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Superstar Saturday Night Racing – Decent Competition, Less than Compelling TV

By John Chuhran

Made-for-television sporting events are risky.

Sometimes they tap into competitions that appeal to under-represented sports and they become a success – ESPN’s X Games are perhaps the best example.

In the case of Saturday night’s debut of the Camping World SRX (Superstar Racing eXperience) Racing Series, the program – Superstar Saturday Night – was mostly a big missed opportunity.

The founders of SRX – retired champion driver Tony Stewart, retired champion mechanic Ray Evernham, former NASCAR executive George Pyne, and 30-year sports marketer Sandy Montag – took two years to bring this project to the small screen. Turns out that the racing was decent, but you certainly could not tell by watching the telecast.

SRX seems to have originated with conversations between Stewart and Evernham and their memories of an iconic American racing series, the International Race of Champions (IROC), which was conducted from 1973 to 2006. Stewart won the final edition of the series and Evernham was a mechanic who helped build and service the cars so that they were “identically prepared” (a phrase that was emphasized throughout the run of IROC).

Photo Credit: SRX Racing

During the three decades of IROC competition, the series evolved as tracks came and went, cars were replaced (going from Porsches to Chevy Camaros to Dodge Chargers to Pontiac Firebirds), and driver invitations went from approximate equality among top racing series to becoming much more NASCAR-centric as that form of the sport achieved dominance in TV viewership.

Stewart and Evernham longed for the original form of pure competition. So, after Pyne and Montag cam aboard and secured broadcast coverage on CBS over six consecutive Saturday nights and title sponsorship from Camping World, Evernham focused on building a new design of car that would be racy – the cars should have a lot of power, significantly less grip (to allow for sliding and passing), and be easy to adjust and repair.

The other SRX principals sought to recruit top drivers. This was a task that was all but impossible. Twenty or 30 years ago, many drivers – Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Mark Martin, etc. – were permitted to drive in IROC even though they were contracted to specific brands in specific series. The money involved in modern racing is so big that most current driver contracts prevent racing in different cars or series. So, there are no current NASCAR drivers in the SRX and the only current IndyCar drivers – Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Helio Castroneves – are part-timers who are not competing for the IndyCar championship. They also signed road racer Ernie Francis Jr., the reigning seven-time champion of the Trans-Am series, a form of the sport without major car manufacturer support.

So, the SRX leadership went after retired drivers. They got stock car drivers Stewart, Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott and Michael Waltrip, IndyCar driver Paul Tracy, and Trans-Am legend Willy T. Ribbs.

They also added a novel and interesting twist. A twelfth driver – a local track champion would be added to each race.

Local, short-track, Saturday-night oval track auto racing are an institution in much of rural America. Short tracks tend to be slow, allowing competitors to bump and nudge their way to the front, sometimes sending rivals spinning or crashing in the process. The short length of the tracks – most are 5/8 of a mile or less – means that the speeds that most of these cars reach are about 80 mph, so severe injuries are rare. But the competition is intense.

In the inaugural SRX race – held at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway – it was the local star who won, the David who defeated the Goliaths (or, if we are referring to the geezers like Elliott and Ribbs, the Methuselahs). Doug Coby, a man who has literally driven thousands of laps at Stafford, came away with the win.

The racing in general was good. The two 15-minute heats were a bore because the drivers tried to save their cars for the 100-lap finale. There was some rubbing and elbows-out bumping that sent a few cars into spins or the wall, but nothing that left any driver the worse for wear; the same could not be said for some of the cars.

But the telecast left a lot to be desired. The driver analyst was Danica Patrick, who talked far too much – especially given that she has virtually zero short-track experience except for the four races a year she competed at Martinsville, VA, and Bristol, TN. Given that she never won a short track race, her insights were minimal and her ignorance was painfully obvious: “ ‘Awesome Bill?’ Is that what he was called? ” she asked veteran race announcer Allan Bestwick who was referring to Bill Elliott. Bestwick’s simple response of “Yes” was even worse.

How did Elliott get the nickname? Bestwick didn’t think it important to mention that Elliott hails from Dawsonville, GA. “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.” Why bother to tell the viewing audience of the almost-rhyme or the way he won three out of four designated races in 1985 to astound the racing world by earning an amazing $1 million bonus to get the nickname in the first place.

No, sir, we’ll just keep quiet about Elliott’s history (and those of the other drivers) so that this prime-time extravaganza – an attempt to interest non-racing fans in this new racing series – keeps viewers ignorant as to why these drivers were selected in the first place. Mention that Ribbs was the first African American to race in the Indy 500? No need to do that, either. The list of omissions is too long to fully list. But with a two-and-a-half hour show we got entertained by Bestwick and Patrick discussing what new name they should devise to refer to the caution periods. Yes, I’m sure that is the way to educate and inform the viewers.

Staying in the “let’s just make rambling comments that do not tell the viewers anything of substance” category, others holding microphones could share in the guilt. Brad Daughtry, the former NBA player-turned NASCAR team owner, mentioned how drivers asked for adjustments of air pressure and wedge. This would have been a perfect spot to show a bit of animation of what that would accomplish. Too bad they didn’t spend the money to do it. Limited budget that didn’t allow for animation? Buy an ice cream cone (without the ice cream) and roll it on the ground – that illustrates the effect of the changes clearly enough for any race fan to understand. I guess it’s too much to ask.

And could someone please tell me what host Lindsay Czarniak actually added to the broadcast? She opened her mouth, apparently words came out, but the net benefit of those sounds was the equivalent of what the teacher said in the Charlie Brown animated holiday shows – a lot of noise, but nothing worth remembering.

Matt Yocum did an adequate job of handling interviews in the pits and with the winner, but he sure did not ask any questions that many viewers were probably thinking. For instance, since most of these guys had not raced in some time, perhaps asking what it felt like to drive a race car after such a long layoff. Nope, we’re not going to ask that in a telecast that lasts 2.5 hours to cover 75 miles of racing.

Whoever designed the paint scheme on the cars has zero understanding of TV and should be fired. The talking heads in the broadcast booth kept referring to cars that were “blue” or “magenta.” They were lying.

The majority color on ALL the SRX cars was grey with minority colors accenting the grey. Anyone who watched the broadcast could not help but notice that older asphalt fades from black to…wait for it…grey. Since short tracks are like minor league baseball parks and have relatively poor lighting, everything looked grey. On my 65-inch TV, the show didn’t quite look like it was shot in black-and-white, but it wasn’t far from it. What could make anyone think that grey looks exciting in 1080p?

I understand why it happened. Some Einstein wanted to say, “see, we’re projecting the ‘brand’ spectacularly on all the cars” since a giant, grey “X” was on both sides of each car. But that could have been accomplished with ANY color. Grey looks like it was the primer and the painting was unfinished. It was a horrible decision. Paint the cars different the different colors they should have been all along (like the original IROC cars) and use DIFFERENT CONTRASTING colors for the “X” branding.

Because the cars had tiny names for drivers on the sides and miniscule numbers, the viewer could not tell who was in the cars on the screen. Again, go back to the later years of the original IROC – put the drivers’ last names in GIANT letters on the sides of the cars and a GIANT car number on the roof. Slide the driver names back a little to allow for the Camping World logo to be prominent on the side behind the front wheels.

If they are too lazy to do that, at least put graphics of drivers names on the screen with arrows or lines going to the car they represent so the viewer can see which drivers are in a battle for position.

The graphics of the in-race standings that crawled along the top were far from clear – get a more distinctive font and use a different color because the brown certainly will not show up well at the two dirt-track races among the final five events. Since no viewers care about the car numbers, make sure the driver’s name on the graphic is the same color as his car.

Whoever selected the camera locations took the safe approach which allowed cars to remain in one shot for an extended period of time. It also meant that the cars looked painfully slow. Put the cameras closer to the track and get more of them – this is a prime-time TV show and the budget should allow for expenses that show the excitement of racing, not a parade.

I don’t know who was directing, but he missed virtually every one of the on-track incidents. Viewers only got to see them by replay. Hire a director who understands racing and correctly anticipates what is unfolding (the best ones can do it).

This is not rocket science or brain surgery. It is common sense – at least to anyone who has worked in TV. Since this is a made-for-TV product, make sure your product looks good on TV.

These problems are most definitely easy to see. Some people did not do their jobs and apparently did not test these things – the graphics, the visual on-camera appearance of the cars – and for that lack of professionalism there is no excuse. Especially since we were told more than once that the series took two years to come to fruition.

The broadcast didn’t completely stink. The back-story features – including interviews with Castroneves and Coby – provided decent insight into the personalities of these drivers. That is the ticket to gain more viewers who are not diehard race fans. If you doubt it, check what Castroneves’ appearance on Dancing With The Stars some years ago did for his name recognition and popularity.

There are still five races to go in the inaugural Camping World SRX Racing Series, so there are many chances to improve the telecast. But after the debut, I have doubts that anyone involved cares enough to do what is necessary to make a first-class show. Time will tell if this chance to recruit new racing fans becomes a totally wasted opportunity.

John Chuhran has spent more than three decades as writer, editor, publisher, public relations executive, TV director and TV producer in the world of auto racing. He has been awarded nearly two dozen honors for his work.


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