Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 55- Seat Swap: Hamilton vs. Stewart

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I take an additional look at telecasts available to the general public. On Tuesday, I asked for suggestions as to whether I should write about the ARCA race, the announcement of the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductees, or the Seat Swap in Watkins Glen. I didn’t receive any suggestions, so I decided to pick via blind draw.

As a result of the draw, I’m writing about SPEED’s coverage of Seat Swap: Hamilton vs. Stewart, which was held Tuesday at Watkins Glen International in Dix, New York. A while back, I considered making the haul out to Watkins Glen for the special event to cover it for the site. Its doable for me because I live 220 miles from the track. I can get there by car without traffic in about three and a half hours. However, due to already having put in for too many days off from work in the months of June and July (four for the Daytona weekend, where I’m representing Frontstretch, and another one at the end of this week so that I can visit my dad), I just couldn’t have swung it. Knowing the weather at the track on Tuesday, maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t make the haul out there.

Tuesday dawned cool, wet and dreary at Watkins Glen International. It was apparently 50 something degrees outside when the special day commenced. A couple of thousand people made the haul out to the track to check out the proceedings (grandstand access was free, but the concessions were not). SPEED provided cameras for the special swap, but had a very small crew of personalities on hand. Ralph Sheheen, fresh from three days in Pocono for TNT, served as the on-site reporter. Commentary was done back in Charlotte by Bob Varsha and Steve Matchett from SPEED’s Formula One coverage. Larry McReynolds represented SPEED’s NASCAR coverage in the booth. Finally, Sam Posey, who serves as a “essayist” for the Formula One coverage, chimed in with taped snippets about the history of racing in Watkins Glen.

The telecast started off with Matchett and McReynolds describing the career paths of the protagonists. The two analysts traded off, covering the two racers’ paths chronologically. Following that, the twosome compared and contrasted the two series. Such a feature was undoubtedly done because of the assumption (at least) that a lot of fans who wouldn’t have ordinarily tuned into one series or the other would be watching. It did a decent job of dispelling stereotypes. The idea of there being 155 Americans that have started a Grand Prix is a bit of a stretch, though. The only reason that is so is because the Indianapolis 500 counted as a round of the World Championship for a period in the 1950’s prior to the first real U.S. Grand Prix at Riverside in 1958. If you were to discount the Americans who only started the Indianapolis 500, the number would be much lower.

Both drivers were interviewed by Sheheen prior to getting into their normal cars for a photo-op. They were both quite cheerful, especially Stewart, who often operates with a permanent scowl on his face. It should be noted that the Seat Swap was actually the first time (that I can think of) that the COT was fitted with rain tires, a defroster and windshield wiper (that was not used). Yes, Cup cars have been outfitted for racing in the rain on road courses off and on since 1996, but they never raced in the rain (Practice and Qualifying for the exhibition race at Suzuka in 1997 was in the rain, as was one practice session at Watkins Glen in 2000). When the COT was introduced to road courses in 2007, Goodyear stopped bringing rain tires to the track for them (although, they did start bringing them for Nationwide races). That is why the 2009 Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen was postponed to Monday due to rain.

As for the Mclaren brought over from England, I was under the opinion that Stewart was going to be driving a more current car. It turns out that the team brought a MP4-23 to the track. For those of you unfamiliar with car designations, that is the car that Mclaren raced in 2008 and Hamilton won his World Championship in. Nice, but its three years old. Since then, there have been a butt-load of rule changes in Formula One, most notably the banning of in-race refueling and most of the aerodynamic devices on the car. The current car that Hamilton and teammate Jenson Button races (the MP4-26) is substantially longer than what Stewart drove due to the larger fuel cell and far less cluttered. For reference purposes, when Jeff Gordon got to drive the Williams at Indianapolis in 2003, he was driving a one year old Williams along with Juan Pablo Montoya.

By contrast, Hamilton had a current-spec Mobil 1-sponsored No. 14 Chevrolet Impala from Stewart-Haas Racing at his disposal. If anything, Hamilton definitely seemed to be enjoying himself in the Chevrolet. However, it is a big change from a Formula One car. Most notably, the seating position is much different and shifting is done with a stick shift as opposed to with paddles. This is less of a change than Montoya had to make in 2003, because teams were just getting back into fully automatic transmissions in Formula One at the time.

If you remember the Gordon-Montoya swap at Indianapolis, that show was televised live on SPEED. I think it was a two-hour special that day. Tuesday’s show aired via tape delay on SPEED and was cut down to an hour. That one-hour show was compiled from what I’m assuming is quite a bit more than an hour of footage. The weather and track conditions showed the cutting quite well. The opening and demo runs made Watkins Glen International look like the Knockhill Circuit in Scotland (a short 1.3 mile track with substantial elevation change where it seems to rain roughly every other race). However, when the swap was instituted, it actually looked halfway decent outside (but still damp in sections).

There were other differences in how the swap was done. For example, Gordon and Montoya each got multiple runs in each other’s cars at Indianapolis. The telecast we got made it seem like Stewart and Hamilton only got one run each. Perhaps SPEED only showed the best runs for each driver.

Also, I don’t recall Gordon and Montoya driving their normal cars in Indianapolis. In fact, they made it a point that Gordon (at least) not drive his No. 24 car at all on the Infield road course. Another Hendrick Motorsports driver was brought in to shakedown the No. 24 ahead of the swap. As a result, I don’t recall any target times being set for Montoya to reach, let alone if he did reach it. Gordon was simply put up against the pole time from the 2002 United States Grand Prix. His best lap was roughly 106 percent of that time (meaning that he would have qualified for the race on speed, no groveling required).

SPEED gave viewers radio communication in both cars, which was pretty interesting. Stewart served as a driver coach for Hamilton in the Impala, and vice versa. Radio chatter in Sprint Cup telecasts has been around since something like the 1980’s. In Formula One, it was only added to the broadcast within the past five years or so, and only at designated times. Viewers got to hear more radio chatter on Mclaren’s part than at almost any previous time on American television. With the low ceiling, I’m surprised that the in-car cameras actually worked at all.

Varsha, Matchett and McReynolds worked together in the booth for Tradin’ Paint in 2003, so they already had a little experience together as a threesome. Varsha and Matchett already have quite the rapport from their normal duties calling Formula One. As a result, McReynolds seemed a bit like an outsider at times since Varsha seemed to be in no mood to dumb anything down for new viewers. For that matter, neither was Matchett.

McReynolds, for his part, didn’t try to make NASCAR sound as simplistic as he did in 2003 (I recall him referring to the shifter at that time as being “…something right out of a Chevelle”). It appeared that being around the Formula One duo did rub off a little on McReynolds, but I’m unclear whether that was simply McReynolds playing along, or if he was learning something.

Regardless, the three commentators in the booth definitely seemed to have fun with the special, which is exactly what I wanted to see. Stewart and Hamilton definitely did as well, even doing some donuts on the frontstretch after finishing his run, to the delight of the gathered fans. Unfortunately, due to the way that SPEED cut the special, it left me wanting more. I would have liked to see some footage on how the teams set up their cars for the track, and if whether any laps were turned in on Monday to serve as a baseline (it was mentioned that both teams arrived at the track the day before the special) for the setup and give the drivers something to shoot at.

Ahead of next year’s return of the United States Grand Prix to the World Championship (at the not-yet complete Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas), Formula One’s popularity in the United States appears to be growing. Its not that long ago that Formula One was aired in the United States on a quirky split TV deal that unless you had Speedvision at the time, which I didn’t, meant you got only four live races a season on Fox Sports Net (those races would be Australia (the season opener), Canada, the U.S. Grand Prix (2000 only), and whatever ended the season (either Japan or Malaysia). The rest would be tape-delayed to either 10am or Noon Eastern.

Following the Seat Swap, Stewart was quoted in a press conference as saying that he really liked running on the long course and that he wanted to have the Cup Series race on it. Jimmie Johnson voiced similar sentiment after racing in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen last year. According to “Sporting News”:http://aol.sportingnews.com/nascar/story/2011-06-14/tony-stewart-wants-cup-series-to-race-on-watkins-glens-boot, Watkins Glen International President Michael Printup plans to lobby NASCAR to actually move Watkins Glen’s NASCAR weekend to the long course. It would require the paving over of the last trap on course at Turn 12 (referred to as Turn 8, but its really Turn 12) before NASCAR would likely consider it. There might be more to come on this issue, but don’t expect a change for this year’s race.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Seat Swap: Hamilton vs. Stewart. Tune in next week for a look at SPEED’s telecast of the Raineater Wiper Blades 200 from Michigan. Until then, enjoy the action this weekend.

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