The Problem With NASCAR TV Coverage
I'm not a broadcaster. I don't work in TV and I don't have access to any surveys or insights that can explain executive-level or coverage choices made by networks. I'm a guy who sits on his couch and watches racing. That's my weekend side hustle, and I take it very seriously.
During NASCAR's Clash at the Coliseum, its exhibition race in Los Angeles on a temporary quarter-mile track inside a football stadium, I realized something that's been driving me crazy: the overall strategy that the networks employ to cover racing.
Racing coverage used to be a simple thing, and still can be–NBC's coverage of IndyCar other than the 500 and IMSA other than long enduros, for example. Coverage through the entirety of the event, from pre-race to action to post-race is done by a crew of six or so people, that's it. It's straightforward and makes a lot of sense.
Problem is, IndyCar and IMSA might not be the best examples. The ratings aren't the highest and the media rights aren't the most expensive, so the level of investment into the coverage won't be at the level of bigger sports. NASCAR is still more popular in America than open-wheel racing, so Fox and NBC spend a lot of money and seem to take their coverage strategy from football. They invested a lot of money in acquiring NASCAR, so these networks just throw people at it. There's something like 36 people that can be on camera at any one time during a NASCAR race weekend. Sure, 36 sounds like an exaggerated number, and it is, but it feels real.
There's a pre-race group. Some of those pre-race people are then in the booth during the race. But the other pre-race people stick around and sometimes are there after commercial breaks. There are lifestyle reporters who only seem to participate in pre-taped packages with drivers. There's a post race group. There are circling members of the extended NASCAR universe that appear on other shows but may or may not appear on race day coverage. And then there are guests who come into the booth, not for interviews, but to help call the race. Understand? I'll focus on the booth, since I tend to tune out during the pre-race coverage and eat chips instead.
Fox has a three-person booth that calls the races. For so long, that team was Mike Joy, who is one of the finest racing announcers out there, Larry McReynolds, a championship winning crew chief, and Darrell Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR champ. It was the ideal lineup, someone who can call the action, an analyst who knows strategy, and an analyst who understands race craft. Plus the chemistry was great. Things changed, though, mostly out of necessity. McReynolds's role at the network changed and he was replaced in the booth by Jeff Gordon. Then Darrell Waltrip retired from the job, and Clint Bowyer joined when he retired from driving. When Gordon retired, that left Bowyer and Joy alone. To bring it back to three people, Fox brought in guests.
For the Clash, the guest was Tony Stewart. Stewart has great insights since he's one of the most successful drivers of all time, but he's also a current NASCAR team owner with four cars in the race. At one point, during a lull in the conversation, Stewart said something to the effect of "Nobody is talking about Ryan Preece, he's coming through the field and doing a great job." Preece drives for Stewart.
Next year, Fox will replace the guests with current Stewart-Haas driver Kevin Harvick, who is retiring after the 2023 season. Harvick is a series champ and is great in front of the camera, so he should be a welcome addition. But there will still be no crew chief in the booth, and both of the former racers up there will have retired from the same team.
I'm also not a director or cameraman, none of us at R&T are. Still, I can't help but shout at the TV when a close up shot is held too long or something happens on track and the director's mind is elsewhere, showing a battle for 17th instead of something that has real implications on the race for the win.
NBC hasn't done a NASCAR broadcast yet this year, mainly because Fox has only done one and they don't take over until June, but they won't be offering a radical change. NBC's approach was to just throw more people in the booth. During races, you have a four-man crew: Rick Allen does play-by-play, then former drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton, along with Jr.'s former crew chief Steve Letarte.
The problem? I can't tell Earnhardt, Burton, or Letarte's voices apart. Seriously. Put on a blindfold and listen to an old broadcast. It could all be one person, it could all be Frank Caliendo (remember Frank Caliendo?) doing an impression of someone who likes NASCAR. I have mistaken who was speaking when they were off camera or I was in another room countless times.
The solution? Fewer people. Tighten it all up. And get them from different sources, different backgrounds. We don't need one booth made of Stewart-Haas employees and another made of Hendrick's people. A tight team with good chemistry can do wonders for racing coverage. Just look at the Indy 500 in the Eighties and Nineties; Paul Page, Bobby Unser, and Sam Posey did it all, and they were fantastic at it. A throwback approach like that applied to some of these big races would be a welcome change, and it'd save Fox and NBC money. That'll likely be music to their ears, not just mine.
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