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An unexpected story shows the value of unscripted narrative

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Getty Images for NASCAR

Let me ask you a question. If you go to a movie theater and see a trailer for an upcoming film that essentially gives away every plot twist, every action set piece, and every bit of interesting dialogue... how likely would it be that you'd want to see the whole movie at full price?

I pondered that question as I watched FOX's Daytona 500 coverage yesterday. It seemed to me that FOX was working so hard at telling you what the story was going to be that there almost seemed to be no point in finding out how it ended for yourself.

Perhaps that's why Trevor Bayne's stunning upset victory was so incredible - not only was it off script, it hadn't even been considered as the story's climax by those trying to tell it.

On the one hand, I love that Bayne's win so thoroughly flummoxed everyone at FOX; on the other, however, I was - and remain - upset about the network's apparent belief that the only stories that are interesting are the ones that they shove down their viewers' throats.

Sadly, their brand of coverage is the rule these days, not the exception... and maybe that explains why folks are staying away from racing in droves.

Some of my grandest memories growing up were of the Indianapolis 500 pre-race shows. It seemed like the broadcasters back in the years of my youth believed that the time before the race was a perfect occasion to tell the stories of the 33 starters in the race. Instead of what we get today - talking heads, pundits, and endless analysts spouting off their opinions about how a story is going to play out, or literally hours of vapid, base schmoozing and hard sell (like yesterday's FOX telecast) - the hours before the 500-Mile Race were filled with documentary-style vignettes about the men about to take part in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

You still see this approach to big-event broadcasting at the Kentucky Derby, because NBC realizes that most Americans only watch three horse races a year (at most, and only if a horse is qualified for a run at the Triple Crown). Knowing that they have to get most of America re-acquainted with the sport before the event runs, each year NBC dedicates a good chunk of time to Ken Burns-style examinations of the competitors and the people who work with them. They establish the backstory so that the viewers can enjoy the story to be played out before them.

This stands in stark contrast to today's broadcasting, where it seems like the priority is to remove all nuance and flavor from the event. Modern race broadcasts are like Choose Your Own Adventure books that only have one plot option. The pundits tell you what you will see and what storylines you should pay attention to, and the directors rarely focus on anything that deviates from that script. In the case of the Daytona 500, it was EARNHARDT, EARNHARDT, EARNHARDT. At Indianapolis in recent years, it's been DANICA, DANICA, DANICA.

This rubs me the wrong way for many reasons. I am an avid reader. I love picking up a new book and immersing myself in a story - the sheer joy of discovery and the lure of the unexpected are my deepest pleasures. It's why I love libraries more than bookstores. With the exception of a few treasured titles, I rarely enjoy going back to a book again and again and again, because eventually my familiarity with the plot, characters, and story arc becomes too repetitive and dull to engage my interest. It's also one of the reasons why I generally despise movie remakes and the trend toward recycling ideas in modern entertainment.

Reading the Cliff's Notes of a book might be fine for a high-schooler desperate to make up for the fact that she procrastinated a reading assignment for six weeks, but in terms of enjoying the luxuriant detail of and fascinating journey through a plot, it sucks rocks. It removes the reader's ability to draw his own conclusions from the material because they're already spelled out by the summarizer.

That's the message I want to give to racing broadcasters: let your viewers enjoy the story. If you must provide backstory, do so unobtrusively, with an eye toward informing instead of persuading. The more you push to make people enjoy something, the stronger the desire will be to resist that enjoyment. The greatest attraction of racing is the anticipation of the unexpected - if you spend all your time telling people what to expect, what is there left to anticipate?

Racing is so rich, so layered with story and nuance, that each new event is a fresh chance for viewers to discover the sport anew. There is nothing to discover in the attention-deficit, flashy, substance-free world of Digger, Boogity Boogity Boogity, and GoDaddy Girls... except the sudden and overriding desire to find something else to watch.