Racing Roundup: IndyCar TV Deal a Tangled Web
Changes coming to NASCAR, who are those drivers anyway, and a safety pioneer passes.
Fans of IndyCar racing are worried that they will not be able to watch some of the races this summer because, at the moment, IndyCar doesn’t have a television contract in Canada.
A deal with Sportsnet that worked well for the racing series in recent years ran out at the end of the 2018 season and IndyCar seems to have had difficulty finding a home since.
And it’s a bit of a tangled web, too.
First, we are only talking here about nine of 17 races in the series. Eight of them, including the Indianapolis 500 and the final race of the season from Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca in California, will be shown on the full U.S. NBC network, which is carried by all cable systems in Canada.
The nine races that have die-hards upset, including the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March, the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April and (yup) the Honda Indy Toronto in July, will be televised by the NBC Sports Network, which we can’t get in Canada because of legislation protecting TSN and Sportsnet.
TSN, which has a full Formula One commitment (pre-race, race, post-race) plus full Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series coverage (they’ve even added the trucks this year), used to televise IndyCar races. But in 2012, after fans complained that races were being shown on a tape-delay basis, then-series-president Randy Bernard approached Sportsnet and they agreed to take over the telecasting.
TSN – unfortunately for IndyCar fans – couldn’t have cared less. Insiders told me at the time that the only race they were sorry to see go was the Indy 500 but as far as the rest of the schedule was concerned, see ya.
Sportsnet started out like gangbusters and had a dedicated host for the races, Rob Faulds, and Canadian colour man Bill Adam with Todd Lewis announcing from the pits. That lasted about – what? – six races and those folks haven’t been seen on a Sportsnet IndyCar telecast since.
Fast forward to a few months ago and Scottt Moore, who made the deal to bring IndyCar to Sportsnet, retired. Moore was instrumental in delivering many of the properties that saw Sportsnet vault past TSN to become the No. 1 sports network in the country, particularly the deal with the NHL that made Sportsnet the “home of hockey.”
But not everybody at Sportsnet was enamoured with all this. Some were not happy with some of the deals that were done. Maybe too much money was paid. Or not enough viewers tuned in. Whatever, there are suggestions that the IndyCar agreement was not at the top of the hit parade over there.
So here you have two, 24/7, multi-channel Canadian sports networks and neither one of them seems particularly keen to sign a contract with IndyCar for the reasons outlined in the last couple of paragraphs.
As I have written on previous occasions, auto racing is a niche sport. It is not mainstream like hockey, baseball, basketball and NFL football. Yes, every now and again it bubbles to the surface: Gilles Villeneuve was killed and the news led the CBC National for days. Then the sport went back to being niche again. Nobody knew who James Hinchcliffe was until St. Petersburg in 2013 and the next day he was on the front page of the Globe and Mail. He hasn’t been back there since. Even Robert Wickens’s terrible accident didn’t merit more than a paragraph in the sports briefs of most newspapers. It’s sad but it’s true.
Let me tell you a story. I flew to Tennessee two years ago for the opening of a Hankook tire factory. I asked a vice-president of that tire company about the implications for free trade as the result of the reopened NAFTA talks; there were indications it might not have continued to be as easy to ship tires to Canada without a tarrif. This is what he said: “It would be too bad – but it really wouldn’t matter.”
Translation: we like to sell tires in Canada but we don’t sell enough of them to be bothered.”
I tell you that because, in the end, it’s to IndyCar’s benefit to have their races on Canadian television but if they can’t get a deal, they won’t lose any sleep over it.
But I will finish by being optimistic. A few days ago, via the vice-president of communications for IndyCar, Curt Cavin, series CEO Mark Miles told me that the series is working hard on trying to get a deal.
Maybe they have one – and are waiting till they get closer to the season opener to announce it. Or they are hoping to eventually be able to get through to either TSN or Sportsnet. Or maybe they will have to do what IMSA did – make a deal with a Canadian channel looking for programming: Discovery-Velocity, for instance.
In any event, there are deals out there to be made. IndyCar just has to find the right one.
NASCAR: Change is in the air – and it’s about time
It wasn’t that long ago when the Busch Clash was a Big Deal. Traditionally held on Pole Day for the Daytona 500, the crowd was healthy and the air was electric with anticipation.
Those days are gone, it seems. Yes, there were people in the grandstands at Daytona on Sunday – they watched Jimmie Johnson wind up in Victory Lane after rain put a stop 16 laps from the checkers following a wild crash that involved just about everybody in the 20-car field – but nothing like the old days. However, there are signs that the times might soon be a’changin’ in NASCAR and what that will mean for attendance and interest remains to be seen.
First, it seems more and more that Brian France, who has been at the helm of NASCAR and the International Speedway Corp since 2003, has been replaced. His uncle, Jim France, now has the title of Chairman and CEO. Jim France was named interim Chairman and CEO following the arrest last August of Brian France on charges of DUI and possesion of Oxycodone. Since he went to court and entered a plea of not guilty (there hasn’t been a trial yet), Brian France has gone to ground and the “interim” was removed from Jim France’s title.
Jim France has the respect of everybody in NASCAR and in IMSA, which NASCAR owns. There is a feeling that he knows motorsport, which Brian France doesn’t.
But as well as making everybody feel good, Jim France is leading an apparent culture change in NASCAR that, I suspect, the France family hopes will lead to a resurgance of interest in the sport.
Last month, for instance, it was announced that NASCAR will now start disqualifying teams for cheating. Wow. It was a point of pride in NASCAR to cheat and get away with it. Like Smokey Yunick building a car that looked normal but was really 7/8 the size of the others. Or Darrell Waltrip being able to go, and go, and go, and go about 20 extra laps without making a pit stop, which was highly unusual, until it was discovered that fuel lines had been snaked through all the frame rails in his car, giving him a lot of extra gas.
Those days, it seems, are gone – or so NASCAR says. (I’m waiting for the first driver to say, “Why am I being disqualified? I didn’t do that; I didn’t even know about it. I’m innocent, Throw the book at those guys, not me.”) Big money is a stake, so maybe there will be a court case. We’ll see.
And NASCAR, after years and years of ignoring the fact that automobiles had changed and didn’t use carburetors any more and finally – reluctantly – going to fuel injection, is now talking about the high tech aspects of the sport of stock car racing. That’s interesting.
In the early 1990s, NASCAR went uptown and had its season-ending banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This was an effort to impress Madison Avenue and it worked for awhile until the advertising crowd clued in to the fact that what they were flogging was five-star white collar and the crowd they were trying to impress was two-star blue. Jim France is betting that if F1, IMSA and IndyCar are following the lead of the auto manufacturers and talking about sustainability and the environment and all that other stuff, then NASCAR had better be doing that as well. We’ll see about that, too.
Some guy named William Byron won the pole for the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Who? He edged out another guy nobody’s ever heard of, Alex Bowman. (Yes, I know who those guys are, but go out on the street right now and ask the first 10 people you meet who they are and I bet nobody will know who, or what, you are talking about. Say A.J. Foyt or Dale Earnhardt or Mario Andretti and you might get a glimmer of recognition. But those two?)
NASCAR now has to fight the battle that IndyCar fought for years – to get the word out about the people driving the race cars. I bet if you asked those same 10 people, who gave you a blank stare when you said the names William Byron (“Is he a poet?) or Alex Bowman, to name just one NASCAR driver, the name you would hear the most often would be Danica Patrick.
HANS DEVICE INVENTOR DIES
Finally, a significant death occurred a week and a half ago, that of Dr. Robert Hubbard. He and his brother-in-law, Jim Downing, an IMSA racer, invented the HANS device that has saved countless lives since most racing organizations made its use mandatory.
Dr. Hubbard, a professor at Michigan State University, did his PhD on the mechanical properties of the skull bone. He and Hubbard came to the conclusion that many drivers were being killed because their heads were not being restrained in accidents and the cause of death was often a basil skull fracture.
The head-and-neck restraint, which attaches to the back of the crash helmet and immobilizes the head and neck when there’s a crash, has been a life-saver, although it took awhile for the racing community to accept it.
The HANS was commercially available in the early 1990s. IndyCar was the first series to adopt it, followed by Formula One. Many NASCAR drivers would have nothing to do with it – they didn’t want to be associated with anything used by “them sporty car boys” – and it was only after Dale Earnhardt was killed in 2001 (a HANS would likely have saved his life) that NASCAR got interested and eventually made it mandatory.
Thank you, Dr. Hubbard. He was 75.
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