Rain-Delayed Emotions

Hearing that there is a rain delay of any event always instills a sense of fear in me, and I suspect most die-hard fans of the sport.

We've all been there before. We know that one of two things will happen, and neither of them necessarily good for the viewing experience.

Either the race will be delayed to the point where it will switch channels, or - if carried on a broadcast network - it won't be shown at all. And the other option is the race is delayed until Monday, when most folks won't be around to watch it.

ESPN, broadcasting its final Winston Cup race for who knows how many years, found itself in that situation last weekend with the NAPA 500 being pushed to Monday.

On Sunday, ESPN programmers had to reach into the vault for a race to rerun to fill the airtime. What they came out with was a gem: The 1992 finale at Atlanta.

Whether it was planned or not, ESPN was able to turn around what could have been a usually horrible experience for viewers into what was a poignant day.

The network's decision to pull out the 1992 race was a masterstroke for a couple of reasons.

Going into Sunday's race, everyone knew it was the last Winston Cup telecast for ESPN, which carried an emotional burden to start. So to replace it with an equally emotional event was an excellent move.

The 1992 event, of course, was the one that won Alan Kulwicki the championship. It was a dramatic finish to a topsy-turvy season that came down to Kulwicki winning because of keen pit work that kept the Wisconsin native in front for more laps than Bill Elliott to win the title. The race on the track was just the surface, though.

The telecast also brought back to fans two drivers, Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who less than a year later would be killed in separate flying accidents.

In seeking to fill a vacuum left open by the delayed event, ESPN pulled out something that perfectly demonstrated their past efforts, and a race that pulled at the heartstrings of all who watched then and now.

On another level, the race was also a good yardstick from which to measure where the sport was and is now. Kulwicki's story was intense because he was a driver-owner, who declined offers to drive for big teams so he could continue on his own.

There hasn't been a driver-owner champion since he died in 1993.

The race also served as a good example from which to compare how far NASCAR coverage has grown.

The downside to all of this is that a large portion of the audience there for Sunday, wasn't around for Monday's telecast.

As usual, ESPN's telecast was top-notch, although one couldn't help but watch and listen to every word said without thinking that this was an ending. I couldn't help but wait for those telltale signs that one of the broadcasters would break down on air.

Fittingly, ESPN's last race ended with a first-time winner in Jerry Nadeau.

"You showed your strength all day," Jerry Punch told a misty-eyed Nadeau. "It's OK to show your emotions."

In a sense, it was also a signal that it was OK for the broadcasters to show their emotions.

Shortly after, Benny Parsons, who next season will call races for NBC, began ESPN's farewell.

"Bob, the past 12 years have been an absolute privilege and a pleasure, and I love you man," Parsons said.

"Thank you, you too BP," Jenkins said, voice cracking.

Ned Jarrett noted it was his last race, as he was stepping away from broadcasting. A composed Jenkins then went into a lengthy goodbye, which bears repeating.

"Every once and a while magic happens, that special combination that just cannot be explained, it just happens," Jenkins said. "On a Sunday afternoon at Rockingham in 1981, the magic began. We now arrive at a moment that every member of this team has wished would never come for over a year. The time we knew we must all go our separate ways.

"As the senior member of our team, I've accepted the responsibility of saying farewell. And believe me its not easy. Benny, Ned, Jerry, John (Kernan), Bill (Weber), Mike Wells our director, and Neil Goldberg our producer, and a lot of other behind-the-scenes people and I have become like family over the years. And although I, and several other members of this team, will continue to be seen on ESPN, our time together as a team is over.

“We thank everyone at NASCAR and the various tracks we've visited. But most importantly we thank you our fans, who have contributed so much to our coverage down through the years. It was for you that we've done this since 1981. And without you, there would have been no magic."

ESPN then ran an equally touching clip package of highlights from the beginning to now. Wisely, ESPN ended with an on-air graphic saying “Thank You,” rather than returning to the anchors, which left viewers to linger in the memories.

ESPN's magic may have ended, but there is hope for the future. NBC, Fox and TBS have populated their broadcast booths with familiar faces such as Parsons, Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip.

ESPN, however, has set the bar very high for the new guys. We'll know for sure how they'll fare in just 87 days.

Also: It was interesting to see how quickly the folks at UPS have been able to put together new commercials featuring Dale Jarrett. Robert Yates Racing and UPS officially unveiled their new sponsorship partnership last weekend and had UPS commercials with Jarrett during Sunday's race.

Meanwhile, and to leave you with a final thought, if NASCAR racing has gotten so large and truly become America's fastest-growing sport, then why must drivers appear in non-racing commercials in their uniforms? For example, Jarrett did a spot for Outback Steakhouses with broadcaster John Madden, in which Madden and everyone else were in street clothes, while Jarrett was in his uniform. Why? Why is that the case if racing - and more importantly, its personalities - are a national phenomenon?

Happy Thanksgiving.

If you have questions, comments or ideas you'd like to send to Richard Huff, you may do so at RichardMHuff@cs.com

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