Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press was able to do something that even the 2019 aero package couldn’t. With her critiquing article about the FOX NASCAR broadcast, and specifically how Darrell Waltrip should walk away, she has divide the NASCAR fan base clear down the middle.
On one side, you have those who speak of Waltrip’s legacy and how he doesn’t deserve criticism because of what he means to the sport. On the other, you have those who think Waltrip is the worst and simply a caricature spouting off goofy things without adding anything to the broadcast.
My feelings are his broadcast career has mirrored his driving career. He came in as something fresh and entertaining. Now he’s burning through past champion provisionals and limping to the finish line. It would have been best if he retired a few years prior, but here we are.
Fryer went on to attack the stellar Mike Joy as well, but his issues are not his own doing and this is what is wrong with the current NASCAR broadcast. Whether it’s on FOX and especially on NBC, the NASCAR broadcast has been a circus in the booth of everyone needing to talk all the time.
I recently concluded watching a 1992 ESPN broadcast from Martinsville and that was a striking contrast to what I just recently saw with FOX at Martinsville. In the booth back then was lead announcer Bob Jenkins and commentators Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons. That right there is the first sign of trouble. Joy, Waltrip and Jeff Gordon are all billed as announcers. Meaning they are equals, when they should not be, let me explain.
During the 1992 broadcast, Jenkins would talk about 50% of the time, Parsons was about 30% and Jarrett was 20%. Watching other broadcasts and Parsons/Jarrett would rise and lower depending on the event. Jenkins would carry the broadcast, calling the action, with Parsons and Jarrett chiming in with information about what the drivers or crew were going through. This is the formula that other sports use as well, since everyone loves comparing NASCAR to stick and ball sports.
That is a far cry from the current broadcast where Joy gets about 30 to 40% of the calls and Waltrip/Gordon fight for the remaining 60 to 70%. Flashback to 1992, there was times the broadcast went silent for a few laps or Jarrett honestly disappeared for a good 15 minutes. Not knowing what is going on behind the scenes, I could see it as he determined he had nothing to add, so it was not worth saying anything.
Jumping back to present, if Waltrip is quiet too long, he immediately jumps in and rambles, almost like he needs to have his voice heard again. Again, not knowing behind the scenes, but the way FOX/NBC has pumped up the commentators, I wouldn’t be surprised if they instruct him to talk whether he has anything or not. Move to NBC and their four-man booth of Rick Allen, Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Since the addition of Earnhardt, Allen’s role as lead announcer has vanished and that has led to a circus in the booth.
Earnhardt has been position as the star of the show, so he gets about 50% of the broadcast with the other three battling for the remaining 50%. This has led to Allen disappearing for most of the time, then Burton and Letarte literally screaming over each other to be heard.
You need a lead announcer to call the race and sprinkle in the expertise of those around them. The broadcasts now are just about how to leverage the network’s stars and push their talking points. Not observing the action unfolding on the track and providing insight into what is going on for fans to understand.
And for the record, in 1992 Ned Jarrett was around 25 years removed from his last race as a driver, but was still as informative as ever when it came to insight on what was going on with the drivers.