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Sturbin: It’s Viewers Versus TV In IndyCar

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 1 2010

The racing at Chicagoland Speedway was great last weekend. The television coverage, not so much. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Normally, I don’t have anything to say about coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series on VERSUS. That’s because Charter Communications, my cable provider in Fort Worth, Texas, does not include VERSUS in either the basic or premium sports package to which I currently subscribe.

Used to get VERSUS for free, back when it was the Outdoor Network and its big-ticket item was coverage of the Tour de France during the heyday of Lance Armstrong. Alas, along about the time that the network changed names – twice, if memory serves, within a matter of months – and purchased rights to the majority of regular-season National Hockey League games, VERSUS became a premium channel for Charter Communications customers in Cowtown.

Given my “downsized” economic position, I can’t justify adding VERSUS to my cable bill…not even to watch the dozen IndyCar races carried by the network this season.

And so it was with a sense of anticipation that I discovered VERSUS among the cable lineup offered by Time Warner Communications at the home of my Mom in Rome, N.Y., last week. I tuned into the PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway thinking this could be the race that truly separates points leader Will Power, who is seeking his first IndyCar title, from two-time/reigning champion Dario Franchitti.

Fast forward to Lap 173 of the scheduled 200 around the 1.5-mile oval, and a final round of pit stops under caution. Power, of Team Penske, had the lead heading into the pits but Franchitti’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew opted for a fuel-only stop – gambling that Dario’s Firestone Firehawk tires safely would complete a double stint covering 62 laps.

That decision helped Franchitti gain eight spots and the lead over a pack of challengers including Power, Dan Wheldon and Marco Andretti. But just about the time that the race dramatically went green…lead announcer Bob Jenkins informed the TV audience we’ll all be getting back to the exciting action following a commercial break.

Nothing personal, Bob, but I took your name in vain.

Just to make sure you get the picture – we’ve got Dario Franchitti at the head of a pack of drivers ready to pounce on him for 16 laps at 200-plus mph…and we’re going to commercial. You know the format – it’s that side-by-side setup where the advertisement dominates the screen and a second, smaller bubble follows what’s happening on-track. It was “pioneered” by ABC/ESPN and copied by VERSUS…and I find it annoying.

I also contend that shoving another round of commercials that have been airing the entire race down the viewer’s throat is insulting. Don’t try selling me anything with the laps winding down. Considering that a racing lap around Chicagoland Speedway takes approximately 24 seconds…the final segment was going to take less than eight minutes to complete under green flag conditions.

Still, that wasn’t enough of a legitimate reason to preclude the airing of that Danica Patrick advertisement for antifreeze and Helio Castroneves’ ad touting the wonders of Brazilian coffee.

Did they squeeze in a third ad for IZOD sportswear? Or Firestone tires? Not sure because when Helio’s ad appeared – the one in which he admittedly sings badly about coffee – I clicked over to the closing minutes of a sloppy NFL preseason game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens. And then I flipped over to check out the slugfest between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox.

And then I went back to catch the finish of a race that changed the status of the 2010 championship. Franchitti’s victory allowed him to lop 36 points off Power’s lead, which now stands at 23 points. Recall that a refueling problem during that final pit sequence forced Power to make an extra stop with five laps remaining en route to a season-worst 16th place finish.

With three races to go – all on 1.5-mile ovals – this suddenly has become Power’s championship to lose.

This Saturday night’s Kentucky Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway and the remaining events at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on Sept. 19 and Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 2 all will be carried by VERSUS. And any fan looking for future relief in the form of a greater broadcast presence by ABC/ESPN will be disappointed.

“Well, we have five races on ABC and we have 12 on VERSUS,” Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard said during a recent interview in Dallas.  “We have an eight-year deal left with VERSUS. We believe VERSUS is a great partner and it’s going to get better. We also believe that the one thing we have to do is (create) ideas to give us different formats to allow fans reasons to want to watch a race in particular. And that’s something I think is very important for us to do. You’re going to see us try to create more story lines as we go on.

“I think that you’ll see next year the oval championships become a bigger deal and the non-oval championships becoming a bigger deal and then wrapping it up with the IZOD IndyCar championship. So it gives us three different story lines there, and I think that’s very important that we create these types of plans and events to give us those new and hopefully great, compelling story lines.”

Well, Mr. Bernard, those separate oval and road racing championships are, bottom line, gimmicks. A great, compelling story line was in the process of unfolding in Joliet, Ill., Saturday night when VERSUS went to commercial, side-by-side. When IndyCar management allows advertisers to interrupt and dominate the on-air product like it did at Chicagoland, they demonstrate where their allegiance lies. And it’s not with the TV viewing audience.

VERSUS management needs to be reminded that the TV viewer, armed with a remote, always has options. And when some director or producer cuts into race coverage to shove another ad or three down my throat during the deciding moments of a great race – perhaps Saturday night’s race from Sparta, Ken. – then this viewer is going to tune you out.

Because I can always catch the race results and highlights on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 1 2010
7 Comments

7 Comments »

  • Greg says:

    The best coverage is to listen to Mike Kings radio commentary while watching the live feed for free at indycar.com. No interruptions and several different camera options. I agree, the “row 1 hot” sequence is irritatingly stupid. I like hearing the prerace conversations, driver profanities included, between the drivers and whomever is on the headset with them revealing what the drivers are focused on and where there head is at just before and during the race. These moments are more entertaining and revealing than any interview.

  • Rick says:

    You can not always catch the race highlights on ESPN’s SportsCenter. The winner of the race might be shown on the screen a handful of times that same day, but not throughout the week.

    SportsCenter covers non-NAPCAR racing only if it is the Indy 500 or a death and/or horrible injury. ESPN has not covered IndyCar and/or Champ Car qualifying in many years yet VERSUS covers it for the races they broadcast. VERSUS has included IndyCar drivers and/or content on some of their shows unlike ESPN (since early 2009 on shows like Sports Jobs, The Daily Line, and Sports Soup).

    VERSUS needs a TV show on the IZOD IndyCar Series. They also need to air classic USAC, PPG CART, IndyCar, Champ Car Atlantics, Firestone Indy Lights, Formula 2000, and other open-wheel races on TV. North America needs a racing TV channel as SPEED has focused on tow trucks, illegal stunt bike riding, NAPCAR, and cooking food.

  • Doug says:

    I have a better idea…. don’t watch Versus at all and listen to Mike King et al call the race on the radio. They do a 10X better job than Versus. The race is so much more exciting on the radio than on tv, partly because King’s team includes multiple well-informed and articulate track-side announcers who describe all the stories as they unfold throughout the race.

    I find Versus coverage boring and embarrassing. Versus seems only to focus on the lead cars and the announcers are usually just saying things like “wow, look at that!” ABC/ESPN coverage is much better, but even that doesn’t compare to the radio.

    And if your local stations don’t carry the races, listen to /download the podcasts at Indycar.com and iTunes.

    • Rick says:

      Doug, ABC/ESPN rarely mentions Conquest, FAZZT, Sarah Fisher Racing, and many of the smaller teams.

  • C. Michael says:

    Besides these issues, I greatly dislike Bob Jenkins, he makes the most inane comments and usually doesn’t even know what he is talking about. Buhl I can at least stand, as a former driver and car owner he does have somthing to say. Beekus should be better, but usually anoying. the only real bright spot is the improvement to Lindy Thackston. she may work out as a host. They should take some clues from NASCAR coverage. And one other thing, at the “Start your Engins” point, the Row 1 hot etc…. is about stupid.

    • Rick says:

      Doug, the ABC/ESPN had zero information and/or pictures on the all-new indycars of 2012 at both the Watkins Glen and Toronto races. Nothing. Instead, VERSUS has shown information and pictures on the all-new indycars of 2012 since the start of the season in Brazil. Scott Goodyear often mispronounces Alex Tagliani as “Tag-lee-annie” instead of “Tag-lee-ony.”