First off, it's always refreshing to see a broadcast and production team that focuses on the racing and action on the track, rather than themselves and a lot of gimmicks. Second, I know the production team works on a very limited budget and does a lot with what they have.
The SPEED team has a lot of good information as a lead-in to all their broadcasts. During this broadcast, they pointed out that Jennerstown Speedway hosted the first of the USAR Championship races back in 2001 and has also produced a lot of first-time winners. There were some quick sound bites from several of the top drivers from both the Northern and Southern Divisions (since 7 southern drivers had entered this race). As always, SPEED provided a great graphic of the track layout, including it's length and the degree of banking. I always enjoy refreshing the my memory on these things, as well as the track record.
Next we had an interview with this race's pole sitter, Benny Gordon by this week's pit reporter, Stephanie Durner. Many will remember her from her work covering NASCAR races on the now-defunct Nashville Network (TNN). I'm not sure if this was her first outing as pit reporter, but she did an excellent job interviewing drivers and crew chiefs throughout the race. The only area where she needed a bit of improvement were in raising her volume a bit and speeding up her coverage of pit stops. Although, if this was her first time covering something as dynamic as live pit stops, I'm sure she'll only improve with time.
As always, I really appreciate that SPEED shows a graphic and the announcers run down the entire starting grid for the viewers at home, including mentioning the drivers' sponsors. This is something sadly lacking from coverage in the so-called "top" series of stock car racing.
Throughout the broadcast, there were a few "stories" that I thought were emphasized just a bit too much. We understand that the Southern Series drivers were here to get some practice at a track which will hold a Championship race later this year. We just didn't need to be reminded of it quite so many times before the start of the race. Also, yes, it was the first time two female drivers had started a race in the series; but there seemed to be excessive coverage of both Gabi DeCarlo and Michelle Theriault, even though neither was running particularly well.
Sometime last season, the production team began utilizing the Fox "ticker" for races. I'm glad to see that they aren't keeping it on the screen all the time though as it tends to detract from the racing at time. On the other hand, if it's not on the screen, I'd really appreciate having the announcers tell us what lap it is from time to time. For instance, I have no idea when the first caution came out for a spin by Jason Mignogna. Also when the wreck occurred, the camera almost caught it, but then panned away from it. After commercial, when the field went back to restart, Gene did tell us that it was lap 8 and named the top six drivers.
There has been an excellent shot from Tim Bainey, Jr's in-car camera this season. I hear he was the one who suggested that particular view and it was a great choice. You can see the driver from the "dash view," showing how he works the wheel in the car. My only complaint about in-car cameras is that the SPEED crew seems to have adopted their Fox counterparts overuse of these shots this season. I understand that they are mostly sponsored shots, but it's simply frustrating to the viewer when the producer constantly switches to in-cars when there's nothing to be seen from the in-car camera - particularly empty track in front of the car. Less would be more as far as the viewers at home are concerned. Although, there were a couple of times when the in-car cameras in this race provided some great shots of incidents on the track. The first was [unfortunately] when Bainey's engine blew up on lap 22 and later in the race when the views from the Butler brothers cameras showed on-track contact.
Throughout the race, the producer caught a lot of great racing, beginning with Jeff Agnew trying to get by Jody Lavender sometime before lap 13 (when the ticker came on so we could see the lap count). Another pet peeve I have is that in the past the old-style field rundown would actually show which cars were laps down or out of the race. Ever since the broadcasts starting using the ticker, this information has been missing. This is something the viewers really like to see. If timing and scoring can't provide this information (for some reason), why not have the announcers occasionally tell us how many cars are on the lead lap and who is out of the race?
At lap 17, they showed Woody Howard slowing down and entering the pits with problems. The announcers pointed out he was third in the points. They briefing showed his team going under the hood, but then returned to the leader, Gordon, to show he was beginning to lap the field.
Next we got a voice clip of Johnny Rumley telling us how Gordon's sponsor Predator Performance had given his team some sponsorship money from their Gortec division after his win at the last race. It was good that SPEED simply used an audio clip so we could still follow the racing action. Throughout the race, I really liked that when there was an interview in the pits, it would start out with that shot in an inset, while keeping the race in the main panel. Then the inset would disappear and we simply heard the audio of the interview. That was excellent!
When SPEED returned from their next commercial break, we saw that Shane Huffman was on pit road with the hood up on his car. As he went back out on the track, the announcers speculated that his team might have been looking for a loose spark plug wire. Durner reported that Howard's team thought they had an electric problem and Gene reported Huffman was coming back to pit road. Scott Sutherland pointed out Woody needed to get back out and make some laps since he was running for points in the North and as opposed to Shane who wasn't. At lap 29, they showed Agnew racing with Bobby Gill and Shane getting out of his car and talking to Durner in the inset.
At lap 32, we saw Lavender racing with Clay Rogers for 4th position. At lap 35, we got a whip through the in-car cameras of Shelby Howard, the Butlers, and Sam Fullone - all of which seemed to be simply commercial spots for their sponsors. Eventually, the producer got back to showing us some racing between rookies, Bailey and Kale, racing for 16th position. Gene told us that Bailey wouldn't be eligible for the Hard Charger Award because he only started at the rear of the field because the team had worked on the car after qualifying. Later Stephanie interviewed his crew chief who explained they had to change the driveshaft before the race. This was good information!
At lap 38, Stephanie also interviewed Tim Bainey, Jr. who had fallen out of the race earlier. I really like that the SPEED crew tries to talk to all the drivers or teams who have problems during the race (and this race there were quite a few of them).
On the lap 46 restart, there was kind of an odd shot - the pace car dropping off and then just empty track for a couple of seconds. Eventually the restarting field came into the shot. After the restart, Gene provided something interesting information on both Gill and Gordon - the car Gill was running had only been run once before; last November at Lakeland, Florida. Also, that Benny told him that they were running a bit of a different set-up in his car during this race.
When SPEED went away to the next commercial, they missed the restart. This is NOT a good thing and even if other networks do it, viewers find missing restarts unforgiveable. Perhaps one less of the same Naturally Fresh Light Ranch Dressing commercial that we seen over and over every week (and for the last 3-4 years)?
Back to racing and Scott noticed there was a wisp of smoke coming out of Clay Rogers' car as he raced Lavender for 4th position. Then a quick switch to the in-car in Fullone's car and Scott pointing out how Sam had qualified well at almost every track this season. Again, good information on a driver that doesn't normally get a lot of coverage. Gene told us that the highest running rookie at this point was Travis Miller, who had moved into the top ten.
Next was some good coverage of Bailey and Lonnie Rush, Jr. racing and getting into each other a bit before another commercial break. When SPEED returned, we were told that Jeff Agnew was showing smoke and off the pace. TV showed him going behind the wall on lap 73 (how sadly ironic). Gene pointed out he wasn't under power, so it didn't appear to be a chassis problem. He also mentioned that Agnew was second in points before this race.
At lap 78, we saw some more good racing with Miller now being challenged for positon by both Fullone and Mart Nesbitt. Then a lap later, the cameras followed Rogers who went high and Scott said he had a flat right front tire. When Rogers stopping on the track brought up the caution, Durner covered the stops by Gill and A.J. Frank. Then we had a graphic showing Agnew, Rogers, Huffman, Woody Howard and what put them out of the race. This was excellent!
Scott pointed out that Shelby Howard's crew got him off pit road first, but that Benny and others stayed out. This included Fullone who moved up to second, Bailey to third, Eric Corbett to 4th, and Nesbitt to 5th. It was great to see the announcers focus on the good runs being had by several of these drivers and their bad luck so far this year.
When rookie, Aaron Will, spun on lap 92, SPEED showed him coming onto pit road. Gene pointed out his "retro" paint scheme (hint: perhaps the new fans would like to know it was reminiscent of David Pearson's car when he drove for the Wood Brothers). During the caution, Stephanie had an interview with Rogers and on the lap 98 restart, Gene told us that Bailey finally came during this caution.
At lap 102, SPEED caught a major pile-up live and gave us several of good replays of it as well. This began with Frank spinning Jim Crabtree and collected Jamie Caudle, Gary St. Amant, Gerry Bruce and Dominick Casola. They showed St. Amant coming into pit road with several damage. During this caution, Stephanie interviewed Doug Weddle, Agnew's crew chief who told us they had a rear-end failure; either it broke a pinion shaft or stripped the teeth off of the gear. Either way, it couldn't be repaired, so they were out of the race.
On lap 111, the cameras were following a battle between Gill and Shelby Howard, including Howard getting into Brett Butler. At lap 116, Gene pointed out that Shelby's newer tires were allowing him to catch Fullone, Nesbitt, and Corbett. We were also told that Frank had been penalized for getting into Crabtree earlier and was working his way back from the end of the lead lap.
Around lap 121, the producer showed some good racing back in the pack between Crabtree and Caudle. This is SO refreshing to see, even though they were not on the lead lap. Unfortunately, too soon, we were back to a shot of the leader running alone on the track and the information that he was going for the halfway bonus.
As SPEED went to commercial just past the halfway point, there was a really good graphic telling where the top five rookies were running in the race.
When they returned, we saw another good battle between Rush, Derek Kale, Frank and Bailey who were working their way back up through the field. This enabled the cameras to catch an incident on lap 143 where Frank appeared to get into the back of Kale. We also saw a replay of the incident before the caution allowed Gordon to come in for tires. Gene made an excellent point after the coverage of his stop - Gordon had an easy time exiting the pits since no one was pitting around him. There was also a shot of Fullone and Corbett exiting the pits after making their stops for tire.
We saw the USAR officials talking to Frank's team and Gene speculated he may have been receiving a penalty for his involvement in the last caution.
At the lap 149 restart, Gene told us that Howard had now cycled to the lead since he'd pitted back on lap 83. Also that Gill was now second, Rumley third, and Lavender fourth. Just two laps later, the 8th caution of the night came out involving Rick Markle and Sam Fullone. Also Todd Peck got a piece of it. Excellent replay from Sam's in-car. Scott pointed out everyone checking up because of spin and he had nowhere to go. After a commercial, SPEED showed some more replays of the incident.
At the lap 177 restart, Gene pointed out that Andrew Rogers was the first car one lap down and would be starting on the inside of the leader. I think it is wonderful that Gene Crane always makes a point of explaining to viewers that the “Aaron's Lucky Dog” in this series is not the same as NASCAR. It just denotes the first car that is on the tail end of the lead lap that USAR allows to go around to the end of the field so as not to hold up the leaders on a restart. Rick Benjamin on Southern races doesn't explain it and so implies by omission that it is just like the silly rule in NASCAR. Bravo, Gene!
Later Gene also provide some more interesting stats, telling us that Benny had two prior wins at Jennerstown as did Agnew. Next SPEED covered AJ Frank trying to get past Brett Butler, with Bailey running behind him and Corbett coming into the picture as well. The announcers again pointed out Corbett had been running in the top 10 all night. I can't stress enough how wonderful this exposure is for the smaller family-owned teams like the Corbett's and the Fullone's.
In the latter portions of the race, Gene pointed out that Howard had a straightaway lead over Gordon and Lavender, who at the time were running in 4th and 5th position. The director switched to a shot of Howard and the announcers speculated that since he was coming up on some lapped traffic, this might help 2nd place, Gill, to catch him. Later, we were told that Howard and Gill were running identical times, but Gene pointed out how much better Shelby was getting off the corner better than Bobby. This was excellent information!
With less than 50 laps to go, when SPEED returned from their next commercial, Bobby was right behind Shelby, and Scott speculated that maybe he had backed off to cool his tires bit so he could make this run at the leader.
At lap 216, the 10th caution of the night came out involving Mignogna again. Replays from the Aaron's in-car camera showed Ken Butler had made contact with him. During this caution, SPEED displayed a graphic advertising usarfans.com and the USAR fan club (THANKS!!!!)
At the lap 220 restart, the announcers told us that Kale went up towards the fence and they thought maybe his brakes went out. Unfortunately, this brought out another caution. Gene pointed out Kale was running in 7th position before this mishap. After a commercial, Stephanie covered the repairs being made to Kale's car and reported the team thought it might be a broken track bar.
As the field went back to green at lap 224, Gene told us who was running in the top four positions. Next, they had some very good coverage of Gordon racing Rumley for 3rd position until another caution came out at lap 226; this time it was Rush involved with Butler. But SPEED had a good replay from Butler's in-car camera.
After commercial, SPEED showed Mark Huff from Rumley's team talking to Todd Gordon and Scott said, "Can you say 'let's make a deal'?" He went onto to explain Rumley said after he got past the lapped cars, he would probably let Benny go. The announcers also explained that even though Gordon had gotten by Rumley before the last caution, the scoring reverted to the last lap, so he didn't get to keep the position. Gene explained that Huff was concerned because Lavender was also a fast car and and they didn't want to open the door to him if they let Benny by.
After the lap 232 restart, there was excellent coverage of the battle among the top 5 cars. Gene pointed out Bailey was closing in on Lavender, so he also had his hands full holding him off. Unfortunately, during the battle between Gordon and Gill at lap 243, the 13th caution came out because DeCarlo and Sartin got together and stopped on the track.
Before SPEED broke for commercial, Gene provided us some more good stats about Gill - that he had 41 career wins since he came into the series in 1999. Great information as I didn't know he'd only been in USAR since 1999.
Gene told us the lap 248 restart would be single-file since there were less than 10 laps to go. There was an inset shot of Shelby's mother and girlfriend on the final lap of the race. After he took the checkered flag, SPEED showed that Kale had spun on the last lap.
Durner interviewed Howard in Victory Lane and told us he'd had 21 starts in the series before this win. SPEED showed us a graphic of the entire finishing order which was SO much better than the silly scroll we see on other networks. The graphic showed the rookies, but it would really be nice to see how many people were on the lead lap and how many laps down others were on this graphic.
Scott pointed out that Agnew and Woody Howard lost a lot of points because of failing to finish. Stephanie also had interview with 2nd place, Gordon and 3rd place, Gill. There were graphics for the Hard Charger of the Race - Cameron Dodson and Rookie of the Race - Brett Butler, who finished in 13th. Before they went off the air, SPEED showed the top 10 in points after this race.
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 and short turnaround time), they always do a remarkable job. My only real complaints are lack of information on lapped cars or those out of the race. If that information could be inserted onto the ticker or simply have the announcers periodically tell us, I'd be delighted. The production team doing the USAR broadcasts makes it clear that they are still there to focus on racing and their no-nonsense approach is a welcome delight after listening to the self-promotion on other stock car racing broadcasts. Keep up the good work, guys and gals! See you at Mansfield this weekend!
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