NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: Picking The Best IndyCar On-Air Personalities

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday, where we usually have race telecast critiques. However, Easter weekend is a tough weekend if you want to watch races.

There was essentially nothing American-based that ran and broadcast their races on television. There was Formula 1 on NBC Sports Network, but I can’t get an entire critique column for the site off of just one race. There was also the European Le Mans Series and the World Endurance Championship from Silverstone. I watched the free stream of the ELMS race on Saturday. The last half-hour was a nice little duel, while the WEC race required you to pay to view.

So instead of live racing this week, I figured we’d take a look at some of the commentators that have covered IndyCar and/or CART over the years and rank them. Ready? Here we go.

Play-by-Play Commentators:

1. Bob Varsha – When he covered CART for SPEED and ESPN, Varsha was a professional presence in the booth. Being used to him from his work with sports cars and Formula 1, it was easy to get into his telecasts. I had no issues with him in the booth.

2. Paul Page – For 20 years, Page was the voice of CART — first on NBC, then later on ESPN and ABC. Page can be an acquired taste, much like Eli Gold in NASCAR and (more recently) Grand-Am; however, you generally knew what you were going to get from him. Today, Page works for IMS Radio.

3. Bob Jenkins – I always think of Jenkins as a NASCAR guy, but IndyCar racing was his first love. Readers will remember him as the play-by-play man on NBC Sports Network until he chose to retire at the end of 2012 to care for his terminally ill wife, Pam. Before that, Jenkins was the play-by-play man for IRL races for a couple of years and did races on ESPN dating back to the early 1980s.

Jenkins clearly was better in the ’80s than he was for Champ Car in the mid-2000s (he was quickly canned and replaced by Rick Benjamin). Unfortunately, there does appear to be a sell-by date for play-by-play commentators.

4. Leigh Diffey – My mom doesn’t really like Diffey (or David Hobbs or Steve Matchett for that matter), but Diffey brings enthusiasm to whatever he’s broadcasting, be it sports cars, IndyCar or Formula 1. His transition to IndyCar was nearly seamless and I like having him call races. Good move by NBC Sports Network in getting him to replace the retiring Jenkins.

5. Ken Squier – Squier’s time covering open-wheel racing occurred a long time ago;CBS had a deal to air USAC Championship races in 1978 and he was in the booth for those. Squier was in his prime at that time and always gave a good show. He also did play-by-play on CBS’ Formula 1 coverage in the 1980s (Detroit, the Fair Park travesty in 1984). When the Detroit Grand Prix became a CART race in 1989, after Formula One moved the U.S. Grand Prix to Phoenix, CBS continued covering the event for the last three years it was in downtown Detroit. Coverage left CBS when the race moved to Belle Isle Park in 1992.

6. Mike Joy – Yes, Joy called some IRL races back in the ‘90s when CBS and TNNaired a couple of events. Generally, Joy was very good, despite limited experience with open-wheel series. His performance really didn’t look all that different as compared to his Winston Cup races of that era.

7. Rick Benjamin – Benjamin did play-by-play on Champ Car races while also doing Hooters ProCup in a studio and various other series as well. He’s perfectly serviceable and you know what you get with him: a professional play-by-play commentator. However, he doesn’t really bring any more than that.

8. Dave Calabro – You would most likely recognize Calabro best if you live in Indiana. He currently serves as the PA announcer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (he replaced the retiring Tom Carnegie in 2006) and as the sports director at WTHR, Indianapolis’ NBC affiliate. In addition, Calabro has also done play-by-play on NBAgames as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

However, Calabro makes this list because he was the play-by-play man during the time that IRL races aired on FOX Sports Net (1998-99). That was a bad period for theIRL after ABC/ESPN decided that they didn’t want the whole series on their networks, so they decided to cherry-pick the best races for themselves. It meant that some races did actually air live, while others might be delayed by days, depending on location. Here in the Albany area, that meant that you had to hope that races didn’t clash with New York Mets games on FOX Sports New York (now MSG+). If they did, the Mets game would air live, and they’d air the race whenever they dang well felt like it. That would usually mean late nights on Saturday night, or Sunday afternoon while the Mets game was on UPN 9.

Calabro was not really all that enthusiastic in the booth from what I could tell, which is kind of surprising knowing just how much time he’s spent around the sport.

9. Marty Reid – Well, we know why Reid isn’t calling IndyCar races anymore. He must have been crushed to watch St. Petersburg a few weeks ago and see Allen Bestwick in his spot. Reid was generally better in IndyCar than he was in NASCAR. Of course, that just means that he wasn’t screwing up names left and right. Otherwise, he was boring. Replaced No. 10 on the list.

10. Todd Harris – This guy was just plain miserable in the booth. Seemed like all he did was blush about Danica Patrick for most of his time on ABC. His time on the ABCIndyCar Series telecasts pre-dates my time writing about telecasts, but I didn’t like this guy very much. Having said that, he began to make a name for himself onceESPN switched him to World’s Strongest Man Competitions. Most recently, Harris anchored a fair amount of coverage for NBC from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Unranked:

Allen Bestwick – OK, I cannot legitimately rank someone that has done a grand total of one IndyCar race in the broadcast booth. However, I did give some thoughts on Bestwick’s debut at St. Petersburg that can be viewed here.

Bill Weber – The magician did play-by-play for the Champ Car season opener in Las Vegas in 2007 on NBC. As far as I can tell, that was his only play-by-play work in open-wheel racing. Not enough of a body of work.

Booth Analysts:

1. Bobby Unser/Sam Posey – We’ll put the two of them together because they’re more or less tied into each other. They’d just argue with each other all the dang time. Unser seemed to think that he knew everything, while Posey was more than likely the smarter of the two. While the arguing did get ridiculous at times, it did make for a good show.

2. Townsend Bell – Bell took over for Robbie Buhl and has been a pleasant surprise in the broadcast booth. I like listening to him since he’s very knowledgeable and makes the broadcasts informative and exciting.

3. Parker Johnstone – Probably underrated in the booth. I feel like he would have been a little more useful doing sports car races since he spent a longer amount of time in that form of motorsports. However, he’s actually quite lively and funny in the booth, as can be seen from this montage of Toranosuke Takagi screw-ups from Toronto in 2001..

Today, Johnstone owns Parker Johnstone’s Wilsonville Honda in Wilsonville, California.

4. Jon Beekhuis – He’s moved multiple times between the broadcast booth and the pits over the past 15-20 years. In either place, he’s perfectly fine. I thought he should not have been moved to the pits when NBC Sports Network made changes for 2011.

5. Robbie Buhl – Buhl was decent in the booth, but nothing much to write home about. However, they more or less replaced him with Dallenbach, and that wasn’t necessarily an upgrade.

6. Wally Dallenbach, Jr.- I was never the biggest Dallenbach fan from his NASCARwork, so when he moved over to IndyCar coverage, I thought it was going to be a disaster. He’s been OK, but I would have preferred that Beekhuis keep the spot. Besides, having Dallenbach do IndyCar means that it creates chaos when he leaves to do Sprint Cup on TNT in June and July.

7. Larry Nuber – Yes, “the Nube” worked the booth for CART races, primarily with Jenkins at ESPN in the early to mid-1980s. I felt that he was better used on NASCARtelecasts of that time period. However, Nuber’s knowledge of driver talent could extend to CART at that time since it was still theoretically possible to get noticed via the traditional path (USAC Sprints, Silver Crown, etc.).

8. Scott Goodyear – Definitely the better of ESPN’s current booth analysts. He’s OK in the booth, but nothing really to write home about. If ESPN were forced to downsize to one booth analyst without the ability to hire from outside, they should go with Goodyear.

9. Eddie Cheever – I have never liked Cheever in the booth. He is boring and simply states the obvious. He only used to do a couple of races a year, but now does six. After St. Petersburg, I stated that he makes me want to face palm multiple times during a race.

Unranked:

Paul Tracy – For the same reason why Allen Bestwick is unranked. With only one race to go by, it just isn’t enough content to review. However, I did write a little about Tracy’s debut on NBC Sports Network here.

Pit Reporters:

1. Chris Economaki- Most of the work that I’ve seen from Economaki with open-wheel racing was in the pits. Of course, since he’s Economaki, he does very well here with his knowledge of everything going on.

2. Jack Arute – For much of the time that ESPN has covered open-wheel racing, Arute was the head pit reporter. He was generally enjoyable and knew what he was talking about. However, he defected to NBC Sports Network (then Versus) in 2009. He did OK on there, but some rather strange things managed to make it on-air. For example, there was a piece during a race that involved a cheese grater. However, issues towards the end of 2010 seemed to have led to his departure from the network. Unfortunately for Arute, those issues aired on live television. My write-up from October 2010 talks about that whole mess and foretold the fairly substantial changes that followed for 2011. You can’t have an argument like that with your colleagues on live television. Wait for the commercial before doing that.

Arute has not been back with the now-Verizon IndyCar Series since that race at Homestead in 2010. He currently hosts a college football radio show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and makes appearances.

3. Gary Gerould – More or less a steady presence in the pits for years and years forNBCABC and ESPN. Not really intrusive, but he always got the job done, even when dealing with very angry drivers, like A.J. Foyt in this clip from 1991.

4. Kevin Lee – If there was a head pit reporter on NBC Sports Network’s Verizon IndyCar Series coverage, Lee would be the man. Then again, NBC Sports Network makes it pretty easy to figure out who’s the top dog. When IndyCar would go overseas (Japan, Brazil, etc.), it would only send one of its pit reporters to the venue. When Arute was with Versus, he would go. When Arute left, Lee got the gig. Just shows the confidence they have in Lee.

5 (tie). Jamie Little – Entering her 11th year of pit reporting, Little is generally quite solid now. The experience is showing. ESPN getting NASCAR back meant that she gets a lot more pit work than she did when she was only doing IndyCar. She’s probably the best pit reporter that ESPN currently has for its IndyCar coverage and second best on its NASCAR coverage.

5 (tie). Marty Snider – Much like Dallenbach, Snider comes and goes due to not only Sprint Cup commitments, but also the NBA. However, whenever he is on site, he gives it his all. He is generally just as competent working the pits in IndyCar as he is in Sprint Cup.

7. Vince Welch – Welch has spent a fair amount of time on pit road and in the broadcast booth alongside Calabro at FOX Sports Net. Admittedly, Welch is better in the pits with IndyCar than with NASCAR. He’s got over 15 years’ seniority now (hard to believe when you think about it).

8. Lindy Thackston – Thackston joined Versus when it claimed rights to the then-Izod IndyCar Series. I generally liked her in the pit lane, even if her voice did remind me of Laraine Newman when she would be a reporter on Saturday Night Live at times. Today, Thackston is a reporter with WXIN (FOX 59), Indianapolis’ FOX affiliate.

9. Rick DeBruhl – DeBruhl went from being a substitute pit reporter on ESPN’s squad that covered the standalone Nationwide races to full-time IndyCar work. He’s OK; nothing special, but gets the job done.

10. Brianne Pedigo – Admittedly kind of forgettable. She was brought in to replace Jamie Little when ESPN regained rights to Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races. She didn’t really stand out.

11. Bruce Jenner – Yes, it’s the Bruce Jenner that you’re thinking of. In between sports car races, Jenner used to do some pit reporting work for NBC Sports in the 1980s when they had CART races. I thought he was OK, but not really the most knowledgeable guy out there. I could take or leave him. He always seemed to be in awe of everything going on.

Unranked:

Kelli Stavast – She’s only done one race. She’ll get a ranking later this year.

That’s it for this week. Next weekend, we have a fairly busy weekend of competition on tap. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide series will be back in action at Richmond International Raceway for the first regularly scheduled night race of the year. Meanwhile, the Verizon IndyCar Series will be at Barber Park in Alabama. Here’s your listings…

Tuesday, April 22
Time Telecast Network
2:30 AM – 3:00 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
5:00 -5:30 PM NASCAR America NBC Sports Network
6:30 – 7:30 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 2*

Wednesday, April 23
Time Telecast Network
2:30 AM – 3:00 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
5:00 – 5:30 PM NASCAR America NBC Sports Network
6:30 – 7:30 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 2*

Thursday, April 24
Time Telecast Network
2:30 AM – 3:00 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
6:00 – 7:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 2*

Friday, April 25
Time Telecast Network
1:30 AM – 3:00 AM Pirelli World Challenge Roar at the Shore NBC Sports Network*(from April 13)
2:30 – 3:00 AM NASCAR Now ESPN2
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 1 FOX Sports 1
12:00 – 1:00 PM NASCAR Live FOX Sports 1
1:00 – 2:00 PM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour FOX Sports 1
3:00 – 4:30 PM Nationwide Series Qualifying ESPN2
5:00 – 6:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying FOX Sports 1
6:30 – 7:00 PM NASCAR Countdown ESPNEWS
7:00 – 9:30 PM Nationwide Series ToyotaCare 250 ESPNEWS
7:30 – 10:30 PM NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Springnationals Qualifying ESPN3$

Saturday, April 26
Time Telecast Network
2:30 AM – 3:00 AM The Grid NBC Sports Network
3:00 – 4:00 AM Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour FOX Sports 1* (from April 25)
4:00 – 5:30 AM Sprint Cup Series Qualifying FOX Sports 1* (from April 25)
5:30 PM – 6:30 PM NASCAR RaceDay FOX Sports 2
6:00 – 8:00 PM NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Springnationals Qualifying ESPN2*
6:30 – 10:30 PM Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 FOX
7:30 – 10:30 PM AMA Monster Energy Supercross: East Rutherford FOX Sports 2
11:30 PM – 12:00 AM NASCAR Victory Lane FOX Sports 1

Sunday, April 27
Time Telecast Network
1:00 AM – 2:00 AM Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires Legacy 100, Race 1 NBCSports Network* (from April 26)
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM motoGP World Championship Grand Prix of Argentina FOXSports 1
12:00 – 6:00 PM NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Springnationals Final Eliminations ESPN3$
2:30 – 5:00 PM Verizon IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of Alabama NBC Sports Network
4:00 – 7:00 PM AMA Monster Energy Supercross: East Rutherford FOX Sports 1*(from April 26)
5:30 – 6:30 PM Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires Legacy 100, Race 2 NBCSports Network*
7:00 – 10:00 PM NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Springnationals Final Eliminations ESPN2*
8:30 – 9:00 PM Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race CBS Sports Network* (from April 12)

Monday, April 28
Time Telecast Network
3:00 AM – 4:00 AM motoGP World Championship Grand Prix of Argentina FOX Sports 1* (from April 27)
4:00 PM – 5:00 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 1
6:00 – 6:30 PM NASCAR America NBC Sports Network
6:30 – 7:30 PM NASCAR RaceHub FOX Sports 2*
11:00 PM – 12:00 AM Moto3: Argentina FOX Sports 2* (from April 27)

*- Tape Delayed
/- Highlighted Coverage
$- Available via password-protected streaming. Check with your programming and/or internet service provider for availability.

I will provide critiques of the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Verizon IndyCar series races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday here at Frontstretch. For this week’s edition of the Critic’s Annex, I’ll be looking at the Pirelli World Challenge Roar at the Shore from Long Beach, which aired on NBC Sports Network on Sunday and was streamed live at world-challengetv.com.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons below. Finally, if you would like to contact any of the TV partners personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

FOX Sports
ESPN

At this point, there is still no public contact e-mail for NBC Sports. When they finally get around to creating a new link, I will post it for you.

As always, if you choose to contact the network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than ones full of rants and vitriol.

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