NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 59- Honda Indy Toronto

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I endeavor to give my readers an additional look at the telecasts that we’re fed each week.

Last week was a very busy time for a motorsports TV critic. There were no less than seven major series racing (Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series, Camping World Truck Series, Formula One, Izod IndyCar Series, Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series). When a situation such as that arises, I have to prioritize what will be covered in the critiques. NASCAR’s top-3 series are in the “must carry” category if they run, so that made the decision easy for the main critique (We’ve tried four races in the past, but it makes the critique too long). That gave me a tough choice between four races and SPEED’s impromptu Darrell Waltrip special for the Annex. For this week, I went by popular opinion. Beyond the three NASCAR “National” series, the Izod IndyCar Series appears to be the most popular. So, onward to Toronto we go.

For the sake of time constraints, we’ll skip the preliminary Firestone Indy Lights race held a couple of hours before the Izod IndyCar Series event. All you need to know is that the telecast started 15 minutes late due to Stage 9 of the Tour de France running over its timeslot due to constant wrecking (including the now-infamous) “hip-check from the Citroen that sent Johnny Hoogerland into a barbed wire fence”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWT8yeHGA0U. That’s just so nasty. So, we’ll pick up the telecast after the preliminary event.

IndyCar Central was its typical self. Kevin Lee hosted once again from the Versus stage while interviews were conducted either at the stage, or in the paddock.

There was one feature where Dan Wheldon drove Grand Marshal Dan Aykroyd around the 1.75 mile circuit in a Honda Civic Si. Aykroyd (a native Canadian) was very impressed at Wheldon’s skill behind the wheel. It was interesting to watch.

We also got to know James Hinchcliffe a little better with a nice tour of his home. It appears that Hinchcliffe is a nut for motorsports history and a collector of racing memorabilia, as he has a room in his house full of racing-related goodies. These goods included one of Jacques Villeneuve’s helmets.

Another segment in pre-race saw Robin Miller give out Mid-Season grades to the teams. Miller has been around for quite a while, so he’s a pretty strict grader. For example, despite the team winning three races, he gave Team Penske a C+. The team’s lackluster performance at Indianapolis was a major reason why the team received such a low grade.

The pit walk that Versus debuted in Iowa was back for Toronto. Wheldon and Miller once again both did the walk, which I had mentioned previously that I was not a fan of. I liked the concept of the Pit Walk, but the execution was horrendous. In Toronto, the execution was much improved. Versus made use of a split-screen that allowed viewers to keep track of both Miller and Wheldon. The pacing was also much, much better. As a result, no one was talking over anyone else. Its still a little stilted, though. Versus didn’t display graphics identifying the interview subjects, so it was a bit of a guess as to who they were interviewing aside from the drivers.

Prior to the pit walk, Versus gave viewers seven pre-race interviews with a variety of drivers. The pit walk added at least that many to the total.

One of the things that most of the 400,000+ viewers of Sunday’s race will take away from the telecast is the sheer amount of wrecking that took place. It seems that the track gets narrower every year they race in Toronto. As a result, stack-up crashes are more common now than they were in the past. The broadcast booth seemed to be in awe of all of the craziness on track. Quite frankly, so was I, and I was 400 miles away from the race watching on TV.

Speaking of the booth, we had a change in there. As you remember, Wally Dallenbach, Jr. had to take a brief sabbatical from the booth in order to fulfill his obligations to TNT for their Summer Series. Well, even though the Summer Series is not complete (the last race on TNT is this Sunday in Loudon, New Hampshire), Dallenbach decided to make the trip up to Toronto on Sunday after being in the booth for the Quaker State 400 on Saturday night.

Apparently, Dallenbach arrived at the track approximately one hour before the race was due to start and took his customary analyst spot in the booth. However, Wheldon was still around as well. You know what that means. A quartet in a small box. I’ve written many times in the past about how such a setup just doesn’t work. Someone always ends up dominating the proceedings while one person says so little that he might as well have stayed home.

Granted, the previous examples I have to draw on are from ESPN broadcasts of NASCAR races over the past couple of years. Surprisingly, the four person setup on Versus didn’t work that horribly. The person that I thought was most likely to be squeezed out of conversations was Beekhuis. However, Beekhuis settled into what amounted to a technical analyst role, not unlike what Steve Matchett does on SPEED’s Formula One broadcasts. As a result, he was effectively able to stay out of the way of the Dallenbach and Wheldon pairing.

Wheldon continues to shine in the booth. I’m not really sure if Wheldon had actually considered getting into broadcast work when his actual driving career comes to an end previous to this year, but it is increasingly clear that he would make an excellent full-time analyst. However, he’s still got plenty of racing behind the wheel left to do, and it is quite obvious that he would rather be doing that.

One of the gripes I had about the telecast is that we never really found out what happened to Sebastian Saavedra to put him out of the race. We saw Saavedra go down the escape road at Turn 3 with what looked like an issue with the right front assembly. Jenkins referenced the issue on-air. We have no idea how it got like that. No replay was ever shown of any incidents that Saavedra might have been involved with, no nothing. Unfortunately, that is one of the downsides of not producing your own race coverage. Yes, Versus sends their pit reporters to Toronto, so its not like Sao Paulo, but they don’t shoot the race themselves (via the Lingner Group). A Canadian host broadcaster takes care of that.

Another example of the Canadian race production was when Danica Patrick gave a little bit of a salute to Takuma Sato

Also, one of the restarts occurred during a Side-by-Side commercial break. While its definitely better than outright missing a restart while in a regular break, its still far from ideal. I still don’t like it.

Since there was so much wrecking (and something like 33 laps behind the pace car in an 85 lap race), Versus ran over their timeslot by roughly 15 minutes. However, even though they went over their slot, Versus still provided viewers with seven post-race interviews. There were also checks of the unofficial results and point standings, along with some wrap-up analysis before Versus left the air.

The race was quite interesting to watch (even though the amount of wrecks was quite ridiculous for a open-wheeled race of only 149 miles). The four-man booth made the race very exciting to watch, and at times, were a joy to listen to. I cannot say that I condone a four-man booth in the future for Versus, especially since Dallenbach will be back full-time for the rest of the season (with the exception of New Hampshire in August, which is an ABC race). Perhaps Versus will find something else for Wheldon to do in the meantime. When he does get another ride, either with Bryan Herta Autosports, or with another team, it could be possible to make use of Wheldon as an In-Race Reporter, something that historically has been very rare in open-wheel coverage (while being a weekly occurrence on NASCAR telecasts for years).

I hope you liked this look back at Versus’ telecast of the Honda Indy Toronto. Check out next Thursday’s edition of the Critic’s Annex, where I will be covering the Prairie Meadows 200 for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. Until then, have a great weekend.

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