Saturday, May 24, 2008
Are NASCAR Fans Going To Watch The Indy 500?
It has been a while since the Indy 500 was anything more than an exercise in survival for the sanctioning body. Try as he might, Tony George could not use the Indy race to springboard his all-oval series to the next level. Sometimes, the IRL even struggled to fill the field of 33.
Let's talk some TV here. Americans know Danica Patrick from her interviews and extensive media exposure. They know Helio Castroneves because of his Dancing With The Stars efforts. What they do not know is the rest of the Indy 500 field. Names like Rahal and Wheldon and Dixon might be of interest to race fans but entertainment TV viewers could care less. Bring on the summer dancing shows.
This year, however, there is one very big group in North America that is going to have an above average interest in the Indy 500. That group is NASCAR fans. Despite the fact that the open-wheel drivers who came over to NASCAR have been a tad less than impressive, it raised an issue. What did they do to get here?
Now, in May of 2008 there has been a series of events taking place that has landed a golden opportunity in the laps of the ESPN executives who are producing the Indy 500 for ABC Sports. First of all, the two open-wheel series are unified which will introduce a full field of actual racers.
Secondly, as noted above, Danica Patrick appeared in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Then, she appeared on NASCAR Now on ESPN2 as a guest. The question on everyone's lips was the same. When will Danica come to NASCAR? The topper was Patrick finally winning a race in the IRL Series. So, where Patrick is concerned, NASCAR fans want to see what all the fuss is about. Some are going to simply want to see the SI bikini girl driving a race car.
The biggest ingredient in NASCAR TV viewers possibly tuning-into the Indy 500 is easy to guess. It is those three little letters that have turned the NASCAR world upside-down in the Sprint Cup Series this season. For almost four months, NASCAR fans have been watching the COT race.
Instead of manufacturers, instead of brands, instead of putting something on purpose-built NASCAR machines to make them different and special, NASCAR and the IRL are now both racing cars no American will ever drive.
Suddenly, the gap between watching "your passenger car" race around the NASCAR track and racing those "open-wheel things" at Indy has narrowed. No one in NASCAR is now even pretending to be racing your car on Sunday.
The task of keeping the casual IRL viewer glued to the telecast is going to go to Marty Reid. A veteran with a long TV history of off-road, drag racing and even stock cars Reid should be primed for this unique challenge. He has a window of opportunity to get non-IRL fans interested and try to keep them until the end of the race.
As the ABC telecast takes to the air at Noon Eastern Time on Sunday, Reid will have a very interesting pair alongside in the announce booth. Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever, the "oil and water" TV announcers of the IRL, will be calling the action. The on-air dynamic of these two is fascinating, as Cheever tends to totally disregard almost everything Goodyear says.
As the IRL TV veteran on the telecast, Goodyear often seems stunned by Cheever's wholesale dismissal of points that Goodyear has just made on-the-air. The time on ESPN and ABC so far in the month of May points to the fact that it may be the announcers who provide more action that the current drivers in the series.
The pit road at the Indy 500 is an intense place to be. TV veterans Jack Arute, Vince Welch and Jamie Little will reprise their roles for the ABC telecast. IRL fans have been writing in to The Daly Planet and asking about the newest pit reporter Brienne Pedigo. Rather than deal with that issue here, perhaps this link to her website will lend readers a clue about why she is working on the IRL races.
No Indy 500 telecast would be complete without Brent Musburger and his podium. Once again, Musburger will be the "show host" for the entire event. His absolute unfamiliarity with NASCAR made him a laughing stock back in 2007 when he hosted the ABC events. Musburger is a great TV veteran with an amazing history. To simply put him behind a podium or in an infield setting and expect him to talk NASCAR was unfair. TV viewers will see if this exact same IRL setting proves to be as off-balance for Musburger and as frustrating for the fans.
While veteran racing fans may remember the glory days of the Indy 500 and the exciting telecasts on ABC, the vast majority of the "target demographic" of the IRL simply does not. It will be up to Reid and company to convince curious NASCAR fans and casual viewers that the resurgence of the IRL is in full swing.
As with every race on TV, the actual action on the track is going to play a major role in the retention of viewers on a sunny Memorial Day weekend. Spinning a realistic storyline throughout the telecast and reinforcing the positions of the high-profile drivers is going to have to stay a theme for the entire broadcast.
After a lot of email and discussion, The Daly Planet will host a live TV forum starting at 11AM Eastern Time on Sunday. That is when the pre-show activity begins on ESPN2. Then, the telecast switches to ABC at Noon. We will continue our live discussion of the ABC coverage through the entire race and experience it together.
Following the conclusion of the event, there will be a "wrap-up" column for your final comments about the day and the performance of the telecast team. No doubt there will be some interesting TV moments to relate.
Please feel free to post your Indy 500 pre-race TV-related comments on this post as NASCAR fans go through a very busy Saturday of on-track activity from two locations. This is a one time IRL special on The Daly Planet, and not the beginning of an expansion into open-wheel TV coverage.
To add your comment, simply click on the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy directions. The rules for posting are on the right side of the main page. Thanks for stopping by, we hope to see you Sunday beginning at 11AM Eastern Time for our discussion.