Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 69- Indy Japan 300k

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I take an additional look at motorsports-related programming. While NASCAR’s three “National” series were all in action at Chicagoland Speedway, the Izod IndyCar Series made their annual haul to the other side of the planet to race at the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. However, things were quite a bit different this time.

Because of the 8.9 (or 9.0, depending on which source you want to cite) earthquake that decimated much of Japan back in March, the oval was damaged and rendered unusable for the race. Ok, it wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be, but there were significant cracks and a drop off in elevation in one of the turns. More than enough to make 200 mph + unsafe. As a result, the Indy Japan 300k was moved from the 1.549 mile egg shaped Super Speedway (apparently modeled after Darlington, but not really) to the 2.98 mile Twin Ring Motegi Full Road Course. That course was apparently not as heavily damaged, and received a brand new repave, described as “glass smooth” and “slippery” even though it was 100 percent bone dry all weekend. The other change for this race weekend was that the teams did not use the regular pit lane for the road course, instead using the Super Speedway’s pit lane with special new connectors to and from the road course. Weird. I guess they needed to have a wall between the garage and pit road. NASCAR did just fine without one for the exhibition races at Suzuka in 1996 and 1997. But, I digress.

Hearing those terms made me think back to last year, when Formula One made their first visit to South Korea. The track construction had run behind schedule and paving was done very late. Because of this, a quick curing pavement with a high oil content was used. That surface is also quite slippery in the dry (in the wet, like the race was last October, it’s nearly impossible). It appears that such a solution was used at the Twin Ring Motegi.

Like the Sao Paulo event earlier this season, Versus’ crew stayed home in Indianapolis. Only Kevin Lee made the trip over. Meanwhile, Bob Jenkins, Wally Dallenbach and Jon Beekhuis were joined in the booth by Robin Miller, making for a pretty cramped room back in Indiana.

Prior to the race weekend, Danica Patrick expressed some doubts about going over to Japan for the race. As a result, Lee asked some of the drivers on camera what they really thought about the weekend. The responses were generally positive. Then, Lee went off the record. The responses then were a little more mixed.

Speaking of Patrick, she made a rather ridiculous comment on the driving style of Brazilian drivers, something that Tony Kanaan took offense to and attacked back via Twitter. Lee attempted to get further comment from both parties on the issue, but neither would go on camera. Kanaan stood by his tweets, while Patrick flat out refused.

The main feature of IndyCar Central was about Takuma Sato and what he has done in the past six months to help the people of Japan following the earthquake. In addition to running “Pray for Japan” logos on his No. 5, Sato has pledged his time and money to helping children that were orphaned as a result of the quake. A feel good feature if I ever saw one.

Since only Lee and a lone Versus cameraman made the trip over to Japan, Versus’ telecast was dependent on the host feed from NTV, also known as Nippon Television. This is the equivalent of a race being on network television here, so it’s a big deal. Unfortunately, it appeared that Nippon Television had some quirky ideas on how to show the race.

I should have known something was afoot when we missed the command to start engines. It was during a commercial break, which is all but unheard of these days. There was a lot of miscommunication with the rolling start on both the drivers and the telecast. Seems like maybe 13 people actually knew the race was going green, and none of those dudes were on TV.

Nippon Television also really liked to zoom in and out really fast. It was crazy to watch. Since this race started a little after Midnight (and I had already gone out to do another job), I was already tired by the time the race started. The cuts and zooms actually made me dizzy. The booth realized this and basically told viewers that they were just along for the ride.

Unfortunately for viewers, the race was not all that exciting to watch. Bites when you realize that the race had excellent attendance. The main grandstand was crammed. Around the midpoint of the race, a discussion of how fuel mileage has hurt on-track action recently in all series broke out. Kinda interesting, actually. We discussed that in the Sprint Cup context in Mirror Driving this week.

The late night feel of the telecast naturally led to some stupid stuff. In this kind of setup, Miller would be better off just taking the weekend off and spending time with Dave DeSpain on Wind Tunnel. He basically adds zilch to a telecast if he’s not at the track. Here, he made a bunch of wisecracks, talking about White Castle burgers as “the kind of burgers you eat at 3am when you’re drunk,” then insinuated that Jenkins may be drunk (he wasn’t, as far as I know) and that they were going to go to the White Castle after the race, like Harold and Kumar before them. Ridiculous.

Stuff like that above brings up the notion of what is considered professional in the booth and what isn’t. What Miller was doing Saturday night/Sunday morning wasn’t. That was basically sitting around and saying a bunch of random things. Granted, Miller did have that “salty father figure going on about the old days” air about him that some fans might find appealing, but he was just coming off as an idiot. Simple as that.

If you think ESPN’s Chase focus is bad, Nippon Television was worse. The vast majority of the race was focused on either the two leaders (Scott Dixon and Will Power), who weren’t even battling for the lead, and the two Japanese drivers (Sato and Hideki Mutoh). Granted, the Japanese bias was nowhere near as strong as I thought it could be, but the leader bias was stronger. It made me think of the time I saw the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix on YouTube. The Brazilian host broadcaster basically spent 75 laps focused on the leader. Since that leader was the late Ayrton Senna, the focus was even stronger than it would have been otherwise.

There were focus issues as well. You could see certain shenanigans going down, like on the first lap when Helio Castroneves went off into the trap and Nippon Television’s cameras would act like nothing happened and go on.

Post-race coverage was ok. Normal Versus viewers would have expected a little more, though. We got three driver interviews, interviews with the winning car owner and race strategist, and checks of the unofficial results and point standings before Versus left the air.

Nippon Television’s broadcast was just plain hard to watch. It was like stepping into a time capsule to an earlier time, when covering the field was not considered to be all that important. It makes me long for the regular crew, who will be back in Kentucky in a couple of weeks.

I hope you enjoyed this look back at the Indy Japan 300k. Tune in next week for another critique here in the Frontstretch Newsletter. Until then, enjoy this week’s racing in New Hampshire and Singapore.

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