Monday, December 13, 2010


I was right. I was wrong.

On July 24, 2007, I wrote here about ESPN's return to Big Time NASCAR Cup race coverage after an absence of more than six years. Here's a link to that posting, titled "ESPN's Turn."

I expressed my enthusiasm, but signaled my concerns, based on what I'd seen on what-was-then the Busch series telecasts earlier that season. I admitted a bit of pro-ESPN mindset, based on my own minor role in the network's racing history. I recalled that ESPN's first stint at bringing NASCAR to the nation was a key in building stock car's popularity. I said that the original team of Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett, Dr. Jerry Punch, John Kernan and Bill Weber had the chemistry the 2007 crew lacked. I was glad Punch's loyalty was rewarded. I worried that Allen Bestwick was miscast as a pit reporter. I said Shannon Spake was a solid news reporter. I flashed a warning about NASCAR Now and NASCAR Countdown. I admitted I didn't understand Brad Daugherty's role. I figured Brent Musburger would be harmless and that Suzy Kolber would be fine. I was confident management wouldn't be afraid to make changes as needed.

I was right. I was wrong.

Forget Dale Junior. The biggest disappointment of NASCAR 2010 has been ESPN's continued inability to deliver to racing fans the kind of solid product it has to baseball, NFL and NHRA followers.

The situation is stupefying. Think of the thousands of great decisions that various ESPN managements have had to make over the years to create the juggernaut the network has become. But, quite simply, it hasn't gotten NASCAR right.

My theory is there are two reasons why. First, anyone who has had any dealings with ESPN knows the Powers-That-Be in Bristol, Conn., breathe the rarified-but-arrogant air of uber-success. No less than a dozen ESPN field reporters/producers have told me over the years of their frustrations and the common theme has been "the people in Bristol exist in a different world." And, I've experienced that personally. A few years ago a senior production person lectured me, on a phone call, about how to provide news information for possible use on race cablecasts. When I reviewed the rather lengthy list of exclusive, breaking stories I had delivered on a silver platter to ESPN announcers over the years, so they had the news first, I was told I should not do that. (!) That I should pass on such information only to this person, who would then be the sole decider of what (if anything) to do with such news. (!) Imagine if Ben Bradlee had imposed that rule on Woodward and Bernstein!

Emergency trips to Charlotte, as network biggies did in October, aren't the answer to the near-25 percent collapse of Chase ratings. The answer is for executives to unplug from the Planet Bristol mentality and get in touch with NASCAR Nation.

The second part of my theory has to do with research. ESPN is a research-centric organization, analyzing and re-analyzing, reminding me of Dan Gurney continuing to tinker with his car on the grid until it was time to get in and start the engine. For example, the NHRA producer has told me repeatedly the network has research data proving that there is an viewership-uptick when John Force or Ashley Force Hood are on. (Last week, ESPN released research concluding "cable cutting" -- people canceling cable because they can access programming via the Internet -- is a "very minor" phenomenon.) Well, I don't believe that sort of numbers crunching and audience autopsy can accurately figure out what works and doesn't work with NASCAR fans, who are special in all of sports for their high-octane passion, loyalty and opinions.

I don't need those kind of reports to know the IndyCar-background announcers haven't connected with the stock car crowd. I don't need research to realize there have been too many times when the effort to understand the story and report it hasn't been made. Just because someone works with ESPN doesn't mean he or she is an "expert" and doesn't have to do basic homework. I don't need studies to grasp that fans are more interested in following their individual favorite drivers than gizmos like the failed "Draft Tracker." I don't need anyone to conclude for me that the most profound story of the last few years -- the Business of Racing -- has been superficially covered by reporters with only Twiggy-thin knowledge of what goes on in the Board room.

With the unfortunate ouster of Neil Goldberg, ESPN has to have a new person in charge, and with that needs to come a new, more open-minded, production philosophy. That top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top review also has to include every last NASCAR-related position, from the truck to the booth to the pits to the studio to the roster and utilization of .com contributors. And isn't it about time a large chunk of the network's hosts, who only mention NASCAR when there's a flip or a fight, are "advised" to end the elist attitude and start talking about the LEGITIMATE stories that come out of EVERY race?

Change -- make that Dramatic Change -- is required.

More of the same from ESPN in 2011 isn't acceptable. In fact, that and another winless season from Junior, would be Very Bad News for NASCAR.

My other takeaway from 2010 was the on-going saga of lack of pro-active outreach to media by so-called PR people and the lack of supervision from team owners and sponsor managers.

Especially at a time when maximum Return On Investment to sponsors is a must, for people who are supposed to be publicists to just "hang out" should be considered unacceptable. There are media to meet, story ideas to be sold, relationships to be established.

I join many who appreciate the money and marketing Izod injected into the IndyCar series . . . but it was a mistake to use "Fastest Drivers/Fastest Race in the World" as a promotional and advertising tagline. All that did was bleep-off drag racing fans everywhere -- and that's exactly what I heard from fans of the straight-line sport. Despite Randy Bernard's efforts, that series still is in no position to alienate any potential customers.

If its sponsorship is truly to work over the long-term, Izod will have to find it's own Jim Chapman. The late, great Mr. C would have known public opinion well enough to have NEVER allowed that tagline to see the light of day.

It's the time of year to think Green, the topic of my December "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on Competition

Man of the Year in 2010? Here's one view:

[ God willing, I'll be back in mid-January 2011. Thanks for your interest . . . ]