The view from my couch

Fox Coverage of the Pocono 500
by Cheryl Lauer
June 14, 2004

I think this was a very good broadcast for the Fox team. Overall this was one of the better efforts that I have seen in the last couple of months. The team seemed more focused on the broadcast and during the early portion of the race, the producer showed quite a bit of racing throughout the pack.

Because of the possibility of bad weather, the cars were already on the track when Fox came on the air. This prevented us from having the usual pre-race show and, I, for one, didn't feel the lack of it at all. Fox actually showed us the starting grid for the first time this year, though the announcers still haphazardly mentioned only a few drivers. Still it was better than having to rely on a scrolling ticker to see where everyone was starting. In this case, I count bad weather at Pocono as a good thing for the viewers at home. Later during some of the extended cautions, Fox filled some of the time with a few of their features from the pre-race show that they didn't get to show earlier. 10 Laps With still continues to be silly, but at least it was just used as filler material this week.

The Race

After the first caution in the race, when Fox returned from commercial, Mike Joy explained the rule changes that NASCAR had implemented since the fiasco in Dover. Also included was a graphic detailing the three changes to yellow-flag pitting procedures and a clip of Mike Helton discussing them at the driver's meeting. DW chimed in and said to him life had always begun at the start/finish line and he thought the multiple finish lines embedded in the track were confusing and thought they would be to the fans as well. Ah, but Darrell, you really do underestimate the fans.

In the early portions of the race, Fox really seemed to make a concerted effort to show racing throughout the pack. But, as it too often the case, the producer tends to narrow the focus to the leaders only in the waning laps of the race. And speaking of narrow focus, why does Fox only show one car at a time or maybe two? In the past, the networks would zoom out more and show a larger portion of the field. That way, the viewers got a better overall picture of what was going on at that point in the race, rather than only with the leader or featured car.

As we've come to expect every week, Mike told us when cars retired to the garage early in the race, beginning with Morgan Shepherd around lap 5. He pointed out that this would enable Earnhardt, Jr. to have a better exit from his pits since that was where Shepherd was pitting. Unfortunately he felt the need to add the caveat, "but before the conspiracy theorists say anything, pit locations were picked based on qualifying."

At the beginning of the broadcast and coming back from a couple of commercials, Fox gave us a great overhead view of the Pocono track. I never tire of seeing this shot of the unique triangular track!

Larry McReynolds pointed out that the drivers shifting numerous times at this track helps them to maximize their rpms on the straightaways. This helped me to understand why the drivers starting shifting at Pocono a few years back. I don't know if anyone had ever explained it this way before and I appreciated it.

The producer covered when drivers make unscheduled pit stops or pitted early, such as Matt Kenseth on lap 21 for loose lug nuts. The pit reporters kept the viewers informed on how many of the cars were running all day long. Fox covered all of the green-flag pit stop segments and pitting under yellow. The pit reporters also stayed on top of which teams had problems with pit stops, such as when Ricky Rudd had to come back in for loose lug nuts and Jeff Gordon who was told to return by NASCAR because his team missed a lug nut. Throughout the day, the FOX team told us which teams took two or four tires on each stop and if teams felt they could make it on fuel or not at the end of the race. In the latter portion of the race, Fox showed or told us which cars came in to top off right before restarts. Mike told us that NASCAR now had two officials covering each car, at least on green-flag stops - one at each end of the car.

The broadcast seemed to have a lot of commercials loaded in the beginning of it and on average it seemed like Fox missed 3-4 laps each. This doesn't sound bad, but on a track as big as Pocono, that's a long time to be away from the race. I also continue to be confused as to what lap they come and return from commercial. The ticker says one thing, a graphic says another, and many times the commentators say something different. Is this by design, so the viewers don't know how long they are away?

After lap 104, we got to see highlights of several cars with mechanical problems or who went behind the wall during "race recaps." This is a practice that Fox did last season and are apparently falling back on now. Why is it they can't show these things when they actually happen, but they have time for them during their numerous recaps (for those of you who joined in late)?

Larry explained that most of the Fords were using the new engine package for this race. The exceptions were Mark Martin and Kurt Busch. He went on to explain that because the new engine produced more rpms, these teams would most likely get worse gas mileage than some others.

Fox had quick and numerous replays of the major incidents of the day and often when a car simply got loose and sideways. I was disappointed that Fox never interviewed any of the drivers who fell out of the race until Michael Waltrip and Rusty Wallace's incident late in the race. Conversely, MRN radio seemed to get a lot of interviews with drivers in the garage, but then they didn't have quite so many commercials to fit into their broadcast.

The announcers did a good job of telling us who was the recipient of the free pass at the beginning of every caution period. Apparently with the most recent rules changes, NASCAR identifies the car immediately and that assisted TV in passing on the information to the viewers at home more quickly.

When Bobby Labonte put oil on the track and collected Sterling Marlin and Scott Wimmer, during the ensuring caution, Dick Berggren did an excellent job of explaining what happened to his car. He explained that the cars are running so low on the track now that the oil lines may drag the ground. In this case, it ruptured Labonte's oil filter and caused the leak. This was a great explanation!

Right after this, DW went off on a tangent. He started talking about how Earnhardt, Jr. had run poorly many times recently, but somehow managed to get a good finish. He compared this to last year when Matt Kenseth won the championship, ending with "When it's your year to win the championship, it's your year." Pardon me, but does Mr. Waltrip already know the outcome of the championship chase? We're only 14 races into the season and with the new playoff format, we've been told anything can happen.

With 54 laps to go in the race, Mike told us that Johnson had a six second lead on second place and DW pointed out that he was beating his competitors by a second a lap.

I was very impressed that DW seemed very objective when Michael Waltrip was wrecked by Rusty Wallace. As we watched the first replay, the same thought was just beginning to form in my mind when DW pointed out that it looked like Rusty simply closed rapidly on Michael. Later the replays of Rusty's radio showed that he had lost his brakes. This was a very positive improvement in DW's coverage of things involving his brother.

When the caution came out for Ricky Craven's blown engine, Fox made an attempt to explain why Johnson and a few others had not come in to pit with everyone else. Matt Yocum reported that there was some confusion as to when pit road was actually open. Sometimes, I just wish the guys in the booth could admit they don't know what's going on. I believe the fans could accept that and would certainly not think less of them. It just seems like whenever they start launching into speculation about what is going on, it confuses the issue more for the people at home. Eventually, the producer found a replay of the pace car coming out and we were told that it could not catch Johnson even though he slowed down to a near stop after he crossed the start finish line. Finally, it was explained that the pit road official waved the pit open flag after Johnson had passed pit road entrance. I found it refreshing that when Chris Myers asked Jeff Hammond if he could explain the confusion, he laughed and said something like he wasn't sure himself.

After the restart, Fox was showing the shot from the speedy cam for quite a long time. They seem to love this shot, particularly after restarts. Yes, it can be exciting for the fans to see the entire field rushing by it, but not at the expense of missing passing that may be going on among a group of cars that have already passed the camera.

Fox had some good radio communications from the drivers and their teams, but they still talked over them frequently. One good sound bite was of Mayfield's crew chief suggesting he put his car in neutral going into the turns to save fuel. But I didn't quite understand why they told us at the end of the race that they had tape of Johnson's frustration when the fiasco happened with the pits not being opened properly. They told us about this, but said they were not going to play it. To me, it sounded kind of like a childish "I know something you don't know." I understand that they wanted us to know how upset Johnson had been at the time. Why not simply say "we heard the aggitation in his voice at the time?"

When Mayfield caught Johnson for the lead, DW pointed out that he was shifting through the "short chute" and that gave him a horsepower advantage that allowed him to close up on Johnson.

When the final caution came out, the announcers quickly told us that NASCAR could red-flag the race because it was within the window they announced in the drivers' meeting (lap 196). The production crew did an excellent job of showing us everything on the track that seemed to happen all at once (Jarrett and Burton losing engines and Harvick spinning Kenseth). There was a bit of confusion concerning whether or not NASCAR would red-flag the race or not. The cameras showed the cars stopping on the track, but obviously NASCAR itself had not made up their minds about what they were doing. I think in this case, Fox did as good a job as possible of keeping the viewers informed about what was going on. This included following the action between Kenseth and Harvick, including replaying the initial incident that happened several laps before and Kenseth's retaliation for Harvick spinning him out. As the cars circled the last few laps under caution, Fox played some crew communication from the 48 team and they tried to explain that Knaus was telling Johnston to stay low on the track in case he was low on fuel. Eventually, the commentators corrected themselves and explained it was because of debris coming out the stands from fans. I was glad to see that Fox didn't try to sweep this deplorable behavior under the rug as they have in the past. In fact, they showed a cooler on the track and told us that the assistant flag man had been hit by debris as well. Later they updated us by saying that the person throwing the cooler had been apprehended by security.

At the end of the race, I was disappointed that Fox only had time to talk to the winner and second place finisher. MRN, on the other hand, interviewed quite a few of the top 10 drivers. I realize TV was over their allotted timeslot, but as they went off the air, I realized that I hadn't even see the entire finishing order. I had to rewind the Tivo and found that it has "scrolled" across the screen during their quick interview with Mayfield. This really annoys me! It's bad enough to have to choose which to watch during the actual race; the racing or the field rundown, but now we can't even enjoy the limited post-race interviews if we actually want to know the finishing order? At least Fox did give us a graphic of the top ten before they left the air.

Although there were a few things the announcers said or did that I didn't think were necessary during this broadcast, I do think the broadcast team did a better than usual job covering this race.

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