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NBC is ready for its shot at NASCAR

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 6, 2001


In many ways, there has never been a better time to be a NASCAR fan.

The impact of Dale Earnhardt's death cannot be minimized, and some fans of the Intimidator have sworn off Winston Cup racing. But those who have stuck with the sport -- along with the new fans filtering in seemingly every week -- have been treated to the kind of high-quality, major-network television coverage devotees long have believed NASCAR deserved.

Fox got the car started; now NBC will bring it home. The network kicks off the second half of the Winston Cup season Saturday night with its coverage of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. NBC will air 13 races; the same crew will handle seven races on TNT.

There will be the requisite Earnhardt retrospectives Saturday, appropriate because the race is the first Winston Cup event at Daytona since Earnhardt's fatal final-lap crash in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. Much of the prerace coverage will center around that story. But NBC mainly is interested in moving forward and putting its stamp on NASCAR coverage.

The network has a lot to live up to. Fox's team of announcer Mike Joy and analysts Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds mixed plenty of sharp commentary with their down-home mannerisms and the trademark Fox kookiness. McReynolds, a longtime crew chief, was a pleasant surprise, but it was Waltrip who had one of the best rookie analyst seasons in recent memory, along with TNT's NBA analyst Charles Barkley.

And though some diehard fans found Fox's running-order graphic at the top of the screen jarring, the network introduced popular features such as Crank it Up, where the announcers stopped talking so fans could hear the sounds of the track, and FoxTrax, which used satellite technology to provide such details as speed and distance between cars.

Most of the gizmos will reappear in NBC coverage under different names because SportVision, the company that developed the new technologies, created them for NASCAR and not either network. But NBC promises some new wrinkles.

More important, the new on-air crew won't be trying to upstage or compete with Waltrip and Co., producer Sam Flood said. Play-by-play announcer Allen Bestwick, the longtime voice of NASCAR on the Motor Racing Network; former ESPN analyst Benny Parsons, and rookie analyst Wally Dallenbach will have their own style.

"We've got to do our own show," Flood said. "That's always been our intent. ... We have a great talent group together. (In an on-camera rehearsal), Allen, Benny and Wally had dynamite chemistry. ... That's going to be a signature of our telecast."

Another feature NBC will be touting its so-called "War Wagon," a term used by pit crews to describe the vehicle they use to tote tools and communication devices. Lead pit reporter Bill Weber will host the prerace show from NBC's "War Wagon," which will be situated "smack in the middle of the action," Flood said.

Like Fox, NBC will place the running order at the top of the screen, but the network will flash the order three cars at a time, leaving room for position changes in midstream. Another difference will be in the acknowledgement of sponsors during the race. Though Fox generally identified cars by number and not sponsor, Flood said NBC's policy will be to identify a car by whatever the viewer can best see at that moment; if it's the sponsor's logo and not the number, so be it.

The main mystery is how well Dallenbach, who has no experience, will fare. As a driver he was personable but blunt. "I don't have a reputation for being politically correct, so I'm sure I'll step on some toes," he said.

In television that's not a bad thing. Dallenbach could provide the spark NBC is likely to need, especially after Fox's critical and ratings success.

"The bar has been elevated at an entertainment level and at a "having fun' level," Parsons said. "I don't think we've seen race telecasts before where guys were having as much fun. I think we have to be conscious of that. We have to tell the story but have fun with it as well."

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