How Fox have adapted their NASCAR offering during the COVID-19 pandemic

In a guest article, Jack Ainslie (@JackAinslie) looks at the first half of the NASCAR season, and how US broadcaster Fox have handed difficult issues during their coverage…

As readers of this site will be all too painfully aware, the COVID-19 pandemic robbed motor sport of action throughout most of the Spring and early Summer. However, this understandable absence was significantly shorter for one racing series – NASCAR.

The stock car association’s three major series – the top-tier NASCAR Cup Series and its two main feeders – were back to a socially distanced track in May. Unlike series such as Formula 1 and IndyCar, the NASCAR season had already begun back in February, with it running races nearly every week through to December. Yes, it is a lot of races!

Having followed the opening NASCAR races of 2020 to fill the F1 off-season, I decided to stick with the series when it returned in May.

Fans in the UK can access NASCAR through Premier Sports, with an affordable price of £9.99 per month giving you access to their online Premier Player. The channel also covers La Liga, NHL, and Scottish football amongst others.

In terms of NASCAR, the broadcaster covers all Cup Series races live with more limited coverage of the feeder Xfinity and Truck Series.

Premier Sports have little to no input over the coverage with them lifting the US broadcast ‘as-is,’ in a similar vein to how Sky Sports air NBC’s stateside coverage of IndyCar. Fox Sports airs the first half of the NASCAR season for US fans, with NBC taking over for the second half of the year.

The Fox half of the season has just concluded, perfect timing then to reflect on their offering.

Difficult issues covered in detail on-air in a year of change
NASCAR has been in the headlines for more than one controversial reason this year, with its association with Republican politics obvious in February when President Donald Trump visited the flagship Daytona 500 event.

However, in recent weeks the sport hit back at Trump after he criticised the sport’s only black driver Bubba Wallace for perpetrating a ‘hoax,’ an entirely false accusation and it was heartening to see him backed by many within the sport.

The series has engaged in significant discussions around the Black Lives Matter protests and has banned the Confederate flag, which was often visible on television, from its races.

The moves to detoxify NASCAR’s image are much needed and will help bring new fans to a series which provides exciting, unpredictable racing.

Indeed, viewing figures have increased over the past few weeks, reversing years of decline, despite Trump’s claims that figures are at a ‘record low.’ The high broadcast quality and the willingness of the commentators to engage in difficult conversations may have played a role in the audience increase.

Veteran lead commentator Mike Joy delivered some heartfelt words during a recent event. When Wallace’s team found a noose in the garage, later discovered to have been there since the previous race last year, Joy called it a ‘despicable act’ which flew ‘in the face of NASCAR’s efforts to build a culture which is diverse, equal and welcoming.’

Popular ex-driver and co-commentator Jeff Gordon also ensured he was part of the conversation throughout. Both him and Joy defended Wallace against the ridiculous criticisms he faced after the conclusion of the investigation.

Joy and Gordon have also succeeded in terms of their racing commentary during a year of change at the network.

Unusually, for American motorsport, they now commentate as a duo following the retirement of Darrell Waltrip last year. For the last few seasons Waltrip and Gordon had shared co-commentary duties with Joy delivering the play-by-play.

This is a more typical arrangement for American motorsport (Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, and Leigh Diffey in IndyCar is an example of a current trio), so it was initially surprising to see Fox not replace Waltrip, though it has nevertheless worked.

Waltrip, renowned for his “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity, let’s go racin’ boys” start command, had huge respect as an analyst and advocate for driver safety, with the broadcast now having lost some of its more humorous side.

However, Gordon had already been providing far sharper analysis than Waltrip with his much more recent experience as a driver, having last competed in NASCAR full-time in 2015. Joy’s commentary style and Gordon’s sharp analysis make them perfect as a pair.

The pair also lends a more familiar, homely style, especially as Fox does not bounce around analysts as much as NBC’s IndyCar coverage, which has become particularly obvious and irritating this year after their strong performance last season, although things have improved in recent rounds. They also sensitively handled a serious accident involving Ryan Newman earlier in the season.

Former crew chief Larry McReynolds intervenes to provide analysis on strategy from Fox HQ in Charlotte, North Carolina, keeping some of the zaniness that Fox lost with Waltrip’s retirement. I can only imagine the madness when McReynolds, Joy and Waltrip used to be the commentary trio, until Gordon took McReynolds microphone following his racing retirement.

Fox’s pre-race coverage appears to be slimmer owing to the pandemic, with Joy and Gordon sometimes fronting the coverage rather than a studio host, although ex-driver Jamie McMurray also joins as an additional analyst at times.

Some races also include a build-up show called NASCAR Hub, presented by Shannon Spake with McReynolds and McMurray offering analysis, although this element is currently unavailable to UK fans.

Coverage benefits from excellent access level…
Fox’s on-air personnel access to drivers and strategists during races which an F1 journalist could only dream of, putting their coverage ahead of the field.

Reporters can interview crew chiefs during the race, whilst commentators can chat to drivers live during stage breaks (one of NASCAR’s many complications) and formation laps, both speaking to a wider positive relationship between the media and drivers.

Whilst I do not watch the Xfinity Series, Cup Series drivers often serve as analysts and commentators for the second tier of NASCAR.

Fox has also had driver-only broadcasts for the feeder series on occasion, with current Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick serving as lead commentator.

In addition to the incredible access to drivers and teams, Fox utilises an excellent array of camera angles. Drone cameras, helmet cameras and traditional onboards are just some of the options available to the television director.

The production team places the most impressive angles on the oval catch fencing, in my view truly showing the speed of the race cars as they skirt perilously close to the walls. I have also enjoyed the cockpit cameras which show the drivers wrestling with their cars, occasionally including their heart rate, revealing the true physical strength required to drive the machinery.

Unfortunately, the Premier Sports feed omits some of the standalone graphics which pair up with individual camera angles (e.g. telemetry), leading to a disjointed experience from one angle to the next.

…but the less said about adverts, the better
Despite the excellent qualities of Fox’s on-air personnel, as well as the fantastic racing, there are weaknesses to the product.

As is par for the course with American sport, it is frequently punctuated by ad breaks. Whilst Premier Sport do not cut to the ads, it does leave us Brits with no commentary for their duration. The inconsistent graphics also afflicts the breaks as the live leaderboard sometimes stays and sometimes goes.

Those who dedicate themselves to following every twist and turn may find themselves having to take multiple Monday’s off work.

Although most races air at around 20:00 UK time, races are frequently delayed by rain and thunderstorms. Oval racing cannot take place in the rain and thunderstorms are obviously a major safety concern.

The mid-afternoon start times in the US are peak storm time in many states and can result in hours long delays, or races moved to the Monday. Even the flagship Daytona 500 failed to miss the storm, moving to Monday after multiple rain delays which presumably hit Fox and NASCAR’s audience, not to mention revenues.

One area in which NASCAR does perform well is social media with their Twitter account having 3.4 million followers, significantly more than IndyCar, although NASCAR’s following has not increased to the level seen elsewhere recently.

Their channels have a nice mixture of content, with lots of video clips uploaded during the race. YouTube also offers plethora of highlights and other content, located on both the sport’s own channel as well as separate channels which the two main US broadcasters run.

Those who want to go even more in depth into the sport can find content such as Dale Earnhardt Jr’s (NBC co-commentator and ex-driver) podcast as well as highlights from the Xfinity and Truck series.

NASCAR is a difficult one to get into, as it does not follow the traditional motor racing championship system: NASCAR has stage points, playoff points and points for leading laps, making it all a tad confusing for the newbie.

It is also a sharp culture shock for British viewers where drivers are much more up front in blaming others, with the media playing up long running feuds between certain contenders. However, it has exciting racing and that is the main thing, right? Just enjoying the races on their own has worked for me. Do not be an oval snob!

Fox has done an admirable job in tough times in being able to put together a quality broadcast. Whilst I might not follow NASCAR as closely as I did during the F1 sabbatical I will certainly stick with the series as NBC take the reins for the back half of the 2020 season.

Have you watched NASCAR this year? What have you enjoyed or not enjoyed? Have your say in the comments below.

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One thought on “How Fox have adapted their NASCAR offering during the COVID-19 pandemic

  1. The Fox half is 16 races, NBC’s is 20. But note NBC’s INDYCAR splits only come when Townsend Bell is unavailable because of IMSA commitments as a driver. Oddly enough, during the early parts of INDYCAR, NBC gives NASCAR pit reporters Dave Burns, Kelli Stavast, and Marty Snider extra reps working INDYCAR races. All three were used at Texas, Indianapolis Road Course, and Road America as the primary pit reporters.

    Fox during the pandemic were forced to keep “booth” commentators in the Steve Byrnes Studio in Charlotte (named in memory of their late pit reporter who died of cancer in 2015), so only the pit reporter(s) were at the track and became the “eyes and ears” for the booth. They had ironically used the video gaming sessions to practice doing events in the studio in preparation for the return and working with their production staff.

    During the Joy-McReynolds-Waltrip era (2001-15), the three played roles and became stars as a trio, but Waltrip’s style was built, as he noted in his autobiography, not in commentary but on his friend Ralph Emery, a Nashville-area radio personality who hosted a late night show that lorry drivers listened on WSM Radio whilst cruising Interstate 40 or 65 on delivery trips, eventually becoming fill-in presenter for Emery’s later television show on WSM’s subscription channel (since sold and has disappeared; the signal is owned by Paramount Pictures now).

    NBC has made it clear Earnhardt is a game-changer. His podcasts have expanded into other motorsport (F1, INDYCAR, Supercars), and it was evident had NBC acquired F1 this season, he would have done more podcasts with F1 figures. Had the pandemic not hit, the network would have sent Earnhardt to MotoGP in Austin the way he has been on the IMSA Daytona 24 Hours and Indy 500 pit box to conduct interviews (just watch how Earnhardt and Steve Letarte, his former engineer, work together doing interviews in IMSA and INDYCAR). Imagine Ben Bostrom (NBC’s studio analyst) and Dale Earnhardt Jnr together on the Peacock Pit Box at MotoGP interviewing riders while Steve Letarte combs through a MotoGP motorcycle.

    NBC is keeping broadcasters in a Charlotte Motor Speedway studio.

    One more thing: Mike Joy, Allen Bestwick, Marty Snider, Adam Alexander, and Dillon Welch all went through the Motor Racing Network (MRN) radio network before moving to television. For years, it was said to be television ready, you had to spend time at MRN.

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