The view from my couch

NBC Coverage of the Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500
by Cheryl Lauer
November 1, 2004

I don't know which was worse, the ever present high commercial count detracting from the race's continuity or the over-dramatizing by Bill Weber during the Victory Lane coverage. Between those things, I also found the insistence on showing only those drivers the networks perceive the viewers want to see each week increasingly annoying. Whatever the reason, I felt this was a subpar performance from a group of professionals that I know are capable of doing much better with a race broadcast.

Pre-Race Show

I thought Bill Weber did an excellent job, for the most part, during the pre-race show. He began by telling the viewers about the 10 people killed in the plane crash at Martinsville. This was followed by some nice testimonials about Ricky and John Hendrick, Randy Dorton and the others from many drivers and others involved in NASCAR. Also included were features telling about the lives of each of those killed. Allen Bestwick, Wally Dallenbach and Benny Parsons each shared a personal memory about one of the victims. I particularly enjoyed Wally's story about John Hendrick from when he drove the #25 car for Hendrick Motorsports.

There was also a good feature about how the demands on drivers and crews necessitate flying into the races these days. (Personally, I don't think these people ought to be in flying in small planes and helicopters in the first place.)

Bill said that each of the drivers who lost someone close to them had requested not to be asked any more questions about the crash, so the pit reporters would just be asking them about the upcoming race. This was a good segue and then each of the Hendrick drivers and Tony Stewart had a brief interview with a pit reporter. Bill ended the pre-race show with some of his personal memories of those lost, which was a nice touch, but he got a just a bit sappy for my taste by this time.

The Race

When the race started, I noticed that you could clearly hear one fan screaming and another yelling in the microphones around the track. This was quite distracting, but the NBC sound technician quickly muted the extraneous noise. I also noticed there was a lot of debris on the NBC cameras throughout the day. I would think they could have someone clean the lenses off when they were away at commercial.

Around lap 6, NBC started with the annoying pointers. They also played a pep talk that Chad Knaus gave his team on the radio prior to the start of the race.

When they returned from their first commercial break around lap 17, NBC showed us a replay of Jeremy Mayfield cutting a tire down. Benny told us that he lost a lap after making the resulting unscheduled pit stop. At lap 28, NBC also covered an unscheduled stop by Greg Biffle because of severe handling problems and when Ryan Newman had to pit on lap 64 because of a bad vibration. The announcers did a very good job of telling the viewers when these drivers (and others) got back on the lead lap via NASCAR's free pass.

NBC began the first of their numerous Through the Field segments around lap 34. Unfortunately, it has become obvious in the last few weeks that producer, Sam Flood, has decided that throwing in a TTF is an acceptable substitute for actual race coverage in between the numerous commercial breaks. In addition, starting with this first TTF, NBC only covered about 20 cars each time and then a select few "Chase" contenders who were running further back in the field. I was particularly disappointed that NBC couldn't at least tell us the car number, sponsor, or car color of several drivers making their first Cup starts or infrequent runs during this race. This included Bill Elliott, Martin Truex, John Andretti, Shane Hmiel. It was nearly impossible to tell who was in which car IF we actually got to see it. Usually, it was only a coincidence that we caught a glimpse of these cars when they were being lapped by the leaders. I'm sure their sponsors were really happy with the exposure their sponsorship dollars got them on network TV. Also, I have to take particular exception to the fact Sterling Marlin was never mentioned all day and I don't think Dale Jarrett was mentioned very often either. Terry Labonte probably would not even have been shown or mentioned at all had he not been a Hendrick Motorsports' driver. Yet we get lap after lap of in-car camera coverage from cars simply because their sponsors are the highest paying to the networks.

Unfortunately, the "If the Race Ended Now" graphics were up significantly this week. I understand that once Kurt Busch had his problems early and dropped out of the race, the points stood to be really shaken up. It just seemed like we were seeing this graphic about every 20 minutes or so and that's really overkill in my mind.

NBC did make good use of the picture-in-picture throughout the day, such as when Kyle Busch went behind the wall early in the race. But again I'm not sure if it was because he was a "young gun" or affiliated with Hendrick. We didn't this kind of coverage when Todd Bodine went behind the wall.

I'll admit that I recorded the race on Tivo and watched it later Sunday night. I don't know if it was the need to manually fast forward through commercials or what, but it seemed to me that not only were the breaks very frequent, but this week, each break seemed to last an inordinately long time. I really wish I had the patience to count how much of the race we actually got see in between commercials, but I'm afraid it would be just too depressing.

NBC did a good job of immediately showing when Kurt Busch's engine blew up and Dave Burns followed up on the story when he took his car into the garage. This was a big story as he was the points leader. I was a bit confused though as I don't believe NBC immediately told us the field was under yellow because of the oil on the track. But eventually, they showed us pit stops under this caution.

Dave had an interview with Kurt who said he had a bad feeling about the day before the race started. I did think it was a bit over the top for Dave to then ask Kurt "Did you share that feeling with anyone?" Is this reporting or psychoanalysis?

NBC had timely radio communications from competitors, such as when Jeff Gordon reported his handling problems to his crew around lap 63.

In the early portions of the race, Allen kept us updated on who had pit road penalties, such as when Andretti and Hmiel had to the go to the end of the longest line on the lap 63 restart.

A few times, NBC missed lead changes, usually because they were at commercial such as when Mark Martin took the lead around lap 78. We did get to see a replay of his move when NBC returned from commercial. I just love to see replays of what I missed while the presenting network was away. Because I didn't watch the race live, I didn't have the benefit of listening to MRN to find out what I was missing during all those commercials.

NBC told us that Martin had asked his teammate, Carl Edwards, to lead a lap to get the five bonus points. But Allen did quickly point out that Martin pulled away once he got past Edwards, who eventually started dropping back in the field. When NBC returned from commercial at lap 108, they caught when Martin lapped Jeff Gordon.

As usual, NBC did an excellent job of covering both yellow and green flag pit stops of the cars running up front. They showed us a replay of contact on pit road between Elliott Sadler and Joe Nemecheck and the extended repairs required to Sadler's car because of the incident. Around lap 123, one of the pit reporters followed up on the early vibration on Newman's car and reported that it was because a wheel weight had fallen off.

After a commercial around lap 130, Allen told us that Martin had a 9.6 lead over the second place driver. We were watching one of the many "race recaps" when Bobby Labonte spun on the track. Thankfully NBC did have a replay of what happened to him. Allen and Wally both commented that it was good example of a loose race car. Unfortunately, this didn't stop the producer from using the commercial disguised as The Virtual Garage to illustrate the condition. At least Benny did sheepishly preface it with "I know we show this a lot..." Really? I think I lost count of how often back in 2001.

After showing the pitstops during this caution, there was a particularly long commercial segment which caused NBC to miss the lap 143 restart. Another of my favorite things. I might accept missing a pass for the lead as the network really doesn't know when this might happen, but they always know when the race is restarting a lap before it happens. I guess they figure those "fringe" fans don't know that though.

When Jeff Gordon began having some problems, NBC was showing Robby Gordon, but playing the radio from Jeff Gordon's car. At least the announcers did eventually explain whose radio it was.

I really got tired of the announcers and pit reporters calling each other "you big dummy" during this broadcast as well as them trying to work comments about bull riding into the broadcast. I understand they were trying to promote the upcoming show, but weren't the commercials for it enough? Why does everyone on TV lately feel they must shove things down the viewers' throats? As usual, most of us get so sick of hearing about things like this, we wouldn't watch them even if we were interested.

At lap 143, the announcers told us that Johnson was now only 2.6 behind the leader, Martin. At lap 177, NBC interrupted TTF to tell us when Matt Kenseth began having problems. We got to hear his radio that he thought it might be a plugwire and then when he confirmed to his crew that the engine had blown up. As NBC was returning from the next commercial segment, they showed that Jeff Gordon was behind the wall and told us that his car wouldn't roll after his pit stop was finished. Dave interviewed Kenseth and Matt Yocum told us that they asked Martin's crew chief if he had the same gear as Kenseth and that he'd said a definite "No!" Next, Dave talked to Gordon who said they had a problem with either the transmission or their rear gear.

At lap 201, NBC had a graphic which I did find interesting. It showed the problems many of the contenders for the title were having in this race. At lap 206, they told us that Gordon was back out on the track, but many laps down.

At lap 242, NBC showed Terry Labonte being held on pit road and we were told that he was being held a lap because he'd gone over the pit box line and his team had worked on the car without having him back up first. We were also told that Martin had a 12 second lead at this time.

Not too long after this, NBC went to commercial and came back to show about two laps of the race and one of their silly duck on-screen ads, then went to an actual commercial for that product as well.

At lap 264, the producer did show us the visual interval between Martin in first, Kasey Kahne in second, and Jimmie Johnson in third. I enjoyed seeing how strung out 13 seconds really looked.

When coming back from one commercial, NBC really messed up in editing. They first showed Marty Snider interviewing Mark Martin, then quickly cut away to clips from when Martin fell out of the Charlotte race a couple weeks ago. After the way so many drivers were having bad luck and dropping out of this race, NBC probably gave some of the Martin fans heart failure. Even I thought Martin had blown an engine in this race as well for the first few minutes.

When the next caution came out for the spin by Truex, in between commercials, NBC "introduced" Martin's crew. I always enjoy this feature.

With 31 laps to go, NBC did a good job of covering how Kahne slid high and fell back to 6th position on the restart. At 29 to go, they showed Kevin Harvick slow on the track and played his radio where he told his crew it was a gear problem. Allen told us that Nemechek had also just scrubbed the wall. The next thing we heard was that the caution was out because Harvick's car was on pit road but not "safe." This really confounded me, because didn't Sadler's car sit on pit road for many laps without requiring a caution?

NBC did a good job of telling us how Martin's crew was discussing whether to pit or not and that Martin himself made the decision to stay out under this caution. Allen told us that since pit road was still closed, they'd have time for another commercial. (When doesn't NBC have time for just one more commercial?)

When they returned, Allen told us there were only nine cars left on the lead lap at this point. Benny told us that everyone but Martin was pitting under this caution. Then we got yet another recap of the race.

During the lap 306 restart, the camera was showing a view from the stands and you could barely see the cars at the line. NBC has done this a couple of times lately and I'm not sure why the producer or director think we need to see this type of shot. I tune in to see racing, not the fans in the grandstands. Also, the producer played a team spotter saying "green, green, green," but Allen was talking at the same time. For the remainder of the race, the announcers often talked over any radio chatter which was played. This is annoying and shows a lack of coordination among the production staff.

The announcers told us that Kahne was slow on the restart again and Bill mentioned that Johnson's team had warned him that this might happen since Johnson was behind him.

When Biffle got underneath Martin and opened the door for Johnson to get by, Wally said that he was suppose to be Martin's teammate. Allen pointed out that he had made a late pit stop and was just coming off of pit road and getting up to speed.

After Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wrecked, Matt told us that Martin's team was debating on whether to pit this time or not (and they eventually decided to pit). Matt also reported that Martin had said something on the radio about Biffle costing him the lead. NBC showed several replays of the Earnhardt incident and Wally said it was nobody's fault; that he probably thought he was clear of Edwards. Then we got to hear the spotter from Edwards team on the radio who said "the boy tired to squeeze us into the wall and paid the price," and Edwards saying, "I lifted..." These clips were good in understanding what had happened.

After the restart with 7 laps to go, NBC showed the interval from Johnson back to Martin. I didn't think it was really necessary to show the 8 car limping around the track in an inset with so few laps left in the race. The viewers didn't need the distraction when the battle for the win was heating up. At 3 laps to go, NBC showed a graphic of the speeds at the line which showed Martin was faster and this was very good.

Because they got so many breaks in during the actual race, NBC was able to stay around to show all of the the post-race activities. But personally, I thought they kept the camera on Chad Knaus way too long immediately after his driver won. The man was clearly very emotional over the win after the terrible losses the Hendrick organization suffered last week. Didn't he deserve a little privacy? And did Allen really have to coach him from the booth with his "let it go, Chad" comment? It was interesting to hear that the Hendrick team had agreed if one of their drivers won that all four teams would celebrate in Victory Lane, and we got to see the crew members hurrying that way The problem was during all of this, you could hear the crowd cheering in the background, but NBC took a long time getting back to what Johnson was doing to celebrate. He was already out of his car getting the checkered flag before we saw what he was doing. But it was nice that NBC followed him around the track as he did his Polish Victory Lap to salute the people killed the week before.

When Johnson finally made it to Victory Lane and the camera zoomed in on him while he was still in the car, again, I think he also deserved a little time to collect himself, but NBC wasn't going to miss the chance to exploit the moment. We had Bill Weber whispering commentary for everything he did, including "Jimmie takes a deep breath." Jeesh! Give me a break. If NBC had to show every emotion from the winning driver and team, couldn't the commentators just be quiet for a bit? Thankfully, Bill was silent when Johnson shared an emotional greeting with his fellow drivers, Vickers, Gordon and Labonte.

Before they went off the air, NBC made sure not to miss a chance to tout how close the points battle was now. Lastly, they showed taped interviews with Earnhardt, Jr. before second place Mark Martin (which just didn't seem right to me since Martin had such a strong day). Lastly they also interviewed Edwards, who finished a career-best third place.

As always, I believe the NBC production team is trying to do a good job with the broadcasts. Unfortunately, the absurd number of commercials and other production decisions (as to who gets the most coverage) continues to be a frustration to the viewers at home. I know most of these decisions are probably made at an executive producer's level, but that doesn't make the viewers any happier with the product they are forced to deal with each week. Also, I understand that Bill Weber was probably trying to walk a fine line between sensitivity towards the Hendrick team and TV's continual need to exploit things for dramatic effect. I think he did a good job up until the post-race activities, where I think he and NBC crossed the line just a little too far.

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