Thursday, September 11, 2008

IRL Fans Upset With NASCAR And ESPN

Rarely do we hear from IRL fans, but this past weekend certainly proved to be an exception. While Tropical Storm Hanna turned Richmond into a doubleheader, IRL fans got quite a double whammy of their own on Sunday.

Open wheel fans tuning-in to ESPN2 for the 12:30PM season finale of the Indy Lights series instead found themselves being welcomed to NASCAR Countdown by Allen Bestwick.

Originally, veteran announcer Bob Jenkins was scheduled to call the live IRL support series race from Chicagoland as the end to a full season of open wheel racing. Instead, at the very last minute, the Indy Lights were moved to the ESPN Classic Network. That is a place that Nationwide Series fans know all too well.

In today's world of technology, that meant the DVR's and the TiVo's recording the Indy Lights race were on the wrong channel. Cable listings did not have this change and neither did the website.

Network executives had finally decided that the Sprint Cup Series race from Richmond on ESPN needed a pre-race show. Since the NFL Countdown program on ESPN could not be touched, NASCAR was moved to ESPN2 and it was the Indy Lights that took it right on the chin.

Later that day, it was Marty Reid and the ESPN crew who produced the IRL race from Chicagoland on ABC Sports. As many fans know, ESPN just wrapped-up a brutal TV negotiation with the IRL. The network wanted the Indy 500 and perhaps a couple of other selected races that fit the program schedule, but nothing more.

Even with the new unified series, the IRL could do nothing more than cave. SPEED expressed no interest and the TV options were limited. The remaining IRL events wound-up alongside NHL Hockey on the Versus Network. TV viewers may remember this as the former Outdoor Life Channel. Comcast has bought the network, moved it to Philadelphia and is trying to build an ESPN-style national sports network of its own.

Once the IRL race at Chicagoland was underway, ESPN had a tough time. They completely missed Sarah Fisher's hard crash and Reid said the network "did not have cameras on that portion of the track." Fisher was OK.

The IRL cars at Chicagoland are like NASCAR at Talladega. Side-by-side, lap-by-lap no one could pull away from anyone else. The key to the race was going to be gas mileage and while the action was high-speed it was less than exciting. No one could pass.

As the final laps wound-down, Scott Dixon seemed poised to win the Championship and was leading the race by holding the low line lap-after-lap. The ESPN Director chose to feature Dixon's cute wife Emma on the screen for the final laps. Rather than show the other racing action behind the leaders, ESPN was once again building the drama on a single car and driver.

Dixon came to the finish line with Helio Castroneves alongside. Reid was overjoyed that Dixon had won the race and the championship in style. Pictures of his happy wife were everywhere as she hugged and kissed her friends. Dixon was sent to Victory Lane and TV veteran Jack Arute was waiting for him.

While Dixon got parked and removed his helmet, ESPN replayed the great finish. There were lots of compliments for Dixon right up until the replay of the finish-line camera.

ESPN veteran Reid said it best. "Uh oh," he muttered.

Amid all the hype and pictures of Dixon's pretty wife, one little element had slipped through the cracks with the ESPN broadcast team. Castroneves had won the race.

Clearly flustered, the ESPN Producer went ahead with Arute's interview of Dixon in Victory Lane. Arute never told Dixon he had lost the race, but limited his awkward questions to the Championship. Dixon wanted to talk about the race. It was a TV mess of the highest order.

Next-up was an ESPN pit reporter catching-up with Castroneves as he left the garage area. Always smiling and gracious, Castroneves stopped to chat. The pit reporter said to him "you won the race." The awkwardness of this moment made the Arute interview seem like Sports Emmy material.

Castroneves is a class act. "I knew it," he said. This was a bitter pill for him to swallow after a season of second-place finishes. To be denied Victory Lane simply because the TV network and the IRL botched the finish was beyond embarrassing. Helio excused himself by saying he needed to go climb a fence.

Just who put the cart before the horse is still being debated. Dixon and Castroneves could both have simply been stopped on pit road until things were sorted-out, but that did not happen. Click here for the link to the official IRL explanation.

As the last race in the final season of exclusive ESPN coverage, this was not how the drivers and teams in this series deserved to go out. Whether it was time pressure from ABC that caused the ESPN crew to push forward without the correct information or just the lack of communication with the IRL officials, it certainly was a weekend that open-wheel fans would like to forget.

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Anonymous said...

Dixon's car had a faulty transponder in it ... Therefore, Brian Barnhart made the WRONG call in awarding the win to Dixon ... Only to realize that Helio had actually won the race ...

Sarah Fisher had a right rear shock failure ... that got her into the SAFER barrier ...

I thought it was ironic that the grand marshal of the Indy Lights race is one of the guys from the CHAMP Atlantic series ...

This is yet another problem with Disney sports channels ... Too many LIVE sporting events all over the country ... and they usually wind up bleeding over into someone else's time slot ...

Sophia said...

Thank you for this column, JD.

This house was LIVID with the ending..and complained during the race due to lack of cameras....on a ONE mile oval track. This was not a convoluted road course where cameras sometimes miss something.

IRL deserved better.

It was like cub scouts were running the show.

It was very sad.

THE LAST RACE OF THE SEASON. Insulting to the fans, and the Sport.

As you can see, I am still ticked from the HORRIBLE faux paux at the end.

Just IMAGINE if this had been NASCAR with a larger audience? Switchboards (provided you can find a number!) and email boxes would've burned up and exploded.

I wonder if Robin Miller will address this.

I wonder if I can find his column on the SPEED site.

Thanks for for writing about the IRL JD. You had a busy weekend.

Hope you stay safe and dry from the storms.


Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 1:38PM,

I am not sure what you are posting there. Barnhart never made a call at all. Once he reviewed the tape it was changed at the track, but ABC was already gone.

IRL says they made the call in a timely fashion but TV plowed ahead with the interviews. The rumor is they had to be off the air at a certain time. Seems to me that perhaps waiting a couple of minutes to figure out who won might not have been a bad idea.

It seems funny that this is exactly the kind of drama that NASCAR loves, but everyone on the TV broadcast seemed to be flustered.

Just because the ESPN script is not followed to the letter should not cause reality to be avoided.

I wish I could publish some of the emails from the IRL fans. Let's just say that had a tough weekend.


bevo said...

I personally will be glad to see the races on Versus next year. I'll miss the on-air folks from ESPN but not the production elements. They do a fine job with the Indy 500 but the rest is just an afterthought for them.

I'm sure Versus will have a weekly IRL show, plenty of post-race coverage and other programming to tie in with the series. Maybe they'll even be able to get Bob Jenkins and John Kernan.

Village Idiot Intern said...

Congradulations to ESPN for resurrecting the ghosts of USAC past!

The month of May, 1979 is generally considered the focal point of the CART-USAC war, and until the Scott Goodyear pace car fiasco at Texas, it is also remembered as USAC's most public display of incompetence.

This, my friends, could very well be ESPN/ABC's Waterloo with open wheelers and their fans.

If Comcast, in their infinite wisdom{smirk}, would partner with the two American satellite providers, all other American cable-tv providers and one national network they may be able to usurp Disney's seemingly insurmountable advantage in sports programming. But Comcast had rather play 'king-of-the-hill' with rather predictable results, so the status quo with IRL will probably remain, much to our chagrin. After all, as one racing series go at Disney, so go they all.

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I am wrong, isn’t the “sanctioning body” responsible for putting the winning car in Victory Lane? Barnhart has not has the best month…

Anonymous said...

Who cares about IRL and especially INDY LIGHTS. They played that race on ESPN2 after the Nationwide race was over. I watched the first 5 minutes maybe when there was 2 cautions in the first 5 laps, one in the very first corner. Those boys (and gals) are talented! Why doesnt ESPN bring back some good racing like USAC or maybe even the Modifieds running at New Hampshire? Looking at the number of people in the stands for that Lights race I cant even believe that series is still running.

Bobby said...

The issue was fairly controversial, especially since the transponder mistake caused the problem. The announcers were also at fault for not reviewing the replay themselves before calling a winner.

Dixon was set to be part of the winner's ceremony, besides, for his 2008 IRL Championship that he won by finishing second (needed to finish 8th or better). But ESPN made such a bad call on the finish that even the Fox crew would have called Castroneves the winner since they are traditionally one who look out the window and not the monitor.

Daly Planet Editor said...

This is not going to go away anytime soon. The IRL is basically saying they were reviewing the tape while ESPN went ahead with the interviews.

Since the race was on ABC, they may have been trying to get off the air in a hurry.

I certainly wished that veteran Marty Reid had asked to see the finish before he and the production team moved forward live on-the-air to say Dixon was the winner.

It really ended the ESPN and IRL relationship on a bad note.


speedangel said...

I'm not ready to put blame on Marty Reid and the announce team for calling Dixon the winner when it initially happened. The race was too close to call by the human eye, so they put trust into their electronic means.

However, I do think that the producer, director should have waited until the winner was made official before they proceeded with the interview. Between the time Castroneves and Dixon crossed the line until Dixon turned into Victory Lane, Reid had time to tell us that the IRL was taking a closer look at the finish. (I can't recall if they showed the replay in that time as well.)

Also, the IRL booth should've called down to have the cars stopped on pit road until it was resolved. Don't have either pull into Victory Lane if they were unsure. I remember a few years ago when NASCAR officals had to pull Jimmy Spencer and his truck team out of Victory Lane at Daytona when they came to the conclusion that Bobby Hamilton had actually won the race. Needless to say that was an awkward situation as well.

As so many others have said, it was just a bad ending, especially since it was the season finale.

Kyle said...

It wouldn't be such a big deal if ESPN went ahead and changed ESPN C to ESPN3, brought it out on HD and let the cable providers have it cheap. Now, both cable and ESPN don't like budging much and that is easier said than done,.

Dot said...

Does the A in ABC stand for ah***s? What was on after the race that they had to leave on time? Let me guess, football? How many times does football bleed into other programming? (if this was the case). Two or three minutes wouldn't have hurt anybody. Better to be running late and get things right than having your series/broadcast partner look like idiots.

Beware NASCAR fans, this is the channel we'll be watching for the next 10 races.

Anonymous said...

If there wasn't a car and driver in victory lane, there wouldn't have been anyone to interview. IRL was the one who screwed this one up. ESPN didn't push the car there.

Karen said...

Speedangel said ...

(I can't recall if they showed the replay in that time as well.)

They did and it was very clear Dixon had not won. Major screw-up.

Anonymous said...

It definitely was a hot mess on Sunday! I was running around and the only reason I realized Helio had won was because I heard him say he was going to go climb the fence now, so had to back it up and see what was going on. I had flipped it over to the race just in time to hear Marty say they didn't have enough cameras so they didn't have tape of her crash. Truly a shame :(

I hope Vs. does them justice...I haven't watched much on it. @bevo--if Vs. does put on all that I'll be in HEAVEN! And yes, John Kernan, John Kernan!

@dot--here there was some local show that didn't look important enough to me that it couldn't wait 5 minutes.

speedangel said...


Thanks for clearing that up. I remembered seeing the replay, I just couldn't remember where it fit in the sequence of events.

Anonymous said...

this is certainly awkward. I watched some of the race, but not the finish. I have to say, it sounds like it was a shame Marty Reid didn't send up a red flag. But the announcers are trying to do a big job and the *producers* are supposed to help them, and it appears they didn't. We can only hope the other networks learn from this, cause weird circumstances always seem to happen....

Adam T. Martin said...

I feel for the IRL fans and I was disappointed that I missed the Indy Lights series so I could hear Bob Jenkins.

The IRL and it's fans deserve better TV coverage.

Anonymous said...

From Robin Miller's Q/A-page 2 (note - RM is not a fan of ABC coverage: ABC stands for Always Bad Coverage in his eyes)

RM: It wasn’t ABC’s fault because as soon as the cars crossed the finish line, Scott Dixon flashed in the IRL television feed as the winner. Turns out the transponder wasn’t as accurate as the photo that was used. The IRL blamed an “improperly installed” transponder.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Miller knows as much about TV as I do about flying the Space Shuttle.

Behind the scenes, seconds after the finish, there was chaos.

The transponder does not decide a photo finish and never has. ESPN reviewed the finish line camera and then panic set in.

Bad decisions seem to snowball in TV and this was bad. At least bring Castroneves back to Victory Lane and give him a proper interview.

There were no hard feelings between the drivers, Dixon won the championship and HC won the race. It could have been a great live moment on TV and intstead is was a disaster.


Anonymous said...

While some have said Versus is a step down because of its' availability, I welcome the change of networks because I think they will provide much, much better coverage.

I use Versus to watch live coverage of the Tour de France during the summer, and they have no problems showing things live and only going to commercials on a minimal basis.

Later in the day, they would take care of the technical glitches from trying to film using cameras on the back of motorcycles and provide a more refined version of the live race from earlier in the morning.

They also seem to find some of the best broadcasting talent to cover those races and let them do their job, so I would expect the same from Versus for IndyCar.

Anonymous said...

When the sanctioning body sends a car to victory lane, they are declaring that driver a winner. Its not the broadcaster's job to second guess that decision.

Mike said...

Nice call John. I had the same thoughts and wrote on my blog about it too.
To top it off, the hurry up and get off the air interviews came and went, and I was thinking, oh something important must be coming on ABC next. So after a quick interview with Helio and no explanation about the botched winner call, they go right into, you guessed it: America's Funniest Videos!

Carrie said...

I've been angry at ESPN/ABC for four years now over their half-arsed coverage of the IRL so this latest incident is nothing new.

That said, the real issue for me as a fan isn't the network screwing up again. The real issue for me is why the hell there haven't been any penalties against TCGR & Dixon's team for the transponder being installed incorrectly.

Makes one wonder how many of Dixon's cars had the same problem this year.

Sophia said...

And apparently abc has had a love fest with WIVES on screen for years. 20 some years ago before split screen, Miller mentioned some famous winner was missed as ABC was showing the wife on the tv screen.

Silly me thought this was a new HORRIBLE TREND with split screen. STINKS.

Robin had few good words about the booth guys, too and I agree as does my room mate who is spoiled with his F1 SPEED guys. IRL deserves better booth coverage.

We are still miffed about the flub..and it was the LAST race of the season.


Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 2:50PM,

You could not in any way be more incorrect. That is exactly the broadcaster's job in every single way.


Anonymous said...

From jdh417

I hate to be a wet blanket on all this hating, but I enjoyed race and thought it was a heck of finish. The initial call of the winner was wrong, but they did get it right before they left the air.

By way of comparison, I love Fox's racing coverage, but I don't know if they'll ever live down not reporting Dale Sr.'s death before they left their Daytona 2001coverage.