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photo by Jeff Burk


Baseball and drag racing, now there's an odd oleo. Ostensibly, nothing in common. About the only point where they dovetail is that both sports have swingers. The baseball players do it during and sometimes after the game; the drag racers definitely do it after the game, and that's about it. Oh uniforms, forgot that, they both have those. Anyway....

What put me on this particular off-ramp of what might seem impending weirdness was the Labor Day joust on ESPN. It really was the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox game versus drag racing on network TV, and the players stuck and balled drag racing once again.

The deal was this: the Yanks were playing the Boston Red Sox and, because of a couple of rain delays, the game ran long, real long ... long enough so that the scheduled 3 p.m. central time start of the coverage of the NHRA U.S. Nationals was pushed back nearly 2 1/2 hours.

Right away I thought this is a fine how-dya-do for the drag racing set. The U.S. Nationals, love it or hate it, is the sport's biggest event and ESPN is the exclusive provider of TV coverage for NHRA. Again, this isn't the NHRA Woodsy the Owl Fire Prevention Nationals, this is Indy, the association's bride and groom statue atop the quad-tiered wedding cake, and one they got their faces buried in.

And by a baseball game. The Yankees and Red Sox, one of the two teams' 164 games (or is it 162? Whatever, it's about 100 too many) games in the American League schedule, and one that had very little impact on the upcoming World Series. The Yanks are most likely going to the Series; Boston is going to the outhouse. All the Beantowners have is a very distant shot at a wild card slot. Big damn deal. Who cares? It's a second-rate attraction that was bogged down in the East Coast mists, producing more snores than scores.

Excuse me for a possible sacrilege, but isn't there enough baseball on TV already? Televised baseball games are like a pair of pants -- damn near everyone's got one. I don't care what time you walk into a bar or restaurant, you look up and there's a baseball game on, either that or some narcissistic clods grinning their way to sexy abs.

ESPN definitely was aware of this baseball intrusion into the world of drag racing. How do I know this? Because the last hour of the game's ad content changed dramatically. The viewer went from Madison Ave. general to drag racing hardcore. Mac Tool's CEO John Aden suddenly materialized, as did the usual Castrol, Kenny Budweiser, and POWERade spillage.

I will say that one dandy of an ad did appear making this teasing of the viewer palatable. Some video fantasy factory called Playstation was issuing a game called "Midnight Club II", a crash and burn, Bart Simpson-minded production that openly played up street racing, the sworn enemy of NHRA and POWERade Championship drag racing. As I watched Marvel Comics characters plow their super, bad rides into plate glass windows, septuagenarian pedestrians, and school buses I thought, "Awfully strange for a company that reviles street racing."

But back to the hunt. The baseball game forced the U.S. Nationals into a roughly 5:25 p.m. to 7 p.m. slot, and unfortunately it messed up the coverage. It appeared, and I stress the word "appeared," that the juggling of slots choked the drag race TV producers.

One way this choking manifested itself was the poor budgeting of time and subject. In an hour and a half, the TV guides showed the semifinals and finals, saying the reason was the length of the baseball game. However, rather than take a dozen or so highlights from the previous two pre-semifinals frames (I think they showed one or two), they instead drowned the viewer with driver interviewers all dealing with one subject, "How big, how wonderful, how important Indy is to a drag racer?"

That's a fair question and could be handled appropriately in a single five-minute segment at the beginning of the show. Instead, they interspersed the bigness of Indy, their favorite part of driving, the thrill of the run, and various other subjects, all of which swallowed up time that could've been used to show what had happened earlier. Rather than give the U.S. Nationals all-out coverage, the production was as much self-promotion as it was hard news.

And because of that, an otherwise decent show suffered. The Dixon/Bernstein semifinal joust was handled well, and the Bernstein post-heat interview was superb, as were the majority of the six post-race yaks. Still, they could've done a lot better. Weren't any of the previous 36 races worth a splash? Somehow an interview with a well-intentioned tour regular on the bigness of Indy came off more as an irritant rather than an informant.

But above and beyond all that, the NHRA U.S. Nationals was, or should've been a bigger deal on ESPN rather than a personality-less, spoiled, camera hog of a game like a late-in-the-season baseball game. The booth announcers did say that a more developed broadcast would be shown on Tuesday, but why bother? The drag race would have been competing with the Love Boat or Three Stooges re-runs and would've lost. On Tuesday, it was old news, apparently like it was Monday evening.

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