The view from my couch

NBC Coverage of the Last Southern 500
by Cheryl Lauer
September 1, 2003

NBC did a good job with this broadcast. The number of commercials were reasonable and pretty well-spaced throughout the broadcast. There was coverage of a lot of action in the pits and good replays of all the on-track incidents. Now if NBC had not made their agenda about promoting the move of the Labor Day Race to Southern California next year so obvious, I would have enjoyed this broadcast a whole lot more. Unfortunately, this seemed to be a recurring theme all day long.

The Pre-Race Show

When I tuned in at 12:30 excepting to see the Winston Cup Pre-Race Show, instead, I first got to see the NBC Sports desk with basketball scores and then beach volleyball highlights from Chicago. Next, NBC showed us some horrible band singing a regae song about "You're number one," with Bill Weber's lead-in and the highlights implying the Darlington track was "number one." Too bad NBC didn't think that when they asked NASCAR to move the Labor Day race from it's home for the last 50+ years. I guess I still don't understand why the TV networks think we tune into see a concert and not a race. Oh, yeah, I forgot this is for the "new fans" that NASCAR and TV are trying to attract. I did notice this group didn't get much applause from the crowd.

Bill was joined by Jimmy Spencer on the War Wagon to rehash, yet again, his altercation with Kurt Busch from two weeks ago. As NBC broke for commercial, they showed us highlights of the next segment of the pre-race show. What? The new fans of racing are of such a short attention span that they need teasers on the way to commercial to ensure they don't change the channel?

As I mentioned before, NBC seemed to be promoting their own agenda when it came to questions about moving the Labor Day race from Darlington next year. Rather than addressing the loss of 50 years of tradition, NBC seemed to want to emphasize how hot it was at the track yesterday and how hard that was on the fans and drivers. In case NBC didn't notice, it's always hot at Darlington on Labor Day, but the fans who attend this race every year don't seem to complain. As a seque to a feature of keeping the drivers cool in the cars, Bill asked the question "will the date change improve attendance?" More positive spin by the network that requested the Labor Day weekend race be moved to a "bigger" TV market in California? Next, Dave Burns had a feature about a new cooling device being used by some drivers.

The pre-race show also included an interesting feature on Roger White, a disabled electronics technician on the 77 car. Matt Yocum also had an interview with Jeff Gordon and his girlfriend and a tour of his yacht. Lastly, NBC had an actor/comedian who they told us was from Saturday NIght Live do the ride around the track with Wally Dallenbach this week. I guess this is more of NBC's cross-promotion of their shows, cause the guy certainly had nothing to do with racing. It was funny when Wally demonstrated getting a Darlington Stripe. The smile on Wally's face after this was classic.

This week NBC actually showed the weekly tribute to past Winston Cup Champions. Apparently, they took a lot of heat for not showing the tribute to Alan Kulwicki last week at Bristol, so they showed the Cale Yarborough's tribute car at Darlington this week. They even had Cale come up into the booth and help with commentary during the race for a few laps.

After doing such a good job announcing the entire starting field last week, I was disappointed to see that NBC fell back into their old ways for this race. The announcers went through about the 9th row and then left the viewers to read the rest on their own while Benny Parsons tried to have a conversation with one of the drivers on the radio.

Just before the field took the green, the producer played a radio conversation between Chad Knaus and his driver, Jimmy Johnson, where Chad told Jimmy for one week that he didn't have to worry about fuel mileage. This was very good.

The Race

At the start of the race, NBC had the camera focusing on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for quite a while. I couldn't really understand why, except that Budweiser must've paid to have their car shown at the start of the race. Eventually Allen Bestwick told us that this was the "first side-by-side action." Of course, right after he said this I noticed Bobby Labonte and Ricky Craven racing side-by-side and Johnny Benson passing someone as well.

When the first incident of the day occurred at lap 5, NBC showed us several replays of what caused the pile-up before breaking for commercial. The producer also timed things well and got back from break in time to show us pit stops. During this time, Dave told us that Johnson had reported he thought he had a tire going down right before he pitted. This is good information and heads up reporting by the pit reporters.

During the caution is when NBC invited Cale Yarborough to join them in the booth for a few laps. This was nice, but sometimes too many people in the booth is confusing for the viewers.

On the restart, NBC caught several cars stacking up and quickly showed us replays of what happened. Matt Yocum reported that Matt Kenseth had been involved and was worried about the temperature rising on his car. Cale told us that Dale Jarrett had taken his car to the garage. Benny Parsons reported that Sterling Marlin had also taken his car behind the wall to make repairs. Marty Snider had an interview with Marlin and Jarrett and told us that Mark Martin was also in the garage making repairs after being involved in the incident. Marty was a busy guy because next he had an interview with Michael Waltrip who was involved in the lap 5 wreck. I was happy that Marty also told us later when Marlin and Martin returned to the track.

Back to the action on the track. I noticed that even though he had qualified well and moved into the top ten on the start of the race, NBC didn't mention Jeremy Mayfield until he was up to 7th position. This surprised me since his sponsor, Mountain Dew, was sponsoring the race. We also never heard why Ricky Craven, who qualified in the top 10, fell as far back as 18th position. NBC mentioned that Bobby Labonte had reported a problem with his car, but they never seemed to follow-up on this and explain why he dropped far back in the field early in the race. During this time we did get to see the Budweiser car, running alone on the track in picture-in-picture, while seeing the in-car view from the car as well.

All day long, NBC was on top of things when several debris cautions occurred. They made a concerted effort to show the viewers at home the reason for the caution, such as when some debris fell off Bill Elliott's car. After they showed pit stops, NBC told us that Kenseth had burned tires getting out of his pit to beat Jeff Burton off pit road. On the restart, apparently Kenseth's car vaporlocked and Matt Yocum reported the problem for the viewers at home. During this green-flag segment, I noticed that NBC finally started showing more racing throughout the pack. I guess the Budweiser-sponsored segment was over. Of course when Michael Waltrip's wrecked car returned to the race, NBC quickly showed us some shots of an empty track in front of him from the NAPA in-car camera. Yep, that was real meaningful coverage.

NBC really outdid themselves in providing Through the Field segments during this broadcast. We had the first one at lap 95, one at lap 204, and another somewhere around lap 300. It was humorous when Allen mentioned that every time they've tried to do these segments in the last few races, it seemed to cause a caution to come out.

All day long, NBC made good use of in-car communications between drivers and their crews. This included when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. stopped on the track and we could hear him describe the problem with the car to his crew. Also, when Ryan Newman couldn't get the car fired and off of pit road later in the race.

Matt reported that Kurt Busch had a tire going down and NBC was quick to replay where he had contact with Jamie McMurray earlier and probably cut the tire down. All day long, the pit reporters told us things that the crews were doing to help keep the drivers cool in the cars during each pit stop.

NBC had numerous and varied replays of the accident that collected Casey Mears, Jeff Gordon, Ken Schrader, Benson, and Dave Blaney. The pit reporters told us that Tony Stewart made several pit stops during the caution and that Kenseth had a slow stop and lost several spots. Marty had an interview with Jeff Burton's crew chief, Paul Andrews, where he explained that they weren't sure they had all the lugnuts tight, so they felt it was safer to bring him back in and check them. Matt had an interview with Gordon, but none of the others involved in the wreck. Also this time, we didn't hear who was behind the wall or was able to get back out on the track for some time. NBC also showed the Grainger team checking Greg Biffle's tire for leaks since he'd had almost no air in it when he pitted.

Somewhere during this time, NBC had the weekly poll question which asked if moving the fall Darlington race to November next year would make it more or less important. I found this was again skirting the issue of how the fans feel about losing this long-time tradition. This type of question seemed designed to support the positive spin NASCAR put on the November race having more impact on the points championship. Next Allen said the Darlington track "has been left behind." This comment really bugged me. It's like NBC thinks the fans are so stupid that we don't know they are the ones who want to leave it behind in favor of the better market in California. We even got to hear that NBC Nightly News would have a feature on "NASCAR moving west" later that night.

Around lap 213, we did hear that the 10, 41, and 43 cars were out of the race and that the 24 and 77 had returned to the race and how many laps they were down.

There was excellent coverage of the problems Ryan Newman had trying to restart his car and get off of pit road. Right after I said they ought to try ether, Wally mentioned this as well. The announcers also mentioned asking Rusty Wallace to push his teammate off pit road and then they thought the same thing I did about that; he didn't have a bumper with which to push the 12. Even after the race restarted, NBC kept their battle in PIP and I thought this was fine since he'd been the pole sitter for the race and led much of it up until this point. The announcers speculated that the problem may have been vaporlock, but eventually, one of the pit reporters relayed that the 12 team had finally discovered that Newman had hit the killswitch on this car. Later, Benny demonstrated where vaporlock could occur on the '360' car.

Wally also speculated that Schrader's second wreck may have been caused by his hood flying up and blocking his view and the replay proved this to be the case. During the ensuring caution, the pit reporters interviewed the crew chiefs of all the top cars about their strategies and how their cars were running.

During the race, NBC introduced the pit crews of several of the top running cars, with a taped feature where they told us who they were and where they were from. This was great. Unfortunately, someone forgot to check the feature on Biffle's team as it showed his old crew chief, Randy Goss.

NBC returned to using the floating bubbles over the leader on several of the restarts later in the race. On the restart at lap 248, the bubble showing that Kevin LePage was leading actually covered up some of the racing. When Biffle and Kevin Harvick were fighting for the lead right after the restart, I noticed that NBC neglected to point out the history between these two drivers. I guess the hot topic is still the Spencer/Busch feud.

Matt told us that Ricky Rudd had lost his power steering belt. When the next caution came out for debris, NBC speculated that it was from Kenny Wallace's car and we saw him entering pit road, but never saw a replay of what happened to him. At lap 296, Matt reported that Kyle Petty had lost a cylinder and we got to hear Kyle's comments to his crew.

Throughout the day, the NBC team was able to catch several cars bouncing off the wall, such as Kenseth early when he was leading and Bill told us about Bobby Labonte hitting the wall late in the race. At lap 307, Bill told us that the 16 team thought the motor was going bad on Biffle's car and we got to see a replay of some smoke coming from his car. When the caution came out on lap 311, we heard scanner bites from Biffle that he thought it was from the clutch and Benny explained that these cars use a hydraulic clutch and that was probably what caused the smoke. Later, one of the pit reporters talked to crew chief, Doug Richert, and he explained they thought it was the flywheel. Benny followed up by saying that because of the soft springs the teams were running, the flywheel could drag the pavement.

On the last restart, when Terry Labonte was leading and the lapped cars of Earnhardt and Newman were lined up on the inside, NBC showed the entire field going by the start/finish rather than whether Labonte could clear Earnhardt. This was an important move on the final restart and NBC dropped the ball in my opinion. Eventually, they got back to the front of the field as they told us that Earnhardt had pulled over and let Labonte by. During the waning laps, it would have been nice for them to occasionally pan back and show how far back Harvick was to Labonte. Also, the announcers kept telling whether Harvick or Labonte were running faster, but they didn't tell us the interval or show a graphic of the distance between them until almost the end of the race. We got an on-screen ad for football during the last few laps of the race. This was ridiculous! With 9 laps to go in the race, Allen started bringing up the age of Labonte and how a driver who was over 40 had won was not since Rockingham. Why do the networks insist on bringing age into everything? Why couldn't they just be happy that Labonte looked to be breaking a four-year winless streak? Finally at 5 laps to go, NBC got around to showing us the interval between Harvick and Labonte.

NBC seemed to rush the post-race interviews just a bit in their desire to get to beach volleyball. But thankfully, they showed Labonte's victory lap and getting the winning flag from the flagman. This was great! There were interviews with the 2nd and 3rd place finisher and the final running order and points before NBC hustled off the air. I know the networks aren't crazy about 500-mile races, but they can't ignore the fact that they tend to run longer and might have a few cautions, and allow a sufficient time slot so that they don't have to rush away to another "exciting" event.

I'll be at the races in Richmond later this week so I won't be doing a race review, but Michael Sylvia has graciously offered to write one in my absence. Please look for that to be posted early next week.

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