I wasn't at the racetrack for the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, which meant I sat at home and watched on TV, sharing the view of the average race fan.
Though I often hear complaints about the TV coverage – and I mean often – I can't really relate to those concerns as much as I would like to.
At the track, my view isn't limited to what the producer decides to show, I don't have to put up with commercials and I don't have to listen to analysts tell me what's going on.
So being stuck at home on my couch for two weeks was obviously quite a change.
Before we go any further, here's my setup: I don't have an HD television yet, no satellite dish for DirecTV HotPass and no subscription to NASCAR.com's TrackPass. When I'm not at the track, I have to rely on the broadcast itself, Twitter and Sprint Cup Mobile on my older model BlackBerry (which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't).
First up in the two-week stretch was watching the Kansas race on FOX, which turned out to be very discouraging – just as I had felt last summer when I watched the Chicagoland race on TV. The primary culprit in ruining the viewing experience was, of course, commercials.
It's easy to sit here and say, "There are too many commercials!" Well, duh. Perhaps that's because any amount of commercials feels like too many when there's green-flag racing going on.
Cutting to a commercial under the green flag is like attending a live theatre production and having the curtain close in the middle of the performance, then open again after the actors have already moved to the next scene.
You have no idea what you're missing during the commercial break – except for Twitter, which is useful but also makes it worse. As a viewer, it feels completely helpless to read, "Whoa! Car in the wall! Caution!" on Twitter while watching the insufferable AT&T commercial where the woman clobbers a phone displaying a spider picture for the 100th time.
And really, when that feeling of frustration is repeated over and over and over again, it's very troublesome for a viewer trying to follow the action. Commercials remain the No. 1 reason NASCAR broadcasts are hard to watch.
Why the viewing experience all revolves around commercials
Fans, of course, also complain about everything from the commentators themselves to the camera angles to the lack of information about their favorite drivers. But I would argue that none of those things is enough to make an avid NASCAR fan turn off their television and go do something else.
Take the NFL, for example. I'm a big Denver Broncos fan, and sometimes CBS will stick an annoying broadcaster in the booth for a Broncos game. I might mutter, "Oh, shut the heck up!" if they say something I don't like. I might get upset if they miss a replay. I might want more information about a player on my fantasy team.
But am I going to just decide to turn the TV off because I don't like the broadcast? Of course not. I'd miss the game!
If you're passionate about a sport, you'll put up with almost anything. Missing the action, though, remains frustrating and unacceptable – and that's what's happening in NASCAR.
I can't think of any other sport that cuts away from the game action while it's happening. And as a viewer, it's still very difficult to accept. People mark off a precious four hours of their Sunday afternoon to watch the race, and when they can't see what's happening, they get upset. I don't blame them one bit.
But as we all know, these TV networks aren't broadcasting NASCAR for charity or public service. They're doing it to make a boatload of money.
TV is a business, and FOX/TNT/ESPN paid a combined $4.5 billion – BILLION! – for the rights to televise NASCAR races. How do they earn that money back? Commercials, commercials, commercials.
Still, there are a lot of smart people in the NASCAR industry, and you would think someone would figure out that if there were fewer commercials – or a way to show ads while the race was actually going on – it would make the races more watchable. And if the races were more watchable, more people would tune in, the ratings would increase and the networks could charge more money for the commercials. Everybody wins.
Fortunately, there are ways around the commercials that already exist; it's just that they're not being implemented on a season-long basis. The concepts have been invented, but they aren't being put to full use yet.
Side-by-side commercials, RaceBuddy are viable solutions
ESPN announced it would use side-by-side ads in the last half of every Chase race this season, which is proof it can be done. So why can't it be used in the last half of every race – or the entirety of every race?
Because the advertisers aren't on board yet. They don't want to pay full price for half of the screen; they want your undivided attention. And the networks don't want to take less money, of course, so progress is hard to find.
ESPN's decision for the Chase is an important step, and hopefully a positive reception for the concept will lead to further benefits for the viewer.
What needs to happen is when you see advertisers participating in the side-by-side commercials, let them know how much you appreciate it. We all know how loyal NASCAR fans can be – shopping at Lowe's if you're a Jimmie Johnson fan, buying Red Bull because you're a Kasey Kahne fan (even if you don't drink it) – so extend that loyalty to these advertisers in order to encourage them to keep it up.
If Sprint buys a bunch of the side-by-side ads, tweet @Sprint and tell them you appreciate it. If it's Pizza Hut, leave a message on Pizza Hut's Facebook page telling them you just ordered an extra large with pepperoni in recognition of their fan-friendly move. That stuff gets noticed by companies, and it leads to changes.
But even if networks can never figure out how to do side-by-side commercials with the race action, the wave of the future is an online component to the races.
"RaceBuddy" on NASCAR.com is the best, most innovative tool for NASCAR fans to follow the races. It's free and it's absolutely awesome; unfortunately, it's only available for six races per season.
If you haven't used RaceBuddy, you need to. It's a window that pops out from the NASCAR.com site and is filled with various video feeds – cameras focused on battles for position, pit road, the backstretch, various in-car views and more. There's even an amazing 360-degree feed from atop a pit box that allows you to move the view around wherever you want.
I used RaceBuddy extensively during Sunday's Pocono broadcast on TNT, and an amazing thing happened – I didn't care about the number of commercials. Not one bit.
Instead, every time TNT went to a commercial break, I just opened up a "battle cam" feed on RaceBuddy and continued to watch the race action, live. Sometimes, it was even better than watching on TV because I could pick my own view.
The problem is, RaceBuddy is only available for TNT's short, six-race portion of the NASCAR schedule. TNT and NASCAR.com are both owned by Turner, and NASCAR.com has the exclusive online rights for NASCAR.
And because of complicated elements like politics and red tape and seemingly immovable business forces, RaceBuddy isn't available while the races are on FOX or ESPN; nor can FOXSports.com or ESPN.com make their own RaceBuddy-type application.
Eventually, though, it'll happen. Maybe not this year or next year, but it will happen. NASCAR will find a way, contractually, to make these video feeds available for the entire race in every event of the season.
And when it does, commercials will no longer be an obstacle standing between NASCAR and the fans who want so desperately to simply watch the race without interruption.