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The view from my couch

ESPN2 Coverage of Telcel-Motorola 200
by Cheryl Lauer
March 6, 2007

After three Busch Race broadcasts, I thought it was about time to weigh in on the "new" ESPN NASCAR coverage. First off, I suppose I knew better than to expect the same focused and balanced coverage that ESPN used to give race fans back in the 1980s and 1990s. I feared they would feel the need to compete with the "entertainment" that Fox brought to their coverage beginning in 2001. Yet still, I hoped that ESPN would truly live up to their name and be "the Worldwide Leader in Sports." Unfortunately, the 2007 broadcasts so far show they are simply "a follower" rather than a leader.

No matter what, it is still nice to hear Dr. Jerry Punch's calm and professional voice covering NASCAR again. He exudes class and credibility and always will. Now if Neil Goldberg and the rest of the production team could just stop trying to copy every single thing from Fox, I think ESPN could find it's identity again.

Joining Dr. Punch in the booth is one of NASCAR's most winningest drivers of the last 30 years, Rusty Wallace. I'll admit right off that Rusty was one of my favorite drivers of all time. Still, I'd like to think I can maintain my objectivity if Rusty does something I don't like. Next, we have former crew chief, car owner and little known novice driver, Andy Petree. After three races, Petree is finally sounding a bit more confident in his new role. Though if I had to choose one of the current ESPN crew for the booth, based on what I've seen so far, I'd probably pick Tim Brewer over Petree. Despite the fact ESPN continually refers to Brewer as "crew chief emeritus," whatever that means, he doesn't have the notoriety for being the former crew chief of Dale Earnhardt when he won his final Winston Cup Championship. Obviously the powers that be at ESPN feel this fact adds more to Petree's credibility. As a viewer, I'd prefer the guy who can get the job done in the most competent way regardless of his past history. Unfortunately, TV seems to feel the lineage of their crew is the most important thing. Hence, ESPN is constantly telling us how many times Rusty has won in Cup along with Petree and Brewer's credentials. This is something Fox started and someone at ESPN feels they must follow.

Dr. Punch did an excellent job as anchor this week and in the two prior races ESPN has covered this season. He seems a bit rusty and struggled with a couple of the names (like Kluever) this week, but with more practice, I'm sure he'll only get better. During the first two races, Wallace was a bit too frantic at times, but seemed to have slowed down his speech just a bit this weekend in Mexico. While becoming a bit more comfortable in his role, Petree still seems a bit hesitant in some of his explanations. Thankfully since Wallace is never at a loss for words, he was able to jump in and clarify things if Petree stumbled.

For some reason, the ESPN producers feel they must interject their large staff into every broadcast just to show they have lots of experts and diversity. Fox having a host and their silly "hotel" has always been superfluous as far as I'm concerned. Yet, ESPN had to hire Brent Musberger as a host for their broadcasts in an apparent effort to compete with Fox. Granted the man is not nearly as annoying as Chris Myers, but it comes across as if he has very little knowledge of racing and seems uncomfortable in his role. I don't believe he was in Mexico this weekend, but with so many faces and voices, sometimes it's hard to tell who is who. Brewer has a demonstration car just like Fox does. Unfortunately, ESPN tends to cut away from live racing to have him show us something just for the sake of using the prop. Throughout the broadcast, ESPN switched to Brad Daugherty and Chris Fowler to give us their comments on the race. Why do both Fox and ESPN seems to feel that "more" is better? Plus, if there is racing going on, why would anyone in their right mind switch to talking heads instead? Also, I'm not really sure what Fowler's background is, other than being on the ESPN staff for other sports.

One very annoying trait is that in their appearing need to copy Fox, Petree and Wallace fall into the game of playing like they are still driver and crew chief. This is something that I can't stand on Fox and really hate to see ESPN copying. As I always say, these guys are no longer driving or crewing the cars, so why pretend? If they want to tell us what they would do, that's fine, but the role-playing gets really old to long-time fans.

After two weeks of having the starting grid relegated to a Fox-type "ticker," it was wonderful to see ESPN show the entire starting grid, via a graphic this week! Both new and veteran fans can always benefit from seeing a picture of the drivers and the car number along with their starting position. I'm hoping this was not just a feature for the Mexico City Race and ESPN will continue to use the graphic every week.

As with the other networks covering NASCAR, the ESPN pit reporters are a great strength of their team. In my opinion, hiring long-time radio and TV veteran Allen Bestwick was a real coupe for the network. His diversified experience on pit road, in the turns and anchoring broadcasts is a real asset. His professionalism and enthusiasm can't be beat. The same holds true for Dave Burns who has been in the pits for TNT and NBC for the past 6 years. ESPN has also rewarded Mike Massaro for all those nights spent chasing down drivers at the helipads after ESPN was limited in their access to the garage after 2001. I'm not sure if Mike has ever worked as a pit reporter, but he is doing a very good job so far and will only get stronger I'm sure. ESPN also has Jamie Little as one of the pit reporters. I'm not really familiar with her background, but she's certainly not as abrasive as the female reporter Fox used to have. She's seems to be learning her role and improving every week.

Okay, now on to this week's broadcast. To tell you the truth, I was extremely disappointed that ESPN seemed to have picked out the "story" for this race and rarely deviated from it. I understand that the goal of both TV and NASCAR is to increase their viewership in the Hispanic community. I have no problem with this at all. What I do have a problem with was the fact that ESPN focused on Juan Pablo Montoya most of the day, almost to the exclusion of all others. During the early portions of the race, we got to see this driver constantly once he passed for the lead on lap two. Even when he had a huge lead of 18 seconds or something, ESPN didn't seem to care to show the rest of the field. Frankly, this made the race extremely boring as far as I was concerned and had me wondering why I even bothered to tune it. After some of the spins by other drivers, they didn't even show us replays of what happened because they were so busy showing Montoya, his pit crew, his crew chief, or his wife, etc.

When ESPN did show other cars pitting, many times they would go to a split screen and show a single car making a green flag pit stop in the larger frame with the camera zoomed in on that car. That really was a useless shot in my opinion. It also relegated what little of the racing we got to see to a smaller inset. When did a green flag pit stop become more important than covering racing? ESPN touts their full High Definition coverage, but when they go to these split screens, the graphic they employ reduces the picture immensely. Not only does the wide screen picture disappear, but the view is reduced to two small 4 X 3 shots instead. Is this ESPN's idea of HD? The other thing that bothers me is that ESPN relies on these split screens way too often. And rarely are they used to show two shots of side by side racing. Since I spent a lot of time watching the scoring ticker in this race in order to see what was going on behind the leader, it was quite obvious that drivers were passing back in the field. Yet ESPN never showed us any of this action because of their fascination with Montoya and green flag pit stops.

One of the things ESPN advertised was the fact they would have HD pictures from the in-car cameras. While they do show wide screen shots from the in-car, the quality of these pictures does not really appear to hightlight the wonderful clarity that I've come to expect from HD. I don't know if this is a case of ESPN not being able to focus the cameras properly via remote or what, but to claim these are HD shots just seems questionable to me.

When Montoya had his bad pit stop and had to pit again, dropping him back in the field, ESPN finally did cover some other cars. For about ten minutes, we actually got to see the rest of the top ten drivers racing, which was great. Unfortunately, as Montoya made his way back up into the top ten, the focus switched back to "the story." Yes, the driver was making some exciting passes and was later embroiled in controversy when he spun out his teammate, Scott Pruett, while he was leading the race. But has the pre-determined storyline taken the place of covering the rest of the field? This seems to be another practice ESPN has copied from Fox.

Also, is there some sort of clause in the contract of every former driver who becomes a broadcaster these days that states his family members get extra coverage? We've seen this with Darrell Waltrip on Fox since 2001 and now with Rusty Wallace on ESPN. At least twice yesterday (and every race so far), ESPN spends an inordinate amount of time showing Rusty's son, Steven. In none of the races so far has he been very competitive, yet ESPN shows him repeatedly and Rusty's tells us how he is doing. Yesterday, I couldn't help but notice the blatant disparity between the coverage of Wallace and Regan Smith. Smith ran in the top 10 or top 15 all day long and ESPN never mentioned that fact. Late in the race when Smith was involved in an incident, we were only told that he was missing some sheet metal, but ESPN couldn't be bothered to show us the incident or even tell us what happened. I can't help but wonder what the mindset of the networks presenting the races are these days. Is it part of the reality TV craze or maybe more family-oriented television they are going for when they encourage their commentators to talk about their relatives running in the race? To give Rusty credit, he has been pretty objective when talking about his son. But still, why does his son deserve more coverage than any other of the young Busch regulars who are running as well or better? That mentality just confounds my old brain, I guess. ESPN did mention Busch rookie, Australian, Marcos Ambrose, a couple of times, but his great run was still overshadowed by all the hype surrounding Montoya.

It's well known that long-time ESPN producer, Neil Goldberg, returned from Fox this season to head up ESPN's return to NASCAR. I just wish he had left all the Fox gadgets and gimmicks at that network. We have the Fox ticker, the intrusive pointers, and also the "bubbleheads" of drivers that NBC used a few years ago. At least that network realized they were a disaster and dropped them in response to viewer feedback. Someone at ESPN must not have noticed that. Since I understand that TV coverage these days is all about "personalities," and very little about the actual racing, in my opinion, ESPN would better serve it's fans in talking to more drivers in their pre-race show or even "introducing" the drivers there and showing us their cars, sponsors, and car numbers. That way, viewers would not be distracted by the picture of the driver hovering over a bunch of data or have video game pointers flying all over the screen.

It's obvious the folks at ESPN are trying to do a good job with their return to NASCAR coverage. The problem is the people in charge seem to have forgotten that the simple approach ESPN used through 2000 is what drew many of the current fans to the sport or stock car racing. Back then, ESPN relied on the excitement of racing to bring in new fans and keep them returning week after week. Granted, today's racing tends to be less exciting at times, but I believe both new and veteran fans want to see racing, not gimmicks.

Overall, I think ESPN has assembled a good team to cover their races; however, their execution has been extremely disappointing so far. Unless they'd rather be a follower, ESPN needs to cut out all the things they've copied from Fox and concentrate on covering more of the field during each race. Trust me, I'm not asking them to come up with their own gimmicks, just drop most of these things and get back to basics: showing the fans racing. That's what they tuned into to see.

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