Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 53- Firestone Freedom 100

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I take an additional look at motorsports-related programming available to the masses. As you know, Memorial Day weekend is just about the most tiring weekend of the year for a TV Critic such as myself. Heck, I fully admit to concocting a project for class in sixth grade that was literally nothing more than a way to watch 12 hours of racing on the last Sunday of May for a grade.

Now, with the Grand Prix of Monaco also running on the same day as the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600, its a never-ending parade of sweet, sweet action. And I couldn’t be happier, as long as nothing gets in the way of my viewing. However, for this week’s auxiliary critique, we’re going back to Friday afternoon and Versus’ coverage of Carburetion Day, the traditional final day of on-track action before the Indianapolis 500. Hey, I promised that I’d do it when I critiqued IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly.

Speaking of IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly, co-host Kevin Lee tweeted on Tuesday that the show has been put onto hiatus until further notice. As far as he knows, the hiatus has nothing to do with ratings (then again, airing live at 4pm on Tuesdays isn’t exactly the greatest time to get big ratings). Apparently, it has to do with lack of sponsors. Its a shame that the show might never have a chance to come into its own. Hopefully, Versus (and the Izod IndyCar Series, as CEO Randy Bernard is definitely behind the show and wants it to be successful) can get the backing required to put the show back on air.

Also of note, Versus recently named Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon as the substitute analyst for Wally Dallenbach, Jr. during the network’s coverage of the Firestone Twin 275’s at Texas Motor Speedway on June 11. Dallenbach (along with pit reporter Marty Snider) is scheduled to be in Pennsylvania for TNT’s coverage of the Pocono 500. Now, onto the critique.

Once Versus’ coverage of the final IndyCar practice session ended, there was some wrap-up interviews, then Versus got right into their coverage of the Firestone Freedom 100 for the Firestone Indy Lights. Due to rain washing out qualifying, the field was basically set on practice times. Moisture wasn’t the only problem, however.

Temperature was a huge issue. During Carb Day activities, it was about 55 degrees at the track and very cloudy. These conditions meant that there were a series of incidents (including one in practice before the race) directly attributable to the lack of grip. As a result, there were a bunch of comparisons to the 1992 Indianapolis 500, a race in similar weather conditions (perhaps, even a little colder) where there were a series of wrecks due to drivers being unable to get tires up to temperature.

Granted, the Firestone Indy Lights were nowhere near as fast as the Lolas, Galmers, and Penskes were in 1992. Since qualifying was scrubbed and past results for the series are very hard to come by, I’m unsure of what a likely pole speed would have been for the race. We’ll use 194 mph for the heck of it. Lap speeds in the race were in the 188-191 range. In 1992, the pole speed for the Indianapolis 500 was over 232 mph. The fastest lap during the actual race was turned in by Michael Andretti at over 229 mph and average pace was somewhere between 214-225 mph, dependent on the driver. Regardless of the speeds, the cars were still wildly out of control at times. Like in 1992, when Roberto Guerrero and Philippe Gache spun out under yellow, two separate drivers (Anders Krohn and Peter Dempsey) spun out on their own at reduced speed.

Prior to the race, Versus (via their pit reporter, Jake Query), aired interviews with pole-sitter (and former Ganassi development driver in NASCAR) Bryan Clauson, Conor Daly (the driver Clauson was technically replacing for the race), and team owner Sam Schmidt. Based on those listed interviews (both drivers drive for Schmidt), it could have been assumed that the broadcast would have been focused on Schmidt’s team. Granted, Schmidt was fielding four of the 18 cars in the starting field, but that was not the case. The other teams got what amounted to equal treatment on the broadcast.

Also, the aforementioned Wheldon joined Mike King and Willy T. Ribbs in the booth to commentate on the race. The move could be considered a form of practice for the soon to be two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. However, if you remember my critique of Versus’ Firestone Indy Lights coverage from Long Beach in April, you might recall that Dallenbach basically showed up unannounced in the booth to supplement Ribbs. Not cool.

Ribbs was definitely more useful Friday than he was at Long Beach. He has a definite love for the 2.5 mile rectangle and displayed a slightly more cheerful mood on air. However, his input on the broadcast itself was still quite muted. Wheldon seemed to get more airtime during the actual race itself than Ribbs did, suggesting that Ribbs is still too green to work in a two man booth. Ribbs seemed to be unsure of what he wants to say. He has plenty of knowledge in his head, but he just can’t figure out how to espouse that information. And, that is a shame.

Also when I critiqued IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly, I referenced the fact that Ribbs was going to field a car in the race for Chase Austin. That came to pass and Austin finished ninth, keeping his No. 75 out of trouble for all 100 miles. I mentioned that I would be monitoring the telecast to check for bias. There was some discussion of Ribbs’ effort for Austin, and Ribbs did admit that he was proud of Austin for keeping himself out of trouble after the race ended. However, there was no cheerleading for Austin during the race itself.

The action seen on track was substantially different than what was seen on Sunday during the actual Indianapolis 500. Especially early on in the race, there was a lot of side-by-side racing for position. King definitely came prepared to handle the fast-paced action, and Wheldon was as well. Unfortunately, that means that Ribbs was once again the laggard.

The big moment in this race ended up being the huge crash that took out Krohn and Jorge Goncalvez, causing the race to finish under caution. Thankfully, both drivers (especially Goncalvez) were uninjured in the crash. It should be noted that Goncalvez was put on a stretcher for precautionary reasons. There was the usual praise of the chassis for being as safe as it is. The series has come quite a long way from when Jason Priestley got seriously hurt at Kentucky Speedway years ago.

However, there was also a fair amount of conjecture about what actually happened. Calling a race is a high energy profession. Sometimes, commentators in the booth need to take a step back and maybe not just jump to conclusions. In high pressure situations, I would suggest taking the first replay of a major crash and just sit back and gather your thoughts. Don’t jump to conclusions. Many of my readers don’t realize this, but that is something Darrell Waltrip actually does very well. Unfortunately, people confuse that with trying to protect specific individuals.

I only say that because the commentators were completely convinced that contact caused that wreck. In reality, there was no contact. Krohn simply got loose and spun himself out underneath Goncalvez. Goncalvez never touched Clauson either, although it was quite close. It was a racing accident, exacerbated due to the cool weather and overall lack of grip.

Post-race coverage was relatively short. There were post-race interviews with winner Josef Newgarden and Clauson. There were also checks of the unofficial results and the Firestone Indy Lights point standings before changing gears towards the Indianapolis 500 Pit Crew Competition.

Overall, the coverage was ok. King is clearly in charge and has to more or less support Ribbs along the way. I think Ribbs is slowly becoming more comfortable in his analyst’s role, but its still a work in progress. Makes me wonder how many screen tests (if any) they gave him before the season began. Perhaps they watched the Trans-Am race from Long Beach in 2002 (aired on SPEED) and decided “Why the heck not?” At least he’s showing some improvement. Heck, it couldn’t have gotten worse than Long Beach.

Thanks for checking out this critique on the Firestone Freedom 100 on Versus. Next week, the ARCA Racing Series will be critiqued once again from Chicagoland. Until then, have a great weekend.

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