The view from my couch

Fox Coverage of the Coca-Cola 600
by Cheryl Lauer
May 31, 2007

Since the Fox portion of the season is nearly over, I felt I should write at least one review of their NASCAR coverage. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot of positives to write about this season and I've been reluctant to write only negatives. After thinking about it long and hard, I decided Fox deserves some feedback so that they can work on improving things during their off-season.

One very positive change that Fox made for 2007 was the addition of Krista Voda to their broadcast team. For five years, fans have been complaining that Jeanne Zelasko was out of her element and had failed to build any rapport with drivers or teams. The contrary can be said about Krista. While being new to covering stock car racing when she hosted the defunct Totally NASCAR a couple of years ago, she quickly immersed himself in the sport. She learned the terminology and nuances of racing and clearly has become a fan. Working on truck series broadcasts for SPEED showed she is more than capable of doing the job in the pits. Her addition to the Fox broadcast team was a stroke of genius in my opinion! She has embraced the sport wholeheartedly and brings knowledge and a natural enthusiasm to her work. It's clear she has a good rapport with the drivers and the teams and she's done an excellent job as a pit reporter during the Fox races. Sunday night at Charlotte was no exception.

As always, the pit reporters on Fox are one of their greatest strengths, along with Mike Joy's long-time experience anchoring the booth. Dick Berggren, Matt Yocum and Steve Byrnes always provide insight into team strategies and problems teams experience during the race. Mike balances serious commentary with humor in the booth and offsets the distraction of Darrell Waltrip.

Larry McReynolds has a lot of knowledge of the technical side of the sport, but lately he seems a bit full of himself. Maybe it's just 6 seasons of playing driver and crew chief with DW of which I've grown increasingly weary week after week. DW actually talks like he's just been on the track in a real race car and sometimes, it seems hard to tell fact from fiction.

There have been times during the season when Fox has make excellent use of the split screen to show two or even three battles on the track. Unfortunately, these times are too rare. Often, the director focuses on single cars running on the track or only the battle for the lead. Fox also continues to spend too much time on the perceived "fan favorites." Top management seems to forget that each and every driver out there has fans and those people would like to see their driver or hear him mentioned once in a while - not just Earnhardt, Jr., Gordon, Stewart, or Johnson.

Now onto the actual coverage of the Coca-Cola 600. This is one of my favorite events of the year and when I chose to give up my tickets after 15 years, I have had to rely on Fox for coverage of the Memorial Day event. After so many years at the track live, I know what a big extravaganza Humpy Wheeler puts on there. The patriotic theme is very popular with the fans and with so many servicemen overseas right now, it's always a great thing to see the military tributes before the race. Unfortunately, when Fox came on the air for the pre-race show Sunday, instead of allowing the fans to share in these wonderful activities, the first thing we heard was DW promoting a cellphone ringtone for his silly phrase. How sad is this? Why is it that a 3-time Winston Cup Champion chooses to be known for a childish and annoying phrase instead of his accomplishments in racing? After about one minute of DW's self-promotion, I switched over to radio and listened to the PRN broadcast for a while. Doug Rice and Mark Garrow actually know that a pre-race show is suppose to be about racing, not promoting themselves. This is something some people at Fox have yet to learn.

I didn't take my usual detailed notes about the broadcast, but several things stuck out in my mind. Beginning with the first lap of the actual race when Larry and DW became overly concerned with "what's the matter with Junior????" It's been very clear that Fox feels they must pander to the fans of this driver; but this week they even beat themselves in the hype. It was only the first lap of the race and all he did was drop back a few positions. As veterans of the sport, Larry and DW should know that this happens to drivers quite often if their air pressures aren't up or other things happen to their cars. Why panic like it's the end of the world?

I understand that Fox lost their producer, Neil Goldberg, this season when he chose to return to ESPN. They also have a new technical director, I believe. This is the person pushing the "buttons" to switch camera shots. After 11 races, the production team still seems to be floundering. Throughout the season, the announcers will be talking about something and the camera fails to follow-up and show it to the viewers. I believe this is the job of the technical director. Numerous times during this race, the viewers would see a shot of some hard racing and abruptly the camera would switch to something else, usually a car running alone. I understand that Fox has decided that "storylines" are the most important part of a race broadcast; something long-time fans fail to understand. Obviously, the executives at Fox continue to be more concerned with garnering new viewers by explaining the basics of racing or providing insights into drivers and teams. Throughout this season, it just seems like Fox chooses to spend an inordinate amount of time on showing single cars running alone. How boring is that? To both the veteran AND new viewers. Both would be better served if someone in the production truck would simply zoom out the shots once in a while in order to show us the cars in relation to each other. For instance, how far back is the 2nd place car from the leader or whatever position they are covering. On Sunday night, Brian Vickers was actually passing two cars in the same corner and the director abruptly cut away from it to show us something else. This was an extremely interesting move and Fox chose to completely ignore it. This seems to be a negative trend in Fox broadcasts this season.

Then we have the Fox 3-D gimmick, which to most viewers looks like nothing but a video game. Why on earth someone at Fox would come up with something like this is beyond me! Thankfully after the first few races where Fox unsuccessfully tried to use it to show viewers a different perspective after wrecks, they have used it rarely. Unfortunately someone in the production truck decided they just had to use it somewhere, so they've begun using it right before restarts to "highlight" the cars including sponsor graphics. Why do the viewers need an animated view of the cars when the cameras can show us the actual view of the same thing? Maybe I'm just old, but this totally confounds me! When did a poorly done graphic become superior to a real camera shot of a real racecar? I guess I also resent the fact Fox has been the leader in trying to turn race coverage into a video game with all their graphics and pointers over the last 6 years.

Okay, I know everyone hates to hear me beat a dead horse, but why have the broadcast teams suddenly decided they must use so many in-car shots all the time? Fox has managed to deny viewers the excitement of seeing numerous passes for the lead this season. The problem is they are showing an in-car camera view and all we get to see is a fender of a car flash by and then blank track or the track wall. What happened to the normal outside overview of the passes for the lead? I have heard producers talk about "putting the viewer in the car." Fine, do that occasionally, but not what seems like 40% of the time and certainly not during a pass for position! It has gotten to the point with Fox and their overuse of in-car cameras that I find myself wishing the technology had never been invented. When ESPN debuted this feature many years ago, it was a unique view; now it's become an obstruction to actually seeing what is happening on the track. Give it a rest guys!

Speaking of ESPN, it is so refreshing to see the "traditional" view for pit stop coverage on their Busch broadcasts this season. What I mean is an overview of pit road on the left of a split screen and coverage of three separate cars on the right side of the screen or visa versa. For some bizarre reason Fox developed that silly 4-way split last year and refuses to abandon it. This type of view makes it completely impossible for the viewer to see where the cars are pitting and exiting in relationship to each other. This is something that frustrates me to no end during almost every pit stop sequence. Please, somebody, consider returning to the shot of the overview of pit road, along with coverage of the three pit stops.

I know this was the longest race of the year, but did Fox have to have so many "race recaps?" It seemed like there was one every 30 minutes! If they feel they must have them for 'fans just tuning in," then couldn't they confine them to caution periods instead of cutting away from live racing. Oh yeah, that seems to be another negative trend with both Fox and ESPN this season - they both seem to do everything they can to keep the viewers from seeing live racing - cutaway cars, recaps of this race, recaps of last week's race, recaps of last year's race. Both networks have succeeded in making it unnecessary for viewers to tune in to the entire race or even every week because of so many recaps. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the Fox ratings have dropped so much this season.

No one could claim that Darrell Waltrip has ever provided unbiased commentary, but this season his shilling for Toyota has become intolerable. Whether it's coaching his brother around the track during qualifying runs or constantly updating us on the Toyotas or his brother's drivers in a race, it's extremely unprofessional for someone who is on the payroll of a car manufacturer to pretend to give unbiased commentary when it's clear he has his own agenda during broadcasts.

Also, speaking of lack of bias, why is it that the announcers this season seem to pick certain drivers to blame everything on during wrecks - many times rookies or the younger or unpopular drivers? On the other hand, they go out of their way to absolve certain media favorites from any responsibility even when replays appear to indicate otherwise?

As to this week's broadcast, I couldn't believe the announcers kept saying Sunday night, "We've been racing for 5 1/2 hours..." Uh...no, the race was run in under 5 hours (thanks Matt McLaughlin for that bit of information), it was just that Fox was on the air for over 5 1/2 hours because of their irrelevant and overly long pre-race show. The announcers continually repeating the 5 1/2 thing made me realize how really out of touch with the actual racing that Fox has become lately.

I'll try not to to belabor the point, but I do have to mention this. I agree completely with John Daly at the Daly Planet in his recent article, Fox has become so concerned with the winner at the end of the race, they are doing an injustice to all the other drivers in the top 10. This trend seemed to start a few years ago with NBC when they cut away from any side-by-side racing to show the leader running alone the entire last lap of the race. All the other networks jumped on the bandwagon. Now in 2007, Fox seems incapable of even showing us a pylon with the top 10 finishers crossing the line. 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.

I know everything in TV has become touchy-feely the last few years and human interest stories seem to be more important than racing, but I've yet to hear any viewers who really care about seeing the wife of a driver during the final laps of a race or after the checkered flag. Same goes for car owners, crew chief, etc. Show us the racing, preferably in full screen (if you're not showing other battles on the track).

Frequent readers of my reviews know I've never been a big fan of the Fox philosophy of covering races. While I think Mike Joy does an excellent job, he's got a lot of challenges dealing with the strong personalities of his co-workers in the booth. Fox has assembled a talented group to cover their races; however, they continue to let personalities and other agendas take over the broadcast and I think they've totally lost sight of what viewers tune into see: racing. The 2007 season has had some very good racing; however, Fox always seems to cut away from it to show us something else. This is very disappointing. Hopefully, in their off-season, the powers that be at Fox will reevaluate their broadcast philosophy and get back to racing in 2008.

If you are interested in rating this race or just discussing the coverage of it by FOX, please check out the Speedcouch Fan Forum! Read the RULES, sign up now, and jump into the discussion to let the networks know your thoughts about the race coverage.

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