NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 71- Kentucky Indy 300

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I give my readers an additional look into the motorsports-related programming that is available to us race fans. In addition to the Camping World Truck Series Freeze-Out Saturday night (also known as the Kentucky 225), the Izod IndyCar Series raced Sunday afternoon in a doubleheader with Firestone Indy Lights.

This piece will be a little bit more than just a look at the telecast, but at the race itself. The series never fails to amaze me, for all kinds of different reasons.

We’ll skip the Firestone Indy Lights race. Not a whole lot of action there. The series has suffered from small fields for years, and Sunday’s race was no exception. Only 13 cars started and five were eliminated by Turn 2 in this “crash”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNTRVRN2eOY.

After the preliminary event, Versus still had about 25 minutes to kill prior to the start of IndyCar Central. During that time, they presented a somewhat off-beat feature where they followed Simona de Silvestro to “Vevay, Indiana”:http://www.vevayin.com/, a small town of 1860 or so with Swiss heritage. What followed was de Silvestro being given a tour of the village, it’s history, and how it compares to the area in Switzerland where de Silvestro is from. Apparently, it compares quite well. However, de Silvestro cannot blow the giant horn to save her life.

Once IndyCar Central started, the main feature of the show was based around the brand new 2012 Dallara, which recently tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Honda trotted out their new single-turbo engine to test in the new chassis. Jon Beekhuis was on hand to point out some of the new features of the car, including the increased foam around the cockpit and the new hand-operated clutch in the car. Tony Cotman (head of the 2012 ICONIC committee that selected Dallara’s design) pitched in some thoughts about the new car, as did Wheldon. Based on what I saw, the new car rides lower on track than the old one does. Also, the Honda engine has an interesting note. It’s been compared to the turbocharged engines in Formula One back in the 1980’s. Personally, I’m more intrigued about what the Lotus-badged Judd and Chevrolet engines, which will both be twin-turbos, will sound like.

Another feature followed Vitor Meira and Tony Kanaan as they train for the Ironman World Championship, based in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. For those of you who are unaware, that particular triathlon is considered to be the toughest standard-length triathlon in all the world. Athletes must swim 2.4 miles in open water, then ride 112 miles across lava fields (granted, it’s on paved roads, but they’re over the hottest areas in all of Hawaii), then a full marathon on foot. Brutal. I already had previous knowledge of at least Meira attempting to do this. For example, I had already seen a picture of his custom road bike (painted to match his race car) months ago. Meira stated that he started doing triathlons because he was already doing all three aspects of the event in order to prepare for Izod IndyCar Series races. So, it was basically a “why not?” decision. The race is Saturday. NBC will cover the event December 10th in a highlighted fashion.

The race telecast itself had a very definite focus. That was the championship battle between Will Power and Dario Franchitti. Early on, Power ran away with the event, pulling away by two seconds over the rest of the front pack with no help at all. His car was literally that good. Following the first round of stops (more on that a little later), Franchitti was in control. Versus gave viewers constant verbal updates about what was going on with the points, but it lead to ignoring a lot of the other drivers in the field.

For example, at some point in the event, EJ Viso was forced to pit and lost eight laps on pit road. No mention was ever made about what happened. The only mention that Viso and his team really got all day was due to an unfortunate incident on pit road that had nothing to do with Viso’s No. 59. There was almost no mention at all of Wade Cunningham all day, despite the fact that he made his way into a battle for fifth late before dropping back to a seventh-place finish.

If you exclude the fact that Ed Carpenter picked up his first career victory, the biggest story that came out of Kentucky was the multiple incidents on pit road. When Power pitted out of the lead on Lap 49, he knocked himself completely out of contention by having contact with Ana Beatriz when he was entering his stall. This ripped a gash in his left side pod. After a number of repairs under a later caution, Power finished a disappointing 19th.

Later in the race, de Silvestro’s car spun on pit road right after a pit stop (cold tires appeared to be the culprit). Her No. 78 spun into Viso’s pit stall, hitting one of Viso’s crewmembers and causing the second yellow of the race. The crewmember was very sore, but ok. Cold tires appeared to be the culprit here, similar to the crash on the warm-up lane during qualifying that forced Pippa Mann to start from the rear of the field. During that yellow, Marco Andretti and Alex Lloyd collided on pit road, knocking both drivers out of the race. The commentators seemed to not know what to say here. Definitely an unprecedented amount of pit road carnage, especially for a series that uses electronic rev limiters on pit road that would usually prevent something like de Silvestro’s crash from happening.

Jenkins claimed after the first round of green flag pit stops that Versus was having issues with scoring. Basically, the entire booth was convinced that there was no way in heck that Franchitti (ninth before the stops) could have been leading after the first round of stops. However, Franchitti pitted about three laps after Power. He got the advantage of hot tires and momentum while the drivers in front of him had to contend with cold tires and getting held up in the pits. It took a good five minutes for them to square everything away, even though the scroll was right the whole time. Not too good.

Somewhat lost in all of the pit road craziness was the fact that Alex Tagliani had been bumped out of his No. 77 in favor of Wheldon for Kentucky and Las Vegas (Tagliani will drive the No. 98 for Bryan Herta Autosport in Las Vegas). Since he couldn’t race on Sunday, he joined the broadcast booth for the race starting on Lap 34. Tagliani is ok in the booth, but doesn’t really bring all that much to the broadcast. He also goofed when referring to the idea of Wheldon getting an advantage by pitting under green right before a yellow. That strategy doesn’t work when you have 24 second laps, unfortunately. Maybe two weeks earlier at the Twin Ring Motegi, it would have been different. Sorry.

The middle of the race was not really all that exciting. Franchitti led and easily held off any and all challengers. The action really didn’t heat up until after the third and final caution ended with 22 laps to go. From there, it was side-by-side action between Franchitti and Carpenter with the rest of the remaining pack snarling behind. The booth was very enthusiastic about the on-track action. I’ll admit that it was pretty exciting, all the way to the end.

Post-race coverage was somewhat typical in it’s scope, but with something extra. Versus gave viewers six driver interviews, plus interviews with the winning car owner (Sarah Fisher) and Carpenter’s wife, Heather. In addition, there were the normal checks of the unofficial results and point standings. The extra coverage was mainly because Sunday was Versus’ final Izod IndyCar Series broadcast of 2011 (the season finale in Las Vegas on October 16 will be on ABC). All seven of the on-air crewmembers talked about their favorite memories from the 2011 season. They ranged from Kevin Lee talking about his travels (he’s the only one of the seven to go to either Japan or Brazil), to Marty Snider talking about JR Hildebrand’s crash on the final lap in the Indianapolis 500 and so on. It was a nice way to finish off the season on Versus, much more friendly and low key as opposed to last year’s travesty in Homestead where it seemed like they were at each other’s throats.

I thought that the race was ok to watch, but far too focused on the top two in points. Once Power had his issues, he dropped off the planet. The cameras were focused on the front of the field for the rest of the race from that point on, missing notable stories along the way. That, along with the NFL playing it’s usual negative role, led to only 188,000 viewers watching the race (a 0.1 rating). Not good. The series needs to improve that badly. Versus needs to do more to promote the series. I think the DirecTV issues from last year still hurt the series’ rating, but if Versus considers the series to be flagship programming for the summer months, they should treat it like it is. The IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly show, which only lasted a couple of weeks, was a good start. They should revisit that in 2012.

Versus’ 2011 season was basically a year of near constant change. Wally Dallenbach missed multiple races due to his TNT Summer Series obligations. Snider did the same with that, and obligations to cover NBA Playoff games. Robbie Floyd worked in a pinch-hitter role on pit road for much of the summer after being full-time for the past two years. Versus seemed to struggle with finding a role for Robin Miller all year. Dan Wheldon joined the broadcast booth a week after winning the Indianapolis 500.

After reading all that, you might think it was a mess. For the Japanese and Brazilian races, it was. However, Versus has created a trio in the booth that work really well together in Jenkins, Beekhuis and Dallenbach. Granted, Dallenbach has all but no experience at the highest levels of American Open Wheel Racing, but he still can bring a lot to the booth. I’d say he’s quite the upgrade over Robbie Buhl. Wheldon was quite a revelation in the booth, despite the obvious fact that he’d rather be driving. It’s a potential second career after he retires, though. I’m fine with Snider, Lee, Thackston and Floyd on pit road. Miller is a bit of a enigma. I don’t know what his role officially is, even after watching for a full year. I don’t know why he was in the booth for the Sao Paulo and Motegi rounds at all. Versus needs to define a role for Miller going forward. It needs to be more than “roving lunatic that all but wants to cuss people out on air,” too. He simply lost his primary role when IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly was canned.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the Kentucky Indy 300. Next week, I’ll be back with a look at the Kansas Lottery 98.9 for the ARCA Racing Series. Until then, enjoy the action from Kansas and Bathurst.

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