A Tale of Two Races
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and extend our warm wishes to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR on this sunny and hot day in the hills of North Georgia. Because of spending the first part of the week with the Motor Vehicle Bureau… needing to renew both driver’s license and registration… in two different locations nowhere near each other, that ate up the best part of two days and I got scrap-doodle written this week. What follows is an article that appeared on Insider Racing News in the spring of 2006. It is presented as written, and in that time frame. First up, let me wish everyone a very Happy Fourth of July and Happy Birthday America!
Last Saturday’s race in Richmond meant that there was no Cup race (Or Busch race or Truck race) on Sunday, so I decided to amuse myself with other pursuits and like every devoted race fan, I watched a race. What else? Your writer has the advantage of owning a quite comprehensive library of Cup races, dating back to 1986, so when the drivers and crews take a break, it’s time to pick a random race and take a walk down Memory Lane for a bit. Now, we all have some weaknesses, and if left to my preference, this old gal would always pick from that first cabinet, where the oldest races live. Therefore, that cabinet remained locked and the race was picked from the center cabinet, the 1997 Bristol night race in August. (No, there was no cheating; it really was a random draw)
It occurs to me much too late that I could have written a race report on the race and shared it with my gentle readers, but obviously, that didn’t happen. Kenny Wallace (yes, Kenny…not Rusty) started on the pole, flanked by Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett won the race, his first win on a short track. The race was marred just past halfway by a mean looking crash that saw David Green ride the outside wall, driver’s door down, for about a straightaway before flipping and ending up back on his wheels. Cars went flying everywhere, blocking the entire track for a time, and the red flag flew for about 19 minutes. It was Bristol.
Yes, it was Bristol, but several things struck me as I watched the nine-year old race. Having just watched Richmond the night before, it seemed almost odd that in the Bristol race, cautions were not abundant (12) and not one was called for a single-car spin without damage. Matching that against the several seemingly harmless spins that brought out the yellow flag on Saturday, I began to wonder why there was such a marked difference in that policy between then and now. This wasn’t a race from the dark ages; it was only from 1997 and I’m quite sure that almost all of you had already been born by that time.
Along with the lack of reasonless cautions, there was a definite difference in the number of cars remaining on the lead lap at the end of the respective races. In the Bristol race, only nine cars were on the lead lap at the checkers, while at Richmond there were fourteen, and would have been sixteen but for those two quick cautions at the end that left Jeff Burton a lap down and Brian Vickers in the garage. With the exception of Phoenix, where only ten drivers remained, that is the lowest count of the 2006 season, with most races showing twenty or more.
Okay, I think a few of you are getting ahead of me. Sure, it’s entirely plausible that more drivers are on the lead lap at the end of races today because of that senseless little thing we know as the “Lucky dog rule.” But wait… that came into existence to replace racing back to the line when the yellow flag flew. Indeed, in the 1997 Bristol race, they were still racing back to the line, but evidently not as many drivers gained a lap back in that fashion as they are doing with the good ol’ Lucky Dog, even with good teamwork taken into the equation.
Gentle readers, would it be a stretch of anyone’s imagination to think that in the minds of the master race promoters that call themselves NASCAR, more drivers on the lead lap equals at least the appearance of better competition, which in turn equals more money in the coffers? Always follow the money trail; it will never let you down. That brings us to the second half of my bemusement, the unnecessary cautions. Would NASCAR be crass enough to increase the number of cautions in a race merely to put more cars back on the lead lap? (Harmless spins ~ mystery debris) If in their collective mind that means the cash register rings more often, you can bank on it! (Pun intended)
This writer is a purist that has never cared for the Lucky Dog giveaway system because earning that lap back seems so much more sporting. It took a long while for the real explanation to penetrate the cranium and finally invade the grey cells. Of course! It’s all about the money. Isn’t it always about the money?
There was another glaring difference between the two races… and that was the TV coverage. Please, don’t get ahead of me here. The Bristol race was covered by ESPN, but gentle readers, contrary to what you might hear from the old guard, ESPN was not perfect. TNN (The Nashville Network in those days) came into the race broadcast game in 1990 because fans were fed up with ESPN’s growing habit of delivering races on tape, not live. (For such captivating programming as the live NFL Draft… or watching grass grow)
In this particular race, we heard no invocation or National Anthem, only “Gentlemen, start your engines” and the race lineup. There are pros and cons to that. This race fan loves hearing the opening prayer and the Anthem; it makes the home viewer feel a part of the crowd at the track. The length of the pre-race show on the other hand was only a sensible ten minutes or so, instead of thirty to forty minutes of inane prattling or (shudders) in some cases over an hour of it. One has to think that somewhere, there must be a happy medium.
The post-race show was almost non-existent from ESPN, only a quick winner interview. I suspect that because of the red flag, the allotted time for racing had been exceeded and they were in a hurry to get to Sport Center, so someone else could tell us about the race. I have to give kudos to the reigning networks on this point. Even when the race runs into the timeslot for “Cops” reruns, they do take us to Victory Lane and we see the initial interviews with the top five or so finishers.
That brings us to the vast difference in actual race coverage between the two races and the two networks broadcasting that coverage. Friends, there really is no fair comparison…it was like being in two different worlds. Delivering the commentary on the Bristol race was Bob Jenkins, a consummate and extremely professional sports broadcaster that has covered many forms of racing throughout his stellar career.
Along with Jenkins in the broadcast booth, as most of you will remember, were two past Champions of the Cup Series, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons. When Jarrett entered the world of broadcasting, he came to it with a background of training from the Dale Carnegie School for public speaking; he was more than a Cup Champion, he was a perfectionist. To my knowledge, Benny Parsons claimed no such training, but was a knowledgeable race driver, with information to add to the description of the races.
Did she say “Description?” Yes, she did! I saw something on Sunday I’d almost forgotten over the past six years with FOX and NBC. During that Bristol race, almost all of the commentary was led by the camera, which constantly panned the racetrack and paused when the camera found something interesting to watch. Then, the commentators would discuss what or who was on camera and describe what they were seeing. Not once during the entire race did I hear any of the three refer to “What I would have done” or “The way I used to do it.”
Here, we had not one but two past Champions, neither of whom presumed to tell the drivers in the race how to do their job. The conversation that came from that booth was about the race and nothing but the race. It was led by the true professional broadcaster, Jenkins, and highlighted by commentaries from Jarrett and Parsons. In truth, this crew blended in so well that the viewer was almost unaware that there were broadcasters present. They accomplished their appointed purpose, which was to heighten the enjoyment of the race for the viewers at home, and that’s all they did.
In stark contrast, what we saw on Saturday in Richmond (And on a weekly basis) suggests that at FOX, the inmates have taken over the asylum. Mike Joy, bless his heart, is an accomplished sportscaster in his own right, and a true joy to hear calling a race, as he used to do on TNN and other networks. Mike knows the proper way to do it, but is constantly drowned out or just ignored by the loquacious (50 cents for a big word) duo that shares the booth with him.
Now, before you write, let me emphasize that I have a great deal of respect for the accomplishments of Darrell Waltrip on the racetrack, he having posted 84 wins and 3 Championships during his illustrious career at the Cup level. But folks, there is a reason that he was dubbed with the nickname “Jaws,” and it had little or nothing to do with the movie of the same name. The man continues to talk long after silence would have served him better, while the reality of the situation is that no one really cares about how he used to do it or how he would have handled a particular situation. The Cup cars of today are not the big awkward, cumbersome vehicles in which he won Championships; they are aerodynamic marvels, the likes of which he has never driven.
Then we have Larry McReynolds, affectionately known to the racing world as Larry Mac.
Larry was a crew chief by trade, whose drivers include the late Davey Allison, Brett Bodine, Ricky Rudd and of course, he was the crew chief on Dale Earnhardt’s winning car in the Daytona 500 in 1998. Still, none of their accomplishments or lack of them qualifies this pair to be the “professional broadcast journalists” that they joke about being. The contrast between broadcast crews that I saw and heard this weekend is too vast to be ignored. Something has certainly changed, and I’d suggest it’s not for the better.
Last on the list of huge differences… and you knew this was coming… was the amount of race time versus commercial time in each race. No one needs me to tell him what the situation is with commercials on race broadcasts in 2006. They take up considerably more time on the screen than the race does, which just seems wrong to me. Add to the excessive commercial time the time wasted on things such as the “Hollywood Hotel” and the cutaway car and we’re lucky if we see 20 minutes per hour of the actual race.
Let’s look then at the time element on the Bristol race from 1997. The race was taped from Intro through to the rolling of credits at the end, with all commercials removed. The time on the VCR showed a total of two hours and fifty-seven minutes of commercial-free programming. I looked up the race-time of the race, flag to flag, and it was three hours and nineteen minutes. (199 minutes) Deduct that from the time recorded on the VCR, 217 minutes, and you’re left with only 18 minutes difference. In fairness, add twenty minutes to that to allow for the pre-race and post-race shows and it looks as though only 38 minutes or so was lost to commercials throughout the entire race. Assuming that the programming was in the area of 3.5 hours, my humble math skills make that about eleven minutes out of each hour for commercials, leaving forty-nine minutes of the same hour for racing. I rest my case.
No my friends, when ESPN comes back next year, things won’t return to what they were… or even close. They have to attempt to recoup the $billions paid to NASCAR for the privilege of broadcasting the races, and the only method of doing that is selling commercial time during the race. The best thing the fans at home could hope for is that ESPN/ABC might see the plausibility of broadcasting races and commercials on a split screen. I’ve already read somewhere that we’ll not be seeing the dual broadcast (simulcast) that ESPN/ESPN2 have done for IRL.
Sadly, advertisers seem to feel that the split screen somehow diminishes their chances of coming into our living rooms to peddle their products. Someone should tell them that when the commercials come on, it’s known as snack time or potty break time throughout North America. No one is watching the commercials! What makes perfect sense to me is that if the race were still on the screen, I’d be far more reluctant to leave for the kitchen, computer room or other rooms about the house unless the need was urgent, and I’m betting it’s the same with you. With split screen, we’d be a captive audience. Well, maybe someday, someone will figure that out. For today, I only wanted to share what I hope has been a fair and unbiased comparison between two races, nine years apart.
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout, and before anyone tells me this isn’t “Country”, think about it. No, it’s not all performed by folks with Southern accents, but it’s all about OUR COUNTRY… America! God bless and keep her now and forever!
GOD BLESS AMERICA!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!