That's Racing: How candid can NASCAR commentators get?

Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 9:30pm

A few years ago I was writing a story about racy — racy as in risqué — commercials that aired during cable-channel NASCAR telecasts. I asked a prominent TV commentator his opinion and he said he found the commercials offensive and was embarrassed for his kids to see them.

Then I called a network executive to get his response to the response.

Minutes later the commentator called back in a dither and pleaded with me to forget he’d said anything. He’d gotten chewed out for criticizing his network. I wrote a commentary without using his quotes.

Now I recalled that front-office heat my buddy caught when I heard about some other commentators being called on the carpet for critical on-air remarks made near the end of last season. They said that Talladega was boring. Which it was. But NASCAR, sensitive about the subject, didn’t want them reminding the audience.

With a new season at hand you have to wonder: How open and honest are TV commentators permitted to be? I thought the purpose of having an “expert analyst” was to give his opinion about what was happening on the track.

If he’s not allowed to analyze what he sees — a boring race, for example — then why have him on the air? Simply have someone recite the car numbers as they come around the track.

Another concern in the area of objectively is raised by the presence of commentators who own race teams. Would the NFL let Jerry Jones call a Cowboys game?

NASCAR is one big (and at time dysfunctional) family and I realize it’s impossible to have a commentator who has no close track ties. Sometimes it adds to the drama — witness Ned Jarrett’s emotional call of his son Dale’s Daytona 500 victory, and Darrell Waltrip’s similar call of kid brother Michael’s first career win in the tragedy-marred 2001 Daytona race.

Rusty Wallace has a son on the track and Brad Daugherty and Ray Evernham have ownership stakes in some of the teams on which they comment.

Now I believe they try to be impartial. If anything, they bend too far backwards to put a positive spin on what goes on. My gripe with the TV guys has always been that they are too sugary and management-friendly and it strains their credibility.

In the rare instance in which an announcer makes a critical comment, NASCAR needs a thicker skin. It shouldn’t insist that its commentators wear rose-tinted shades and paint a happy face on everything.

I know most of the guys in the booth. Trust me, they don’t have the legs for cheerleaders.