ESPN’s Live NASCAR Race Coverage Takes Checkered Flag

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After 28 years and 398 races, ESPN’s live telecasts of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing took the checkered flag Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the telecast of the 2014 season finale. Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

The race marked the end of ESPN’s eight-year contract with NASCAR, which began in 2007. Previously, ESPN had televised live NASCAR racing from 1981-2000. Beginning in 2015, Fox and NBC will split the NASCAR season.

“We’ve enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with NASCAR,” said John Skipper, ESPN president. “NASCAR was a fundamental building block for ESPN during our first two decades and will always be an important part of our history. We have tremendous respect for all in the sport and wish them well. 

“While we won’t be televising NASCAR races after this season, the only thing ending in our relationship with NASCAR is the live racing. NASCAR coverage will continue to live on all ESPN platforms going into the future.”

How It Started

ESPN’s history with NASCAR began in March of 1981, less than two years after the network launched in September of 1979, with the tape-delayed airing of its first NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Rockingham, N.C. At the time, only the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race, aired live in its entirety, and that had only started in 1979. Selected other events either aired live in part or on a delayed basis, sometimes weeks later, on broadcast network television.

After three more delayed telecasts in 1981, ESPN aired its first live flag-to-flag telecast of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Nov. 8, 1981, from Atlanta. From that race forward, with a few exceptions, the NASCAR races airing on ESPN were live and the entire race was shown, setting a pattern that resonated with viewers. And as ESPN added races to its schedule in the next several years, and other networks did as well, the NASCAR premier series schedule was on its way to being fully televised.

ESPN televised 262 races from NASCAR’s premier series from 1981-2000, an era of unprecedented growth for both NASCAR and ESPN. During a time when individual racetracks made their own deals for television, ESPN introduced a national audience to races telecast from classic NASCAR tracks such as Bristol, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and others that had seldom been seen on TV. In 1990, ESPN aired its all-time high of 20 events.

“If you look back on the history of both ESPN and NASCAR separately, you come back to ESPN and NASCAR together inevitably,” said Allen Bestwick, anchor for ESPN’s NASCAR telecasts, who called the season finale. “NASCAR was this budding sport that had all this product, this great racing and these great characters, and it needed exposure, and this thing called cable TV came along, and this group that had an idea for a 24‑hour all‑sports television network, and they needed sports, and they got together.”

NASCAR took over the TV rights for the premier series with its first national TV contract in 2001 and ESPN was out of the sport as a broadcaster of live races for six seasons. But a new contract brought the final 17 races of the season back to ESPN and ABC in 2007 along with the full schedule for the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

The Voices

Bob Jenkins was a central figure in ESPN’s live NASCAR race telecasts for the first 20 years as the lap-by-lap announcer, joined by analyst Larry Nuber in the early years and then later by former NASCAR champions Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons in the booth as analysts. 

Dr. Jerry Punch, who joined ESPN in 1984, was a pit reporter for 17 of ESPN’s first 20 years of NASCAR Sprint Cup coverage and also called some races from the booth, including the memorable Talladega race in 2000 that was the last win for the late Dale Earnhardt. Punch remains with ESPN today and was the only announcer who worked on Sprint Cup race telecasts in both ESPN eras.

Dr. Dick Berggren and John Kernan also had long runs as pit reporters during ESPN’s first 20 years in NASCAR while Nuber, Jack Arute, Bill Weber and Ray Dunlap also contributed to coverage from the pits.

Bestwick and analysts Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were the voices calling the race in ESPN’s NASCAR booth in recent years, with pit reporters Dave Burns, Jamie Little, Vince Welch and Punch. Analysts Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty joined host Nicole Briscoe on the pre-race NASCAR Countdown program.

Among other announcers who contributed to ESPN’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race telecasts over the past eight seasons: analysts Tim Brewer, Ricky Craven and Ray Evernham, anchor Marty Reid, pit reporters Mike Massaro and Shannon Spake, reporter Marty Smith and pre-race show hosts Brent Musburger and Suzy Kolber.

Innovations in Coverage

Along the way in both periods of NASCAR on ESPN, the network has been a leader in innovations to elevate the coverage of the sport, with the live racing honored with 19 Sports Emmy Awards, as well as many industry honors, including the NASCAR Award of Excellence (1989) and the National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Award (1987).

“It has been a wonderful ride, to say the least, filled with so many great memories, friendships, as well as some really high level of production over the years that I have nothing but pride as I think backwards,” said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports, production. “We have always constantly looked for technical innovations that could make the shows more entertaining for our viewers.”

Notable innovations and firsts in ESPN’s NASCAR coverage:

1981 – ESPN airs its first live, flag-to-flag telecast of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Atlanta on Nov. 8.

1985 – ESPN is first network to have live telecast of qualifying for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race

1989 -- Introduction of “crew cam” attached to a member of Rusty Wallace’s crew at Rockingham – followed by other unique innovations including telemetry, “CableCam,” “FootCam,” “RoofCam,” “SuspensionCam” and the use of an infrared camera and roving reporters.

1991 – Introduction of “Tread Cam” buried in the asphalt at Indianapolis Raceway Park for telecast of a NASCAR Nationwide Series race – the innovation won a Sports Emmy Award for Point of View Technology.

1996 – “rpm2night” becomes TV’s first daily motorsports news show

2007 -- First time a single network had televised entire NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule

2007 – ESPN is first network to televise NASCAR fully in high definition with the first use of HD in-car cameras

2007 -- First network to record/have available for playback all 43 team radios during a race telecast

2007 -- First network to have enclosed mobile studio for cutaway race car and demonstration of technical elements of racing (Emmy Award-winning ESPN Tech Garage)

2008 -- First network to have two female pit reporters on NASCAR Sprint Cup telecasts (Jamie Little and Shannon Spake)

2009 -- ESPN2’s NASCAR Now originates live from the White House, the first regularly-scheduled ESPN program ever to do so. President Obama is interviewed on the program.

2011 – Introduction of “NASCAR NonStop” for split-screen commercial breaks during second half of all Chase races (ESPN pioneered split-screen commercial breaks in IndyCar coverage in 2006)

2011 – Introduction of dual path technology in Sprint Cup coverage, allowing views from two different onboard cameras in same shot for first time

2013 – NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson becomes first active athlete to guest host ESPN’s signature news and information program SportsCenter

 The Final Race

While the Miami race will be ESPN’s final NASCAR Sprint Cup race telecast for the foreseeable future, the focus during the telecast was on the championship battle, with no nostalgia or prolonged farewells.

When the two-hour NASCAR Countdown program ended on Sunday, Briscoe handed off to the booth with a brief closing.

“That just about does it – the finale of NASCAR Countdown,” she said. “Let me just say it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for allowing us into your homes for so many weeks throughout the NASCAR season.”

Hours later, after Harvick received the championship trophy and was interviewed by Punch, Bestwick ended the telecast with recognition of those who had worked in the booth during ESPN’s years in the sport.

“What a fitting finish to the season and our eight-year run of NASCAR on ESPN,” Bestwick said. “Now for Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber, for Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett, for Dale Jarrett and Andy, Petree, Allen Bestwick, so long from Homestead.”

© 2017 Michigan International Speedway

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