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 ESPN.com 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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