NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 51- IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where we take an additional look at motorsports-related programming. Outside of their actual race broadcasts, the Izod IndyCar Series is generally absent from television. Race highlights air on SPEED Center, but almost never on anything in ESPN’s family of networks, despite the fact that ESPN has the rights to air a few races a season on ABC (including the Indianapolis 500). The exception to that rule is if something really unusual happens, like the recent quagmire in Sao Paulo.

However, following Sao Paulo, Versus launched a new weekly series dedicated to the Izod IndyCar Series entitled IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly. Yes, the name is terrible and sounds like it was thought up in about a minute.

The show is aired live on Versus at 4pm on Tuesdays (yes, its not the best timeslot if you don’t have access to either a DVR, TiVo, or some other way to record it). Unlike shows like SPEED’s NASCAR RaceHub now, IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly completely depends on their existing on-air staff to do the show. Kevin Lee and Lindy Thackston host the show, along with the tempestuous Robin Miller.

The aforementioned trio all chip in on various taped features, then bring it back to the desk. For example, Miller showed off the prototype of the speedway version of the 2012 Dallara with Tony Cotman. We saw a detailed look at some of the new features of the car, which was an exclusive to the show.

For some reason, they all use wireless microphones in the features, but handheld microphones at the desk. As a result, the desk segments appear low rent. The abolition of the handheld microphones on the set would do wonders for the show. However, the handheld microphones would be fine for quick interviews like what was going on this past week in the garage.

Much like SPEED’s NASCAR RaceHub being based in Charlotte, there are great advantages to IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly being based out of Indianapolis. Firstly, Versus’ production facilities for their Izod IndyCar Series coverage are already based out of there. Second, most of the teams are based near there, so it is easy to go and talk to team principals. Finally, many of the drivers maintain some sort of housing in the area, so it is relatively easy to get guests.

Two weeks ago, Mike Conway showed up as an in-studio guest to talk about his season (especially his win in Long Beach) and to unveil the Hire for Heroes paint scheme that he will be running in the Indianapolis 500 (its really a sponsorship via returning sponsor 7-Eleven). Here, all three hosts peppered Conway with questions. Its an interesting way to go about interviewing someone, but it does have that look of throwing someone to the dogs. To be fair, Conway did well with the setup, but I think that some other interview subjects could be intimidated.

Fast Five (spelled on-air as Fa5t) is a regular feature on the show in which one of the hosts interviews a noted personality and asks them five pointed questions. Two weeks ago, it was Jeff Belskus, President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and this week, it was Danica Patrick. Most of the time, its quite interesting to see what is said. However, there are also times in which the subjects side step questions (Patrick completely maneuvered around a question from Lee about whether she would be in the series in 2012).

The show also showcases up and coming USAC talent. Former Nationwide Series driver Bryan Clauson (who will drive in the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 next Thursday) was a guest on the first show May 3rd, while Sprint car driver Hunter Schuerenberg stopped by as well. Another feature showed IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard taking a ride in a two-seat Silver Crown car with Clauson at the wheel. This is consistent with Bernard’s mindset in regards to USAC. He is known to have taken quite an interest in it (Miller admits and believes that the series can still be a stepping stone to the top levels of open wheel racing like it once was.

This week’s episode was supposed to feature on-track action, but as anyone who has watched the 1992 Indianapolis 500 will tell you, 50 degree weather, IndyCars, and 210 mph + laps do not mix. An incessant drizzle also helped to put the kibosh on the action. Regardless, Thackston was outdoors in the damp weather doing roving interviews with drivers, holding her own just fine.

In place of the expected practice coverage, Versus brought Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford into the studio to discuss a variety of topics. Those included “The Greatest 33,” which was a fan vote to determine the greatest 33 drivers ever to race in the Indianapolis 500. Fans were given 100 choices and were told to narrow that down to what they considered their top-33. Naturally, friendly arguments erupted over whether certain drivers deserved to be where they were.

In addition, there was some natural ribbing between the three time Indianapolis 500 winners. Bobby Unser has a long history on television that stretches back 20 years, but its fairly rare to see Rutherford on TV. The interaction between the two was very enjoyable to watch.

Willy T. Ribbs showed up in the studio along with his new driver, former Rusty Wallace Racing Development Driver Chase Austin, to discuss his past at the 2.5 mile rectangle and his new program. I’ve talked about Ribbs previously here. He’s just not that telegenic. Now, we also have the bias issue in play that I just don’t like. Of course, I’m saying this a full ahead of the Freedom 100, but I will be watching Ribbs closely. As for Austin, he didn’t really have that much to add. He’s really inexperienced in open wheel racing.

Aside from the low-rent feel of the studio (at times), there are some other issues. For example, Lee cut off an interview that Thackston was doing with Oriol Servia mid-sentence for more discussion in the studio. Ouch. That should not happen, whether the show is live or not. That’s weak.

Having said that, the show does cover a niche that has always been underserved. I cannot recall a weekly TV show dedicated to open wheel racing in the past (Rpm2night’s Open Wheel Wednesday doesn’t count because that was simply a themed night). Also, its very good to see USAC get some kind of exposure on television. Ever since ESPN stopped airing Thunder telecasts, USAC has basically operated in obscurity. That, in itself, is quite interesting knowing that quite a few of the stars that have entered the upper echelons of American racing in the past 15-20 years (Jeff Gordon, Stewart, Kahne, etc.) have come through there. If the USAC segments help the series get some kind of TV deal for their divisions, that would be great.

The show appears to be a work in progress. There are certain aspects that work very well, like some of the features. I liked the one where Thackston went along with John Andretti when he went back to his high school, in addition to the one where Miller talked about the new car with while others need improvement. Airing the show live is probably going to hurt the overall quality of the production. Outside of the month of May, there is no benefit to a live telecast. The microphone issues should be fixed to give the show a more professional feel. Based on what’s already aired, the show will probably become a big asset to the Izod IndyCar Series. However, it needs a better timeslot, better production, and perhaps a new title before it can get there.

We hope you enjoyed this look at Versus’ IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly. Check out next Thursday’s edition of the Frontstretch Newsletter for the newest edition of the Critic’s Annex. Until then, enjoy the All-Star festivities from Charlotte, Pole Day from Indianapolis, and the Nationwide Series action in Iowa.

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