The view from my couch

VERSUS Coverage of the Sears Auto Center 200 - USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series
by Cheryl Lauer
April 6, 2008

We haven’t done a review of one of the USAR broadcasts in a couple of years, so I thought it was about time we did one. Last season was a transition year for the TV broadcasts for the Hooters Pro Cup Series, with the shows being reduced to one hour from the two-hour format that we’d seen for many years. This season saw another major change as the TV contract changed from SPEED TV to the VERSUS Network, so I thought this was a good time to provide some feedback to USAR and the TV folks. Despite the network change, the same group of hardworking folks are producing what you and I see on TV every race.

Like most fans of the series, we were not happy with the condensed coverage that began last year, but understood the need for the change due to rising costs for TV time for a smaller series like USAR. Personally, I was often not happy with how Hallbrook Productions (the company actually producing the package) used the limited time given them to cover the races. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I didn’t like some of the “reality” touches added to the broadcasts last year. They seemed contrived and aimed at the short-attention span crowd. With only 40 actual minutes of race coverage after the required commercials in the 60 minute broadcast, I felt they should have focused on the racing a lot more. I wondered if it would it be the same this season.

As with every broadcast, the season opener from Lakeland had many good as well as bad aspects. The lead-in to the broadcast showing Bobby Gill’s past history at the track was excellent. The reigning champion has been a dominant force at the track and certainly was a favorite going into this race. The comments from several drivers in response to the question about who they needed to beat was interesting; however the need to have 8 drivers say the same thing was a bit redundant and wasted some of the precious 40 minutes which should be devoted to race coverage. After 2-3 quotes, the viewers got the idea that they all knew Bobby was going to be tough to beat.

Use of the “precious 40 minutes” will be a common theme in this review. In my opinion, both long-term fans of USAR and casual viewers would be better served to focus on the hard racing the Pro Cup Series has to offer each week, rather than showing us highlights of previous races or contrived scenarios featuring drivers or crew members as we often saw last season.

The highlight reel chosen as the intro to the broadcast for this season was excellent. It didn’t simply focus on wrecks, but gave a wonderful montage of hard racing as well as wrecks, with a very good blend of in-car views and regular coverage. This was followed by some nice shots of the Lakeland track, the crowd and teams lined up for pre-race activities on pit road. Next came the introduction of the pole sitter, Mark McFarland. It was nice to see him without his sunglasses during driver introductions, be shown the pole speed and time, and then have a quote from the driver after his run. After the command to start engines, there were some very nice shots of several drivers in their cars as they rolled off pit road.

During the pace laps, the producer chose to show the starting grid via a “ticker” along the bottom of the screen. While this ticker was large and did display a picture of each driver, I’m just not a fan of this recent method used by networks covering other racing series. Most fans I talk with would much prefer the traditional page by page graphic of the starting grid. I understand the production group is under a time constraint, but taking a couple of extra seconds to show the starting grid and actually announcing every driver’s name and giving the audience time to digest the information about them goes a long way in gaining name and face recognition for the drivers.

Over the years, the broadcasts have always featured the person waving the flag at the start of the race. While I’m not a fan of lingering on this shot, I understand this gives sort of a “feel” for the start of the race. Unfortunately, during this broadcast, the use of this shot prevented the viewer from actually seeing the field take off, which is never a good thing to this race fan. It makes even less sense as it’s not a secret that the race is not live and both the flag-waver and the field taking the green could have easily been worked into the package. But at least Scott Sutherland did mention that it looked like outside pole sitter, Michael Ritch, jumped the start of the race.

After this, the producer showed us shots from and introduced the drivers carrying on-board cameras during the race. While it is interesting to see these views occasionally, I feel today’s TV professionals use this view to extremes and last season the USAR TV crew was no exception. These shots can provide unique views, but they should never be substituted for the outside view of the race. Watching the view of an empty track out the front of a race car provides absolutely nothing for the viewer. I understand that today’s television executives want to make the viewer “feel” like they are in a race car. Maybe I’m simply too old to want this type of experience, but the race fan in me can’t help but think that the insistence on too many of these shots completely ruins the continuity of the race and sometimes results in missing the overview of actual passes for position. Finding a nice balance between the use of in-car cameras and the traditional outside view of racing is the ideal goal to me. This said, I did find that after too many in-car views early in the race, the producer did settle down and focus more on the traditional racing action for the rest of the race. This was excellent! My only suggestion is maybe to find a way to sprinkle the in-car camera shots throughout the entire race and not concentrate them all during any one time, particularly the start of the race.

It was very interesting to see Trevor Bayne fighting the wheel while moving up on Matt Hawkins during the early portions of the race. Eventually, the producer did abandon the in-car cameras to show that polesitter, McFarland, was right now on the tail of the leader. It would’ve been nice to see him reel in the leader, rather than have him just magically close the distance. Unfortunately, just as McFarland peeked under Ritch, the camera shot chosen switched briefly to the battle for third between Caleb Holman and Wade Day, then back to the battle for the lead, with the pass nearly completed already. This is when the use of a split screen would be useful in showing these separate battles.

Abruptly, the focus switched back to two in-car cameras from two other drivers, the first not even running close to another car. Next we see Trevor Bayne briefly before going off on a “feature” about the driver. Leaving green flag racing to show a feature on a driver is also not a good thing. Either do this in an inset or run these bits during the pre-race or caution periods. This feature replayed a highlight from last season’s finale at Lakeland which was already shown in the lead-in to the broadcast. As I mentioned earlier, this is a waste of the precious 40-minutes for racing in a broadcast. Decisions like this are the kind of things that had me beating my couch in frustration last season and I certainly hope I won’t be reduced to that again this year as well.

When the broadcast returned to “live” action, we were told the caution was out and shown that Bryan Silas had spun, but no replay was available. This was used as a transition into the first commercial. When they returned, we were told that Derrick Kelly had dropped out of the race and he was interviewed in the pits. During the course of the race, there were several interviews shown from the pits, which were very nice to see and informative to the viewer. Also shown was a highlight of an early pit stop made by Benny Gordon.

We saw the restart which Rick Benjamin told us occurred on lap 35. That was also very good. The absence of lap information last season contributed to the lack of continuity during race broadcasts. During this race, the production team did an excellent job showing us lap counters and updating us frequently. I understand that with the limits of a one-hour TV window, many laps must be edited out, but last season it was painfully obvious that large chunks of races ended up on the cutting room floor. This often gave the viewer the impression the coverage was nothing but a highlight package. The editing of this race seemed much smoother and that’s always a good thing for the viewer in feeling that they saw the majority of the racing action.

During this segment of the broadcast, we saw some good coverage of racing throughout the pack. Unfortunately, the producer chose to interrupt racing coverage to go off on another driver profile, this time Matt Hawkins, complete with full-screen video of Hawkins learning that he lost last season’s Rookie of Year battle by one point. Again, this was a poor decision to use the footage during actual green flag racing. In fact, when they returned to live racing, the viewers only saw the completion of a pass for position by the driver they were highlighting. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the announcers simply talk about the ROTY battle while watching the driver set-up and complete the pass?

Next we saw a brief shot of McFarland on the track and were told he was still running second. Then we were off on another side-trip involving full-screen video of “a chat” with the driver discussing his new sponsorship from Sears Auto Center. I understand this segment was to help recognize the sponsor, but wouldn’t it have been more meaningful to show the sponsored car racing on the track with an audio clip from the driver or even use of the split-screen?

When TV returned from their next break, we again saw that a car had spun and brought out the caution. There was a quick clip of many cars pitting and a highlight of the pit stop by McFarland’s team where they changed tires. This made for a nice opportunity to the announcers explaining some changes in pit stop rules for this season.

The next shot we saw was of empty race track and eventually the field, which had restarted, entering the frame. Interesting choice of video there. We were told that rookie Scotty Crockett, who had been the restart leader, apparently had jumped the restart and was penalized and then we were told that Bobby Gill was now the leader.

The scoring “ticker” was added to the screen at this point and it told us that the race was now on lap 74. I’m not sure if it is my satellite signal from DirecTV or what, but the video of the races has always seemed very blurry which particularly affects the ability to read the numbers on the ticker. I always thought this was a SPEED problem, but the same blurriness was present in this race on the VERSUS network. I know that DirecTV does “compress” the signal on many channels and can only assume SPEED and VERSUS are two of them. This is unfortunate for the race fans.

The ticker on this season’s VERSUS package is much better that the one used on SPEED. Last season, a viewer could barely see two driver names at once and they were scrolling by way too fast. The VERSUS ticker showed as many as four drivers at once, was slower and easier to follow. It is a big improvement. One negative about the ticker was it’s placement on the screen. It was very far down the screen, nearly covering up some of the video of racing being shown behind it. Moving it up to the top of the screen could really add to the improvement already shown.

The cameras next focused on the battle for 7th-10th on the track and we saw some good footage of the previous leader, Ritch, getting a bit out of shape when trying to make a pass. Scott Sutherland told us that Gordon had now completed both his pit stops for tires and fuel which put him in a good position since others still probably needed to make their second stop. This was good information.

The next segment included a long stretch of race coverage first featuring racing in the top 10 involving Ritch, Gordon, Holman, Day, Hawkins, and leader, Gill. There was also some good coverage of drivers racing hard further back in the field, highlighting some of the rookies, such as Michael Phelps, Drew Herring, and Hunter Robbins, with the announcers giving us some background information of them as well. This was very interesting. The cameras also caught the rear panel flying off the Silas car to bring out the next caution. There was a replay of this incident which happened right in the middle of a pack of cars, with Rick Benjamin asking if the car might have received contact from the 22 car. Before they broke for commercial, we saw McFarland on pit road to take on fuel.

TV returned for the next restart, showing that Gordon had now cycled to the lead of the race, with Joey Coulter running second. In the mix up front were the 55 and 96 cars. Benjamin told us that Woody Howard (55) was “a couple of laps down” and that Wade Day (96) had a cut tire early so he wasn’t on the lead lap either. It would’ve been nice to also know why Howard had lost laps.

We had a graphic telling us that Gordon was the halfway leader and the announcers explained that there had been three lead changes in the race so far. This brief “Halfway Recap” was excellent and didn’t detract from current racing as so many of the recaps did last year. Don Satterfield was shown slow on the track and we were told he looked to have a tire down with the announcers speculating this was a result of earlier contact, but that the race would stay green.

We saw some good zoomed out shots to highlight Bayne battling Coulter for second and other cars racing in the top 10. I always enjoy the zoomed out shots, which is something other TV networks neglect to do these days. No one wants to see one car running alone on the track when simply zooming out would show many cars racing for position. We eventually saw Bayne get into the back of Coulter to take over the second position and Ritch move to third. Unfortunately, the producer decided to take another detour from racing to do a full-screen feature on Ritch’s new paint scheme. While I appreciate the focus on his “Racing for Veterans” logo, again, this could’ve easily have been done in a split screen – especially since the paint scheme wasn’t even shown, just an interview the driver.

After just a few seconds back with race coverage, we went to another full screen human interest story showing Day’s helmet. It sometimes seems like the producer thinks the viewers will lose interest if he focuses on racing too long and feels the need to show these features. Human interest stories are fine, but even casual viewers would be more compelled to tune in next week if the fine racing the USAR series produces was featured more prominently.

When TV returned from it’s next break, Day was shown and Benjamin told us he got his lap back during “this last caution.” What caution? As the field restarted, we saw that Ritch had a problem and then were told that Frank Deiny, Jr. spun after contact from Coulter, and the camera panned back to catch Sattlerfield spinning at the end of the wreck. When a replay was shown, we saw that Gill had some hood damage from the field stacking up when Ritch did not get up to speed. There was also another replay with Gill being highlighted to show how he got into the back of someone.

On the next restart, we saw that Howard, Silas, and John Gibson had make contact and spun and the announcers pointed out it looked like Satterfield got his car stopped just in time. There was a replay of this wreck, but it was the same distant shot that we saw the first time. Again, this just didn’t seem worth wasting time to show when you really couldn’t see how the wreck started any way.

We then saw Howard inspecting the damage to his car and were told that Ritch took his car behind the wall and the driver said he thought he broke an axle. We also saw the 13 team making repairs to Gibson’s car on pit road. This was all good follow-up to the incidents on track.

Benjamin told us that they would be “defining some terminology for the fans” this season. Then Sutherland did a feature on the effect of low air pressure on the sidewalls of tires and the recommended pressures from BFGoodrich. Not sure what terminology they were defining there, but it was an informative feature.

Next we saw them pushing Matt Lofton’s car behind the wall with rear damage. The announcers told us he was “done for the night.” Again, I’m sure not quite sure when he received that damage, but I appreciate hearing when any car retires from the race.

While the field remained under caution, there was an interview with Gill’s crew chief, Jamie Mosley, asking if he still “had a chance” with the hood damage he had. We also had an interview with Woody Howard whom we were told was also finished for the night. Woody finally solved the mystery as to why he lost two laps earlier, saying they had a loose tire under green and had to make an unscheduled stop to fix it.

On the lap 145 restart, we saw a lot of close action between the top ten cars and excellent coverage of the battle between McFarland and Gordon for the lead along with the battle between Holman and Bayne for 4th place. Unfortunately, the camera kept bouncing back and forth between the two battles and it seemed like the director cut away just as a pass would be made. This would’ve been a prime opportunity to use a split screen if separate footage actually existed of the two battles. Still, you certainly got a good feel for the two battles going on at the same time – very similar to if you were watching live at the track.

Right after McFarland took the lead, there was the ‘Lucas Oil Race Recap’. I understand this is a required sponsored bit, but why include a pass for the lead which just occurred a minute before? When they returned to the “live” action at lap 174, McFarland had begun to smoke and the cameras did a good job of showing cars getting by him and then the pile-up when he slowed dramatically collecting Coulter and Gill. When they returned from commercial, there were some good replays showing what actually happened. Sutherland pointed out that Coulter’s hood was popping up before the wreck and suggested this may have prevented him from seeing McFarland slowing down. Great slow-motion replay highlighting Coulter’s car as well. It was great to see interviews of Coulter, McFarland and Gill afterwards as well.

When the race restarted with 9 laps to go, there wasn’t really a lot of action on the track and the producer used the time to present information on the next live race and the next TV broadcast. They gave us an update on the lead Gordon had and they showed some close racing among the top three cars near the end. We got to see the top 10 cars cross the line at the end of the race and then a nice shot of Gordon’s pit crew celebrating in the pits, followed by a verbal rundown of the top 5 finishers. There was a nice shot of Benny doing burnouts and a Polish victory lap with the checkered flag, including an interview over the radio with him during this time. They showed a graphic of the final finishing order before the interview with the winner in Victory Lane.

There was also an interview with Matt Hawkins who finished in second place and James Buescher in third. There was a graphic of the points standings down to 10th position, with the announcers pointing out that Hawkins would lead the Southern Division points since Gordon is a Northern Driver. As the credits rolled, there were some nice highlights from the race and a live shot of Benny celebrating with his Mother.

Overall, this was a good broadcast for Hallbrook Productions. I know I was critical about a lot of things, but I also saw a lot of things that I thought the production group did very well. I personally know producer George Martin and the Director, “Hippy” Ulrich, so I know these folks always work hard to produce a good broadcast. I understood that they were under severe constraints last season because their timeslot was reduced by half and I appreciate what huge challenges that had to present to them. Imagine trying to fit a two and a half hour race into a one-hour time frame, with 20 minutes of that time having to be devoted to the required sponsors? Because of these things, I have been reluctant to be critical of what must seem like a thankless job at times. As I said earlier, since the races are being shown on a new network this year, I felt it was good time to provide the production group with some feedback. I hope they will take it in the vein in which it is intended – to be constructive and just give them an idea of what race fans would like to see more of and less of during their broadcasts. We just want the on-screen product to reflect how great we know from personal experience that the USAR races are in person.

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