ESPN holds conference call discussing the end of NASCAR coverage after nearly 30 years
A media conference call was held today to discuss ESPN’s live telecasts of NASCAR racing coming to an end with the Nov. 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. ESPN has televised live NASCAR Sprint Cup racing for 28 years (1981-2000, 2007-2014).
Participants on the call were ESPN vice president, motorsports, production, Rich Feinberg, lap-by-lap announcer Allen Bestwick pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch and analyst Rusty Wallace. A transcript of the call follows:
RICH FEINBERG: Thank you, everybody, for joining on the call. We appreciate your attendance today as well as all your support over the years. I've been involved with ESPN's coverage of NASCAR since 1995, and it has been a wonderful ride, to say the least, filled with so many great memories, friendships, as well as some really high level of production over the years that I have nothing but pride as I think backwards.
But it's interesting, in thinking about today's call, I find myself more looking forward to the next two weeks. When we last left you Sunday night at Texas, all hell was breaking loose at the racetrack, and you know, no one knows what's going to happen this week going into Phoenix, but with eight drivers separated only by 18 points and none of the four finalists determined yet, tune in to ESPN at 2:00 because I think it's going to be one heck of a show and one heck of a shootout, and that's our focus, and we're all really, really looking forward to it.
Jerry Punch, you've been with ESPN since 1984. This is ESPN's 28th year televising live NASCAR racing, and you've been part of almost all of that. What are some of your top two or three memories from those years?
JERRY PUNCH: Well, let me just say thank you to the folks who are joining us on the call and have been covering our sport with us and alongside us for many, many years.
It would be hard ‑‑ I'd be hard pressed to pick out one memory. Someone asked me last week how many times I've interviewed a champion, and because of the question I was asked to go back and count it up, and there have been 29 NASCAR champions in the 66‑year history of the sport. I went back and counted, and I've interviewed 24 of the 29. Five I didn't get to talk with, and 20 of those 24 I actually interviewed while they were still competing in the sport, so I feel like I've been very blessed over the years from talking with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip in the early years to the phenomenal performance of Jimmie Johnson.
But I have to say, Alan Kulwicki's championship win in that final race when he pulled into victory lane in 1992 in Atlanta, pulled there into the start‑finish line to be interviewed, and Richard Petty's last race, that's one of those moments I'll never forget. Alan driving the Underbird, the young man who came from Wisconsin with, as we said back in those days, a pickup truck and a pocketful of dreams and chased his dream and became a NASCAR champion with very few resources.
It was a day in which Davey Allison could have won it, Bill Elliott could have won it, and either one of those would have been great stories, but Kulwicki wins it and then we do the interview, and I turn and my producer in my earpiece says, now turn and say something because we're going to introduce Richard Petty. So I turned and introduced Richard Petty, and his rebuilt damaged race car comes out of the garage in Atlanta and makes one final lap and then comes down pit road, and we are feeding the house, the local Atlanta Motor Speedway as well as those watching on national television, and I interview Richard, and I caught myself because he gets out of the car, and for the first time I saw tears in his eyes and going down his cheek, and they were on my cheeks because I realized how special that moment was. It just doesn't get much better than that.
I'd say those were probably at or near the top.
Allen, in an interview you did a couple weeks ago you were talking about the history of ESPN and NASCAR and you made the point that ESPN came along at the right time in NASCAR's history. Could you elaborate on that?
ALLEN BESTWICK: It's something that's very much been on my mind as I've reflected over these last eight years. If you look back on the history of both ESPN and NASCAR separately, you come back to ESPN and NASCAR together inevitably. NASCAR was this budding sport that had all this product, this great racing and these great characters, and it needed exposure, and this thing called cable TV came along, and this group that had an idea for a 24‑hour all‑sports television network, and they needed sports, and they got together.
For a kid like me that grew up in the Northeast as a fan of local modified racing, all of a sudden I was able to see Rockingham and Martinsville and North Wilkesboro and Bristol and all these great places, and they made me want to go to those racetracks, those early telecasts, and at the same time, it drew me to this thing called ESPN, to watch, and it became a part of my daily lifestyle habit.
I don't think that NASCAR would be the sport and the entity it is today, and ESPN would not be the worldwide leader in sports today if they didn't have each other. You can't separate the history of ESPN from NASCAR and the history of NASCAR from ESPN. They're just interlocked together in what's made them what they are today.
Rusty, you got out of the race car at the end of the 2005 season and then you went right into TV, which was the plan for you. You've said many times that that was part of the reason you retired is that you had the TV deal waiting. How was it for you back then when you started off as pretty raw getting out of the car and getting into TV and started out doing IndyCar racing? How was it for you back then as a rookie?
RUSTY WALLACE: Well, first of all, I enjoy television, no doubt about that, and ESPN has made a lot of opportunities for me. But I'll tell you, it was tough on me, it really was, because I made a lot of mistakes. Just the way I presented everything, I was talking too fast, I was letting my sentences run together. I was doing just a lot of Rustyisms, and I had to learn to TV talk. I had to learn how to present a little bit better.
But that said, I think that came ‑‑ I had some good tutoring from the folks at ESPN to kind of clean that stuff up and get better at it, and I just had such a good time with the guys. I really have. ESPN has given me a lot of opportunities. I never thought in a million years that I'd come out of the car in 2005, and in 2006 I'd be calling the entire year as an analyst with Scott Goodyear up doing IndyCar racing. But I did, I did the Indianapolis 500 as an analyst in '06, I did the Indy 500 as an analyst in '07, and I had a great time with the IndyCar crowd.
And then when we got the NASCAR program, working in the booth for a year there, but then the brand new NASCAR Countdown show came on, and I was asked if I'd like to come down and do that, and I did, so I was with Allen with a host of other people, and now Brad Daugherty and Nicole Briscoe. But ESPN has allowed me to do a lot of different things in the sport; like I said, IndyCar, NASCAR in the booth, NASCAR in the studio, NASCAR on SportsCenter, all the NASCAR Now shows we've had. All kinds of different platforms, and I've learned so much, and nowadays when I go around to the races, a lot of race fans come up to me whether I'm at an airport or at the track, and they say, we really love your commentating. They used to say, we really love your driving. It's really changed a little bit, and ESPN has kept my name out there and kept me relevant and kept me going.
I work hard at it, though. I'm constantly down in the garage areas talking to people and come up with some related stories and stuff and some behind the scenes stuff, but I'm going to miss ESPN. I really will.
There's not a day that goes by that I don't think I could still do it behind the wheel as a racer, and I still think that. But I'm smart enough to realize that that's not the smart thing to try to do again.
I love the television side of it, and again, I just love what ESPN has done for me. We're all a close family. We all get along good. We've all had our bumps in the road. We've all learned, and I wish we were continuing on, but we're not.
Q. For Rich, I know going forward, a lot of fans and viewers have wondered what can they expect from ESPN next year as far as NASCAR coverage? Some people are afraid that it's going to be totally ignored. Other people are wondering if you guys are going to just report on like the big events and ignore some of the other races. Do you have any sense of what that coverage might be like next year?
RICH FEINBERG: I do, and I can assure those asking the question and all fans out there that we're going to continue to cover NASCAR across all our news and information platforms in a very significant way. We don't have rights agreements with many different sports out there, but SportsCenter has an obligation to their fans to cover all sports, and as you may know, we recently announced that some of our folks who work on NASCAR are staying with the company long‑term like Ricky Craven and Marty Smith. We obviously have a lot of outlets for all our content, both over the air, cable, digital, dot‑com, et cetera. Our plans are to fulfill the interests of NASCAR fans who watch all our news and information programming, and I can tell you I personally have already been involved in our planning for coverage for the Daytona 500 in 2015 next year.
I don't think you'll see much of a change. We obviously won't be doing the races, but in terms of serving the interests of fans with our news and information coverage, we're full steam ahead.
Q. Rusty, Rich mentioned earlier the explosiveness of last week's race at Texas and everything that came out of that. As a former driver and a former champion, what's your take on Brad Keselowski? Do you see him as somebody that's out of control and doesn't have the respect of his peers, or is he somebody that's talented, driven, and willing to do what he thinks is necessary to accomplish his goals?
RUSTY WALLACE: The second part is what I agree on. I think he's a talented guy that's aggressive that wants to win real, real bad. The way he's been driving of late reminds me of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., which obviously was one of our most popular drivers in NASCAR. The guy is aggressive, he wants to win, he's going for it, and I'll tell you, there are a lot, a lot of analysts and a lot of people backing up Brad's decision that when Jeff Gordon took the high line going into Turn 1 on the restart and that hole opened up, I'm telling you what, as a competitor with just a handful of laps to go, when he saw that hole and Brad went for it, he went for it.
Jeff Gordon got the raw end because his left rear got bumped and he got a flat tire. But I don't think there's a driver in the world that would not have tried to put their car in that hole and go for it. He's been aggressive. He's ruffled some feathers, but I've seen a lot of other drivers do it, and I'd rather have a driver driving for me that's aggressive instead of the other way around.
You know, we're going to work hard in our NASCAR show this coming weekend at Phoenix to kind of illustrate what happened and break it down, but I'm not saying this, I obviously feel like I'm giving a disclaimer here, I'm not saying this because I drove the 2 car, but I am kind of on Brad's side on this one. I think I would have done the same thing. If I saw the hole I would have went for it, and obviously Jeff was the one that got his feathers ruffled on it. I have no idea how Kevin Harvick got involved in it or why he was involved in it, but that's my take on it.
Q. Rich, do you guys even have any sort of protocol for Jamie (Little) and what she's supposed to do if a brawl all of a sudden breaks out around her?
RICH FEINBERG: I don't know that we have a protocol. Her cameraman is a pretty svelte, tall, buff guy, so the thing that as I reflect on that moment, both watching it go down in the control room and thinking about it flying home yesterday, and the amazing job that Jamie did was not necessarily the composure that she held with all the chaos that was around her and obviously being concerned for her well being, but the most respective, and I think the greatest applause should be that even after that moment took place, she did her job, and she did it at such a high level by being willing, able to ask the tough questions of Brad.
I don't know that all reporters would be able to maintain that composure in that situation and then follow it up with outstanding journalism, and that's what Jamie deserves the biggest kudos for. That's what I told her when I texted her as soon as we got off the air. I'm extremely proud of her. She's one heck of a reporter.
Q. And for any of you, is there any one thing that you feel like has really ‑‑ ESPN has done since kind of regaining the NASCAR contract seven, eight years ago that you've felt has really enhanced the coverage?
RICH FEINBERG: I think there's a number of things, and I'd love to hear everybody else's idea. It sort of falls under that's my job every year is to come up with those things. But one that I would point to is the NASCAR Nonstop. We're the only media partner who has the commitment to our coverage, and it does have an effect on the business, but for us to be able to, throughout the Chase, show the second half of all Chase races, essentially the playoffs and the championship, without ever going to a full‑screen commercial week in and week out I think is an excellent example of how ESPN has tried to maintain its commitment, not only to NASCAR but to our fans in general. We are constantly looking at technical innovations that can make the shows more entertaining for our viewers. We were the first media partner that they had to do high definition on onboards (cameras). But when you do something like reduce the size of the commercial box and keep a live shot on, that's not as simple as just saying we want to do that. That has to involve the support of NASCAR. It has to technically be achieved. It has to involve the support of our sales department, our clients, our advertisers, and I think it shows the in‑depth commitment to the sport during the most important time of the year.
ALLEN BESTWICK: I think a couple of areas specifically. One is technology. Rich mentioned taking the on board cameras high def, taking the cameras where you can see two different views coming out of a car at the same time instead of just one. That was not a cheap undertaking and it was not an easy one, but it was something that our company undertook and made successful.
Depth of information, using the resources available to us to bring viewers more information at the same time. If you go back and look eight years ago versus what we did last Sunday or what we will do, ESPN has the phrase about "next level," and I believe we've gone next level with a lot of the depth of information, the capturing of strategies, that sort of thing that has elevated the bar a little bit, as is the case always through the years, and done ourselves proud.
RUSTY WALLACE: I guess the thing I really enjoy so much is ESPN having the platforms they have. I mean, the ability to have a backup plan or go somewhere in case we need to. I mean, if we're on ABC and we need to go to ESPN, we've got that availability. If we have a problem with ESPN and we need to go to ESPN2 because a game runs long or something, we can do that. We can go to NEWS, ESPN3, just so many platforms that ESPN has to present the race that a lot of others don't have.
The guys hit it dead on about technology. Technology is so important, what we're able to do now, the way we present the race. Last week I was pushing our button in our studio back to Jimmy Gaiero, our producer, saying hey, show the miles per hour, and he said, good idea, I'll do it, and actually Allen brought in up in our production meeting that week because we knew we were going to see some big, big speeds, going Turn 1 especially on restarts at Texas.
So we were seeing well over 200 miles an hour, and the number just really excites people. The fans love to see that number. I mean, these guys were just screaming around the racetrack. And to have the ability to do that and go back and forth and all the different platforms, I could go on and on and on, but that's just a brief summary of what's on my mind.
JERRY PUNCH: I would add that the technology arena, I would add that the aggressive use of radios. We have some incredibly talented people in our production trucks, and if you don't know how that works, what happens is that myself or Jamie Little or Vince Welch or Dave Burns will be listening to the radios prior to a pit stop during the race, and I will hit a button and I will say, great radio 24 car, so Jeff Gordon talking to Alan Gustafson, back and forth, spotter. Immediately the folks in our truck who are monitoring radios will have that radio up, will listen, they will turn that right around, they will tell the producer, Jim Gaiero, who tells Allen Bestwick, and they transition the story, let's get down to Doc Punch. So I will lead in, here's what's happening. Jeff Gordon is saying so‑and‑so, let's listen in, so you're hearing that radio, and then I will lead the radio, I will tag the radio, so the fans at home ‑‑ and I think ESPN's mission statement is to service the viewer, and to me, and I'm not casting off on anyone else, I think our network has done a better job than anyone in the history of the sport of getting those radios on back and forth between a driver and crew chief and spotter or among those groups, and with the dual path on‑board cameras, you can actually see the driver in the car talking, see what he's looking at on the racetrack, and we can have a hand‑held camera show you the crew chief.
So I think that that along with how we cover the pits with what we call quad pit stops where we cover four pit stops at one time and a combination of high cameras, hand‑held cameras and throwing from one to the other to be able to cover ‑‑ here again, we're not just talking about four tires and Sunoco gas. We're talking about getting people at home ‑‑ if you're watching, what do you want to know about what's going to happen with Brad Keselowski's pit stops? We tell you what he's complaining about with the car, what Paul Wolfe is thinking about doing and what they're trying to accomplish, and you can see the tires being changed. I think we're trying to add a little more meat on the bone with how we cover four pit stops almost every time they come down pit road with my colleagues in the pits. I'm very proud of how we do that.
Q. I wanted to ask you a question about ESPN going forward from here. You still have some motorsports properties, most notably NHRA. I was wondering if you saw an opportunity to maybe use some NASCAR resources and enhance coverage of that or any other motorsports series. I just wonder what the plan was for motorized sports going forward for you guys from here.
RICH FEINBERG: Well, in addition to the NHRA, where we've had a long‑standing partnership and continue to have one, we're obviously very involved in the IndyCar Series, particularly the Indianapolis 500. This year, this past year was the 50th anniversary of ABC's coverage of the Indy 500, and next year it'll be the 99th Indy 500, and of particular interest to me as a race fan, the chance to do the 100th Indy 500 in two years.
Most of the motorsports I've been involved with over the years and behind the scenes there is lots of crossover. It may not be that apparent to the viewer. Normally things like the talent or the graphic looks or things that the average person would notice, but in terms of some of our technicians, our remote mobile unit facilities, partners who we work with in different technology, there's quite a bit of sharing already going on, and as we continue to go forward, if there are particular resources that perhaps have had a heavier weight of NASCAR assignments, it would certainly be my intent to keep them involved in our other motorsports properties.
You know, whether it's the NHRA or IndyCar or NASCAR, candidly we go in to every telecast with the same goals in mind, and Jerry just mentioned it, and that's to serve our viewers.
Behind the scenes there's already a lot of that sort of synergy that you're referring to in our production approach.
Q. Allen, correct me if I'm wrong, but you've been doing NASCAR since '86 since joining at MRN, and I wanted to ask you what will it be like next year without NASCAR? And secondly, at Homestead, when you sign off, what do you hope to convey with your final words?
ALLEN BESTWICK: Well, a couple things there. First, what will next year be like? It'll be different. You know, my life has been centered around daily involvement with this sport since 1986. It will be very different.
But at the same time, the opportunities that ESPN has afforded me and the events that I'm going to get to be involved in and get to be around are exciting. They're a big deal to me. They're going to be fun. They're new, and I mean, I'm going to have a chance to be involved in and around the British Open at St. Andrews next summer. How could you not be excited about that? It'll be very different. I'm a fan. I'll always be paying attention and I'll always be watching, but it'll be different, and obviously the thing that I'll miss the most are the friends that I've made along the way.
As far as Homestead, Homestead is about the champion. Homestead is about crowning a champion, and it's about whatever it is that we see unfold on the racetrack that night, and that's going to be the focus of our telecast.
That's what's important that night. It's not about us, it's about the champion.
If you were to ask me for an overriding thought, it's for people to know how much we appreciate their sharing their time with us watching these races, hoping that they've enjoyed what we do, and hoping that they know how much heart and soul we all put into it and how much fun that we've had. But the reality is Homestead is not about us. Homestead is about crowning a champion, and that will be the focus of what we do.
Q. Dr. Punch, you're a doctor, the illustrious career you've had and everything else, could you share with us what it's like to be so accomplished?
JERRY PUNCH: Well, I've been very blessed. It's very kind of you to say that. I have been very blessed to be a part of ESPN. Growing up in a small rural area in western North Carolina, my mom and dad who worked two jobs to make ends meet told me if I would get my education that the sky would be the limit. I wanted to be a football coach and I wanted to be involved in sports and I wanted to teach history, and then suddenly I wanted to be a medical doctor. So I got an education and became a doctor, and then sure enough, I got a chance to do broadcasting, and then the blessing came that ESPN allowed me to be a part of their family the last 31 years.
You know, every time I turn around and pick up a magazine or think about where I've been or where I was last week or where I'm going this week, I want to pinch myself and say, how blessed can one person be. Blessed to be a part of covering a sport ‑‑ as Allen said, it's never been about us. We're not here to be the story, we're here to cover the story, and the friendships, the relationships, the fact that people have trusted us for decades to be able to come into their living room, and they want to hear what Allen Bestwick and Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree, they want to hear ‑‑ I try to ask the question that I think my friends who are race fans want to hear but my mom would want to hear and my grandmother would want to hear. What do they want to know, so that's what I want to ask. That's a blessing.
I just feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to do that, and NASCAR and IndyCar, I mean, I've done 22 Indy 500s and I've talked to some phenomenal drivers there in open‑wheel racing, great football coaches and basketball coaches. I've been very blessed to have the opportunity to do that, and I'm looking forward to doing it at least two more weeks in NASCAR and then getting to Homestead, making sure that we focus on what we try to do best, which is cover the sport, cover the story, and not be the story.
This isn't the first break in coverage as they took a seven year break in the early 2000s, but this one has a more permanent feel to it. Only time will tell if ESPN will return to the NASCAR garage, but for next season and the foreseeable future, tune in to FOX Sports and NBC Sports.
Adam has been a race fan since the first time he went through the tunnel under the Daytona International Speedway almost 30 years ago. He has had the privilege of traveling to races all across the state of Florida (as well as one race in Ohio), watching nearly everything with a motor compete for fame and glory, as well as participating in various racing schools to get the feel of what racecar drivers go through every week.
Adam spent several years covering motorsports for Examiner.com., where he had the opportunity to see the racing world from behind the scenes as well as the grandstands. He invites everyone to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus, and looks forward to sharing his enthusiasm for all things racing with the readers of SpeedwayDigest.com.
Be sure to tune in for his sports talk program, Thursday Night Thunder, where he discusses the latest in motorsports news with drivers, crew members, and fans. The show takes place (almost) every Thursday at 8:00 pm EST on the Speedway Digest Radio Network.
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