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Taking the tube to task: IndyCar broadcasts under the microscope

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The Danica Patrick "tunnel vision" displayed by ABC Sports is just one of the many flaws on display during their IndyCar broadcasts. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
The Danica Patrick "tunnel vision" displayed by ABC Sports is just one of the many flaws on display during their IndyCar broadcasts. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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Today, as a concession to the recession, I am filling out a résumé.

I haven’t done so for over 10 years and I’m a bit rusty at it. But I still remember what a résumé is for and what elements make one stand out from the others.

This is important information to know because your résumé is your sales pitch. More often than not, it will only get one (usually brief) look from a potential employer, so you need to make that one look count. Else, you will remain unemployed and saddled with the knowledge that your first and best impression wasn’t good enough.

That’s a lesson that the folks at ABC really ought to learn sometime, especially based on the travesty that was the IZOD IndyCar Series Camping World Grand Prix at the Glen broadcast on July 4th.
I always feel uncomfortable writing critical blogs about race broadcasters. Through my membership in the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association I have met several of them and generally they are some of the nicest and most personable people you can meet in media circles. So taking them to task has always been hard for me to do.

But when you have a disaster of such epic proportions as yesterday’s Watkins Glen debacle, there’s just no way to avoid tearing it down if you ever have any hope of improving things.

The most obvious and glaring deficiency was in the directing. It seemed as though there were two areas where ABC’s director believed there was any interest at all - the top three cars and Danica Patrick. The first mention of, say, Marco Andretti was almost three-fourths of the way through the race. Takuma Sato at one point had made his way to fourth without any mention from ABC of how such a thing had happened. Even worse, several spins, pit issues and close passes were completely missed by the live broadcast and were only perfunctorily addressed through replays later on - except, of course, for anything happening within ten feet of the 21st place Danica Patrick, which thus merited endless replays.

The broadcast team was little better, and that’s pretty sad to have to say with talented guys like Vince Welch and Rick DeBruhl on board. But when you miss the start of the race because you’re busily (and pedantically) explaining the difference between red and black Firestone tires, or when you tell your audience that they saw a pass for position in "Side-by-Side" when, in fact, the broadcast was at a local commercial break without the "Side-by-Side" feature... that’s just sloppy work. It shows a lack of situational awareness that’s virtually Duno-ian in scope.

That low level of performance only exacerbates the issues facing ABC’s auto racing coverage, particularly concerning the IZOD IndyCar Series. ABC treats IndyCar racing the same way they would treat professional basket-weaving or Extreme Hair Styling - superficially, and with an underlying sense that they’d rather be somewhere else.

You can trace much of this back to the booth. Marty Reid is ABC’s "jack of all trades" when it comes to racing, but you won’t find a more smug, smarmy delivery this side of Bill Murray’s famous lounge singer act or a local-access weatherman. I’m still not sure how much of this is just his nature and how much of it is compensation for Scott Goodyear, a very nice, stolid sort whose "color commentary" is a uniform shade of gray.

Then there’s Jamie Little, who apparently has two interviewing modes: either a bubbly, cloying sycophant - particularly around Ashley Judd or Danica Patrick - or an ambulatory "sad trombone" when things aren’t going right. The contrast between her performances and those of her compatriots Welch and DeBruhl is marked, and moreover they belie what a smart and friendly person she is away from the microphone.

Welch and DeBruhl basically are hamstrung by their director. Both men have proven over and over in the past that they are capable, businesslike performers on pit road, but they are powerless to combat an ABC corporate culture that seems dedicated to the principle of producing the most vapid, superficial and one-dimensional broadcast possible.

Broadcasts like yesterday’s are terrible calling cards for the IZOD IndyCar Series, which is already at a crossroads with a new CEO and a new formula on the horizon for 2012. If ABC’s performance yesterday was a résumé in the hands of an employer, it wouldn’t even get past the second look stage before being placed in the circular file. As an enticement to bring more fans to the sport, it was an utter, abject failure.

The "alternate" crew that works the VERSUS race broadcasts certainly seem more invested in the sport in general, and the competence level is unquestionably higher. Bob Jenkins as the anchor is no spring chicken, but he still brings his passion for IndyCar and the gravitas of his experience to the booth. Robbie Buhl and Jan Beekhuis prove every week that it’s possible to pair enthusiasm with insider knowledge without losing credibility. The talented and lovely Lindy Thackston is perhaps the best female motorsports reporter in the business, never fawning and always quietly competent. Even Jack Arute, who has in the past offended by being far too familiar and sycophantic with his interview subjects, has found new life as a pit-side analyst with a flair for the unusual.

At the same time, however, VERSUS’ broadcasts have the air of a minor-league baseball broadcast. What I mean by this is that, faced with the knowledge that they are catering to a small, hardcore fan base, they sometimes lapse into too-familiar rhythms and fanservice. It’s a friendly, loose atmosphere that die-hard fans often enjoy, but it often lacks that veneer of total professionalism that is a hallmark of most major-league sports. There is also on occasion a whiff of the "hard sell," which, while never reaching the incredible levels of hucksterism found in FOX Sports' NASCAR broadcasts, is still something of a turn-off.

You may be asking yourself at this point, "Well, Mr. Know-It-All, what would you consider to be a competent race broadcast?" I thought you’d never ask.

The gold standard in American racing broadcasting is without doubt the SPEED Formula 1 crew of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett. This fact becomes doubly amazing when you realize that Varsha, Hobbs and Matchett do many of their broadcasts remotely from a tiny studio in front of monitors that deliver the international F1 feed. You would never guess it from their performances, which are simply a lap ahead of everyone else.

Why are they so good? Simply, three reasons: chemistry, knowledge and a clear understanding of their roles. Matchett is the technological wunderkind, the ex-engineer whose technical brilliance and understanding is paired with an enthusiastic eloquence. And David Hobbs, who was such a poor fit for CBS’ NASCAR coverage of the 1980s, is in his element as the driver expert - none of the "fish out of water" bumbling from his NASCAR days here, just a low-key, informed color commentary laced with just the right dash of British irony.

But the crown jewel is Bob Varsha. He is the quintessential anchorman, a racing version of Vin Scully or Jack Buck. He is an automotive enthusiast who clearly has taken the time to understand motorsport topics and issues at their most fundamental levels. But he does not waste time with needless harangues or blustery hucksterism - he slips in his expert knowledge subtly and succinctly, enough for a concise explanation that does not derail the flow of the broadcast. 

More importantly, Varsha is the glue that holds the broadcast crew together. Because he is every bit as knowledgeable about the subject matter as his color commentators, he is never caught off-guard by their contributions. When Matchett strays into his oft-expressed favoritism for McLaren or British drivers, Varsha is there to steer him back on track. When Hobbs goes overboard with his sardonic observations, Varsha calmly responds with his trademark dry wit and restores his focus.

Something else this talented crew should be lauded for is their objectivity and the refusal to treat their sport with kid gloves. Unlike FOX's NASCAR crew, who fawns over the series' management so much that you can almost hear them physically kowtowing to them, or to a lesser extent the IndyCar broadcast teams who are loathe to call out series officials on the air, the SPEED F1 team perform as neutral observers. They ask questions that fans are asking about procedure, and they criticize when a critique is necessary. In other words, they maintain a distance between their love for the sport and their responsibility to cover it professionally and objectively.

It is a great mix of three men who know their roles and know and love their sport. But their willingness to talk up to their audience is the cornerstone of their success. The SPEED F1 team assumes that the audience is both engaged enough and intelligent enough to understand them with only a minimum of intellectual cajoling. This is important, because targeting a sport towards the highest common denominator is the best way to generate curiosity from new fans. The desire to learn more about the sport so that you can appear smarter at the water cooler the next day is the first step towards true, abiding interest.

Or, in short, the best way to sell a sport is to act like you’re not selling it. There’s one thing that makes people change the channel faster than anything, and that’s hucksterism. When your race broadcast has the feel of a junk mail advertisement or e-mail spam, it’s nigh impossible to build audience loyalty.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has said recently that in order for tracks to stay on the IndyCar schedule, they need to raise their promotional game. The same applies for the sport’s broadcast partners. The kind of vapid, superficial coverage high on flash and low on content and competence that ABC has displayed - not just at Watkins Glen, but at virtually every broadcast over the past handful of years including the Indianapolis 500 - is unacceptable... or, at least, should be.

Naturally, if any of those involved in yesterday's broadcast read this blog, they will probably feel outraged, annoyed, insulted, and angry. To that, I say... good. This is not "haterade" or criticism for the sake of it - it is a performance review. Your audience is your boss, folks. And just like a stand-up comedian who mails it in, sometimes you deserve to get booed off the stage.

These broadcasts are the league’s résumé. And like any good résumé, they need to make an impactful, professional and unarguable case for employment. It's high time ABC - and everyone else in IndyCar broadcasting - recognizes this and acts for the future.