Monday, May 6, 2013

Too much of anything...

Peter Townshend of The Who once wrote, "Too much of anything, is too much for me..." There's a good reason why that song crossed my mind tonight.

While trying not to slip into catatonia during eight hours of Fox Sports rain-lengthened coverage of the seven-hour NASCAR Sprint Cup enduro at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend, I had plenty of time to really think about how Fox presents America’s most popular form of motorsports.


The ESPN "glory days of NASCAR Winston Cup" crew. Left to right, pit road reporter Bill Weber, commentator Ned Jarrett, broadcast anchor Bob Jenkins, pit road reporters Jerry Punch and John Kernan, and the late Benny Parsons, commentator.

The Fox entry into NASCAR was jarring to say the least. Where predecessor ESPN had presented the sport respectfully - with a touch of folksiness in the easy banter between NASCAR elder statesmen Benny Parsons and the always dignified Ned Jarrett - Fox took a page from its own burgeoning NFL coverage and ratcheted it up. The focus was on attitude, and the key component of that was the entrenching of Darrell Waltrip as the face of Fox motorsports.

Anyone with a half-serious knowledge of NASCAR knows Darrell Waltrip’s back story, though he never seems to tire of retelling it. After all, he wasn’t known as “Jaws” early in his career for shying away from self-promotion. And Fox takes every chance it gets to show video from Waltrip’s admittedly successful racing career to further bolster his legitimacy.


Darrell Waltrip revives an already-tired NFL gimmick, the Icky Shuffle, in Daytona’s victory lane. Never saw the video? Keep watching Fox - you will!

But there’s no arguing that many viewers find Waltrip’s excitable yokel shtick and occasionally dubious analysis to be polarizing (Google is your friend). A good example arose on Sunday evening, when Waltrip seemed awfully forgiving of the late race move by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in which Stenhouse shoved his way to the high side, attempting to wedge himself into a too-small opening, and thus initiating Big One May 5th Version 2.0. I doubt Kurt Busch - once he turned right-side-up, that is - would agree with Waltrip’s notation that “things just closed up” on Stenhouse. I also doubt that I’m the only viewer who mutes the start of every Fox race to avoid the tired “crew chief” to “driver” banter between Larry McReynolds and Waltrip, let alone the “boogity” gimmick, all of which stoop to a near-hillbilly caricature.

Which makes it all the more curious that Fox thought it was a good idea to draft Darrell’s brother Michael into a nearly-as-prominent on-air position, thus doubling the Waltrip quotient. It’s the equivalent of enduring Terry Bradshaw’s over-the-top NFL antics only to encounter Terry Bradshaw’s brother in the booth for the game. And for that matter, in a sizeable portion of the broadcast’s commercials as well.

More Michael? Sure! No such thing as over-exposure...

While Fox has now taken a “more of the same - much more!” approach, there have been a number of respected crew chefs and drivers who have retired from the sport or reduced their involvement, any one of whom could bring a breath of fresh air and an updated perspective on the sport. NASCAR on Fox could use a reboot after a dozen years, and my sense is that a lot of viewers would welcome such a change.

In the mid-1990s, after one particularly harrowing early lap at Talladega which saw the entire NASCAR Winston Cup field negotiate all four corners at 200 mph in a three-wide formation, a hushed Bob Jenkins solemnly wondered aloud, “Is there any doubt that we are witnessing some of the greatest race car drivers in the world?” What would ol’ D.W. have said? I’m glad the moment was not spoiled by the answer.

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