10 Years of Speed: Rockin’ Pursuit of Nextel Series

May 1, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TelevisionWeek

Kenny Wallace’s opinion is that NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne would make a lovely woman if he grew his hair a little longer.

“He’s a beautiful man,” Mr. Wallace shouted to the 3,000-strong crowd gathered around him and his co-hosts as they goofed off during a commercial break while filming Speed’s weekly live pre-race show, “NASCAR RaceDay,” from Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth.

That humorous sentiment may have been expressed off-camera, but it fits with the overall tone of “RaceDay,” one of the most successful nonevent shows on Speed, the North Carolina-based cable network devoted to all things automotive.

“It’s pre-race show meets rock show,” said Speed Executive VP and General Manager Hunter Nickell. “The idea is, cover everything going on leading up to the Nextel Cup [Series] race and have a blast doing it.”

The rock concert comparison is easy to understand. The hosts broadcast from a raised octagonal wooden deck, provided each week by Home Depot (also a longtime NASCAR sponsor), right in the thick of the action at whichever raceway the Nextel Cup Series takes them to each week, be it in Las Vegas, Atlanta or Phoenix. Speakers blare rap and rock music. NASCAR employees toss T-shirts and other swag to the screaming fans, many of whom are holding signs like those you might see on “American Idol.” A poster reading “Marry me, Kasey” was what prompted Mr. Wallace’s joke about Mr. Kahne’s appearance.

Behind the party atmosphere, “RaceDay’s” purpose is to take fans behind the scenes — physically and contextually — of every Nextel Cup race. The show comprises a series of live interviews with drivers, crew chiefs and other experts; prerecorded packages showing NASCAR stars at home or on the town; and, of course, a wealth of pre-race analysis provided by three hosts who definitely appear to be having a blast.

Mr. Wallace, a veteran NASCAR driver who juggles hosting duties with an active race schedule; two-time Winston Cup champ Jimmy Spencer, who still drives part-time; and longtime sports anchor John Roberts are responsible for keeping the live audience fired up and the at-home viewers tuned in.

Rick Miner, senior VP of programming and production for Speed, was the one who first thought of bringing these guys together.

Mr. Wallace, nicknamed “The Hermanator,” is known for his boisterous and mischievous personality on the circuit, while Mr. Spencer earned the moniker “Mr. Excitement” for being involved in more than a few trackside scuffles over the course of his career.

Neither The Hermanator nor Mr. Excitement was sure the arrangement would work out when offered the show.

According to Mr. Spencer, he said, “‘I don’t think Kenny and I can get along.’ Kenny and [his wife] said the same thing-‘I don’t think he and Jimmy can get along.’ But Rick said, ‘I don’t want you guys to change. I think your personalities are enough. It’ll be really good.'”

Mr. Roberts-or “J.R.,” as his co-hosts refer to him-is the experienced TV personality of the bunch, while Mr. Wallace and Mr. Spencer are called upon to bring the hard-hitting analysis and insider perspective.

As Mr. Miner predicted, the results have been good. “RaceDay” is averaging a 1.12 rating in 737,000 households since its February premiere, up 29

percent from the show’s previous incarnation, “NASCAR This Morning.”

Mr. Nickell thinks that watching the sparks fly between Mr. Wallace and Mr. Spencer is a huge part of the show’s overall appeal.

“The chemistry with those guys and John Roberts is better than I ever thought,” he said. “They are veterans of the sport, they express their opinions and they both have great senses of humor.”

The changes in the show’s format occurred after Chris Long, Speed’s VP of studio production, came on board the network about a year ago to take charge of nonevent programming. Formerly a producer at Fox Sports, with experience staging the Super Bowl and the World Series-the biggest of the big events in sports broadcasting-Mr. Long was anxious to dig in at Speed.

“Any [show] where there’s a desk and an anchor, I’m in charge,” he said. But Mr. Long was not going to be happy with just a desk and just an anchor. His first order of business: Change everything around.

“What I wanted to do was give each show its own individual look, so that when you turned on the TV you could identify the show with the music, the teaser, the talent,” Mr. Long said.

Restructuring the Show

After revamping “Trackside,” Speed’s Friday night NASCAR preview show, he started in on “NASCAR This Morning,” changing its name to “NASCAR RaceDay” and taking it out of the studio and onto the track (or as close as logistically possible).

“I’m the one who just blew up the whole show and started from scratch,” Mr. Long said. “The show needed to be structured. The pacing needed to be built. We needed to identify it as a party show.”

Now “RaceDay” opens with shots of cars whizzing by to the music of Foo Fighters and REM. The broadcasting deck is set up closer to the track and fans surround it on all sides. Mr. Long also added packaged long-form interviews and more off-track segments to the mix with an ESPN-meets-MTV-meets-“Biography” approach.

He has been pleased with what Mr. Wallace and Mr. Spencer-both seasoned athletes but new to sports anchoring-have contributed to the show.

“Kenny is a lightning rod for energy,” he said. “He feeds off that crowd, just like Jimmy. Their job is to tell it like it is. They’re great guys and willing to learn … and they’re open to constructive criticism. They just want so much for this show to be successful.”

That yen to put on a successful show has led Mr. Wallace and Mr. Spencer to do a few things onscreen that they probably couldn’t have pictured doing a year ago. During one show Mr. Long devised a concept that gave a whole new meaning to the term “drag racing”-he had Mr. Spencer (someone who is notorious on the circuit for being a tough guy) dress up as a woman, pretending to be “Mrs. Spencer,” his mother. Another skit had Mr. Spencer and Mr. Wallace appearing with powdered wigs, wearing judge’s robes.

“Chris is a rascal like that,” Mr. Spencer said. “But he really supports Kenny and me. He goes to bat for us. If we make a mistake, he tells us how he thinks we should do it and he’s quick to give us credit.”

No-Sugarcoating Zone

Both Mr. Wallace and Mr. Spencer said that the biggest challenge they faced when they assumed their hosting duties was learning the technical ropes, such as remembering which camera to look at or being able to proceed with an interview when their earpieces are going haywire and blasting feedback into their ears. Mr. Wallace also found out that you couldn’t poll the audience to see which beer they like best because NASCAR’s long and loyal relationship with Anheuser-Busch makes talk about competitors such as Miller Brewing a no-no.

But they have also found working behind the scenes to be a natural fit, despite the urge to actually be racing instead of just discussing it.

“I have so many people confused, asking, ‘Are you a TV guy or a race car guy?'” Mr. Wallace said. “So I say, ‘Yeah, both.'”

Instead of disturbing his racing, Mr. Wallace maintains that working on television at the same time has actually helped him focus. At the Pepsi 300 in Bristol, Tenn., a Busch Series event, there was a snow delay and Speed called on him to do interviews with drivers and crew members to fill time on the telecast. After working on-camera for about two hours, Mr. Wallace drove his AutoZone car in the race and finished eighth out of 43. (He is currently ranked 14th in the Busch Series standings.)

“A lot of people think, how can you concentrate doing both?” Mr. Wallace said. “Really, what it does is it calms your nerves. I can do TV and jump in the car and just about win the race, and that’s very gratifying.”

Wallace also enjoys doing “RaceDay” because it brings viewers the world of NASCAR from the perspective of people who know the ins and outs of racing.

“I do like that I’m part of this new era where athletes actually report and fans get the real story instead of somebody talking about something from hearsay,” he said. “We tell the truth and we don’t sugarcoat anything and I say we paint black and white. We don’t use watercolors when we paint.”

“We could talk for three hours every Sunday and not even touch 25 percent of what’s going to happen that day,” Mr. Spencer said. “We went through these experiences that the drivers are going through and the crew members are going through and I think the fans really get a better understanding of what’s happening. And I think that’s why it’s working so well.”