<
>

Put some drama in NASCAR awards show

11/27/2006

This is NASCAR Champions Week in the Big Apple, play time in Manhattan for the Nextel Cup teams that enjoyed some success in 2006.

It's a long way from Martinsville, folks.

TV show appearances, a victory lap in Times Square, lunch and dinner at five-star restaurants, cocktail parties with the corporate suits, dancing at hip-and-trendy nightclubs; it's all part of the fun.

A week of celebration leads up to the nationally-televised Nextel Cup Awards Ceremony on Friday night at the Waldorf-Astoria.

All that excitement, then naptime. TNT knows drama, but skip that slogan for this telecast. It's not an option.

Oh sure, the drivers and their significant others all look wonderful in formal attire. And it's great to honor the top 10 -- plus one -- and see them give a (hopefully) short speech on stage.

But exciting, it ain't. The event has the thrill factor of a parade lap at Pocono. This is the only major awards show where all the winners are known before the ceremony begins.

Would you watch the Daytona 500 if you knew who the winner was before the green flag dropped?

Yes, I realize you Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans would watch if psychic John Edward phoned before the race to tell you he saw Junior win.

The point is NASCAR's postseason awards show needs some sizzle. NASCAR officials have tried to add some spice in recent years with celebrity involvement.

Comedian Jay Mohr, back for this third year, adds some funny moments -- including a few that might require a bleep. And the lovely Jewel will perform a few songs.

Certainly worth tuning in, but this show is a little like watching a 400-lap race without a single pass for the lead. Interesting, but it isn't edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

Some of it is unavoidable. Obviously, we know going in who finished where in the Cup standings. So adding some unknowns to the night wouldn't hurt.

Sprint/Nextel and NASCAR took a step in the right direction last year with the fan vote for the Most Dramatic Moment of the season. Fans have five options and the winner is announced during the telecast.

It isn't enough. Why not add some awards and have the nominees in the audience? Make the event similar to other awards shows.

Teams could vote on an annual Sportsmanship Award, Comeback Driver of the Year, Crew Chief of the Year, etc. Pick five nominees in each category and open the envelope that night. Now you have something to watch.

People watch racing because you never know what might happen. So why have an awards night with that element missing? Make it fun.

How about an award for the Best Paint Scheme? Or Best NASCAR Commercial of the Year. Sponsors would love those two, and we know NASCAR is all about the sponsors.

Thanking sponsors is one of the problems on awards night. Every driver has to mention every sponsor of his team. It's understandable. Any company willing to spend $15 to $20 million a year to sponsor a car deserves some recognition.

But it's sooooo boring. Why not run a crawl at the bottom of the screen listing the sponsors of the driver who's speaking at the podium?

Most drivers are pros at speaking to reporters, but talking in front of a huge audience is entirely different.

"They all were going long on their speeches," said Herb Branham, NASCAR's senior communications manager. "So we opted to start helping some of them a few years ago. But we don't edit what they want to say. We just help them say it more succinctly."

Branham does a magnificent job of scripting what the drivers tell him. Unfortunately, some of them just read the prompter in a monotone. They seem like mannequins with movable mouths.

The best ones are guys who ad-lib a little and go off script. Tony Stewart has it down pat. He got in a quick joke on NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter and NASCAR president Mike Helton to start his championship speech last year.

"I'll try to hurry this along," Stewart said. "I notice that Jim Hunter is running out of wine over there, so I know he's anxious to get out of here. And I'm sure Helton's right behind him."

Of course, by that time, many viewers already had gone night-night from the earlier speeches.

All awards shows have moments that cure insomnia. Does anyone really care who wins for Best Sound Editing while watching the Academy Awards? But at least you know there's a payoff if you manage to stay awake until the end.

It's like watching a race. You sit through a bunch of uneventful laps to see who wins at the finish.

We all know who wins while watching the Cup Awards, but at least give us a few moments of suspense along the way.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.