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The view from my couch

ESPN Coverage of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard
by Cheryl Lauer
July 30, 2007

This week marked the return of ESPN to Cup broadcasts. After having watched most of ESPN2's Busch broadcasts this season, I didn't have high hopes for the Cup broadcast. From watching Busch, I knew we now have what I call the "new ESPN" - race production which bears little resemblance the the ESPN that most of us long-time fans knew and loved. But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with the Indianapolis broadcast. There were some peripheral things that I didn't care for much, but the announcers, pit reporters, and coverage of the race were very solid.

Pre-Race Show

I still don't think race broadcasts need a "host" or infield studio and the use of Brent Musberger and Suzy Kolber, who clearly know little about NASCAR, really makes no sense. But ESPN seems to want to copy most things that Fox started in 2001 - whether they are good things or not. Perhaps the return of Neil Goldberg to ESPN (from Fox) has a lot to do with the same "feel" of these gimmicks and much else in the broadcasts. Either way, putting a knowledgeable NASCAR veteran such as Allen Bestwick as host of the pre-race show would make more sense to most viewers. Instead, each network now seems to think if they bring in some sort of mainstream talking head, that will attract new viewers. Musberger was bad enough when used only sporadically during earlier Busch broadcasts. He clearly read all his notes yesterday when opening the broadcast. How silly is that? Kolber might be good as a sideline reporter for football and it's clear ESPN intends to force their existing staff into NASCAR coverage, but she simply seems out of place. Not that minor things like this ever stopped Fox, so why should they stop ESPN either?

After you get beyond the non-NASCAR types in the pre-race show, it was a good racing-focused show. No gags focused solely on the TV crew and even during the feature with Jeff Gordon, the ESPN reporters did ask him racing related questions while bowling. Brad Daugherty seems like a nice guy and I do remember him giving Robert Pressley a start in the Busch Series years ago. But his input to the discussions on ESPN just seems forced and not necessary. Adding Dale Jarrett to the booth was obviously a last minute decision since he didn't make the race Sunday. Still, as all viewers have said this season, ESPN seems to want to overwhelm us with too many people and voices during the race. Less really can be better in most instances.

I was disappointed, as usual, with the ridiculous length of the pre-race show. It was scheduled for one hour, which is still excessive for any pre-race show, other than Daytona. Then about 15 minutes or so into the show, ESPN put up a countdown clock which said "60 minutes" till the start of the race. I could only groan at this point. Obviously, we have another TV network who feels races need to start later and later instead of the traditional 1:00 start time. And yet, they seem to want to fool the viewer into hanging around for an hour and half before the race starts. This viewer won't be fooled by that again (I believe the green flag flew just shy of 2:30 eastern).

My biggest complaint about the pre-race show was the constant bombardment with "Brickyard Memories." Even if I hadn't seen these shown over and over again during ESPN2's practice show on Saturday, I would've had enough of them after the first couple of times on Sunday. Not only did we hear how Dale Jarrett's team started the tradition of "kissing the bricks" about three times during the pre-race show, these "memories" were replayed ad nauseum during the actual race broadcast as well. Why does every TV network these days feel that they must play the same things over and over again? Perhaps if they cut back on these things, the entire pre-race show could've been done in thirty minutes (as ESPN did in the past). Oh yeah I forgot, someone in TV production decided a few years ago that every program must play to the short-attention span crowd.

I was dismayed to see that Neil Goldberg chose to relegate the starting grid to a Fox-like ticker. So many viewers have complained about this, but obviously Goldberg feels having "last thoughts from pit road" is more important than educating new viewers on the drivers, car numbers, crew chiefs, etc. This is where TNT (and NBC) excelled. This season, TNT continued the tradition of showing a graphic of the starting grid, including the crew chief's name, while the announcers gave a rundown of the first few rows. ESPN obviously doesn't feel this is important and that's a real error in judgment in my opinion. Not only would showing this graphic help new fans see a picture of all the drivers, but the veterans fans like, and expect to see, more focus on the starting grid. A scrolling ticker is just too hard to follow while they are being bombarded with so much other information and video.

The Race

As I said earlier, I felt ESPN's first effort was a very solid one. Perhaps the lack of action in this particular race helped them a bit. I don't know, but it did seem to me the commercials were very unobtrusive and well placed during the actual race. There were no missed restarts which is something so easily controlled by the production truck.

I was extremely happy to see that ESPN only used their new computer gimmick "Draft Tracks" three times during the broadcast - and each time in replay. Twice was during caution periods and once in a replay during live action. When I first heard about this feature, like many other fans I dreaded that it would interfere with the viewers' ability to enjoy live racing. Thankfully, ESPN used it sparingly and hopefully will continue to do so. Beyond this, we had the usual "pointers" that really are unnecessary and started by Fox. The same information could be displayed with a less distracting small graphic, But again, for some reason, ESPN seems to feel Fox has set some sort of "standard" for broadcasts these days and chose to copy much of that.

I watched the broadcast on ESPN's HD channel and one complaint I have about ESPN-HD in general is that there are lots of video drops out during their live and taped programming. I have DirecTV and this might be a satellite issue, but this particular "black screen" only happens on ESPN-HD, so I suspect it's a problem at the network. Also I don't see the same on ESPN2-HD at all.

The camera work for ESPN was excellent, with some great shots of the Indianapolis complex from the blimp. There were numerous and varied replays of every on-track incident yesterday, which is always good. On a couple of occasions, the director did overdo the replays just a bit. Again, I'm sure with so little racing action yesterday, the director felt like he had to do something to keep the audience interested.

Dr. Jerry Punch is a familiar and welcome voice from the old ESPN days. He did a good job of anchoring the booth which included former driver, Rusty Wallace and former crew chief/car owner, Andy Petree. I think Wallace did a very good job as color analyst. For the most part, he remained very professional and unbiased. He's obviously learned from the mistakes made by his counterpart at Fox. Petree is the one weak link in the ESPN line-up in my opinion. He seems tentative in his approach and the time spent doing Busch broadcasts doesn't seem to have helped much.

Allen Bestwick is the consummate professional on pit road and did an excellent job yesterday. His long experience in radio and television serves him well in leading the pit reporters. Dave Burns experience also makes him a strong pit reporter as well, although he seemed to be underutilized by ESPN yesterday. It's good to see Mike Masarro rewarded for all those nights interviewing drivers at helipads after ESPN lost the TV contract in 2001. He did a good job pit reporting yesterday as well. Shannon Spake and Jamie Little still seem to be learning and developing a rapport with the drivers. I know Shannon was there yesterday, but I'm not sure if Jamie was as well as I don't recall her during the broadcast.

Tim Brewer has been the big surprise in the ESPN line-up this season. He's done an excellent job on Busch broadcasts and continued doing so during the Cup broadcast. While not trained as an announcer, he's got a wealth of technical background and years of experience as a crew chief and comes across strong and professional. ESPN really ought to consider switching him with Petree in the booth just to see how he interacts with Wallace and Punch. The "tech" trailer for ESPN this weekend was very impressive. Rather than the same old "tight/loose" graphics and cutaway cars we've seen for the last 6 years, Brewer had a very interesting interactive computer monitor to play with yesterday. While his demonstration after Earnhardt fell out of the race didn't really apply to the situation, it was still interesting to see the computer representation of how engine failures can occur. Hopefully, ESPN won't simply use this toy "just to use it" in the future.

During the race, ESPN did fall into the recent habit by all networks of only focusing on the front runners and perceived fan favorites. I will say the amount of coverage they gave Earnhardt when he was leading seemed appropriate though. It was not excessive as was the coverage later in the race when he fell back and ultimately out of the race. When the caution came out after his problems, ESPN spent an inordinate amount of time covering him and his trek onto pit road. Then they cut away from pit stops for a commercial and never showed who got out of the pits first. During every other caution, ESPN did an awesome job covering pit stops. I was so happy to see them use the traditional "three-way-split" view of pit road - where they featured three top teams on the left of the screen and an overview of pit road on the right. This way the viewers could easily see cars entering and exiting their pit stalls and who got off pit road. Then ESPN had a graphic depicting who gained/lost positions on pit road. On this, thankfully, ESPN did not follow Fox. ESPN was quick to queue up replays of any incidents on pit road, which is always good.

As to driver coverage, I happened to notice that ESPN failed to mention the progress Kyle Busch made after he led during the mid-point of the race and then pitted for new tires. I just happened to follow him moving up a lot on the ticker and felt he must have a very fast car, yet ESPN never mentioned it until late in the race.

After several multi-car incidents, ESPN seemed to pick and choose who they interviewed. We only heard from drivers like Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne, rather than some of the older drivers involved in the incidents. Besides the emphasis on age, it almost seemed like ESPN was simply going for the "cute" factor.

Besides overdoing the hype for the "history" of NASCAR races at Indy, I found it quite interesting that during the race, Kolber exclaimed "not a seat left in the house!" I'm not sure if she could actually see the grandstands from where she was sitting or this was simply in the script she'd been given to read, but from my vantage point on the couch, there were quite a few empty seats clearly visible in the grandstands.

I won't belabor the point of ESPN failing to show any of the cars taking the checkered flag except for the winner at the end of the race. Others elsewhere do a fine job of pointing this out. What bothered me was that ESPN didn't mention the good run Ward Burton and the Morgan-McClure team has yesterday. For this team a 14th-place finish probably felt like a win. I can only remember that in the old days of ESPN, the announcers would've been sure to give credit to the smaller teams when they had good runs like this one. In 2007, TV seems to have become so concerned with the winner at the end of the race, they are doing an injustice to many of the other drivers, all of which have fans watching the broadcast. In the past, ESPN pioneered showing us "a pylon" with the top 10 finishers crossing the line. This new production team needs to remember the race is not just about the winner. Having personally attended over 200 NASCAR races live, I can tell you that there is always someone battling for position somewhere on the track; particularly on the last lap.

It was good to see that ESPN stuck around to see the post-race celebration by the winner before breaking for commercial. They came back and talked to several of the other top finishers before signing off the air. It was a bit humorous for Mike Massaro to tell us that Harvick had been in the NASCAR hauler "for 17 minutes."

Overall, this was a very good first effort for ESPN. If they could just cut back on the redundancy of the highlights when sequing to commercial and a few of the staff at the infield desk, I'd be a lot happier.

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