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Sunday, August 11, 2013

SEE YA, SPEED

I think it was back in the early 1990s. Paul Page and I were talking about various TV topics and, somehow, the question came up: Could there be an all-auto racing channel?

I think we both thought NO, mainly because the overall fan base, while large, was broken down into too many sub-niches. Page, as I remember, said he thought an all-golf channel might work, though.

Not that many years later, along came SpeedVision. I found it on my DirecTV dish and loved it: Brock Yates, Leon Mandel with a TV version of AutoWeek, Le Mans, classic Formula One races and other goodies. In a way it was too raw, too pure and that made it too good to be true. Sure enough, the programming evolved over the years, and the name changed to Speed when it came under Fox ownership. It will end Aug. 16 and the network will be transformed into Fox Sports 1.

Motorsports -- make that NASCAR -- will continue to be an important programming element, especially in light of the new TV contract Fox has done with our friends in Daytona Beach. Gone, though, will be Speed Center and Dave Despain's Wind Tunnel.

Speed, maybe surprisingly, never got a consistent grasp on a hard-news show. I never thought SC got traction on that front. And a very surprising number of its microphone-holders never learned how to ask a MEANINGFUL question. (That's Reporting 101 and something I hope FS1 producers will deal with, starting with Hermie Sadler.) There were The Big Mouths dressed in Empty Suits, Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer. And the true embarrassment of Rutledge Wood, who single-handedly lowered-the-bar of professional standards for everyone else holding a mike. As for WT, I well remember when it debuted late on a Friday night for 30 minutes. That quickly grew into an hour. At its zenith, WT was on for two hours Sunday nights and then another hour Monday-thru-Thursday. When I did PR for Robby Gordon's 2004 Indy 500 effort, we officially announced his attempt at "The Double" on WT. I had Sam Schmidt out on Indy's pit road late one Sunday night in 1995 for a WT chat.

Despain guided the show through quite a few solid interviews and memorable debates, including those between Robin Miller and Ed Hinton. The whole idea of WT was viewer participation and the quality of those comments ranged from stupid to superb. Krista Voda became a star on Speed and her career survived an embarrassing guest-host appearance, which began with her explaining how Despain's bathroom posture was different from hers. (A multi-Emmy Award winning sports announcer told me she should have been fired for that.) There are ways to end a run and it's been disturbing to me to see the mail-it-in final year of what, in some ways, was a landmark show.

Speed was at its best in live race coverage and gave us a chance to see events that likely wouldn't have had a TV outlet. (Oh, for those years of live Knoxville Nationals.) Those who complained it became the de facto NASCAR Network simply ignored the business realities of the overall Fox contract and the fact that NASCAR became where the money -- and audience -- were. Speed also did well with some of its specials, such as Despain's On Assignment productions, and documentaries, such as the one about Hendrick Motorsports that ran last year. Speed was at its worst in the alternative weeknight shows it tried to develop, with the Michael Waltrip co-hosted "talent" competition the all-time low.

Something I've certainly appreciated, and has been good for Speed, has been Megan Englehart's excellent media relations work.

For many, Speed going to black is sad. It's fair to debate what its demise says about the health of the overall racing, motorsports and automotive industries. Meanwhile, Paul Page (who is doing some Sportbike and Superbike events for CBS Sports' cable channel), was right about a golf channel -- The Golf Channel -- succeeding.

Beside Fox Sports 1 (which, with FS2, which was Fuel, will be where you'll find the United SportsCar Series), NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) and CBS Sports' less-visible cable channel have become home to various racing properties. As of now, ESPN will only have NHRA come 2015.

Thanks to all who made a professional effort over the years. See ya, Speed.

[ more next Monday . . . ]