It's the Racing, Stupid!
I’ve seen a lot of changes in the way we get our drag racing coverage, but sitting through this year’s ESPN-produced shows from Norwalk and Bristol has taken its toll on me. I spent well over thirty years in the filmmaking business and produced or edited over 2,500 good and bad TV commercials, but the current ESPN2 NHRA POWERade drag racing show is in need of a major overhaul, now.
I’ve got to admit that I am a lifelong motorgeek and my absolute first exposure to motorsports was the ‘63 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at that incredible, long gone Southern California racing facility, Riverside Raceway. I can’t tell you who took the checkered flag on the last lap.
Next it was NASCAR racing on the tight road course at Riverside and my jaw dropped when five full-sized blue and orange Mercury Marauders rolled into the pits on a new-car delivery hauler, presumably from Detroit or fresh out of the Holman Moody shop. The pageantry of motorsports at that time to a young teenager helped prime the pump for getting on the starting line for the Hot Rod Magazine Drag Races and the KFWB Drag Festival, both held on the long, long Riverside straightaway. Now nitro really got me going!
I discovered Drag News and would scour the LA Times for any results in the back of the Sports section on the weekends for a glimpse at information of what went on at Lions, Fontana, Riverside or San Fernando. We had a local guy, Stan Richards on Channel 9 in LA, who did a weekly show called “World of Wheels” which seldom showed any drag racing, but it was all racing. They had NO budget so Richards got snippets of film from whatever source to fill the half-hour, but it was all any of us junkies could get.
Going to the U.S. Nationals at Indy with the Sachs and Sons Comets in ’64 was an incredible trip. The first thing I noticed was the ABC TV trucks, cameras and Chris Economaki, the world’s best-known reporter on motorsports. ABC Wide World of Sports wouldn’t be on the tube for a couple of weeks, so I knew I’d be back from the long trip to Indy long before the U.S. Nationals aired on ABC.
Back in those days I didn’t have a video recorder or anything like a TIVO, but for years I held onto the audio recordings I made on my dad’s reel-to-reel Ampex machine of almost any drag race I could find on TV. I must have listened to those word pictures from Economaki and Keith Jackson on ABC Wide World of Sports a dozen times over the years, but those reporters were painting a racing story, not caught up in the hype of the times.
It was a much simpler time and the announcers were uncovering a niche in motorsports and occasionally exposing the rest of the sporting world to the explosive nature of drag racing, way before hospitality centers and multi-car, multi-team transporters. It was about the racing.
Today’s ESPN2/NHRA POWERade show is truly an infomercial for the National Hot Rod Association. Today’s ESPN2 show is part soap opera with some racing thrown in and a non-stop subliminal ad for the NHRA major sponsors.
Personalities like Paul Page have diluted the racing action by telling us every possible aspect of what we can see with our own eyes. Nobody is watching the ESPN2 show because of Paul Page, yet NHRA rolls over and accepts cast-off talent from ABC’s open wheel coverage. Page constantly restates the obvious and his malapropisms are now rivaling Yogi Bera. In the ’07 Bristol coverage Page commented that Cory Mac was the “sole survivor” of the 2006 Bristol crash that split his car in half. If he was the “sole survivor” who else died? Yet this particular crash was shown for the titillation factor over and over again during that show. Cory Mac even looked perturbed that he had to go over the details again with the ESPN2 camera in his face. Did Cory Mac have any other Bristol highlights in his long career?
It seems NHRA and ESPN have adapted the “If it bleeds, it leads” rule. “If it crashes and flashes” run it over and over again is the new mantra. I know what I feel when I see that Cory Mac crash or Larry Dixon’s Bristol crash racing against Brandon Bernstein -- it hurts. I feel for the driver, his family and crew; a racing crash is a horrible thing to go through. What is served by the repeated showing of these crashes during the broadcast? We all know drag racing is dangerous, but now that tire failures and a chassis collapse are so infrequent do we need to see examples over and over again to remind us how far we have come as a sport? Is Darrell Russell’s horrific Gateway International Raceway crash waiting on the 2008 highlight reel for the O’Reilly Midwest Nationals show?