Selling Soap Suds

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The question isn’t whether Darrell Waltrip could compete in a Craftsman truck series race. Back when the earth was still cooling old DW turned a few laps at what he’d no doubt call “this joint”. Being a former Winston Cup champion there was little doubt he was capable of gaining NASCAR’s approval to race at Martinsville. And Waltrip has run a few truck series events previously without messing things up too badly. The question is whether Waltrip should have run the truck race last Saturday, and on that issue the jury is still out.

On a positive note some race fans who don’t regularly tune in to the truck races might have watched because Waltrip was in the race, some of them hoping to see him do well and some hoping he’d get a badly needed lesson in humility. Those fans are missing some of the best racing in the world not watching truck races. That could be of long term benefit for the sport, though as long as the races are on the Speed Channel a lot of folks who want to watch the trucks can’t.

Waltrip stated his reason for wanting to race (other than ego maintenance issues) was to learn how the changes made to Martinsville effected the way drivers get around the race track. Well if that was the goal it would have been a whole lot easier to let Waltrip take a few laps in a Cup car around the track during a test session.

The downside was the race broadcast on Saturday wasn’t actually coverage of the Advance Auto Parts 250. It was the Darrell Waltrip show presented by Tide. In exchange for their sponsoring Waltrip for the race, the Proctor and Gamble soap suds folks got an amount of coverage, on screen time for their logos, and mentions all out of proportion to the driver they backed and his seventh place result. Conversely the six drivers who finished ahead of Waltrip and their sponsors got less on screen time, mentions and Joyce Julius minutes than they would have during a normal race broadcast. (For newcomers, the Joyce Julius organization dissects each race broadcast, counting how many seconds each sponsors’ logo appears clearly on screen or how many times that sponsors’ name is mentioned. Sponsors look at what sort of exposure they get and what it would have cost to buy an ad minute during the broadcast to see if they are getting a good value.) And that soap suds brand got more than a few mentions during the qualifying and Winston Cup broadcast as well. With Michael Waltrip, rapidly becoming the sports number one shill, added to the booth crew Aaron’s also got countless mentions though they don’t sponsor a truck. Nor does Tide most weekends. With FOX putting sponsors feet to the fire to force them to buy ad minutes to have their name used or their logos on screen it seems like a conflict of interest to allow one of their broadcasters to strike separate deals to do the same for his personal enrichment. (You didn’t think Darrell did those annoying Aaron’s commercials for free, did you?)

What’s more, one driver who didn’t get any air time at all this weekend was Tina Gordon who had been leading the rookie of the year standings in the truck series prior to Martinsville. Because Waltrip entered the race he bumped a series regular from the field even as the series desperately tries to line up more full time teams. Yes, Waltrip qualified fair and square, but this issue hearkens back to Winston Cup drivers running in the Busch series getting all the air time, winning all the races, sending regulars home and grabbing too much of the prize money. If I recall correctly (he tends to take both sides of an issue to avoid being wrong) Waltrip doesn’t see the Busch series interlopers to be a serious problem. But then again his brother, a Winston Cup regular, competes in the Busch series and the sponsor of that team employs Darrell in their commercials so it wouldn’t be in his best interests to speak out against the interlopers or even acknowledge such a controversy exists.

That’s another gray area. With one of the booth crew competing in a race, and the entire FOX network backing and promoting the effort, do Waltrip and FOX have to be careful what they say to avoid problems getting through tech inspection or an unwarranted penalty during the race? Recall last year Wally Dallenbach had some rather pointed things to say about NASCAR and lo and behold he wound up getting penalized during one of those Busch races he ran. With the whole yellow line passing issue at Talladega refusing to die, FOX basically gave NASCAR’s Mike Helton an opportunity to spout the party line without having to face questions on the issue Sunday morning. No one at FOX could have been watching the monitors because even as Helton discussed the relative positions of the 8 and 17 car, the video clearly showed the 48 car was actually leading the race and Junior passed the 48 below the yellow line. It’s not like FOX race broadcasts have a lot of gumption anyway but might not a cynic wonder if NASCAR let DW run an oversize engine in exchange for whitewashing the controversy despite the fact all three members of the booth crew noted the 8 car straying below the line during the live broadcast? (No doubt to NASCAR’s considerable consternation though they didn’t send Big Mike next door to holler at them this time like they did after the Brian Vickers incident.)

There also needs to be concern for what happens if the TV broadcaster in the race causes a wreck that takes out points leaders in the series or drivers whose teams don’t have a backup truck. Waltrip said he took special care around the points leaders not wanting a one race deal to spoil someone’s chances of being champion. But last year Wally Dallenbach mixed it up with Busch points series leader Greg Biffle even getting enraged over the radio to the point it sounded like he might wreck Biffle if he didn’t back off. What if such an incident did occur and the other driver involved lost a championship (with all it’s career implications and lost sponsor exposure) because of it?

Then there’s the issue of what Waltrip is doing out there the day before he’s supposed to be broadcasting a race. What if he were in a wreck and suffered a concussion. He might spend Sunday rambling on like a man taken leave of his senses. Oh, never mind. But what if the doctors wanted to hold him for 24 hours for observation or treatment of badly sprained vocal cords. FOX would have to broadcast a race without old DW. That would be like Christmas without a house fire, like a beach vacation without a hurricane, or an episode of Friends without Ross. Right. Never mind.

To avoid the conflict of interest, it would seem a better idea to have Waltrip run races during the NBC portion of the season. (And Dallenbach run races during the FOX portions of the season naturally.) That way the race broadcast would show those two drivers only in proper proportion to their achievements during the race. Sponsors would only sign on with the normal chances of getting increased exposure, not a guarantee, and might decide to back another team full time rather the DW and Mikey dog and pony show. And NASCAR would be powerless to quiet dissent by the broadcaster participating in the race. While most business ventures go out of their way to avoid even a hint of impropriety or conflict of interest, FOX seems to revel in boasting of the same. There is no clear line separating what is in effect the church and state (the editorial and advertising departments) and that distinction is becoming so blurred it’s essentially eliminated. We’re not seeing race coverage. We’re seeing a three hour infomercial paid for by sponsors occasionally interrupted with a commercial break.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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