Posted: 11:35 pm Sunday, June 18th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Being a keyboard naysayer is not hard – it’s what a large part of the internet is. In 2008, my first regular internet writing gig was as a racing coverage critic for Frontstretch.com and I was an audacious 22-year-old. I’m embarrassed to go back and read some of the frank dictums I published about veteran racing reporters and anchors. I would parse my words and write more empathetically and tactically had I been a 31-years-old columnist. I state all of that to say this: something has to change in NASCAR’s television race coverage.
The networks do admirably with the studio shows and analysis. Fans are lucky to have two daily shows covering the sport’s news and producing features and NASCAR Productions supports both shows with rich and copious content. FOX and NBC, frankly, keep the sport afloat with all the time they dedicate to promoting the sport and informing the masses about it. And, most importantly, they bring major cash to the table.
But with all of this said, race day broadcasts seem to get more disappointing as the 2017 season progresses. The action on the track is at least marginally better than in the past few seasons, thanks to stage racing and newer, younger drivers winning. But the broadcasts seem behind the curve, at times. One major element lacking is the sensation of speed and danger. Tight, clean camera angles show and action and follow the cars so well, that the racing looks too polished and docile. This further distances fans watching at home from just how hard the drivers are working and how on-edge the cars are.
A remedy to this complacency is using more in-car cams…but differently than TV uses them now. The roof and rear bumper cams often don’t give enough of the speed sensation. But cameras actually inside the car and pointed out of the front, side, and rear windows do. FOX did this on a few cars at Dover with exhilarating results. But come the next two races – Pocono last week and then Michigan this Sunday – those cameras disappeared.
Classic race broadcasts on ESPN and CBS had in-car cams that actually rode shotgun to the drivers, in the backseat, and sometimes even attached to their helmets. These placements and angles show the vibrations in the car, the working of the steering wheel, and the edginess of the cars around them. Fans need to see this.
Another big problem in the race coverage is communicating the full scope of the race in a timely way to viewers. The announcers in the booth on any network, in any series, seem overly concerned with only what the screen shows. Always relaying to fans what they are seeing is important, but with three-person booth teams, someone should always have their eyes on the track at all times. Sometimes they get so consumed in communicating their thoughts, they miss something very obvious even on the screen. Or they are so concerned with what’s on the screen, they are late to seeing the cause for the yellow flag. For fans following along on Twitter and listening to race control on RaceView, they easily can know about caution flags and what caused them before the announcers say them.
Sometimes the broadcasts are late to the draw on big battles for the lead. Take one that Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. waged, as green flag pit stops wrapped up. The 42 and the 78 waged war on camera before the announcing crew caught up to it. And then as FOX showed a replay of the lead battle, it heated up again and almost changed hands and they were late to that exchange.
Humble Ned Jarrett readily admits that his job on a broadcast and his gift was always to keep up with the entire race. His comrades on the booth – whether Bob Jenkins and Benny Parsons on ESPN or Ken Squier and David Hobbs on CBS – had their own strengths, but they often deferred to Jarrett to keep up with who was on what lap or what car was in what wreck. He was nearly spotless, despite having very little of the conveniences broadcasters have now. Accuracy mattered and it happened.
Radio broadcasts (like the ones I have been a part of on PRN) have to give its listeners the full story, but those tuning in don’t have the visual element to confirm or deny what we’re saying. Fans can hold TV much more accountable, so the standards for execution are higher. The sport absolutely depends on its TV partners. When I cover pit road, I watch much of the race on the screens of the pit crews’ war wagons and so do the crews. The images and stories broadcasts relay shape opinion. And the real, raw excitement they relay keeps fans engaged. As the networks keep grasping at straws to right the sagging ratings, some qualities of the races have sagged. Knowing their importance, bolstering the in-car cams and using the coverage to paint a better picture are two ways to right the ship.