The view from my couch

USAR ProCup - Lucas Oil 250 - USA International Speedway, Lakeland, FL.
by Lou Lauer, March 14, 2004

Finally! The off-season has lasted long enough and it's time to get back to racing for the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series. This unique and competitive short-track racing series opened their season at the same track where they closed out the 2003 season – USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Florida. Would the defending race winner (Joe Gaita) or the defending series champion (Shane Huffman) take home the first victory of the year? We've had to wait an excruciating 12 days since the race was actually run to be able to see the tape delayed TV broadcast on SPEED, was it worth the wait?

Location - Lakeland, Fla
Race Date - February 28, 2004
Broadcast Date - March 11, 2004
Channel - SPEED, DirecTV #607
Announcers - Booth - Rick Benjamin and Scott Sutherland, Pit Road - Doug Rice
Production team - Thanks!

The USAR Series renewed its TV contract with the SPEED Channel this year. That is good news as we'll get to see all of the races again this season. More good news - last year the races were shown at 10 PM, a little late for most viewers to stay awake for but a great workout for VCR's and Tivos! This year – the timeslot for the races has been moved back to a primetime slot – the 8 PM to 10 PM segment of the night. The bad news is that it also gets pushed back a day, from Wednesday last year to Thursday nights this year. One more day to have to wait to see the race results!.

The show started with 3 ladies - UC3? - giving the command to start engines and then quickly into the cars on track for the warm-up laps. Scott Sutherland gave a brief track overview and description of what to expect with the new BF Goodrich tire. With a fixed 2 hour TV timeslot, there's no time to waste and fortunately the USAR/SPEED crew gets to the real reason we tuned in – the racing! No pre-race gags or stories here and don't expect them if you are new to watching the USAR races and expecting something like the zoo that Fox or NBC produces for that “other” stock car series.

A pre-recorded interview by pit reporter, Doug Rice, with pole winner and new track record holder Clay Rogers was next. A great thing about this series is the effort they put into the driver intros and their sincere attempt to mention each driver and even the sponsor's name! They fall a little short by not adding just a few words about what drivers or teams failed to make the race. Those teams worked hard too and a mention wouldn't hurt. I could also do without the new “swishy” noises added this year as the driver intros changed from row to row.

In-car cameras were shown next and this race found them in the #28 of Michael Ritch, #4 of Jay Fogleman, Billy Mowery's #17 Taurus, and the #51 of David Pletcher. Hallbrook Productions does a very good job with the camera coverage for the USAR races despite the limits that are a result of the lack of a billion dollar budget! I believe there were 4 main cameras for this race, in turn 1, turn 3, and probably 2 on top of the main press box. Add 3 “Speedy Cams” located on the walls coming out of turns 2 & 4 and one at the start finish line. Plus an additional mobile pit camera manned by Richard Campbell. Not a bad package of cameras to cover the race. Yes, there will be a few missed shots of incidents, but they are working with a fraction of the number of cameras you may be used to with a NASCAR broadcast, so cut them some slack.

As is traditional, Speed starts the race by showing the honorary flagman waving the green flag. Most times that means they miss the pack heading into turn 1 so they can give the person their 15 seconds of fame, but because Lakeland is a little larger than most shorttracks, they were able to switch shots to catch the action. I keep lobbying for the production team to use picture-in-picture for this moment but I guess it's not going to happen.

The opening laps were well covered and I thought that the production trailer made some good choices of coverage as we were shown battles throughout the top 10. The 2 speedy cams located out of turns 2 & 4 provided some great pictures all night long. Good placement of the cameras! You could really feel the speed off the corners and see the cars getting sideways. The turn 4 speedy cam seemed a little blurry to me but I need glasses anyway, so maybe it was fine.

The broadcast broke away for the first commercials way too early for my taste, but somebody has to pay the bills I guess. Throughout the night I also grew to dislike Dick Vitale's voice more and more as the Hooters' commercials starring 'Dickie V' came to my living room far too often. It was humorous seeing that he couldn't help keep his eyes from ogling the Hooters' Air Stewardess though.

As Billy Mowery went behind the wall early in the race, Doug Rice provided us with a good interview with him. The first caution came out at lap 22 for a harmless spin out of turn 4. As we come back, Rick Benjamin talks about how 40 cars attempted the race but only 36 made the field. Would have been a perfect place for a “mention” of those who went home, but it didn't happen. From the in-car of David Pletcher, we have a great view of the restart.

As they are covering some exciting action on the track, Brad Rogers is just starting to dive under Danny O'Quinn Jr. going into turn 3 to take over 2nd when poof, they switch to a camera shot of Bobby Gill about 5 car lengths behind someone in a move for 10th. Why? I know Gill had a strong car and was marching through the field from the rear, but you could have stuck with the pass just a little bit longer! At least Rick Benjamin continued to describe the Rogers/O'Quinn action while we saw Gill. Then we see Shane Huffman beginning a pass on O'Quinn and again they switch abruptly to show Gill not actually passing anyone.

Keep in mind that only the production trailer and the pit reporter/mobile cameraman are “covering” the race live as it happens. The booth announcers are added in the days that follow the race as the tape-delayed package is put together. So the preliminary product that the production crew pieces together (see this related article USAR, Behind the TV Cameras for more technical details) has to be pretty decent for the booth folks to work off of.

A PIP box showed a short piece on Gill as he described why he chose a different paint color/scheme for this season. See, they do have Picture-in-picture! :-) For the next chunk of time we saw more good action on track and not just the top 2 cars. We saw plenty of battles from back in the pack. Kudos for that coverage! Speed did cover the leader when it was appropriate as he worked his way through the field without overdoing it. A lucky break happened as they just happened to be showing the leader as he was coming up to pass Luke Hill and then Hill looping it coming off turn 4. Good camera shot from the turn 4 speedy cam as well as the turn 1 camera stand.

Our first full field summary was shown as the green flag resumed on lap 54. Last year the production team added “lap down” info to the listing and that great addition continues this year. Typically you will see the full field rundowns every 50 laps with top 10 listings in between.

Another caution on lap 61 for a 4 car mess in turn 1. No real damage to most of the cars and unfortunately no real coverage of the incident by the cameras or the booth. There were no replays and I don't remember them even trying to give a description of what happened. Of course, since the booth folks weren't in the booth live, they probably didn't see it! With several days before the broadcast, they could have found something to say about it, I would think? Instead we got a “race recap” (for the really short attention span) in a fuzzy black-n-white artsy style.

The race restarts on lap 68. Gill's new car did have a great looking paint job and was very easy to spot on the track and the broadcast would take advantage of that to show him quite a bit this next segment. Next came a pre-taped segment on the new BFG tire – right in the middle of green flag racing without a PIP of the race! The tire segment was good and important, but there was a race happening!!!

There was a yellow at lap 92 for debris on the track as David Pletcher goes behind the wall. The 2004 season schedule is shown before the restart. Another yellow at lap 102 for more debris. As they broke for commercial, they showed some footage of drivers and fans from the pre-race autograph session. I think that idea is a keeper! Show a driver or two every time you break for commercial!

On the restart, the turn 2 speedy cam captured some great action as drivers got loose. Doug Rice also covered Jason Sarvis and how Sarvis was working as Bobby Gill's spotter for the race. Plenty of good on-track action was shown again and some good footage from Jay Fogleman's in-car camera as he battles through the field. Another caution on lap 117 for Shane Huffman and Michelle Theriault spinning in turn 2, but the action wasn't captured on camera. This provided the leaders a perfect opportunity for the typical single pit stop of the race. Good coverage of Clay Rogers' and Gill's stops by Doug Rice and the mobile pit camera, and a general overview shot of the rest of pit road by the turn 1 camera. After more commercials, we were shown some additional pit stop work for Brad Rogers and his extra stop in the pits.

Mike Laughlin Jr. led the halfway mark and was overtaken by Joe Gaita shortly after the restart for the only 2 lead changes of the race. This part of the race had some awesome racing amongst the top 6 or 7 cars! Great action, great coverage by the TV crew ending with a bang as Clay dumps the leader Joe Gaita going into turn 1. Must be something about that #44 car, leaders, touching, and turn 1. :-) The booth announcers did an excellent job describing the incident and walking viewers through the replays which were plentiful. 3 different camera views enabled us to make up our own minds on the incident and for a change, Rick Benjamin resisted showing bias. Doug Rice interviewed Gaita's crew chief, Jamie Mosely. No hard feelings apparently.

We barely get back to green when Jimmie Lang brings out the caution on lap 137 after smacking the turn 4 wall pretty hard. Once again, a nice job of replays and describing the problems that the young 15-year-old (man, I have socks older than that!) had. Jimmy Lang was interviewed in the pits by Doug Rice who did a nice job of helping Jimmy get through the interview.

Back from commercial to show us the Hooters' Challenge winner, a fan all the way from Germany! If you go to a USAR race, make sure you get signed up for this new promotion that the series is offering this season. A pretty neat deal.

Back to green on lap 143. A longer green flag period allowed us to see a lot of action and battles throughout the field. I thought that the broadcast team did an excellent job this race of showing the viewer a lot of different action and showing most, if not all, of the drivers at least once or twice.

More racing luck, as the cameras were following Brad Rogers just when a wreck occurred in front of him involving Matt Carter and Micheal Ruttkamp. Brad didn't “whoa” it down enough and hits O'Quinn, spinning him around. All the cars drive off with little or no damage. It's nice to have the cameras shooting in the right place at the right time! This break allowed them to show the traditional Lucas Oil Race Recap with 60 laps to go.

Racing action in the last 50 laps was great as Gill pursued Rogers for the lead, Brad Rogers worked his way up through the pack, and Mike Laughlin Jr. showed he was serious as he marched and nudged his way forward. We also saw defending series champion, Shane Huffman's, night end with a blown motor and an interview of Huffman by Rice. A nice replay of the engine blowing up and an excitable description of it by Scott Sutherland. New pit road safety measures were also mentioned by Benjamin as this year helmets are required for any 'over the wall' crew and official (maybe RC should take the hint??).

Rice interviews Michelle Theriault after she retired from the race and Sutherland describes the rear end ratchet problem that took her out of the race. Nice, we need more tech talk!

It was also nice that they also got to mention and show Sam Fullone's new sponsor (Pero Vegetables) and nice decal job before it was subsequently demolished in the second of 2 incidents in the last 25 laps. One was a red-flag causing wreck off of turn 2 that was well documented by replays and comments by the booth. Ruttkamp wrecks off turn 2 and Fullone had nowhere to go. The turn 2 SpeedyCam had an awesome view as the 81 car spins off the corner and whacks the wall and the turn 3 cameraman was on the ball and captured the rest.

The remainder of the race was uneventful as Clay Rogers pulled away to victory. As he won the race, we got to see his happy crew, some fireworks, and a nice burnout (if you like that sort of thing). It's good to show the crew, they are the reason these cars win! Clay had an enthusiastic victory lane celebration with his crew, his brother, and a nice interview with Rice. One question Clay – why the “Johnny's Suzuki” hat instead of your sponsor's?

Post race interviews were done with Gill and Brad Rogers. Bobby thanked the Clay Rogers team for their help this weekend and the use of a hauler. Brad talked about his in-race communications with his brother and how it helped him during the race. Rookie results and 'Hard-Charger' awards were covered and we got to see the final race rundown.

Overall, I thought this was a very good broadcast for the USAR Series, SPEED Channel, and Hallbrook Productions. For what they have to work with (limited money, fixed timeslot), the Lakeland race broadcast was a great way to start the 2004 season! I like Scott Sutherland in the booth. His driving experience and knowledge add a great deal to the broadcast. I've not been a great fan of Rick Benjamin in the past, but for this race he did a fine job. The combo of Rick and Scott seems to work very well. Doug Rice is a steady and reliable performer on pit road and knows how to lead the interview and ask questions that don't come across as your typical “I've heard that question 1000 times” quality.

I can only think of a couple of weak spots and they are minor. A few missed replays, an abrupt camera switch or two were the technical things I noted. I think a slight mention of drivers failing to make the race would not hurt and they are weak at documenting why cars have dropped out of the race. One thing that is out of their control but is still annoying is the volume level for SPEED Channel commercials - man, they are way too loud!

The race may have been boring to watch live, but this TV broadcast made it look exciting! For a look at past race reviews, click here.

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