NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 61- Edmonton Indy and the Grand Prix of Germany

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I bring viewers a second dose of TV telecast criticism. Before I start, I must apologize to my readers. Last week, I promised that I would cover the Izod IndyCar Series Edmonton Indy in the regular Tuesday critique on Frontstretch. However, it just was not possible for me to do that. Why? Quite literally, last weekend was quite possibly the busiest possible weekend that I could have where I was not on a press credential. Let’s just say I had to work for approximately 30 hours between two different jobs, while trying to juggle my note taking. Add in the fact that it was my birthday on Saturday (which I didn’t fully celebrate because I had to work 2 jobs), and you have my mess of a weekend.

The IndyCar critique was pushed back because of that, and the fact that all the NASCAR content from Nashville pushed the regular critique to 2800 words. Can’t go much longer than that without significant chunks of the column being cut out. However, for today, you get a bonus. Not only will I be covering the Edmonton Indy, but I’m still throwing in Formula One as well because I like my readers so much. Here we go.

Edmonton Indy

Sunday afternoon brought the Izod IndyCar Series back into action after a weekend off. The break seemed to cool off some of the drivers after the shenanigans that plagued the Toronto round. The wrecking on track was bad enough, but the inconsistent and/or non-existent officiating made a bad situation even worse. Luckily, Sunday’s race was free of the bad calls from Brian Barnhart (Chief Steward of the Izod IndyCar Series) that hurt the race. I’d go into more detail about the officiating, but then I’d be writing 2000 words about Barnhart. Let’s just say that a lot of people hate him. want him out, and have stuck to those opinions for years. For reference, check out any of Robin Miller’s Mailbags at speedtv.com.

Of course, once Versus came on the air, they needed to recap the craziness that went on in Toronto. I’m not opposed to Versus doing that, because they always do. However, this included more than just the usual recap. It also included a montage of race winner Dario Franchitti and Will Power’s interviews, Franchitti from Victory Lane and Power’s after he retired from the event. For the uninformed, Power was spun out by Franchitti in “this incident”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVsyymNRz2U on Lap 57.

Kevin Lee interviewed Justin Wilson and Tony Kanaan on Versus stage for their thoughts on the issue. Both drivers crashed out of the Toronto event in separate incidents. They’re also the leaders of an unofficial (read, “unrecognized”) IndyCar Drivers’ Association, and by extension, basically the voice of the drivers. They were asked to talk about the events of Toronto, what could have been done to prevent them, and who should have been apportioned blame for the wrecks. The answers were perfectly rational, but went against what actually happened in Toronto.

The ProfessorB segment was focused on brake bias. Beekhuis did the feature from inside of Graham Rahal’s No. 38 and discussed the proper amount of front brake bias that is required for optimal running (apparently, about 52-57 percent). He also showed the dial that drivers could use to adjust that bias. Interesting little feature. Yes, in NASCAR, drivers can adjust bias as well (its literally the only thing they can adjust themselves in the car), but they cannot see the actual bias. In the IndyCar, the bias is shown on the steering wheel so they know how much they need to move the dial to be exact.

Versus was back down to a three man booth (at first) since Dan Wheldon did not make the trip up to Edmonton. As a result, Robin Miller did the Grid Run by himself. Versus is making note of the feature’s popularity by creating on-screen graphics with the 61-year old Miller running that ran before the feature started. Still interesting to watch. Got a kick of his statement about A.J. Foyt, who is quite corpulent these days and apparently doesn’t run for anyone.

However, the Grid Run brought something else up that was interesting and came out of Power’s angry interview at the 5:00 mark in the aforementioned clip. Apparently, one can get away with using a six-letter word that describes a person pleasuring themselves with no repercussions from Versus or the Izod IndyCar Series these days. I could care less, to be really honest, but I’m actually surprised that Versus let that air uncensored twice now. I know their ratings aren’t the best (a .41 for Toronto), but I’m pretty sure that someone’s not very happy about that.

During pre-race ceremonies, there were some embarrassing issues with the PA system during the National Anthems and the Command to Start Engines. I cannot recall anything like that happening before. Jenkins acknowledged the issues, then got surprised when the Canadian anthem sound came back quietly. I guess that’s just one of the hazards of live television. The PA system then cut out again during the command so that no one could hear it. That is just a shame. Nothing Versus could have done about it, even though it probably makes them look bad.

The Canadian host broadcasters’ camera shots didn’t help out much either. They would miss stuff every now and then, which simply bites. We hold telecast production to a much higher standard today than in the 1990’s. The simple thing is this. If someone wrecks, stay on the wreck. The Canadians failed to do that on Lap 1.

On Lap 1, Graham Rahal was eliminated after Alex Tagliani all but drove through him halfway through the lap. The hit cut his left rear tire, which caused him to spin and get hit by Paul Tracy. Following the hit, and an angry pit road interview, Rahal joined the Versus trio in the booth, much like Wheldon has done recently, and Carl Edwards has done a couple of times this season.

Rahal was interesting to listen to. He was very much focused on the actions of the drivers themselves on track, which resulted in a bit of a contrast as compared to normal, but Rahal was quite informative. He was not afraid to call out drivers for moves that he felt were unnecessary. Granted, some of that might have resulted from his legitimate anger at Tagliani (which did not show when he was in the booth), but it was a nice change.

Listening to Rahal in the booth reminded me of some of the commentary that viewers got from TNN and TBS in 1994 from their rotating third chair in the booth after Neil Bonnett died. That year, you had people like Dave Marcis, Kenny Wallace, Darrell Waltrip and others work in the booth for a race. They were relatively reserved and informative in that role (even Darrell). Now, Graham is very young, so I don’t think that he’s angling for a TV career right now. He’d rather win a bunch of races.

The officiating issue was nowhere near as egregious in Edmonton as it was in Toronto. Obviously, Barnhart must have read some of the vitriol. There were penalties levied against multiple drivers judged guilty of overly aggressive moves that resulted in wrecks (Tagliani, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway).

Post-race coverage was actually relatively brief by Versus standings. There were five post-race interviews (the top-4 finishers, plus Scott Dixon, who finished 24th after getting hit by EJ Viso). There were also checks of the unofficial results and point standings before Versus left to get to tape-delayed coverage of Stage 21 of the Tour de France.

The coverage from Edmonton was enjoyable to watch. The track is quite hard to pass on, though. Helio Castroneves spent the last 30 laps trying to make a move on Will Power, but could never really do it. The technical issues that the venue itself had didn’t help Versus out much, though.

I really did like Rahal in the booth, but it creates the dreaded fourth man in issue that I’ve written about in the past. Its just plain difficult for everyone to participate in such a setup. That is why networks should refrain from doing such setups.

Grand Prix of Germany

As per the current TV deal that News Corp. holds for Formula One, four races a season are aired on FOX. The rest of the races are live on SPEED. FOX cannot (or will not) air the European races on their slate live. I’m not sure if they’ve ever released a real reason why, but I’ve got a couple of theories. One has to do with the local affiliates being unwilling to give up early Sunday morning time to the network. Another reason could be the e/i set forth by the U.S. Government. As you may remember, that was the reasoning used by ESPN to move Chase races away from ABC to ESPN last year. Sunday morning is a popular time for affiliates to run the necessary programming required for compliance.

Prior to the start of the race, FOX brought viewers some pre-race analysis. Will Buxton, the European-based reporter that contributes to SPEED’s Formula One broadcasts, gave a brief description of the tire compounds available to the teams during the weekend. Usually, an explanation such as this is handled by Bob Varsha, but for the FOX telecast, it appears that FOX decided that a more visual representation was necessary.

SPEED’s normal on-air crew of Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett were on hand for the race just like normal. However, like with Buxton’s tire compound description, a fair amount of the commentary was simplified to help some of the newer viewers learn about the technology that goes into the series. While some of the more die-hard fans, the people that get up at the butt-crack of dawn (or earlier) to watch the races live, would probably find the incessant explanations to be a little annoying, I can understand that having the races on FOX brings in new viewers that may not know all that much about Formula One (prior to roughly 2005, Formula One had not been on network TV on a regular basis since the late 1980’s).

However, despite the incessant explanations, the race was quite nice to watch. There was a lot of enthusiasm in the commentary, which I always like to see. Then again, that is no different than what you normally see when the races are on SPEED. The new rules for 2011 that bring the Drag Reduction System (DRS) into play, along with the return of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) have really spiced up the on-track action. If you thought Formula One was boring before because of a lack of passing, then I think you should take a look once again. Passing is up substantially this season and almost all of the races have been very competitive. The days of someone running away from the field to a 50 second lead and hiding are likely over.

The tape-delaying and cutting down of the race resulted in viewers missing a couple of things. For example, the Force India driven by Paul di Resta spun out on the first lap of the race. No replay of this spin was ever shown on the air. Viewers could see di Resta’s spin in the background and the booth did commentate on it. However, you could only just see the smoke cloud from the spin.

Also of note, towards the middle of the race, Hobbs and Matchett were talking about the extremely close pit stops. Hobbs appeared to be badgering Matchett about them. Why? The McLaren team serviced Hamilton’s car with four new tires in 3.2 seconds. That matches what Matchett believed to be a world record from 1993 at Spa, viewable at the 4:00 mark of this “clip”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cBsUYcU7r8. Hobbs and Matchett are commentating there as well. Also of note, Matchett was serving on the Benetton crew in that clip from 1993 as the rear jack man.

Post-race coverage was actually a little more generous that we’ve had in the past with Formula One coverage on network television. The national anthems on the podium were actually cut out though. That bites. We also could not see Lewis Hamilton greeting his overjoyed crew in Parc Ferme (basically, a designated parking area in the paddock). After the race ended, FOX took a break, then came back on the podium with the champagne spraying. There were checks of the unofficial results and point standings, along with some quotes from Hamilton in the post-race press conference before FOX left the air.

I’m simply not a fan of the tape-delayed races on FOX. While I do like the commentary team, I don’t like the idea of the races being chopped up to fit in a much smaller slot. I can deal with the simplification for the reasons stated above. At least nothing serious got cut out due to time constraints.

I hope you enjoyed this look back at some open-wheeled goodness from this past weekend. Next week’s Annex will cover the Ansell Protective Gloves 200 from Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Interestingly enough, that race is tonight at 8pm on SPEED. Enjoy.

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