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NASCAR TV journalism: Too many smiley faces?


Fox' Jeff Hammond (L) still knows how to roll in the mud (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


By Mike Mulhern

   So the question today, in the spirit of now-former NASCAR TV critic John Daly, of the just closed down http://dalyplanet.blogspot.com/ , is this:
   In these tough economic times, are TV men supposed to be mouthpieces, cheerleaders for the sport, maybe simply shills?
   And you might want to be ready to take a step backward when you ask Fox' Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond and Mike Joy that question.
   Hammond could swing a mean jackhandle in his day, when working for Junior Johnson, and probably still can.
   And Byrnes, well anyone who benchpresses as much iron as he does, is not to be trifled with either.
   But then we get paid to take these leaps of faith…
   Have NASCAR execs told these TV guys to put on the smiley faces?
   Well, let's start with TV's Wally Dallenbach, the frequently outspoken analyst, first for NBC, now for Turner:
   "I do things the way I always do…and I call 'em the way I see 'em," the former racer says. "NASCAR has been ticked off at me plenty of times. And I've had to meet with Mike Helton (the NASCAR president) out in the hallway a couple of times, which is never fun.
   "But I think I've remained friends, and there is mutual respect.
   "I would never do anything to tear down the sport I love…but they're not going to get any free rides either.
   "I call things the way I see things, and the way I believe in things. You can like it, you can not like it. You can agree or not agree. I don't care – that's what I do.
     "I've been around this sport a long time, so I try to cut through the bull as much as possible…because there is plenty of that in TV already.
   "Has NASCAR come up and said 'You've got to do this' or 'You've got to do that.' There are things they are very sensitive about. And there are some things I think they would like for you to handle with kid-gloves. But I've never really been good with that, and that's what's got me in trouble.
   "NASCAR needs to be criticized at certain times, and I think they're big enough to take it. Sometimes they don't like it, but I think at times a lot of good has come out of it."


NASCAR TV analyst Wally Dallenbach (R) with actress Minka Kelly (Photo: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

"Nobody has ever told me what to say…or what not to say," Byrnes says. "And I would take great offense if someone did.
   "Nobody has ever told me to position the sport in a particular way.
   "I've known Robin Pemberton (the former crew chief, now one of NASCAR's top officials) since 1985, and all they've ever said to me is 'Be fair. Ask us.'
   "All Mike Helton and his guys want is for us to be fair."
   "Mike Helton and Robin Pemberton (NASCAR's top officials) and the France family don't give me a script to read," Hammond says.
    "I am an analyst…and I analyze what is in front of me. If a part breaks…if a guy changes two tires instead of four….
   "I'm not an economist. I can't tell you how to fix an issue. But I am a former crew chief, and my motto this year is simple: 'No excuses, just fix it.'
    "You know where I'm coming from, you know how I was raised….because Junior used to jerk your chain more than I ever thought about. Remember the time Junior took you 'coon hunting, and told you to shimmy up that tree (at night) and knock that 'coon out….and you were dumb enough to try?"
   Hammond laughed. "Everyone down on the ground was laughing their tails off," Hammond said.
   "But I've known you 30 years….back to '79 when we were all fighting down here. You understand how the sport has evolved, the good, the bad and the ugly. And back then we had empty grandstands. We didn't have a huge fan following. I can remember when we went to Bristol once and there weren't but maybe 3,000 people in the stands. I can remember that.
   "And then it started, and it ramped up to where now we have 200,000, sometimes 300,000.
   "You've got to work through the issue. I've been on race teams that have been short on cash, when you had to make ends meet, when you had to make hard decisions about people you were going to keep and not keep. You work through this stuff. And that's one thing this sport has going for it – it has people who understand how to work through tough times."
   "One thing that hasn't changed in this sport is people's love of it," Joy says. "Race fans who will tune in, who still love racing, who still listen on the radio and read about it on the internet.
     "Let's go back to the tenets of broadcasting sports on radio and television. Each local team hired its own announcers – and it was those announcers' job to be cheerleaders for the team. Why? To help sell tickets.
   "And when the networks came along to carry sports, the job changed, but only slightly. Because the job of the radio or television announcer, then as now, is to get people to tune in next week. And that's what we try to do.
     "But 'cheerleaders?' No."
    Byrnes, who has been with Fox and Speed from the start in 2001, says some hard criticism of NASCAR's TV guys doesn't set well:
  "I look at it two different ways. What bothered me about it was John wasn't accountable to anyone. I am accountable to my network, I am accountable to my teammates. And I felt our integrity and credibility were being attacked.
   "I read John's site quite often…and what I found most interesting, and informative, were what his readers were saying. Whether or not I agreed with what he would say. And now most of the time, maybe 90 percent, he was saying favorable things about me.
   "But what are the fans saying, what are the viewers saying?
  "I don't have any problem with criticism; it comes with the uniform.
  "But Fox has a philosophy, and that's who I am accountable to. They want the race to be entertainment. It's a sporting event to be taken very seriously, but it's also entertainment.
   "Fox has taken a little different view from ESPN, because Fox wants to attract the casual sports fan. They know the hardcore fan will be there.
  "That was an adjustment for me, frankly, back in 2001, because I'm from the gear-head mentality myself.
   "But to Fox this is about making the sport much more enjoyable to the viewer who doesn't know what a sway-bar is. It took me a while to understand that: We once had Shawna Robinson on a prerace show, when she was trying to run the whole Cup tour, and I was thinking 'This is sort of crazy….' But when I got home my next-door neighbor, who could care less about racing, said 'Hey, that was cool. I didn't know she was a mother.'
   "And it clicked for me.
   "So what am I? David Hill, our boss, has a very simple philosophy: in 2001 he put everyone in a room and told us 'If your information is good, you can have all the fun you want on-air. If your information isn't any good, you look like an idiot. Keep that in mind.'
   "Having fun is certainly part of what we do, but sometimes the fact that all of us work so hard gets obscured by that."


Marty Smith (C) sure has gone uptown since getting this ESPN gig. Good reporter, yes. But he was a lot more fun before he put on the TV coat-and-tie. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Rose-colored glasses? ESPN's Marty Smith, who just started his third season for that network's news side, takes exception: "Dude, our entire first show Monday night was all about the economy. We have discussed it ad nauseam, on all platforms.
   "Our job is to inform the viewers and fans about what is really going on. Not to cheerlead.
   "Now it's also to be balanced, and if the racing is good, I'm going to say the racing is good, and if it's bad, I'm not.
   "My job is like your job – to report the news."
   Daly's two-year run as NASCAR's most renowned, and controversial, TV critic ended Wednesday, with the long-time TV insider moving on to another job.
   But what Daly created – a feisty, open-forum project that both pinpointed mistakes by NASCAR's many TV people and created almost a social network of stock car racing fans whose interest in the sport doesn't end in Sunday's victory lane – certainly still has fervent fans, including some of the very people he would criticize.
   "What John Daly did was open a forum and plant seeds and put on a little water…and his readers made it grow," Joy said.
   "I found John's comments useful, and I found the fans' comments useful. It was like it used to be at newspapers – one letter represented the opinion of 500 other people…because 499 wouldn't bother to write.
   "That's a very passionate part of our audience.
   "Our job is not to be cheerleaders for the sport. All NASCAR wants is for us to be fair.
   "Our number one job is to make you tune in next week.
   "And that's been my job ever since I was an announcer at a little quarter-mile track up in Massachusetts."
   Riverside Park.
   And Joy, a NASCAR TV man since the early 1980s, says the amazingly rapid demise of newspapers across the country, and the precipitous drop in NASCAR coverage (Dallas being the latest casualty), has put NASCAR's TV men in a new situation: "We now have to work harder, because where once there was a cadre of 75 to 100 full-time journalists – and I use that word with great respect – chasing stories in this sport, interviewing drivers, and giving us information upon which to build stories, now there are a whole lot less.
   "So there is a whole lot more legwork that we need to do.
   "The difficulty with the internet age is that anybody with a keyboard can be a 'correspondent.' The difference between those people and a journalist is accountability.
   "Whatever Steve or Jeff or Wally or I say on TV, we are held accountable for. And our jobs are at stake. And credibility.
   "And the same with newspapers.
   "Now I don't agree with what newspapers are doing (in cutting jobs). I dropped my subscription to the Winston-Salem paper because I have no reason to read it anymore.
   "But with travel costs and all, it's a whole new economic world."

Fox men Jeff Hammond (L) and Mike Joy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



The economic problems facing NASCAR, which may affect the Daytona 500, the California 500, the Las Vegas 400 and the Atlanta 500 in coming weeks, are not easily ignored by anyone in the sport.
   "And we are not going to shy away from the contraction in team ownership," Joy says. "That's a very important part of the sport. That's a story, and a story we need to cover. We've been trying to figure out how to show graphically how 11 teams at Bobby Ginn, DEI and Chip Ganassi have folded down into three or four.
   "The empty-seats story is going to be a little more difficult to deal with – do you take the stand 'Hey, there are 20,000 empty seats' or 'Hey, there are 120,000 people here.'
   "They had the wildfires here in Florida a few years ago, and we lost the July race because the entire landscape between here and Orlando was black. That's our economy. But soon thereafter you started seeing sprouts and seedlings, and now the trees are coming back.
   "So we are going to balance things. Because the bright spots are that some of the 1,000 people who lost their jobs up in North Carolina are banding together to come down here and try to make the show. That's a story I mean James Hylton and Boris Said as teammates!? That's a story.
   "Believe me, no rose-colored glasses. And I don't believe at Fox we've had them.
   "Are we going to challenge NASCAR on every single issue, like an independent journalist would? No.
   "We pay a huge rights fee to cover this sport, and the payoff for Fox only comes if we get a lot of people to watch it. Our job is to make sure you tune in next week."


Brace yourself: It's just about time for ol' DW to utter some of the most famous words in NASCAR racing -- "Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!" (Photo: Fox Sports)



As a loyal reader of The Daly

As a loyal reader of The Daly Planet I believe John was accountable to his readers - and ultimately anyone purporting to be a journalist should feel he/she is accountable to the consumer. I found JD to be more objective and fair than the majority of the media. I have a great deal of respect for the people quoted in the article, except that I do not watch the TNT broadcasts, and do not question their honesty or objectivity, and I do not believe John Daly did.

While I enjoy Marty Smith and believe he is one of the very best reporters on NASCAR, ESPN as an institution clearly has very little interest in or respect for racing fans. After the Cup banquet until early Feb. I saw no NASCAR news, at all, on any of the ESPN networks - and there was a lot going on. Obviously ESPN has demonstrated that amateur monkey films are of more redeeming value than NASCAR races, or NASCAR fans. Entertainment-value trumps objectivity in almost all cases anymore at ESPN.

Objectivity is also an endangered species in the mainstream print media where the negative angle of what goes on in NASCAR is almost always emphasized. For instance, how many newspaper articles on NASCAR layoffs have mentioned whether the employees received any severance or not - virtually no articles did. Instead most articles left the impression that all the employees were shown the door with no severance, which was not the case. How many articles mentioned that Teresa was there for at least one big layoff at DEI and that the employees were offered outplacement counselling? I've only seen one article mentioning such. No one would want to write anything good about the "evil" Teresa - wouldn't sell any papers. The constant, one-sided bashing of NASCAR may come back to haunt the print media. Emphasizing the negative is just as bad - maybe worse - than cheerleading.

But what do I know, I'm only a NASCAR fan. As I recall the estimable Lenox Rawlings has publicly described NASCAR fans as "ignorant and gullible" - but this one isn't gullible enough to read him after he wrote that.

Very well said, Richard

Very well said, Richard

I was a regular on TDP and

I was a regular on TDP and hope that you will become one of the TV police and keep them honest, like John did.
Any possibilities of a forum, for TV watchers?

Hell, yes! Great idea. Just

Hell, yes! Great idea. Just let me get with 'my people' and we'll put a button up on top, or something. Law enforcement is not a spectator sport.....

As another regular from TDP,

As another regular from TDP, I am glad to see that the issues discussed there have still got an outlet. This issue of the "Yes Man" goes beyond television, and with the drop in independent minded journalists in newspapers, the situation is becoming grave. Even the SIRIUS Radio contingent has become more and more "Koolaid" drinkers with the addition of more NASCAR employees as radio hosts. Lets be clear- By and large, PXP guys need to be just that-I don't expect hard hitting stuff from them, just good race calling. Unfortunately, we are currently not getting even that year round. Analysts, hosts and others NEED to stop the Koolaide drinking-we rely on them to bring us the reality, just as good journalists do, regardless of whether it is online or in newspapers. Mike, your site is now my "daily" stop for the reality no one else wants to bring us- Go get em!

Inverness, FL

'preciate it....just talked

'preciate it....just talked with JD, and he may have more to say on all this....and I'll see if I can take the koolaid away from some of those guys at sirius...though david poole, my good bud from 'pit bull' days, insists he's still taking nascar to task when it's due. (of course i still disagree with poole on just about every subject of significance ).

I too miss John's blog

I too miss John's blog horribly. Watched NN last night, and was dying to discuss it with someone (and that includes all the former DalyPlanet bloggers)! bTW, I like Mike Massaro in his new role. He's good for the show.

No matter how tough the economy, it's no excuse to shortchange the fans who get their Nascar via the TV. TDP knew that.

I was surprised to read that Steve Byrnes was critical of TDP blog because there was "no accountability" and he (Byres) has to account to his bosses. Yeah, well, the real accountability should be to the fans who pay for this sport. The nitwits making tainted peanut butter can say they were accountable to their bosses and their shareholders, and they couldn't afford to dump a batch that couldn't pass inspection. Does that mean a bad product can/should be shipped? The peanut company thought so. Without outside watchdogs (and I include TDP here), who'll keep the profit-mongers honest?

TDP was accountable to the fans. That should be good enough for Byrnes.

I too was a regular visitor

I too was a regular visitor to TDP. I will now make this my "daly" news fix. I was disheartened to see John go. I thought at first that Brian and company came to his door with cement shoes.But it's good to hear that he has another job among the living. Mike, great article, but was surprised to hear Byrnes basically trash John. I guess the old adage is "the truth hurts, don't it?" I almost laughed out loud that Byrnes said, "No one has come to me and told me what to say." B.S. This is one of the few sports that the "journalists" and the sports execs go back upwards of 60 years. They know if they stray from the party line, they might never work again. Just like Wally said, he's had to meet Mike Helton out in the hallway a few times. In this day and age, it's hard to believe that Mike Joy and company would think that they have cornered the market on NASCAR knowledge. Some of us "average" fans have family that work in the sport in some capacity or other, and with that comes knowledge about some things that may never come to light. Whether it be team related, or network related. I know it may be just sport to some, a business to others, but in the end, we are OWED the truth.

As an old TDP poster I just

As an old TDP poster I just want to tell the boys at FOX/SPEED that even if the fist few days were a little rough, your honesty, passion and continued integrety towards the fan are just as fine as ever. Y'all knocked it out of the park since practice started. Had me sayin' Oh My! at some of the things comming out of Kenny and DW's mouths. Wonder if Mr.H had a little 'hallway' talk with either of them.

I find the idea of this year as 'give back to the fans' as a statement of everyones commitment to not letting our sport loose its momentum and focus. As was my point often on TDP, it is never a problem with Mike, Dw and Larry in the booth, not even TNT, it is what happens when ESPN takes over. That is when it becomes imperative for SPEED to grab the ball they(ESPN) fumble and run with it.

yet another TDP regular here

yet another TDP regular here -- mike, i suspect you're gonna be inundated by us as we are feeling a tad "homeless" right now. i agree with racepix: how about at least a race day forum where adults can talk about what we're seeing and hearing?

as for the article: all is can do is say "isn't TV fun?" (see, gang? there's still a home for the comedy troupe!)

seems to me that some folks in nascar media didn't appreciate a group of race fans actually speaking intelligently about our sport and not getting hung up in "my driver is better than your driver." did we have complaints and criticisms? you bet and we were vocal about them. and when the nascar media did a great job, we said so, too. JD WAS accountable -- to us, the fans! the nature of a blog is that it is accountable to those who care enough about it to participate. welcome to the new world, nascar media folks: the rules of engagement have changed. it's not all about what can be fed to us, the fans. some of us have begun to color outside the lines and we're using REALLY bright colors.

what we want from the nascar media is honesty and journalistic integrity. some in the current corps meet that standard with each and every article and report they give us. others fail miserably. what we want from a race broadcast is . . . wait for it, nascar media folks! . . . to see the race! so, yeah, we ranted about all the crap that was thrown at the screen, hoping that some might stick. we noticed the work that was less than stellar for us, the fans, trying to watch the race. and we talked about it.

too bad some in the media won't see the value in having a group of fans who care enough to THINK about our sport. maybe instead of beating up on the messengers, it would be helpful to listen to the message. and maybe, just maybe, even act on the suggestions.

i'm just sayin' . . .

'If your information isn't

'If your information isn't any good, you look like an idiot. Keep that in mind.'

boogity boogity boogity. Somebody didn't get the memo. Sigh.

I tune in because I have no other option. Cut back on the pre-race show and put more time into the post-race to interview the drivers. That would provide better information.

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