The view from my couch

TNT Coverage of the Pop Secret 400
by Cheryl Lauer
November 11, 2003

After this weekend's broadcasts from Rockingham, I found myself asking this question: "If they have a race at Rockingham and nobody at home gets to see it anyway, does it really matter where they run?" I started thinking along these lines during the Saturday broadcast of the Busch race on TNT and continued with the thought on Sunday. We all know that the network executives started the push to move a race to what they consider to be a better TV market next year. They seem to think a race in a big market on a holiday weekend would bring them better ratings. NASCAR accommodated them by moving the Labor Day weekend race from Darlington to California. Next, NASCAR has moved the Southern 500 weekend into November and decided to get rid of the fall race at Rockingham next year. Both of these moves came at the sake of tracks which provide some of the best racing on the circuit and ultimately have a negative impact on the fans, both those going to the tracks and the millions of us watching at home. Since this announcement, I've been up in arms about the injustice of it all. I guess after this week's broadcast from Rockingham, I am now resigned to the move. I mean, after what passed for coverage of the races from Rockingham this weekend, why even bother racing there anymore? If the races don't appear to be worthy of the network executives showing them on NBC and their cable partner can't cover them without inundating the viewers with commercials, why bother racing there at all? Okay, NASCAR and NBC, are you happy? You've finally beat down this loyal fan so much that I just don't care anymore. At least that's how I began to feel about an hour into Sunday's race.

Pre-Race Show

TNT set the tone for this broadcast at the beginning of this show: The Championship Race. Yes, I understand that Matt Kenseth was most likely going to clinch the championship during this race, and, yes, the pre-race Show was an appropriate place to do a quick review of his season. This seemed appropriate to be the top story on the pre-race show. It was just that the rest of the race broadcast seemed to concentrate on Kenseth to the detriment of the other 42 drivers out there, including the race winner at the end of the race. And I can guarantee you there were quite a few irrate Bill Elliott fans out there, who were waiting to see their driver in Victory Lane.

I appreciated when Bill Weber came on live for the broadcast that he immediately told those of us at home that there had been rain at the track that morning and that NASCAR was moving up the start of the race in case of further bad weather.

Since he was one of the former champions being honored at the track this week, TNT had a really nice feature on Benny Parson's 1973 Winston Cup Championship, including the announcer introducing members from his winning team that year. I really enjoyed this. However, it made me wonder why NBC and TNT couldn't show ALL of the Winston Cup tribute cars earlier this year? It just seems funny that the only tribute cars I remember seeing are Dale Earnhardt's and two of the broadcast announcers from TV. Even Sunday, TNT just about forgot to mention that 2000 Champion, Bobby Labonte, was being honored at Rockingham as well as Benny Parsons.

Bill also had a nice feature and interview with car owner, Jack Roush, near the end of the pre-race show. They talked about his near-fatal airplane crash in 2002 and his long dream of winning a Winston Cup Championship. It was interesting that Bill asked Jack if he thought his criticism of NASCAR over the years may have caused some of the penalties which Mark Martin's team endured in 1990 and 2002. I'm not really sure that this was real tactful, but I still found it interesting that Bill would come right out and ask Jack this question.

The Race

Okay, I have to mention this first off since I talked about it in my introduction. First and foremost, I don't blame the announcers, pit reporters, producer, director, or any of the technical crew broadcasting the race for the number of commercials. As I always say, I'm a savvy enough fan to know the decisions on which networks show the races and consequently the number of commercials are made at the network level and the production team if left to deal with those decisions. I'll also say that I feel sorry for the group who had to produce Sunday's race. I find it hard to believe they were any more happy with the number of commercial breaks they were required to take than the fans were at home. However, unlike the fans at home, the people in the production truck, in the booth, and on pit road got to see the entire race. What the viewers at home got to see amounted to a farce of a broadcast. I made an valiant attempt to track commercials; however, after a while I noticed that we were not told what lap it was many times when TNT returned from commercial. After noting commercial breaks around laps 11, 29, 53, 69,and 77, I gave up. They were just too numerous to count. After this, there were about four cautions right in a row. During this time I thought TNT could've caught up on their commercials since they made sure and loaded a lot of them during these caution periods. But as soon as the race went green for a while, the constant commercial interruptions began again. I love the Through the Field feature on NBC and TNT; however, this is no substitution for actual race coverage. TNT returned from commercial and did a Through the Field beginning on lap 198. They covered 20 of the 27 cars on the lead lap and then immediately went to commercial again. This was ridiculous! When they came back, we were treated to one of those silly Aflac on-screen promotions instead of showing us the racing on the track. I don't care how cute Allen and Benny try to make those promotions, they're still annoying and keep us from following the race on the track. TNT then managed to catch a pass for second place, then showed us the 17 car alone on the track and scenes from a sports bar in Kenseth's hometown on the split screen, and then went back to commercial. As I said earlier, I'm beginning to feel like it doesn't matter where they are racing if the folks at home can't follow the race anyway. I heard the drivers on Inside Winston Cup on Monday say that it was a great race. I'm glad to hear that and happy for the folks who got to see the race live at the track. For those of us at home, it didn't matter how hard the pit reporters worked, or the announcers in the booth tried to keep us informed of what was going on, the number of commercials made the race so fragmented that I just wanted to turn it off at times.

Next we have the issue of the Championship Race. In fact, there was very little drama here, yet the producer at TNT seemed bound and determined to make that the "story" of the day. To me, it seemed like the last half of the race, all the viewers got to see was the Matt Kenseth Show. First, we got constant updates on where he was running on the track. Next, we got to see a not so hidden camera at a sports bar in his hometown of Cambridge, Wisconsin. Then his father watching the race from atop a motorhome in the infield. I really enjoyed the last two the first time I saw them. Unfortunately, the producer at TNT didn't seem to know when to quit. I swear we must've seen those folks in Wisconsin mugging for the camera at least five times through the remainder of the race. I'm sure it was exciting for them to see themselves on TV, but the rest us of might have wanted to see some of the other drivers on the track. I was also extremely disappointed to see that TNT virtually ignored the winner of the race for the first ten minutes after he crossed the finish line. They focused entirely on Matt Kenseth, first showing him doing doughnuts to celebrate his championship. Next, we got to see his wife, hear from his crew chief, his car owners, his Dad, see his Mom along with the rest of the folks at the bar back in Wisconsin, and even saw a shot of a cake there with his car on it. Then we got to see Matt and his whole entourage jump onto a trailer and start a lap around the track. All this time, I couldn't help but feel for race winner, Bill Elliott, who might've just liked to have gotten out of his car and start his own victory celebration. Unfortunately, he'd obviously been instructed by TV to wait until they got done showing everything except Kenseth's dog before they could get to him. This was very sad.

Okay, on to a few good things that TNT did during this broadcast. There were quite a few of them, but unfortunately, they got overshadowed by the commercials and the ridiculous focus on Kenseth in the latter portion of the race. Trust me, I am happy to see Matt get the championship; however, I don't think the rest of the day needed to be overshadowed by this. He will have plenty of time to celebrate his championship at the awards banquet in December and over the next few months.

Early in the race, TNT showed a graphic that the last 14 fall races at the Rock had been won by 14 different drivers. I really enjoyed this and felt it just gave the fans another reason to lament the loss of what is obviously such a competitive race. Allen Bestwick also told us that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had never led a lap at Rockingham and his average finish there was 29th. That's another thing I wasn't aware of and found interesting. When Ward Burton took the lead of the race early, Allen pointed out that the tough tracks such as Rockingham and Darlington really seemed to suit Ward's driving style. At lap 69, he also pointed out that Ward had now led more laps in this race than he had done all year long.

In the early portions of the race, TNT showed some good battles among several cars, such as around lap 60 when they showed the 2, 18, 42, and 12 fighting for fifth position. After one early commercial, the producer showed us a replay of the 97 getting sideways while they were away. As usual, TNT seemed on top of things when the cars started their first series of green flag pit stops. There was fairly good coverage of all the incidents during the day. TNT didn't always catch the beginning of the wrecks, but gave us numerous and varied replays as usual. TNT did their best to keep us up to date on who pitted and who got out of the pits first. A few times early in the race, I noticed they missed telling us who got the free pass back to the lead lap, but later in the race, Allen caught us up on some who had benefited. I guess we were at commercial many of these times and there just wasn't time to tell us. There were several video montages on the way to commercial, but thankfully they were all under caution periods. I enjoyed some of the music used in these which usually included the word "Rock", particularly Rock This Town by the Stray Cats.

There was excellent coverage of the aftermath of Ryan Newman's spin. TNT caught the tailend of the spin live, gave us some quick radio communication from the driver to his team, and Wally Dallenbach spoke up quickly saying he thought it was the 24 who hit Newman. The replays proved this to be so and the producer also showed the shoving match between Newman and Gordon that seemed to have precipitated the incident. This showed that the technical people were on their toes in an effort to provide the viewers with the whole story. Allen told us that NASCAR was blackflagging Gordon and Matt Yocum reported that they were going to hold him for one lap for rough driving. Matt also recounted Gordon's comments to his crew about where he told them he was sorry and had "screwed up." Bill was quick to jump in and mention that Kenseth had gotten a piece of the accident, but he didn't seem to have any serious damage. TNT then showed a replay where Tony Stewart got into the back of the 17 when he slowed down for the wreck. Wally and Benny had a very good analysis of what probably happened between the 12 and 24 from a driver's point of view. This was very good. Lastly, Marty Snider jumped in and reported that Newman said on his radio that he thought it was the 42 car that started the incident.

Later during the caution caused when the McMurray hit the inside wall, Allen relayed when NASCAR first thought Sadler was the one to get the free pass back to the lead lap, but later they decided it should be Harvick.

TNT did a good job mentioning that some teams felt they would need more tires and were anxiously "bidding" with other teams to get the tires of those who fell out of the race early. At first, I wondered why this was an issue as we haven't seen this type of thing for a few years. Eventually, Benny explained that this was the last time the teams expected to use this particular tire and so some of them had not brought many to the track.

TNT did a good job catching the start of Dale Jarrett's tire problem. Benny and Wally speculated that it might be a wheel bearing, which turned out to be true. Later they showed the repairs being made to Jarrett's wheel hub behind the wall. There was also good coverage when Kenseth crossed the "commitment line" for entering the pits and decided to go back on the track when a caution came out and the resulting penalty. Unfortunately, they didn't cover it when a lot of other drivers had problems and went behind the wall or fell out of the race.

TNT did a good job trying to keep up with all the cars that got laps down because of three cautions falling during green flag pit stops. Unfortunately, near the end of the race, they seemed to just kind of give up on telling us what happened to a lot of drivers because they were concentrating so much on showing us the people in the sports bar in Wisconsin so often.

Now just a few minor complaints (as opposed to the major ones about commercials and too much coverage of Kenseth). In their zeal to concentrate on the Champion, TNT really ,seemed to neglect a lot of the drivers not having good days. Early in the race, Kevin Harvick, who is still a contender for second in the points was not mentioned, even though he fell back to 38th place and either went a lap down or was in danger of going a lap down. I have the same complaint about Johnny Benson. He was the winner of this race last year and TNT never told us why he ran so poorly all day and got lapped early. Around lap 160, Wally commented that Ricky Craven was now running in the top ten. I guess he'd missed the fact he'd been running in the top 10 for the last hour or so. Late in the race, I noticed that TNT never bothered to tell us why the early leader, Ward Burton, was two or three laps down. I assume he was a victim of pitting before a caution came out, but I'd like to have heard exactly what happened to him. It always seems like unless you are in the top 5 to 10 drivers at the end of the race, you are "old news" or something to the TV folks. This really bothers me. Late in the race, they showed Michael Waltrip's car smoking, but never told us when he fell out of the race. I found this really interesting as Michael is usually a favorite among the TV folks. But I guess not this week. Sterling Marlin had a good run and was barely mentioned all day long. And this is a team that needs a little publicity after having a dismal season.

With about 100 laps to go in the race, a caution bunched of the field with lapped cars among the few left on the lead lap, and other cars in front of the leader. I really would have liked to have seen the tight racing among these people, but this is when TNT simply showed us Kenseth and all things associated with Kenseth.

When Elliott Sadler got his so-called "Lucky Dog" pass back to the lead lap, Allen made a truly bad joke saying he was "howling with delight." Personally, I think it's really tacky to makes jokes based on your own silly phrase, but that's just my opinion.

I also have to mention that many of the frequent commercials taking time away from the race were promos for TNT shows and movies, or for NASCAR itself. As always, I guess I just don't get it. Why must the race fans be constantly bombarded with redundant ads for shows and movies on these cable networks? Do they really think telling us twice in a row about something is going to make us want to watch it? For most fans, it's just the opposite. That show or movie is the last thing we will watch after them trying to brainwash us about it. One on-screen promotion for a movie bordered on the absurd when TNT was showing another shot of Kenseth's father and the promo right beneath his picture said "Sylvester Stallone." I didn't know Matt was Sly's son. Also, why must we always hear the "how bad have you got it commercials?" when we are already watching the race? Why not show these on a competing network to show the folks not already watching how great racing can be? Lastly, why do we have to see the same Winston Cup Memory more than once during the race? I understand saluting Winston and all they have done for the sport, but why show us the same "moment" twice during the same broadcast. And all of these commercials just added to the time the fans were away from the race; the reason they tuned in in the first place.

As usual, I think the folks on the NBC/TNT production team are trying to do a good job in keeping the fans informed about everything that is going on in the race. It's just that when the races are relegated to TNT, the race itself seems to get lost in all the commercials. In addition, this week, a lot of deserving drivers were totally ignored because of the perceived need to follow the Winston Cup Champion all day long. As a friend of mine wrote me this week, it wasn't like Kenseth winning the championship was any surprise to anyone. To use TNT's own word, there really was no "drama" to him clinching the championship at Rockingham. Yet the network seemed bound and determined to try and create some drama where none existed. To me, the only drama on Sunday was whether or not I was going to finally get so frustrated trying to follow such a fragmented race and either throw something through my TV screen or simply turn it off.

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