Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 43: The Cut To Bejesus And Back Edition of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh From Florida

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to The Critic’s Annex, your place for Thursday morning (or afternoon) TV criticism. On Tuesday at Frontstretch, I talked about the live feed of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh From Florida. Unfortunately, that live feed was not available on television due to the ALMS’ “TV deal” with ESPN, which has been described as anything from a boon for digital distribution to an outright travesty and the potential death of the series. That feed was exclusive to ESPN3.com. Granted, I enjoyed listening to John Hindhaugh and Jeremy West describing the action online, but its just not the same as sitting down and watching it on television.

However, fans who cannot access ESPN3.com did have an outlet to at least see something from Sebring last weekend. That is, if you don’t live on the west coast. ABC aired a 90 minute highlighted edition of the race on Sunday afternoon at 12:30pm EDT. For reference purposes, the show was scheduled to air for the west coast viewers after the BNP Paribas Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djovokic from Indian Wells, California. However, that match went long, forcing the coverage to be pre-empted.

For the highlighted coverage, ESPN decided to go with a different group of commentators. Hindhaugh and West were nowhere to be seen. Instead, viewers were treated to the trio of Brian Till, Bill Adam (in his return to ESPN commentary) and the not exactly retired (but not racing in Sebring) Johnny O’Connell in the booth. Not a play-by-play guy amongst them, although Till was apparently the de facto leader in the booth. Remember when ESPN experimented with their “Backseat Drivers” gimmick at the CarFax 250 in Michigan back in August, 2009? It was like that. The pit reporters were the same reporters that worked on the ESPN3.com feed on Saturday. I was fine with them then, and fine with them here as well.

The entire first segment of the race was not synced correctly. The audio was roughly three to five seconds ahead of the visuals. A situation like that makes a race quite annoying to watch. However, it is something that can be fixed for subsequent airings. Not here. I came across a repeat of the show at 4:30am Tuesday morning and it had the same issues as the original airing from Sunday. Not good.

The highlighted coverage was presented by Chevrolet, and thanks to that sponsorship, there was a piece where the Corvette Z06 Carbon was pitched heavily during race action. I am most definitely not in the market for a Corvette, but some viewers are. Its ok to advertise something, but please don’t take away green flag racing outside of commercial breaks to do so.

As for the aforementioned trio in the booth, they were most definitely enthusiastic. I’ll give them that. However, they were also jumping all over each other for much of the broadcast. In basketball, you often hear about point guards being referred to these days as “floor generals,” or coaches on the court. In a race broadcast, a good three person broadcast booth needs a booth general. Till is a horrible booth general.

The vast majority of the coverage was confined to the P1 (Prototype 1) and GT (Grand Touring) classes, The LMPC (Le Mans Prototype Challenge), P2 (Prototype 2) and GTC (Grand Touring Challenge) classes got mainly passing mentions on the broadcast. There was only one battle for the lead in either of those classes combined shown during the coverage. In the challenge classes, the majority of the coverage was focused on teaching viewers about the class itself. Its not like ALMS had never been on TV before. Heck, for the past few years, at least two or three races a year had been shown on network television, while the rest of the schedule was on SPEED.

The highlighted coverage resulted in loose ends being left all over the place. The most glaring of these instances was when ESPN took a commercial with a shade under four hours left in the race. The No. 8 Peugeot 908 factory car of Stephane Sarrazin was leading overall. When they came back, nearly three hours had passed and the No. 10 ORECA Matmut 2010-spec Peugeot 908 HDi FAP was leading the class (and overall) over the No. 01 Highcroft Racing Acura. No mention was made on how the ORECA team got the lead (for those of you wondering, Peugeot was forced to replace the nose on the No. 8 on a pit stop, costing them 30 additional seconds in the pits, then Pedro Lamy spun the car on his out lap).

In addition to that horrible oversight, earlier in the broadcast, the booth made reference to Lucas Ordonez, who was driving the No. 26 Nissan-powered P2 car and stated that there was quite a story behind him being in the car. However, they never mentioned what it was. What the deuce? That is day one-type stuff there. The story was that Ordonez had won the ride through the Nissan GT Academy. Yes, we’re talking video games here.

Compared to the rest of the telecast, post-race coverage was not half bad. It featured interviews with one driver from each winning car. They were Loic Duval for the P1 and overall winning No. 10 Peugeot, Joey Hand from the GT-winning No. 56 BMW M3, Dane Cameron from the LMPC-winning No. 036 Genoa Racing prototype, Tim Pappas from the GTC-winning No. 054 Black Swan Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, and Ryan Hunter-Reay from the P2-winning No. 055 from Level 5 Motorsports.

Hopefully, the rest of the highlight broadcasts are not as disjointed as Sunday’s was. It is generally impossible to cut down 12 hours of racing into 90 minutes without making it almost completely unwatchable. ESPN has effectively knocked sports car racing back 20 years with this contract. Here’s an interesting fact before I go. The next race on the schedule is Long Beach, the shortest race on the ALMS schedule at one hour, 40 minutes (100 minutes) in length. That race is getting a two hour next-day tape-delay block on ESPN 2, while Sebring got 90 minutes. Weak as all heck.

However, before Long Beach, ESPN would do well to look at the chemistry between Till, O’Connell and Adam in the booth and see whether that could be improved. O’Connell appears to have been the biggest offender of cutting in, since he’s the newbie of the group. I’m not expecting anyone to be dropped out after only one race, but I do expect improvement in the booth next month. The delegation of commentary must be improved. It just has to be. I’m not even saying this as a critic. I’m saying this as a viewer of the broadcast at-large. I don’t like watching a bunch of guys jump over each other like a bunch of five-year olds. That is just plan bad TV. Also, if someone tries to make a reference to something, there has to be a payoff. Otherwise, you’re wasting your breath. That cannot be repeated, or the coverage will be considered to be less than professional.

Thank you for reading this critique. Next week, I’ll be back with even more commentary and critique. Enjoy this weekend’s action from Fontana, California, Melbourne, Australia and St. Petersburg, Florida.

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