Photo: Chris Owens/ASP, Inc.

TORRES: NBC Has Brought Back an Organic Feel for NASCAR Telecasts

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Motorsports telecasts have been a sore subject of mine, more so this year than ever before. Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage was beyond disappointing, ESPN’s lack of tribute towards the IndyCar Series after 54 years of memories was insulting, and Sky Sports’s Formula One broadcast just doesn’t have that race-day feel like Speed and NBC Sports had for a combined two decades in the United States

It’s gotten to the point that I’ve been irritated on what’s become in racing television that I can hardly find any positives. From constant graphic changes, inaccurate number fonts, and lackluster commentaries, irritation isn’t even the right word to describe my feelings.

This is beyond true with Fox Sports, the once excellent telecast, has now become a forced slap-stick humor, hardly capturing actual lead changes under green, and dare I say, struggling to keep an audience when there’s down time.

In comes NBC Sports, another network fans have grown sore of since their NASCAR return in 2015. Fans haven’t been praising Rick Allen since becoming play-by-play after many felt he was the future of NASCAR television. And of course, the infamous moniker “Nothing But Commercials,” has continued to be an outcry by fans. Fortunately, “Side-By-Side” has been utilized a lot more in the sport, so at least we can see some of the extra action.

After four races, I must say NBC not only has stepped their game up by bringing in Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who’s brought a lot to the table like his racing knowledge and fan friendly approach. They’ve also become the embodiment of what NASCAR’s been missing for a long time, having an organic feel that hasn’t been seen since their first run from 2001-06.

Some may complain about their “unprofessional” look from Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, when Dale Jr., Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte wore old school racing T-shirts, featuring Dick Trickle and Terry Labonte’s No. 94 Sunoco Oldsmobile.

I understand why it’s not the most professional attire for a broadcast because they must have a clean-cut look. I get that, I have a degree in that field. Sometimes, it feels as important to impress the audience than telling them why a certain project is relevant.

However, I appreciate NBC thinking outside the box because its their way of trying to have the trio be one of us for a day. Like they’re having a conversation with us, and simply talking about the race unfolding.

Personally, I haven’t seen this kind of genuine interaction on a telecast since the classic ESPN run from 1981-2000. To be specific, the trio of Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons which was the voice for a lot of fans growing up in the 1990s.

What fans have loved about the trio is the way they called the races and balanced their banters. Jenkins was the best on making incredible calls that excited fans to care about the battle for the win. Jarrett brought his radio experience and transitioned well on television, notably analyzing rule changes and pit strategies just to name a few. Parsons brought comic relief and brought the racing fan side of him, and became one of the most beloved personnel in the sport’s history.

Including Allen, who was a pit reporter at Loudon, the quartet have stepped up their chemistry and made the most of it. Unlike Fox’s eBay pit box, NBC puts their full potential on Letarte’s pit segments, which allows viewers to actually come out of the segment learning quality information. If you have something, utilize it to its full potential instead of just feeling like a prop.

Yeah, Dale Jr.’s “slide job” phrase has run its course for some, but nothing feels forced and all four of their commentary styles has worked. I do feel like they’re one of us, and I admire that. What I also respect about them is not shying away from being vocal on some of the action.

From their first telecast of the season at Chicagoland Speedway, Burton called out Kurt Busch’s frustrating comments about his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick racing him too hard for a Stage 2 win. He simply said, “You’re racing! It’s a stage win, man! You’re racing!”

This is the kind of stuff that made James Hunt legendary on the mic, not having a filter to call out someone and it’s a fare assessment. Although he’s no Hunt or even Paul Tracy, there’s nothing wrong by having an opinion and still be professional. That’s always been Burton, he’s a vocal guy and its telecasts sorely needs one after Larry McReynolds was replaced by Jeff Gordon as color commentator in 2016.

I’m afraid that Fox doesn’t want to push the envelope on the action because it feels a bit more corporate to avoid consequences. Gordon comes to mind because ever since Brad Keselowski accused him for showing favoritism on Hendrick Motorsports in 2016, he’s kept his serious opinions down on the telecast.

Some might not like Burton, but I’ve welcomed his style. Different feel than putting up comedic nonsense like Fox’s “Grid Walk,” which I’d like to say, F1 popularized it with Martin Brundle back in 1997 and doesn’t feel corny. Seriously, racing fans don’t care about rap group Migos or Michael Waltrip’s hindering Martin Truex, Jr.’s car at Michigan.

Enough about commentators, let’s focus on the execution of camera shots. Fox was abysmal all season because they’ve cut away to meaningless shots instead of capturing a race lead. Even missed the battles altogether and we end up furious because fans want action, not feeling empty handed. The production was underwhelming and they lost me as a viewer, and a guy who wants to break into that business.

It doesn’t help that both networks have used generic camera shots, with just one or two unique angles. I wish both telecasts have different shots like they used to in the 2000s. You’ll see the night and day difference on what angles a network used. Now, everyone has to look the same and it’s hurting them.

So far, NBC has been proactive on what’s happening on the track and they don’t cut away because a single-car shot is far important than a great three-car battle for the lead. They’re aware of what’s happening and I applaud them for it.

During rain delays, Fox used to be phenomenal of keeping audiences watching with incredible segments, driver interviews and great banter such as Steve Byrnes not being allowed to find shelter at Texas in 2002. Now, we get a few interviews and show re-runs of 30-minute classic races.

Alex Bowman messing with William Byron’s cap at Dover was the only memorable thing that’s happened during Fox’s rain delay coverage in years. What happened to all the fun?

Sunday’s rain delay broadcast was terrific. Allen, pit reporter Kelli Stavast, and Clint Bowyer kept fans entertaining. We even got an interview from StarCom Racing’s Kyle Weatherman, and got some chuckles because of his last name. Fans never see underfunded teams being interviewed, and they should thank Weatherman for tweeting about it to make it possible.

This is what made rain delays bearable, having those opportunities to show fans that drivers indeed have personalities, and maybe know more about the guys we never get the chance to hear because of the car they’re running and performances.

Fox shouldn’t shun opportunities, and it should be one of their goals next season. Allow the viewers to know other drivers stories.

Television graphics aren’t quite great on either networks per say. Fox has the top-20 scoring pylon on the left screen, and NBC has adopted that format as well. However, NBC shows the scoring pylon mostly during green flag pit stops, and for me, that’s the best time to show it because we’ll know who’s pitting and who’s still on the track.

Back then, their way of indicating viewers that a driver was pitting was highlighting their name in yellow. Technology has come a long way since 2001 that’s for sure.

Fox has kept the scoring pylon, and while I’ve learned to live with it, fans loathe the format. It also falls victim to feeling bland with plain text, but that’s just Fox Sports’ graphic department as a whole. Nothing fancy, just plain boxes and texts with some colors.

ESPN did that scoring pylon graphic during the 1996-97 seasons, except it was laps remaining and only showed the top-10 through car numbers with the names and manufacturer popping up occasionally. It’s nothing new, but in this day in age, we’re so critical on television presentation that it’s inescapable.

As the playoffs draw near, it’s no question NBC Sports has done an exceptional job so far and raised the bar that NASCAR television can be like it used to be. They’ve certainly become the best of the two networks, and if I were Fox, I’d look what they’re doing and step their game up next year because they’re sorely going to need to be impressive to win their audiences back.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. He's also covered Idaho Athletics and high school football as both a writer and videographer. Additionally, he spent 2017 writing several racing columns as an independent journalist. Luis does video and photography, and is a fan of Seattle sports, a music critic and a motivator who wants to impact people's lives.