The view from my couch

Fox Coverage of the Subway 400
by Cheryl Lauer
February 22, 2004

After watching today's broadcast, I feel like calling this "the Fox Video Game Reality Show." Lost somewhere among all the graphics, commercials and Fox hype, I guess the broadcast team did an average job. All I know is that after sitting there for four hours for a race at a track I normally love to watch, I was just happy the broadcast was over.

It's quite obvious that the graphics group at Fox was frustrated after not being able to use all their toys since last July. Those ridiculous and distracting pointers were used about 75% of the time during the Rockingham race. The constant use of the pointers really detracted from my enjoyment of the race. Added to that clutter on the screen was the expanding of the Fox ticker with a new look and new noises. Okay, we no longer have the "blup, blup, blup" of the green/yellow/red caution light (or whatever it was suppose to be), but now we have the ticker lower on the screen, an added line that changes color, and new cutesy little sounds. Oh yes, and more important this larger graphic leaves lots more room for the "sponsor" of the ticker. What I also noted during today's broadcast was that while NBC has made positive improvements to their race coverage, I saw absolutely no changes in anything that Fox did today from last year. I guess when you've worked so hard to convince yourselves you are perfect, there is no room for admitting that you might actually improve. Okay, now that I got all of that off my chest, on to the content of the actual broadcast.

Pre-Race Show

When Fox came on the air, I was happy to see that they were showing the pre-race show in widescreen. Even though Fox has still not gone full high definition like CBS, NBC, and ABC, at least they had a good quality picture all day and presented both the pre-race show and actual race in widescreen.

The fact that the Fox network is a real proponent of "reality" shows and other sentimentality was evident from the time they came on the air. First we have ole DW narrating highlights from last week's race and tugging our heartstrings about his brother winning the Daytona 500 three years ago (never can the audience be allowed to forget that Michael Waltrip is Darrell's brother). Next we have the return of Chris Myers and the silly Hollywood Hotel. Myers comes on saying something about how extreme makeovers are in vogue and how NASCAR has had it's own makeover since last season. This was a lead-in to discuss the new series sponsor and new way the Cup championship will be decided.

Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip were then asked how they spent the off-season. While Hammond explained he'd visited the troops in Iraq, DW promoted his new book.

A theme also began in these pre-race discussions that continued all day long. Myers stated that Matt Kenseth had "cruised" to victory in the championship and showed us a graphic of how the points would have fallen had NASCAR been under the new system last year. I guess the relevance of this was lost on me since it falls into the "ifs and butts" category. Then throughout the race itself, I noticed the DW kept going on about how Kenseth was racing harder this year to quiet his detractors. To me, this came across a little bit like Fox was helping NASCAR to rationalize the change in the points system. But I was impressed that while DW toned down his displeasure at the new system, he did say it had holes in it because a driver could still actually win the championship without ever winning a race.

Next was a silly feature where DW talked to Earnhardt, Jr. about how it felt to win Daytona while they pretended to "fix" DW's pretend car. This was followed by a good discussion where everyone said who they thought would win the Rookie of the Year battle and why. Throughout this segment, Myers kept ringing a silly bell. Jeff did a good segment with the Cutaway Car, illustrating the changes NASCAR had made to the rear spoiler and discussing the softer tires they were using this year. Also, throughout the pre-race show, Fox displayed some sort of ticker at the bottom of the screen.

There was a new feature that we were told to expect every week, called 10 Laps With... This was where Myers asked a bunch of opinion questions to Tony Stewart, none of which had anything to do with racing, and ending with "boxers or briefs?" At the end of the segment from the Hollywood Hotel, Myers ended with "the drivers are going to hop into their cars like super heroes." I guess this should have been a warning to me as to what the powers that be at Fox really view racing to be: nothing but a kid's video game or a cartoon.

When Fox went to Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds in the booth, rather than showing us the starting grid, they used a ticker across the bottom of the screen (as they did in the Busch race on Saturday). So now, not only do we not get to have a rundown of all the drivers, but we don't get a rundown by the announcers of any of the drivers. So I guess I was wrong, Fox did make a change, although in this case not a good one.

Continuing with the need to create cute phrases or cliches, we were introduced to DW's Hot Spot which was actually an interesting description of what makes turn 2 at Rockingham so challenging to the drivers. If Fox had just not felt the need to constantly pat themselves on the back by mentioning DW's Hot Spot all day, it wouldn't have been a bad feature. But we are talking about the kings of self-promotion. We were reminded of the constant need for hype and self-promotion just moments later when Mike Joy segued from a bit by Jeanne Zelasko about tire conservation, by saying "Just don't ask us to be conservative." Oh, okay. I guess that's my problem. I was expecting a professional race broadcast and had forgotten I was watching Fox. To top this off, we got another feature showing how racing is like a soap opera which featured many of the top drivers in the typical silly antics that seem to be required by Fox.

The Race

Finally the race was ready to start and I was hoping against hope Fox had realized that almost half the viewers dislike DW's silly Boogity phrase. I know I'm an optimist, but since he didn't use it to start the race on Saturday, I was really hoping he wouldn't use it for the Cup race. How silly of me...

Early in the race, Mike told us that Brendan Gaughan may had scraped the wall. I'm not sure what lap this was because the pointers came on and covered up the lap counter. Fox has added another bit of information to the pointer this year. This was how many "car lengths" a driver was behind the leader. This is mildly interesting, but I could've lived without more stuff covering up the racing on my screen. Later in the race, when this was displaying "100" or "220" car lengths behind the leader, it really seemed absurd to me. But Larry and Mike were right there to tell us how we used to have to guess at this stuff and now the Fox Trax told us. More patting the network on the back?

Next Mike told us that Joe Ruttman had taken his car to the garage after only two laps. With only a few laps run in the race, Fox was already showing XX laps to go. Are the people doing the graphics so bored with racing that they are already counting down how much longer they have to be there after only 7 laps? Thankfully there was usually a graphic showing how many actual laps had been run as Fox went to commercial.

During the day, the pit reporters of Zelasko, Matt Yocum, Steve Byrnes and Dick Berggren gave us good information and updates on various competitors. This began at lap 10 when they reported on how Jamie McMurray's and Ryan Newman's cars were running. DW reported that he thought Robby Gordon had gotten into the wall and Fox quickly followed up with a replay of the incident. DW also pointed out that Jeff Gordon appeared to be making up a lot of ground running the high line and then explained how the cars can get a lot of grip up high at this track. Jeanne reported that Newman had an overheating problem early and Larry did a good job of following this up with the observation that this might have been due to the new nose on the Dodges this year.

Fox went to their first commercial at lap 13. I don't have the patience to keep track of every commercial, but those that complain about commercials on NBC needed to count them today! Fox had a ton of commercials and a lot in the mid to latter portion of the race. Two times, wrecks occurred while they were away and rather than break out of the commercial and show the accident, Fox stayed with the commercial. Then they actually showed more "billboards" when they came back, before they told us the caution was out. This happened when they went to their second commercial at lap 35 and Ken Schrader had hit the wall while they were away. I also noticed Fox showing a lot of shots from in-car cameras when those drivers were no longer in competition. As I always say, most of these shots are just more commercials for Cingular, AOL or Budweiser. Fox also had at least three Race Breaks, which were just commercials for VISA. There were also three silly Cingular poll questions, which were just more commercials. Each time, the topic was asking is a certain driver would win. That's real meaningful.

There were some good replays of Schrader's first incident of the day. During the resulting pit stops , Mike noted that there was a tire loose on pit road and that he thought a car had hit it. Later the producer queued up a replay of this incident and Mike pointed out there was a second tire lose further back on pit road and we got to see a replay of this as well. Larry pointed out that this caution was a real break for Gaughan, Derrick Cope and Kevin Harvick who had been close to losing a lap early. Just before the restart, Mike told us who the top five were. All day long, I noticed that Fox was delayed in resetting the field after a caution. Larry pointed out that Matt Kenseth had been moving toward the top 10 before the caution, but that his pit crew had such a fast pit stop, they had moved him into the top ten now.

Throughout the day, Fox would tell us about some of the drivers in the top 10, but they seemed to pick and choose who they talked about. It sure would be nice if they'd try to do a Through the Field like NBC does. This gives the pit reporters a chance to shine, instead of relying on pointers and the people in the booth so much. But I guess when you have so many in the booth who like to talk, have to fit in race recaps and pearls of wisdom from Chris Myers, as well as useful illustrations from Jeff Hammond, it's hard to find the time to showcase the pit reporters.

Other than the two wrecks Fox missed while away at commercial, they seemed to either catch ones as they were happening or quickly showed us replays. The exception was when Larry Foyt hit the wall, which I believe happened during commercial. We never got to see what happened to him. Fox also gave us some good replays of near misses involving cars during the day such as one early involving Jimmy Johnson's car. They also showed a replay of how Bobby Labonte's tire got cut down by contact with Casey Mears later in the race.

Mike Joy make a real effort to update us on drivers who dropped out of the race or went behind the wall, such as when Jeff Burton spent several laps in the garage replacing his radiator early. This was good because the ticker didn't seem to always show when drivers well back in the field had dropped out of the race. It was too busy cycling a variety of information all the time, some of it useful, but some like the Fox projection when the cars would next pit wasn't very useful in my opinion. The Fox team was quick to tell us which drivers were the recipients of the free pass back to the lead lap after every caution. I did notice though that they did not always tell us who was leading or who was on the lead lap until right before the restarts in some cases, but they did tell us many times how many cars were left on the lead lap. When Robby Gordon was leading after pit stops, Fox speculated that he took two tires. It was not until he got lapped later in the same run that Mike told us that they'd found out that he hadn't pitted during the last caution at all.

In the early part of the race, the producer attempted to play radio communications between drivers and their crews, but DW or Larry talked over them. By the second half of the race, there seemed to be better coordination between the production truck and the booth, and this didn't happen nearly as much. Many times, the producer chose to delay the scanner bites a bit, so the announcers could be quiet and the viewers hear them. This was very good. I particularly enjoyed the conversation between Kenseth and his spotter concerning other cars wanting to lead a lap.

The pit reporters interviewed most of the drivers that dropped out of the race. Of course, the lessor known ones were forgotten except for Carl Long and I think that was only because of his spectacular crash. Speaking of Carl Long, since the starting grid was rushed along in ticker form today, I was surprised to see a 46 car on the track when they began showing Long's wreck. This was very disappointing as I like to know all the drivers and Long usually runs a different number. Frankly, I thought we might have been seeing a replay from the Busch race at first as the 46 car in that race was caught up in a big accident at the end of that race. I also noted that for about three-quarters of the race that the announcers didn't mention most of the rookies, such as Brian Vickers (who is the reigning BGN champion). They only mentioned Scott Riggs when he was lined up near the front on the restart and Scott Wimmer when he climbed into the top ten. Finally around lap 227, there was a graphic telling us how they were doing. I guess graphics take the place of covering drivers with sponsors that don't buy advertising time these days.

There seemed to be a few technical glitches plaguing Fox today. One in particular I remember was when Larry started to say something under a caution and was cut off as Fox switched abruptly to a music video featuring some drivers and lots of Fox logos. I guess someone in the control room was just dying to hear that wonderful "music."

There were some good discussions during the day concerning tire wear with the announcers pointing out which cars seemed to run better at the beginning or end of tire runs or those that stayed consistent throughout a run. Also there were timely discussions about how treacherous it could be when someone decided to pit suddenly and mentioning that Kenseth did a good job of slowing down gradually so people knew when he was coming in. Fox caught several teams who left the pits with their wedge wrenches in and there was a good explanation as to how the catch can man is jacking wedge in while doing his regular job and how this might happen. But Mike Joy saying Kasey Kahne had a wedgie was a little too cute for me.

In the second half of the race, when the cars were more spread out, Mike and Larry did an excellent job of telling us how far back the second place car was from the leader or how far others were behind him. Not too long after this, one of the pit reporters told us all about Dale Jarrett's children and their activities, and then DW and Larry had to chime in and talk about their kids' activities as well. I don't know why we had to hear about this during a race broadcast, but what do I know?

From about 2:45 until the end of the race, Fox seemed to innundate us with commercials. In the latter part of the race, the people controlling the pointers seemed to get tired out or lose their focus as the pointers would be pointing to things not being shown on the screen. Perhaps they should have taken a rest from them more. I know I could've used a rest from them by that time. I noted particularly that when there was some really good racing between Kurt Busch, Wallace and McMurray, that the three pointers hovering over the cars really detracted from the racing.

At one point, Dick Berggren was interviewing Rusty Wallace's crew chief, Larry Carter, about how their car was running. At the end of the interview, he said "Let's see a smile" to Carter. Does Fox really think this is some sort of reality show and that they need to direct the "cast" as to how to act?

At lap 208, Fox finally mentioned that Sterling Marlin was having a great day. He'd only been in the top 10 most of the day, but I guess they were too busy discussing everyone's children's activities to notice. Right after this, DW noticed that Jarrett's car was smoking and said he thought he blew up. The producer quickly went to Jarrett's radio and we heard him say the engine was still running and he thought it might be the transmission. Jeff quickly illustrated what could go wrong on the transmission of a car, using the Cutaway Car. The announcers speculated that the way the smoke was coming out of the right side pipes that it might be the engine after all. Larry followed this up saying that Jarrett's team had been considering changing their engine before the race but decided not to do so.

There were about three Crank it Up Segments today. Not only do we still have the huge graphic to illustrate this feature, but now Fox has added a larger speaker to the graphic. Fox made a lot of use of the split screen or inset today, particularly near the end of the race. Most times were good, but why did we need to see a picture of the pit box for the 12 team for so much of the time? Also, I thought showing the crew chiefs for two lapped cars during green flag racing was a little much. We can show their crew chiefs, but not half the drivers running outside the top 10? Also annoying was the AOL graphic that covered up the whole screen while transitioning to a replay and another advertisement for a Fox show that was accompanied with laughing. Why do we need to see and hear this kind of stuff in the middle of the races? When things are that distracting, Fox might as well just go ahead and break for a commercial.

At 81 laps to go in the race, DW said "I'm getting tired." I knew this was more of the typical playacting as if he was still a driver in this race, but I couldn't help but think the same thing (that I was getting tired of this broadcast with all its extraneous stuff).

When the final series of green flag pit stops began, the Fox coverage seemed somewhat fragmented to me. They would tell us about a couple of drivers pitting, then switch and show us some of them in a full screen. This is when the split screen should have been used in my opinion. When Robby Gordon wrecked during these stops, Fox had many good replays of the incident. Larry then explained that NASCAR was not opening the pits right away because the field was so jumbled up. After they came back from commercial, they showed the pit stops of the 42, 2 and the 8. DW pointed out that putting in just a little fuel could help the handling on some of the cars. When Fox tried to explain what was going on with the 17 and 9 cars, frankly, I got pretty confused. It seemed like at first they told us they were on the tailend of the lead lap because they had been pitting when the caution came out. Then they talked about the fact the field was frozen helping them. Next they showed Donnie Wingo, crew chief on McMurray's car arguing with NASCAR about what was going on. It wasn't until after the restart that I finally figured out that the 17 and the 9 were actually the leaders of the race. I guess I lost track of what Mike and the crew were telling us or else I was just getting worn out from all the information overload during the race.

At 22 laps to go, Larry pointed out that Kahne had chopped half off of Kenseth's lead. Fox told us that Mark Martin and his team would be called to the NASCAR truck after the race because they felt he interfered with the leaders on the restart. They showed a good replay of the restart and the announcers said they couldn't see that Martin did anything wrong. At 8 laps to go in the race, the graphics people were still going crazy with the pointers. Can't they at least give it a rest that close to the end of the race? At 2 laps to go, I was really on information overload as Fox was showing the crew chiefs for Kahne and Kenseth in an inset, the drivers battling for the win, and playing someone's radio while DW babbled on top of it all.

Finally the race came to an exciting conclusion and Fox showed several replays of the 9 and 17 at the line. Someone told us that the margin of victory was 1/100th of a second. Next thing I know, Fox has cut away for a long commercial segment in which they first showed promos for all their annoying shows (they didn't want us to miss them), then a message from our series sponsor (Nextel), and lastly several local commercials. When they finally returned, they showed us Kenseth's victory doughnuts via tape and then finally TV allowed the driver to get out of his car and enjoy Victory Lane. Besides the winner, Fox interviewed Kahne and McMurray, and then skipped 4th place finisher, Marlin, to interview Earnhardt, Jr. I guess they felt Marlin wasn't exciting enough for their viewers. Or maybe it was because his sponsor, Coors, didn't buy commercial time for the broadcast.

As they went of the air, they showed the full field rundown, the points standings, and then we got final words of wisdom from Chris Myers. He babbled something about next week being an off-week because of leap year. This left me thinking, "What?" Next thing they'll be telling us Brian France makes scheduling decisions by what the groundhog tells him. After the broadcast signed off, I found it very tacky that Fox showed a commercial for California Speedway. I guess they didn't think it was in poor taste to advertise for tickets for a race that was obtained at the cost of the second race at Rockingham.

I'm sorry I can't be more positive about the first Fox broadcast of the year. If Fox could just lay off the excessive graphics, I might have enjoyed their broadcast a lot more. If they could just lose the highly touted "Fox attitude" once and while and just show us the racing, that would really be nice. Oh well, I'd better stop now. I don't want to relive the entire broadcast again! How many more weeks do we have to put up with Fox until NBC returns in July?

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