The Diary Of A TV-Watching NASCAR Writer

DAYTONA BEACH FL - FEBRUARY 18: Michael Waltrip driver of the #15 Wounded Warrior Project Toyota celebrates with his brother Darrell in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18 2011 in Daytona Beach Florida. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

A double-dose of Waltrips present a major conflict of interest that FOX is choosing to ignore.

Dear Diary,

Hi. Remember me? The last time we communicated, I was in third grade. I wrote to you about learning cursive in school. But you never wrote back. That hurt, so I gave up.

Anyway, after watching Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on FOX, I felt like writing to you again. You see, Mrs. Diary (Or is it Miss? Not trying to pry into your personal life; just asking), I have a job now that allows me to attend the vast majority of NASCAR races in person.

But there are some races I skip, and the Kansas Speedway race was the first one I've watched from home this season. I assume you didn't watch it – since diaries don't have eyes – so I wanted to let you know what the experience was like. You've always been a good listener, so here goes.

Overall, watching the race at home reminded me how I'm spoiled by being able to see it with my own eyes on a weekly basis. At the track, I control my own viewing destiny; at home, the race director in a TV truck shows me what he thinks is important.

Unfortunately, the race director also has to show me a few lots of commercials. I know that's how NASCAR broadcasts have always been – and it's the same whether it's FOX, TNT or ESPN – but being subjected to commercials during live action feels like the most frustrating experience a viewer can have.

It's like watching a movie and getting into the story, but then someone blindfolds you and mutes the sound for a few minutes – right in the middle of it! Except during NASCAR races, the images and sounds of the race are replaced by annoying AT&T ads about things being so 29 seconds ago.

Really? I'll tell you what was so 29 seconds ago: The race for the lead we just missed while the broadcast was showing an AT&T commercial!

Now, I know commercials interrupting NASCAR races are nothing new. But here's what I found troublesome about FOX's broadcast in particular: For three hours, everything seemed like a commercial – even during the race.

When ads weren't interrupting the race, commentator Darrell Waltrip was referring to Martin Truex Jr. as "NAPA Know How" instead of his name or roving reporter Jeff Hammond was doing a report from the new casino to talk about the great new stores and restaurants around the track.

One time, FOX came back from a series of commercials to do an "AT&T Race Break" during the green flag. A race break? What do they call the three minutes of ads that just aired?

From start to finish, it seemed like FOX's broadcast was one big informercial: They were always promoting or selling something. Even in the pre-race show, when FOX aired a piece about Clint Bowyer's trip to a baseball game to throw out the first pitch, it had the driver twice tell viewers the Major League Baseball All-Star Game was going to be aired on FOX this summer.

The producers even wrote a line for Bowyer in which he said, "That's a pretty shameless plug, guys."

But FOX revels in that kind of stuff. All the production elements feel over the top, loud and silly. I think the people in charge believe that translates to "fun," but it doesn't.

Producers don't need to play rock music over Dick Berggren's pit report in an attempt to attract the 18-35-year-old male demographic. I'm a 31-year-old male, and that approach doesn't appeal to me. Even if the race is uneventful (like the past two have been), just show me the race.

It's a shame, because the all the bells and whistles overshadow the quality work being done by those who really do just want to talk about the race: The classy Mike Joy, observant former crew chief Larry McReynolds and FOX's team of solid pit reporters who always have something to contribute.

And for as much crap as Darrell Waltrip gets, the guy has some very relevant comments when he drops the sponsor-speak. I know it's a business, but why do we have to be constantly bombarded? There has to be a balance.

All that aside, there was one thing about FOX's broadcast which was particularly outrageous: The role of newly hired analyst Michael Waltrip.

In person, Waltrip is a nice guy. He's not as effusive and energetic in real life as his TV persona, but he's often pleasant and likable nonetheless. But on TV, Waltrip plays the role of a goofy salesman who tries to promote his Michael Waltrip Racing team and its sponsors in every way possible.

And let's be honest, Diary: Waltrip is smart for taking advantage of the opportunity. Just this weekend, sponsor 5-Hour Energy expanded its funding of MWR and cited unexpectedly high TV exposure as a primary factor.

What Waltrip is doing for his sponsors works. It is an effective way to boost his organization.

But FOX should have never, ever hired Waltrip to be in that position. He cannot be viewed as a credible analyst when asked to analyze his own race teams. Even if his opinion is valid and Waltrip is stating what he really believes, the people watching him don't know when he's sugar-coating something or truly being honest.

At the end of FOX's broadcast on Sunday, studio host Chris Myers said to Waltrip, "We'll take away your owner hat and (have you) play the analyst role here," then asked him to critique the performance of runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and the decisions of the people Waltrip hired!

"In Martin Truex's defense, he had the car out front all day long," Waltrip said. "How do you work on the car that's out front?"

Does FOX really think fans can't see through this? Waltrip's role on FOX is the ultimate conflict of interest: A team owner being paid to talk about his own drivers, which thereby gives his team an advantage with sponsors.

It's incredible this is being allowed to happen, but FOX clearly does not care – nor does ESPN, who has employed team owner Brad Daugherty as an analyst for years.

On that note, Diary, I think that kind of sums up the problem so many fans seem to have with NASCAR race coverage across FOX, TNT and ESPN.

There's a "You'll take what we give you" culture that pervades the broadcasts, and whether it's excessive commercials or commentators with an agenda, the TV networks often don't seem to care about what fans really want.

The broadcasters know they have a monopoly on a product viewers can't live without (even though they make idle threats to stop watching), and so there's no true incentive to change.

It's frustrating to try and watch NASCAR with all those factors getting in the way of just enjoying the race, but I'm lucky – I'll be at the track for the next couple months before I have to rely on TV again.

I sure feel bad for the race fans who don't have that luxury, though. But since you're my Diary, I know that'll be our little secret.

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