ESPN race coverage …no surprise, act 2

By Joe Dunn

Three weeks ago, ESPN tried a new ‘Experiment’ in covering the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway, they called it ‘Backseat Drivers’, I did a story about that idea when it was first announced (Back seat drivers, August 11) and expressed my hope that the telecast would in fact ‘Surprise’ me.

Well, the truth is that the telecast did not surprise me, or thousands of serious race fans across the country. ESPN billed the event as a one time deal, and after the race many sighed in relief that this horrendous programming error would never be repeated. I was not surprised, because given the ability to actually call a race that the fans could understand and enjoy is far beyond the crew selected. Of the four guys in the booth that day, only Dale Jarrett has the makings of a decent racing announcer. DJ is a very good ‘color man’ in the booth, and with more experience I have no doubt that he will someday be able to fill his father’s shoes in the booth. But DJ was simply not up to the task, that he tried so hard to accomplish, namely reigning in the other three to make the experiment enjoyable for the fans.

I was not surprised, that Rusty would go off on his I …, I …, I … story telling deals, that added nothing to the telecast other than the ability to hear himself speak. Rusty was a great driver, in his days, and the media loved to talk to Rusty because he was always good for quotes. He enjoyed being the center of attention, and that was just what he was supposed to be. He was a great representative for his team owner and especially for his sponsors. But when he retired from racing and moved to the other side of the microphone and camera, his job also changed. That is the part that seems to have eluded him as he still feels that he needs to be the center of attention. He proved that again at MIS as he attempted to hog the broadcast with his stories that did nothing to help the fans see or understand the actual race.

Ray Evernham was truly one of the most talented crew chiefs in NASCAR when he guided Jeff Gordon to multiple championships. His stint as a team owner started off with a bang, but dwindled, I think mostly because Dodge never was able to bring the winning equipment to the race. His move to the TV booth still awaits a final review as he searches for that comfort zone. He is definitely not ready for prime time as a NASCAR announcer, but we all need to give him time to acclimate himself to the job.

Andy Petree has come a long way in his time in the booth with his ability to explain some of the technical decisions that the teams make. But he still seems to have trouble finding his ‘cue’ to chime in at the right time. His flow has yet to be developed and he is constantly over run by the Rusty machine. I personally think that Andy’s best spot on the show would be to replace Tim Brewer. Brewer was an exceptional crew chief, and he is extremely knowledgeable, but his ability to communicate that information in an entertaining manner for the race fans is seriously lacking.

At MIS, Alan Bestwick did his best to take the broadcast to the infield pit studio and actually provide the viewers with information about the race that was going on at the track. He basically, with the help of the pit reporters, filled in the delayed ‘play by play’ that the fans needed to follow the race. The broadcast director seemed to be at a complete loss as to what camera shots to show, as the four guys in the booth seemed clueless to the word coordination. Without the saving grace of Bestwick and his crew, the broadcast would have been a total washout. It is this writer’s opinion, that the ‘Back seat drivers’ experiment was an all time low in NASCAR race telecast. Having been around NASCAR longer than TV coverage has, I rate this as the worst ever broadcast.

With all that said, I was really glad when I looked back at my notes to see that ESPN executives had stated before the MIS fiasco that this would be a one time only deal. Now we learn this week, that the format will return this Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway for NASCAR Nationwide Series, the Degree V12 300. This time I won’t ask you to tell me, NASCAR or ESPN what you think of the broadcast, I will simply advise you to get your radios tuned to PRN.