The IZOD IndyCar Season starts Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Canadian race fans will be casting a critical eye on three things in particular: how drivers James Hinchcliffe of Oakville and Alex Tagliani of Montreal stack up against the competition and how Sportsnet’s coverage will compare to TSN’s.
Former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard announced at last summer’s Honda Indy Toronto that he had initiated negotiations with Sportsnet because, going forward, TSN couldn’t guarantee that it would televise all of the Indy races live.
Sportsnet made that commitment and has cooked up some added value for its telecasts of Sunday’s race in Florida as well the Indianapolis 500 in May and the two Honda Indy Toronto races come July.
TSN didn’t produce pre-racing programming, preferring to go with whatever the U.S. network broadcaster provided. But for at least the three races mentioned above, and maybe more, depending, a four-man Sportsnet team headed by sportscaster Rob Faulds and featuring retired drivers Paul Tracy and Bill Adam, with Todd Lewis in the pits, will provide play-by-play plus analysis geared for Canadian racing fans.
During a chat we had recently, Hinchcliffe — who’s starting his third full-time season in IndyCar and his second as an Andretti Autosport driver — expressed how excited he was about Sportsnet taking over.
“Sportsnet has been incredibly proactive,” he said. “They’ve reached out to me about being involved as much as possible (Hinchcliffe is one of the most media savvy drivers in the series — if not the most media savvy guy (he’s known, for instance, as the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” his personal website) — and has extensive broadcast experience.
“They’re really keen to promote the Canadian drivers, Alex (Tagliani) and myself, and I’m very keen to promote the sport in Canada. I’m so excited and relieved to see the passion and excitement they’re putting into it because it reflects the way I feel about the sport. I mean, it’s a thousand times better than what we’ve had the last couple of years.”
Hinchcliffe, who also has a contract with Speed Channel in the United States to provide analysis on the Speed Center news program as well as to make periodic appearances on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain, said the biggest role he could play for Sportsnet would be to “go out there and try to win races for Canada.”
Having said that, however, he wasn’t making any predictions.
“You obviously go into a season with the goal of winning races,” he said. “But there are so many things that have to go right on a Sunday for you to win a race and, as a driver, you control about 10 of a thousand things.
“I’m in my third year now but I’m still up against guys in their 13th year. So, for me, it’s still a learning thing. I need to get out there every lap I can, in every race, and figure out what those (race-winners) do to get that last half a per cent that moves (some drivers) from being a podium guy to a race-winning guy.”
Andretti Autosport, owned and operated by Michael Andretti, is the team that has defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay in its lineup. In addition to Hinchcliffe and RHR, the team also fields cars for son-of-the-owner Marco Andretti and Venezuelan E.J. Viso, which means there’s a lot of pressure to perform.
“I don’t get the sense that we’re walking around like we accomplished something,” Hinchcliffe — who drops into the team’s headquarters frequently when he’s home in Indianapolis — said.
“We know that everybody’s back to zero, that we can’t rest on any laurels and I think the team’s motivated to work even harder to try to do it all again. The work ethic happening at the shop now is over the top.
“The chemistry within the team is every good and I think we’re stronger now than a year ago.”
There has been discussion in recent months about the state of the IndyCar nation, with the owners hiring a Boston consulting firm to suggest ways to promote the series. Among the suggestions was one to compress the season into 18 or 20 weekends in the spring and summer and another was to showcase the drivers as daredevils.
“I think March is a good time to start and it really comes down to when the season ends and where it ends,” Hinchcliffe said. “I’d love to see the end of October-first of November for an end-of-season race. If we could extend it from where we finished last year (California, Sept. 15), I think it would be better. That would be ideal for me. The most successful racing series in North America (NASCAR) goes from February to November, so that should tell you something.”
And what about this daredevil business, James?
“That’s actually the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Hinchcliffe snapped back.
“What they’re trying to say is, ‘Let’s go back to the days of the gladiators; we don’t want you to know who they are, we just want you to watch them kill each other.
“The people I’ve met who knew nothing about Indy car racing, they then know they’ve got someone to cheer for and they start watching. They see one race, or they go to one race, and they say, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ If you get people out to the track, they’re fans for life. It all starts with that initial emotional investment, of knowing someone enough to want to go watch.
“They need to have an emotional investment in the people who are out there. . . . We need fans who are cheering for somebody and the only way that’s going to happen is if the drivers have a higher profile, where we’re not a secret.
“And that’s the key.”