The Frontstretch: The Critic's Annex: A Look At A Type Of NASCAR Racing Down Under by Phil Allaway -- Thursday April 28, 2011

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Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I take an additional look at race telecasts available to viewers. On Easter Weekend, pickings were quite slim as to what I could cover for this column. The Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series were the only American-based four-wheeled series in action last weekend. There wasn’t even all that much tape-delayed action on television. However, there was one race on SPEED last weekend.

That race was the ITM 400 Hamilton, held over the weekend of April 16-17 on the streets of Hamilton, New Zealand. In the past, the race was held at Pukekohe Park Raceway in Pukekohe, New Zealand. That particular circuit was relatively short and a little narrow, with Armco barriers relatively close to the track. Basically, a much shorter Watkins Glen. I personally would describe the track as “quaint.”

The move to Hamilton, a city of 203,000 about 30 miles south of Pukekohe, was just another sign of V8 Supercar Australia’s desire to be closer to major metro areas. In a sense, it is not dissimilar to what is going on (or rumored to be going on) in Formula One. Bernie Ecclestone is well-known for playing circuits and countries against each other in order to get the most money for himself. However, he is also known for being willing to ditch perfectly good permanent road courses in favor of street races that may not be anywhere near as competitive, but are closer to population centers.

In the V8 Supercars, we have a domestic series (more or less) that has only seven races (out of 14) on permanent road courses in Australia, and eight overall. The other races (including the non-points race at the Australian Grand Prix) are held on street courses. Yes, I’m including Bathurst in there as well because the Bathurst circuit is comprised of public roads. It is a street course. It just doesn’t look like one. Pukekohe Park is not the only course that has been ditched in favor of street courses recently. The best permanent circuit in Australia, Eastern Creek Raceway, does not have a date for the V8 Supercars. Instead, the season ends at Homebush, a street circuit near Olympic Park in Downtown Sydney. Let’s just say that the circuit is simply not the best for anything. It should be noted that the race Homebush officially replaced was at Oran Park, a track since shutdown to make way for a housing project, but the only reason Oran Park hosted that race was to give the track a swansong. Eastern Creek hosted that round prior to 2008.

Enough of the track ranting. Onto the critique.

Firstly, the introductions by Marcos Ambrose that were included in each telecast last season are gone for 2011. I’ve got nothing against Ambrose, but it made it look like us viewers had no clue what we were seeing. Its not like SPEED hadn’t shown the series before. When the current deal was signed right before the Homebush round in 2009, the series had only been off SPEED for two years.

The telecast started off with certain drivers (Greg Murphy, Jamie Whincup, etc.) giving their opinion on the Hamilton Street Circuit. The general opinion was that the event would be a slugfest. I’m not a fan of the track design, especially the nasty tire chicane in the middle of the backstretch. That’s just not cool. Of course, that was assuming that it stayed dry, which didn’t happen for Qualifying, or Race No. 1. Instead, survival was the name of the game.

There was a recap of Qualifying and the Top-10 Shootout before getting into the action in Race No. 1. If you remember my V8 Supercar telecast critiques from last year, I was very critical of play-by-play commentator Matthew White, who I described as boring. White appears to be more lively in 2011. However, I’d argue that a lot of the liveliness was due to the crazy driving conditions. To give you guys a NASCAR equivalent, think back to the 2008 NAPA Auto Parts 200 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. It was like that for about two-thirds of the race.

Possibly the biggest story of the race (besides the rain) was the mess pit road became because of the rain. A substantial amount of time was spent showing the chaos (wrecks in the pits, a cameraman hit by Shane van Gisbergen’s No. 9 Ford Falcon, Whincup’s hit on the pit wall, and other shenanigans). It should be noted that the pit road pit limit in the V8 Supercars is a uniform 40 kilometers per hour, which is about 24 miles per hour.

However, one pretty big issue that I had with the broadcasts from 2010 remains. That is the fact that the broadcast maintains a heavy focus on the very front of the field. Based on YouTube videos I’ve watched, it has been the general rule of the game dating back for 30 years. Is that what the general public in Australia wants to see? I’m not sure. I don’t live there and have never been there. I do know that quite a few V8 Supercars fans in Australia want the Seven Network to show more racing further down in the pack. Maybe they do show more, but not in the condensed telecasts that we get here on SPEED.

Finally, with about two laps to go, the coverage showed Jason Bargwanna’s No. 14 coming out of the pits after what the commentators theorized was a splash-and-go. He was about 10-15 seconds behind the leader when he stopped and finished 84 seconds behind. Yes, he might have been close on fuel, but I noticed something else. His rear diffuser was loose from earlier contact. Last year, Whincup was black flagged and forced to pit during the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide for the same thing. Even with a 40 kph speed limit, I doubt a splash-and-go would cost him a full minute on the track. Not cool.

After Race No. 1, there was only a quick interview with winner Rick Kelly as soon as he got out of the car before going off to commercial.

Before Race No. 2 started, there was a quick recap of the regular Qualifying session, and a quick interview with both the aforementioned Rick Kelly and his brother (and teammate) Todd. This is because the Kelly brothers swept the front row. In the race itself, the coverage was more of the same, heavily focused on the racing up front. Had they strayed from the absolute front for a little bit, they would be able to catch a lot more things live, like the crash between Todd Kelly and Tony D’Alberto that brought out the fourth full course yellow. They were in the top-10, yet the Seven Network missed the whole wreck and had to show it via replay.

Another gripe I had with the broadcast was the Seven Network’s substantial reliance on speed shots. These speed shots would allow the full field (or probably 75 percent, minimum) to go by every time they were used. Sure, its nice to get a sense of the speed on track, but that’s overkill, simple as that.

The cuts to fit the races within the two hour time limit (with commercials) continue to annoy me. I think V8 Supercars Australia should have come up with a slightly better deal to allow for live coverage of some of their races. With the time difference, most of the races would be airing in the middle of the night. Bathurst would be in prime time here (roughly an 8pm EDT start).

Post-race coverage saw interviews with Ross Stone (co-owner of Stone Brothers Racing) and Race No. 2 winner van Gisbergen. It should be noted that interviewing the winner as soon as he exits his car is new for the Seven Network this season. Last year, winners were interviewed on the podium. I’d argue that its likely better because it shows more of a team element, but there are people that don’t really agree with it, either.

The overall telecast was heavily stilted towards the front of the pack. The editing of the production made it look like no one below eighth or so really mattered at all in the race. That is, unless they wrecked or had something else happen to them. The Seven Network, like many of NASCAR’s TV partners, need to realize that every one of the 28 drivers on the grid have fans. Some more than others. The scroll (at the bottom of the screen here instead of on the top) is not a crutch.

That is all for this week. Hope you enjoy this weekend’s action from Richmond International Raceway and Sao Paulo, Brazil. I’ll be back here next week with a review of SPEED’s broadcast of the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown. Bye now.

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