August 23, 2010
There was some promise when the Izod IndyCar Series paired up with Versus before the 2009 season. The IndyCar Series would be out of the shadow of NASCAR as the only motorsport on the network, and Versus could devote time and coverage that ESPN couldn't. It was the IndyCar Series' chance to establish itself.
And that hasn't happened. As we reach the two-year mark of their relationship, it's obvious that it needs to be broken up because Versus is the television equivalent of a deadbeat husband.
Ratings for the IndyCar Series haven't cracked 250,000 on occasion this season. To put that in perspective, that's near the capacity of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway watching the race across the freaking country. Yes, Directv's sour relationship with Versus late last year kept viewers away, but let's face it, it's not like millions of potential viewers were being blacked out.
Sunday's race at Sonoma was a perfect example of how Versus has butchered their television coverage from the beginning. NASCAR fans are accustomed to seeing the national anthem at every event. At Sonoma, the anthem was audible in the background as pre-race host and pit reporter Lindy Thackston continued the pre-race.
Dan Wheldon got clipped by Bertrand Baguette -- that crusty fellow -- as the field accelerated towards the green flag and almost flipped over the pit wall, scattering the cars as they crossed the start/finish line. Bob Jenkins, Robbie Buhl (a co-owner of Dreyer and Reinbold, a team in the series) and Jan Beekhuis in the booth had absolutely no idea that a crash had occurred, and were puzzled about the ugly looking start. And then, when cameras finally found Wheldon sitting upside down on the frontstretch, the three wondered how it happened with the intrigue level of a fifth grader forced to do a math problem during recess.
Viewers finally got a replay -- and a very good in-car view from Wheldon's car -- but stunningly, the seemingly interminable wait for the replay wasn't the worst part about the network's coverage of the crash. While Wheldon was in the infield care center, Thackston caught up to John Barnes, his car owner for Panther Racing. After Barnes said that he didn't know what exactly happened in the crash, Thackston's second question was some gobbly gook about the National Guard (Wheldon's sponsor) and soldiers and overcoming adversity.
No, I'm not making that up. (Later, when Wheldon dodged her question about what happened in the crash, Thackston made no attempt to follow up and get an answer. And I really wish that someone on the ESPN pit reporter team had asked Darian Grubb Saturday night if the Old Spice man was truly on a horse after the crew made extensive repairs to Stewart's car.)
When a caution flag flew in the late stages of the race for Baguette's stalled car, it set up a restart with six laps to go. Scott Dixon was on eventual winner Will Power's tail through the first green flag lap, and while Power gapped Dixon a little bit, Dixon was still within range with five laps to go.
And, inexplicably, Versus cut to commercial. Yes, they've kept up the IndyCar staple of side by side coverage during commercials, but this was with FIVE LAPS TO GO IN THE ENTIRE RACE! If that had happened in a Camping World Truck Series race -- let alone a Sprint Cup event -- our servers would have been crashed from the flood of comments.
If Versus makes die-hard racing nerds like me want to throw things at my television, I can't imagine what it feels like to be a casual viewer tuning in to a race. Oh, wait... there probably aren't any casual viewers tuning in given some of the ratings numbers.
Izod's done a great job attempting to activate their series sponsorship, so it's only fair to the Series and its fans that IndyCar Series executives find a way to get back on to ESPN or another network. Yes, ESPN's schedule gets full in the latter half of the season with NASCAR and college football coverage, but this is one situation where the IndyCar Series should bow down to the stock car big boys and schedule races outside of NASCAR windows. It's feasible, and how many people do you think chose the IndyCar Series race at Mid-Ohio over the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen when the two were on at the same time?
ESPN would provide the IndyCar Series immediate relevance simply by guaranteeing it a spot on SportsCenter every race weekend and whatever decrease in right's fees that the Series would have to take to move over to the mothership could at least partially be made up in increased commercial fees.
Let's make this happen, Randy Bernard. You've got some grand ideas for the series, let's make this another one of them.
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