• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, September 08, 2013

THE MOST CHALLENGING TIME OF THE YEAR

Many fans I know think this is the most exciting time of the racing season: NASCAR's Sprint Cup Chase and NHRA's Countdown quasi-playoffs are about to begin. Elsewhere, in IndyCar, Nationwide, Trucks, the World of Outlaws and so forth, including the Grand-Am and ALMS sports car series competing separately for the last time, seasons are winding down with champions to be determined.

I understand the enthusiasm and passion of that fandom. To me, however, this is the racing industry's most challenging time of year.

The NFL and Big Time college football are back and, have no doubt, football remains America's most popular and dominant sport. Despite its own challenges with concussions and making politically correct rule changes which alter the game in the name of greater player safety. Whether there will be a fan backlash remains to be seen, but certainly, there's no evidence of it yet. The NFL wisely got the head injury issue out of the headlines, for now, with its $765 million legal settlement (paid over a number of years) with former players. Believe me, the NFL can afford it, with estimated annual revenues in the billion$.

NASCAR's best hope to stay in the mainstream media coverage and TV ratings game vs. football is a compelling, dramatic championship run involving more than a Jimmie Johnson runaway. Dale Jr. in the mix would help, but I'm not expecting that.

But it's not just about the actual racing. It's about the storylines -- either real or PR generated -- that can be picked-up by the media and then catch the attention of the public.

Saturday night's Richmond "regular season" finale ended with two controversies. ESPN, in its role of storyteller and news organization, reported one well and completely blew the other.

I'm not sure there can be any argument winner Carl Edwards accelerated too soon on the last restart. Booth analyst Dale Jarrett said it directly: "You can't do that." But there was no penalty and Edwards got to celebrate.

I was at Daytona in July 2001 when NBC debuted as a new NASCAR TV partner. A comment from a member of the NBC production crew was shared with me, this person calling pit reporter Dave Burns "lazy." I took that to mean intellectually, not physically, lazy. I remembered that conversation Saturday night when Burns completely botched the victory lane interview by not pressing the restart issue with Edwards. Nothing could have been more obvious. Nothing was more journalistically necessary. Not doing it was a complete disgrace.

One thing to watch when NBC returns in 2015 is what current ESPN "talent" the network will pick up. Allen Bestwick as the race caller should be a clear choice. But Burns leads the list of those who should not be. I like Dr. Jerry Punch -- he's always been kind to me and is a loyal, genuinely nice man -- but his habit (and Vince Welch's) of referring to interview subjects as "my friend" and other words of affection is outrageously unprofessional. Feel free to cite me an example of a network NFL or baseball sideline reporter doing something like that. It's not acceptable and doesn't do NASCAR any favors.

One of the most meaningful elements of the Richmond telecast always is the post-race interviews with the drivers who either made the Chase, or didn't. Ryan Newman throwing his pit crew under the bus and Kurt Busch nearly in tears were classic examples. As the TV types say, it "made for good television." I was left shaking my head at how unemotional Jeff Gordon seemed -- but it's been one of those seasons for the four-time champion, and I'm guessing he was expecting it.

Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham bailed ESPN out of the journalistic hole dug by Burns in victory lane and the gushy post-race interview introductions by directly taking on the question: Did Clint Bowyer intentionally spin at the end to help Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase? The video and team radio communication evidence made for a strong case. Even so, too often, we've seen former competitors punt on such controversies. Wallace and Evernham went at it head-on. As they should have. Great stuff.

That's the kind of honest reporting and commentary that will be needed over the next 10 weeks to give NASCAR a real foothold as football marches up and down the American sports landscape.

But ESPN should have put on Mike Helton or Robin Pemberton to explain NASCAR's side of the restart non-call as well as Bowyer's Chase-altering loop. Frankly, that was another botch to end the post-race coverage.

P.S. -- For the record, NASCAR did the right thing in denying access to its events to Kelly Heaphy, girlfriend of Truck series driver Mike Skeen. The now infamous Heaphy was the one who slapped Max Papis after the recent Mosport race. In my view, she should have been charged with assault. NASCAR also fined her $2,500 although I'm not sure how it can collect. I invite the likes of Heaphy, who lower the standards of conduct and thus the standards of the entire sport, to stay away -- permanently.

[ more next Monday . . . ]