The view from my couch

HDNet Coverage of the BGNN Sunoco 150 from Holland Speedway
by Cheryl Lauer
July 3, 2004

This year, Mark Cuban's HDNet is breaking new ground for motorsports coverage by broadcasting select NASCAR races in high definition. The schedule includes several races for the Busch Grand National North Division (BGNN) and what used to be the Winston West Series. Unfortunatly, many of the races so far have been broadcast when I've been away from home attending USAR races. I have caught parts of rebroadcasts, but the first two (from California Speedway and Thompson Speedway) were affected by bad weather (smog in California's case), so the amazing 1080i picture quality of HDNet wasn't truly appreciable. The last race was a road course race at Lime Rock Park. I have to admit I'm not really thrilled by road racing, but because this race was being broadcast in true 1080i High Definition glory, it just had to be watched! Sorry Fox, your current "high resolution" broadcasts are better than normal TV, but don't fool yourself into thinking they (or your planned upgrade to 720p) will ever pass for a 1080i broadcast! This broadcast on HDNet (DirecTV channel 79) from Holland, New York was a treat for the eyes!

Normally, the broadcast team for the races I've seen so far this year on HDNet included Mike Hogewood and Pat Patterson. I was surprised when this race came on to find it hosted by NBC pit reporter, Dave Burns. He was joined in the booth by Eric Norris, son of actor Chuck Norris, former Craftsman Truck Series driver and 2002 Winston West Champion. The pits were covered by Alex Hayden. I'm not familiar with his background, but I suspect his background is road racing or open wheel racing. Together the three did a very good job covering the short race.

The production team did an excellent job helping the viewers get acclimated with both the track and the Busch North Series. They actually spent about 20 minutes giving a review of the Busch North season so far in 2004. There were taped features helping you get to know several of the top drivers and live interviews with them afterwards and brief clips from their qualifying runs at Holland. I felt the time spent on this background material was really excellent for both the diehard race fan who might not be familiar with the drivers in this series or the casual viewer of HDNet (many who will tune in to watch anything as long as it's in high definition). I've watched BGNN races in past years and many of the drivers names were familiar to me, but I had no knowledge of their recent activities, so I really enjoyed the pre-race show.

I may have missed it, but the graphic showing the starting grid didn't show the speeds, only the times for the drivers. HDNet provide a "Race Analysis" that told us the size of the track (3/8 mile) and that because of the short length of the race (150 laps), the drivers would not be required to pit. The announces also told us that the "25 lap rule" would apply whereas only the lead lap drivers would be at the front of the field on restarts. Hayden told us that the track had 22 degrees of banking and that it definitely had multiple grooves. It was quite clear that the entire broadcast team had done their homework and was well-versed in the BGNN series as well as the drivers' past history at the Holland track. They told us that the track was built in 1960 and paved in 1968. I found this very interesting. Just prior to the start of the race, HDNet showed the entire starting grid, with the announcers going through and telling us a little bit about each driver. I can't say enough how much I appreciated that the production team did this. It should be a given that each driver would be featured, but these days, they aren't very often. My only complaint about the broadcast was that they used the Fox/SPEED Channel-type "ticker" across the top of the screen. After 3 years, I still find it's constant movement distracting; however, I noticed that since HDNet did not have to make room for sponsors on it, they kept it as close to the top of the screen as possible.

That brings me to the ugly "C" word. Typically most shows on HDNet are commercial-free; however, this program was apparently sponsored by Nextel. The good news is there were only about 4-5 total commercials during the entire 90 minute broadcast. Each of these was a single 30 second commercial, placed each time the field was under caution, so that it did not detract from the viewer's ability to see all the racing action. Each time, the production team would show a replay of the incident bringing out the caution, pit stops if they happened and then they went away for a single commercial by Nextel and immediately returned after 30 seconds. Although I prefer the non-commercial approach HDNet normally takes, this kind of sponsorship was the least objectionable to me. I'm assuming there is some affiliation with the SPEED channel because the broadcast had a similar look to it and there was one commercial for the Craftsman Truck Series on SPEED during the broadcast.

I will say one of the weaknesses of the broadcast was that there wasn't a lot of coverage of all the cars in the field, which shouldn't have been too big a problem since there were only 25 cars entered in this race. But there was quite a bit of action up front, so I can understand the focus being concentrated there most of the time.

HDNet got the first pass for the lead of the day. During a replay of the first spin of the race, Dave pointed out that the leaders appeared to be about to lap some cars and it appeared one of those drivers got impatient and took out another car. During the resulting pit stops, the broadcast team reminded us that drivers couldn't change tires unless they had flat-spotted them.

Beginning at lap 29, the sound on Dolby Digital starting breaking up a bit and this continued for about 10 minutes. I don't know if this problem was in the broadcast or occurred at DirecTV.

When the second caution flag came out, Dave told us that they hadn't been told what it was for, but they felt that the NASCAR officials must've seen something on the track that concerned them for the driver's safety. During this caution Alex had an interview with points leader, Andy Santerre's crew chief.

About midpoint in the race, there was a recap of what had happened so far. I can live with one recap per broadcast, just not one every half hour like some networks have. At this time, the announcers mentioned that there was a puff of smoke visible in one of the replays and perhaps that is what brought out the second caution. I felt the production team should have been a little better informed as to what was going on by NASCAR.

When the next caution came out, the announcers said "we think" that the driver involved got a tap from another driver. I appreciated that they didn't jump to assess blame, only speculated based on what you could see on replays. Throughout the race, Dave and Eric provided excellent analysis related to the possible changes in the track and what effect they had on the car's handling. Eric's experience as a driver really served to help him explain these things to the viewers. Even though the race might be being watched by a lot of non-racing fans, there was really no attempt to "dumb down" the broadcast and I really appreciated this.

The announcers made a point of explaining Holland had a figure 8 track in the infield that this caused an usual pitting situation.

There were excellent replays of the incident between Santerre and Johnson, but later Johnson fell to the back of the pack and there was really no follow-up explaining what damage he had or why he fell back so far. At this time, I also noticed the ticker did not show how many laps down the cars in the back of the field were. At 10 laps to go, the announcers seem to get a bit confused and called second place driver Olson, "Johnson."

RACE ENTHUSIAST OBSERVATION: Sparks look really cool in high definition and the colors of the sponsors and cars REALLY show up well!

At the end of the race, Dave explained that this series has the Green/White/Checker rule so that it would not end under caution like a lot of other NASCAR series do. Dave also explained that it was tradition for the winner to get the checkered flag at the end of the race to wave during his victory lap. This was neat as well.

During the Victory Lane celebration, Eric explained that Santerre was with a new team supplied by former driver, Joe Bessey. I always appreciate hearing little tidbits like this. Dave pointed out that Santerre was not doing any celebratory doughnuts like Cup drivers do and Eric said that he was probably afraid of blowing up his engine. Dave added, "I guess when you run on a budget, you can't afford to do that." Hayden also had an interview with second place finisher, Mike Olsen.

HDNet showed a graphic of the top 10 finishers only. Since there were only 25 cars in the race, it shouldn't have been that much harder to add another page or two and show the viewers the entire finishing order. I also noticed the graphic of the top 10 in points listed Ryan Moore on it twice, rather than he and his father, Kelly. I think Dave started to point out this error, but the director cut to the pit reporter instead, who was interviewing Kelly Moore.

Except for a few minor glitches which are probably normal when you assemble a new production team, I thought this was a very good broadcast. I can't tell you how amazing it is to see racing in the crystal clear quality of 1080i. I also really appreciated that the broadcast team was so knowledgeable about the series and track and didn't rely on superfluous hype or personal stories to fill the time or, in my opinion, detract from the race itself. They let the racing speak for itself! Great job HDNet! Keep up the good work! Too bad you can't do some of the USAR races as well!

If you have an high definition television, don't miss the rest of the schedule on HDNet. It can be found at the bottom of the page at this site: http://www.hd.net/pressrelease.html?2004-04-21-01.html If you are just a race fan and don't have an HDTV, get to a video store that has DirecTV and HDNet and check one of these races out. You'll be amazed!

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