It’s been 30 years since a NASCAR driver won three straight championships. Yet, as Jimmie Johnson closed in on the mark, ABC cut away.
What could have been so important to force viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones to flip over to ESPN2 for the conclusion of Johnson’s romp at Phoenix International Raceway?
A new episode of “Desperate Housewives” might have been acceptable.
No such luck, though.
ABC ditched its NASCAR coverage for “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with 34 laps left in Sunday’s race. That’s right, Johnson’s seventh win of the season was interrupted by cats running into walls, dancing brides falling and children inflicting unintentional pain on adults.
“I knew we were in trouble when I looked at the monitor and saw a monkey scratching its butt,” one team member said after Johnson’s victory.
Yep, the network that promised to broadcast the final 10 races of the season on ABC as part of its estimated $270 million a year contract dumped the closing laps of a championship Chase race for home video hijinks.
Nice “partner,” NASCAR.
In fairness to the network, the race did run exceptionally long because of two red-flag stoppages (one for rain, one for an accident) that totaled nearly 45 minutes. And it is November sweeps, when networks aim for high ratings to set their advertising rates.
And unlike the infamous “Heidi Game” when NBC abruptly cut away from a 1968 telecast between the New York Jets at the Oakland Raiders, the NASCAR broadcasting team gave ample notice that coverage was moving to ESPN2.
Any justification did little to soothe the NASCAR community, which suddenly felt like a second-class citizen at the height of its season.
“It doesn’t say very much,” winning car owner Rick Hendrick said.
The drivers seemed incredulous.
“I can’t imagine being a race fan and being on the East Coast and trying to watch this, and then going to that,” third-place finisher Jamie McMurray said. “Obviously, if the president was going to talk, or maybe if something big had happened. But I can’t imagine ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ would take priority over us. I mean, I like that show, but I’d rather watch the race, you know?”
ABC defended its decision, noting the two red-flag periods pushed the broadcast into its prime-time lineup and partner ESPN gave the network a viable alternative.
“ABC’s entertainment viewers and NASCAR fans were both well served in a tough spot, and we are fortunate to have ESPN2 among our networks to serve the fans,” said George McNeilly, ESPN’s senior director of corporate and consumer communications.
Of course, the switch didn’t have the same consequences as NBC’s gaffe 40 years ago. That network left the football game with 65 seconds to go when it unexpectedly switched to “Heidi” and only viewers in the Pacific time zone saw the Raiders’ 14-point frantic comeback.
But ABC’s swap still had ramifications, particularly the perception of how it views NASCAR. Remember, this wasn’t a meaningless June race at Pocono. This was the next-to-last race of a grueling season, and if challenger Carl Edwards had any sort of problem in the closing laps, Johnson could have become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three straight titles.
There’s no sense of relief because it didn’t happen — Johnson basically needs only to show up at Sunday’s finale to win it — but it begs the question: Had it been the NFL or, really, any late-season game from the traditional sports leagues would ABC have dared turn away?
There’s also this to consider: A ridiculously late start time meant the command to start the engines wasn’t even made until 3:52 p.m. EST. But it’s not NASCAR’s fault the race ran long, and ABC didn’t slot enough time for such circumstances even though it makes plenty of accommodations for a prerace show.
The NFL’s television partners, in part because of the angry reaction to the “Heidi” fiasco, now force all networks to show games to conclusion in the teams’ markets. NASCAR obviously doesn’t have such a provision, but still deserves some courtesy from one of its partners.
Johnson deserves respect as he closes in on racing history.
“I thought it went dark and nobody could watch it,” he said. “So the fact that it was on another television channel was better. But to go to ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos?’ That one hurts. I thought we have a lot of characters. Why do we need that show?”
That’s the answer NASCAR should be demanding.
Jenna Fryer covers auto racing for The Associated Press.