By and large ESPN2, or as they themselves list it in lower case, espn2 (which, if nothing else, probably speaks volumes about what the network, ABC and Disney itself thinks of the operation), has done a pretty good job of covering the NHRA Full Throttle series. The super-slow-motion shots of dragsters and Funny Cars leaving the starting line provide a view of the action that's impossible to see in person. In-depth pitside interviews have become markedly better since the reporters stopped throwing fat ones right over the plate than even the dimmest drag racer could hit out of the park. Pertinent, pointed questions demanding real thought on the part of the interviewee before he or she spits out a canned answer has made for better television, and that's what we need. The one thing no one in the ESPN family of channels can do is attract more eyeballs to the shows, but as those shows get better one can always hope that word of mouth will help pull in more viewers.
While ESPN can't force people to watch the shows, they could certainly do a lot to help, but they don't. Getting a mention of anything NHRA on Sports Center results in leaps of joy within the offices in Glendora. You would like to think that drag racing would be a regular part of Sports Center, because why wouldn't the flagship station want to help promote programming on its sister station, but it rarely happens. Things are so bad that I can't remember the last time I saw drag racing news on the crawl on any of the ESPN stations, but then again, I don't watch 24/7.
It appears at least likely that in 2012 the broadcast team will be shaken and probably stirred. We may see new faces behind the microphones, and that might also be good for the telecasts. Hopefully, along with the new faces behind the mics will come new people with fresh ideas working in the production areas of the programming. It's desperately needed.
As journalists we're not supposed to have favorites, but I'm not going to lie to you. There are some racers I like and respect more than others, but I try to avoid letting my personal feelings enter into my writing. If someone does a great job in an event, like him or not, I'm going to give him as much credit as I can. Conversely, if one of my favorites goes out in the first round I'm not going to write “he should have won, but...”
I wish the same could be said for the production team at ESPN. It is common knowledge that the show's primary director is a hero worshipper of the worst order. He makes no bones about his favoritism for (as if you couldn't tell this by watching the shows yourself) everything John Force. ESPN insiders have told more than one observer that if the director had his way he'd do at least one show just from having cameras set up and running all day in Force's pits. The only on-track action he'd add to whatever they picked up in the pits would be Force's car, period.
There has long been an “argument” as to who actually controls the content of the television shows. When pressed aggressively, ESPN people like to deflect all complaints by suggesting that NHRA controls the content. Ask the NHRA people and they'll tell you that ESPN has total control over what makes the broadcast and what doesn't. Assuming this is true, the NHRA thus avoids having to defend the amount of time the John Force Racing cars and teams are on the air. “It's not our fault. They decide what goes on, not us.”
Make no mistake about it, I think John Force is a remarkable individual, a racer without peer and the single most important individual to have pulled on a helmet since the era of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. In fact, when NHRA compiled a list of the Top 50 Racers in their first 50 years, Force was seriously concerned that he'd be voted Number 1 instead of Garlits, who he knew was truly the Number 1 racer of NHRA's first five decades. So please, this is not about John Force. This is about ESPN and the way they put together the telecasts – and a lot more.
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While someone from ESPN might be able to demonstrate that So-and-So has gotten just as much air time as has the Force juggernaught, the overwhelming perception is that Force dominates the air waves the same way he sometimes dominates the drag strip.
Force may often appear to be the truck driver he was before he became a drag racing superstar, but make no mistake about it, he's smart, clever and no dummy. Recognizing that the espn2 director was enthralled by his mere presence, Force cultivated that relationship. I said he was no dummy. Things have now reached the point where the show's producer has stepped in and banned Force from the television compound at the track. The constant contact between Force and the director was producing ever more beneficial exposure for Force, and when the complaints reached a crescendo, the producer stepped in to at least temporarily put a stop to all the face-to-face meetings between the two in the TV compound.
If you, like the espn2 director, believe that the sun rises and sets on Mr. Force, this editorial offering isn't making you very happy, but I've got news for you. Despite Force's well-earned and deserved popularity, the number of people I hear complaining about the over-the-top Force coverage is on the increase. I hear it from a half dozen or more racers at every single race I work, and from two or three times that number of fans, who stop me to voice their ire. I tell each and every one of them to contact ESPN and/or NHRA with their complaints, as that's the only way I know of to bring about a reduction in the Force coverage.
But the trouble with ESPN goes far deeper than their coverage of the races.
During the recent run-up to the annual ESPY awards the NHRA did an admirable job of trying to get out the votes for the two NHRA luminaries nominated in the Driver of the Year category, Force and Pro Stock racer Greg Anderson. Several others, including The Edge Pain & Performance Chips rep Jerry Coley, used their personal email lists to encourage voting. Everyone who tried to make this work for drag racing should be congratulated – even though I'd wager that each and every one of them knew from the outset that their efforts would prove fruitless. First of all, having two drag racers nominated along with five-time NASCAR champ Jimmy Johnson and IndyCar superstar Dario Franchitti precluded any chance of one of the drag racers winning. It's no different than when two actors are both nominated in a Supporting role in the same film. That just splits the votes, and the Oscar's definitely going to someone else. In this instance NASCAR's larger “footprint” in the American media would ultimately bring the award to Johnson, and nobody was surprised at the outcome.
The NHRA claims that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the ESPY nominations, and there's no reason to think otherwise. My sources at ESPN say a committee of broadcasters largely determines the nominees, but if this is accurate it stretches credulity to the breaking point. Two drag racing nominees? That just doesn't compute. It should have been two Cup drivers simply based on the popularity of the series. If I were a true conspiracy theorist I might suggest that two drag racers were placed on the ballot to ensure that the Cup or IndyCar driver would win, but I have absolutely no proof that such is the case.
But that's not the real problem with ESPN.
I think when all is said and done, Greg Anderson is going to go into the record books as one of the best Pro Stock racers in the history of the sport. I've observed Anderson's act from both near and far, and it's difficult to find fault with anything he does. He's sharp as a tack when it comes to managing his car, his engine skills are superlative, his chassis and clutch setups are unmatched and his driving is usually exceptional. His fan interaction is friendlier and more open now than it ever was in the past, and that's not to suggest he's ever been a “Go away, kid. You're botherin' me” kinda guy. His relationship with his car owner and his sponsor is excellent, and heck, he's even become a pretty good “actor” in those Summit spots.
Last year, on his way to his fourth championship, he won five races and finished as the runner-up in two others. He also won the K&N Horsepower Challenge and picked up a (paltry) $25,000 bonus from NHRA for also winning the race that weekend. Thus far in 2011 he's won one national event and took another K&N title.
He did not deserve to be an ESPY finalist.
In 2010 Top Fuel driver Larry Dixon won 12 races. In other words, Dixon won five more races than the total number of final rounds Anderson appeared in. By the way, Dixon also won his third championship last year. Only three drivers have ever won more than a dozen races in a season (Anderson being one of them, with 15 in 2004, but that's so long ago it doesn't count). Like Anderson, Dixon has one win thus far in '11.
So someone please explain to me why Anderson was an ESPY finalist and Dixon wasn't.
Was it because ESPN didn't want two fuel car drivers in the mix? That's ludicrous. That means they would have “rejected” Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as a finalist even if he'd won five Cup races last year. Similarly, if Danica Patrick had won a couple of IndyCar races... Never mind. If she was even close they would have “declared” her the winner just on her name recognition alone.
From top to bottom, when it comes to drag racing, ESPN needs some serious work. They need quality people unaffected by personal considerations determining the content of the NHRA Full Throttle series telecasts. They need outside journalists helping to determine the nominees in every ESPY category – baseball writers and broadcasters (unaffiliated with ESPN or ABC) picking that sport, college football people handling that and motorsports journalists, with an equal number from each discipline, determining the Driver of the Year category finalists. This is serious stuff here, people. Winning an ESPY is important for sponsors as well as individuals, and drag racing deserves an equal and fair chance, something it doesn't have at present.
Until things change espn will continue to be lower case in my little world.
What do you think?
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