be finished. This bothers me because I like to jot down notes as to on what lap things occur. I can't do the math quickly enough and have to write things like "on XX laps to go." This is very frustrating. Occasionally the graphic will say "XX of 293 laps." I know myself and the other fans would really appreciate it if Fox could display the lap count in this way all the time. A couple of times, Joy did tell us what lap we were on after a commercial, such as at lap 72.

When Jerry Nadeau had some problems with an oil line, there was very good coverage. Maybe a little too much at first, because we got both a close-up of the 01 car and the pointers at the same time. Joy told us that he had been blackflagged and we heard some communications between Nadeau and his crew as he came in. Matt had some great coverage of the resulting pit stop, describing the oil everywhere when the team raised his hood, and when he shut the engine off. After the team got the problem fixed and the car returned to the track, he also had a follow-up interview with crew chief, Ryan Pemberton.

Fox used a lot of crew communications during this broadcast. There really seemed to be a concerted effort this week to delay the communications so the commentators could be quiet. I noticed this with Kurt Busch's team during the mid-point of the race. There were still some instances when Joy, Darrell Waltrip and McReynolds were just a little too impatient and didn't wait to hear the entire conversation before they were explaining it to us. Take a breath guys!

When Fox returned from one commercial, they told us that Jeff Gordon was catching leader, Mark Martin. I thought this was the time that they should have told us the interval or shown a graphic, and eventually they did provide this information. DW still needs to learn to stop talking about his brother in such familiar terms. His use of "little brother" a few times during the broadcast was just a little too cute. He could still benefit from a few lessons from Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons in showing impartiality when discussing family members. Jeff Hammond did an excellent job in describing what caused John Andretti's tire to explode after contact with Jimmy Spencer's car, illustrating it using his handy Michelin tire. During the resulting pit stops, Byrnes reported that Earnhardt's team had to pit twice because of loose lug nuts, Berggren reported on similar problems on Kenseth's car, and Yocum told the viewers what changes had been made to Elliott Sadler's car to combat a loose condition. The commentators also explained that Nemechek was dropping back prior to the restart because he had been caught speeding on pit road. Later, there was a great replay showing an inspector pointing to a loose lugnut on Martin's car, which resulted in him having to come back in for an extra pit stop.

Fox did an excellent job of strategically placing the cameras around the Darlington track. We got to see some really exciting up close and personal shots of how close drivers were running against the wall all day long. There was one really good shot of Sadler hitting the wall with 48 laps to go.

At one point, NASCAR called a caution and the commentators told us there was debris in one of the turns, but there was no further explanation or shots of the debris. These are the kinds of things that make viewers skeptical of some of the mysterious cautions which bunch of the field late in the race.

As I said earlier, the commercial spacing was very good, with the most commercials around 4:00. During this time there was a three-wide pass for the lead between Gordon, Busch and Sadler, but the viewers did get a quick replay of the action when Fox returned. As last week, the producer stayed with the broadcast from about 20 laps until the end. This was excellent.

As the end of the race approached and it was clear Craven was making a run at Busch, it would have been nice to see or just be told the interval between them. This is the time of the race when this kind of information is most important to the fans. No, I don't want to see pointers or excessive graphics when the racing is heating up like this, but a small counter, showing how the interval was shrinking would really be great. There was nothing like this in the last ten laps; however, there was good coverage of the battle all the way to the start/finish line between the two. I even appreciated DW's witty remark about Craven winning because his Pontiac had more of a "kick out" than the Ford of Busch and that's how he beat him at the line.

I was a little disappointed at the post-race coverage. The viewers at home have no idea if Craven did a burn-out or anything to celebrate. Fox didn't show what he did after crossing the line. There was an interview with Busch and then Fox showed numerous replays of the last lap. I'm torn here because, yes, I wanted to see the replays, but I feel replays would have been more appropriate after we saw Craven's Victory Lane celebration. I also felt like TV made him stay in his car while they showed the replays. This was clear when Berggren told him it was okay to get out of his car. The fact that TV, for some time now, has clearly orchestrated Victory Lane bothers me quite a bit and today it really seemed to detract a bit from the excitement Craven had with his victory. But then, Fox finally had an exciting finish to a race, and being Fox, they wanted to savor that as long as they could.

The last remarks from the booth included McReynolds comment "For those who say that NASCAR racing has become boring: Take that!" Believe me, I was one of the happiest people to see this kind of a finish between two hungry drivers, but I couldn't help but think that I would've relished Larry's remarks had he said something like "for those who think these 'old' tracks shouldn't keep both their race dates..." But then, as much as I truly believe Larry loves racing, I have to remember who he gets his paycheck from these days. As Fox went off the air, we got a load of cliches courtesy of Mr. "where are my notes" Meyers. Things like "This was certainly a buzzer beater", "Craven can relate to Fenway Park," and finally something about "March Madness." Jeesh! Save me from people who have to try and turn everything into a cliche or mix their sports analogies! And what the heck is a "buzzer beater" anyway and what does it have to do with the great finish we saw in today's race?

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