ESPN and the NHRA: The truth

ince this is a column about TV – NHRA-on-ESPN2 -- let’s start with the most often asked question:

Why aren’t final eliminations shown live?

After all, this is what Ron Capps and Brandon Bernstein and others have told me is “needed to take NHRA to the next level.” TNN did some live shows before ESPN took over in 2001.

Sorry, but producer Eric Swaringen says that’s about as likely as John Force giving Gary Gerould the silent treatment.

“Because of crashes, explosions, fires, oildowns, you never know when that final round is going to happen,” said Swaringen in an extensive April interview in the ESPN2 production trailer at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “You can guess, but the chance of hitting that (time) window is maybe 50-50. So what happens if you get to the semifinals with an oildown? The finals could run an hour later than they’re supposed to.

“ESPN and NHRA have talked a lot: How could we make this work? We’d love to do it. It would be more exciting for the fans, but logistically, you’re handcuffing yourself and taking a chance on not being able to see the finals until later that night, maybe on some other ESPN channel.”

Using the current three-hour slot as a model, I wondered why the opening two rounds in all the Full Throttle classes couldn’t be presented as highlights. Then, televise the semis and finals as they happened.

I asked Alan Johnson about this. Specifically, how quick crews could turn-around the cars if it meant live TV.

“We could do it really fast if we had a big enough budget,” explained the Al-Anabi team co-owner. “That’s where the problem lies: If we had TV like NASCAR, and got paid for it, then we could afford to have more guys and more inventory to where you’d just change an engine and be back in 25 minutes.”

No surprise, Johnson straight-talked about the issue of ESPN’s fairly rigid time availabilities: “It depends on what sport you have. Drag racing kind of sits in the back seat. If an NCAA basketball game goes an extra 20 minutes, they are going to show it, right?”

Paul Page has pretty much seen-it-all -- and said-it-all -- in motorsports broadcasting. He revealed this was his first question when he got the assignment in 2006.

“I was asking, ‘Why can’t we get to live,’” Page said, sitting at his announce position. “Now that I’ve watched it, if anybody had an oildown in the semis, and you’ve plotted time to the finals, nothing works. You could argue, let’s put (an extra) half-hour on the clock, (but) the minute you turn to interview-after-interview, the rating plummets, even though the connoisseur will say, ‘No, I’ll watch to the end.’