• Paul Tracy

Racing Roundup: NBC trims Tracy’s TV time   

Hinch’ would like IndyCar to be more interactive, IMSA won’t be at Mosport, and all the news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald April 12, 2021
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As NBC winds down its coverage of the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s putting a crimp in the broadcasting career of Paul Tracy and several others.

After next weekend’s season-opening Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park outside Birmingham, the first of 17 races on the schedule, Tracy is only scheduled to be part of the broadcast crew five other times – Texas, Indianapolis, Nashville, Laguna Seca and the last race on the schedule, Long Beach.

Ever since NBC became IndyCar’s broadcast partner in 2018, there have been three people in the booth: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Tracy. It worked well. Diffey is now one of the best play-by-play announcers in sports, Bell has become the Sam Posey of the 2000s, bringing sophistication to his analysis of the races, and Tracy’s been – well – Tracy, never afraid to call a spade a spade.

Think about a Brahma Bull standing outside the New York Review of Books building and you will understand their different approaches to colour commentating and analysis. Which has been highly entertaining.

But the broadcasting relationship is over after this year and there is no reason for NBC to go the extra mile for IndyCar any longer. Plus, they have the enormous expense of covering this year’s Olympics. It’s understandable, then, that the network would want to save some money. To keep pumping cash into a product that, other than the Indianapolis 500, struggles to attract even a million viewers every time out made absolutely no sense.

So the accountants went to work and made some cuts. Why have three people in the booth when two would do? (The trio will kick off the season next week but then won’t be together again till Texas and then Indianapolis.) They’ve done the same with the number of people reporting from the pits. Two will now do there, too. The rest of the economizing is taking place behind the scenes and viewers probably won’t notice.

I called Scarborough-native Tracy at his home in Phoenix Sunday afternoon to verify what I’d heard and to find out how he felt. As you can imagine, he wasn’t exactly jumping up and down.

“It’s a bit disappointing,” he said. “They offered me a contract extension last fall and asked if I was going to be available for all the races. I said yes – although there were a couple of conflicts. I’m racing in the Superstar Racing Experience this summer but Tony Stewart  (who started the series with Ray Evernham) promised me a plane to get me to the IndyCar race on time on Sunday. So that was the only hurdle and there was a solution.

“I had some other things I could have done this year but held off because I signed a contract. So I have to say I was surprised when they told me I’d only be doing six races. But they’ve been great to me in the past, so I can’t complain, I guess.”

As mentioned, Tracy is under contract and can be called to duty at any time, so the six races aren’t cast in stone. He could do more. But media – electronic and print – are in trouble and once a decision is made to save money it’s highly unlikely to be reversed. But, you never know.

Meantime, Penske Entertainment is “shopping” the series around, but whether one of the remaining networks – CBS, ABC, Fox – will sign on to promote the races and then televise them in 2022 is debatable. Maybe the time has come to sell the rights to the Indy 500 and then buy the time on the same network in order to get the rest of the races on television. I mean, it’s been done that way before.

If he’s got an agent, Tracy should be revving him or her up to strike while the iron is hot when a new contract is signed and make a deal to keep him on the air. I can tell you right now, if he’s not pontificating on his own, or arguing with Bell, IndyCar fans are really going to miss him.

Okay, moving right along.  

Tracy isn’t the only ex-Canadian racing driver who’s had experience on television lately. James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, who will be driving full-time this season for Andretti Autosport, is well-regarded by NBC and when he was restricted to just three races last season, they had him do some pit reporting. Would he do it again?

“I enjoyed it, I had fun” he told me in a long-distance conversation we had last week. “The people at NBC Sports were great. They worked hard to help me get comfortable in the job. I’m thrilled to be back in the car full-time but, yes, I’d do it again if the opportunity presented itself. And, yes, it would be something I’d consider doing in future.”

In a wide-ranging interview, in which we discussed F1’s consideration of sprint races on qualifying Saturdays, and NASCAR’s racing on dirt at Bristol, I asked “Hinch,” a.k.a. the “mayor of Hinchtown,” what IndyCar had to do to get people to pay more attention, to make itself more popular. “If I knew the answer to that, I’d be making a lot more money than I do now,” he laughed. But then he got serious.

“I think one of the big challenges is that sports in general is seeing a decline in viewership. One of the big negatives of the pandemic was that people were forced to find something else to watch and not everybody came back. We thought the numbers would go through the roof because people were so hungry for live sports again, but it didn’t happen. It was unfortunate for all of us.

“We have to think outside the box. F1 has had their show on Netflix and NASCAR has a show on Netflix. We’re investigating similar opportunities and hopefully something will come up for IndyCar, too. For instance, I know the people at IndyCar are always thinking – dirt is not an option for us, obviously – but we had to get through 2020 and now we need to think of other ways to get people interested.

“We need ways to engage people. I’d like to see IndyCar be more interactive and to engage fans on a real-time, personal level. We have some cool technological partners like NTT, so it would be cool to see some of that come together in future.”

Paul Tracy

“Hinch” got into the Big League of IndyCar in the waning days of Newman-Haas Racing but moved to Andretti Autosport to replace Danica Patrick when she moved to NASCAR. That was in 2012. In 2015, he moved to Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, where he’s remembered for two colossal events: nearly bleeding to death after crashing while practicing for the Indianapolis 500 and then, a year later, winning the pole for the 100th anniversary race.

Hinchcliffe felt secure there. He’d raced for Sam Schmidt while in Indy Lights and Ric Peterson was a western Canadian oilman. It was a complete and total shock late in 2019 when he was fired. But, as he told me, when one door closes, another opens and he was able to strike a deal with Michael Andretti for three races in 2020 and now a full season this year.

It’s been a tough year-and-a-half for Hinchcliffe, though. Just recently, his father, Jeremy, died. I suggested that maybe it was time for some good news

“Nobody owes you anything,” he replied. “I’ve been in this business long enough to know you have to earn it all. It’s been a character-building 18 months but I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I find myself now in a position that 18 months ago I would have killed for. So it took a lot of hard work on the part of many people to get where I am, plus the support of some wonderful companies and the incredible group of people at Andretti Autosport. I’m in a good place mentally and a good place professionally; it’s time to get to work.

There are a couple of fresh faces in the paddock this year. Jimmie Johnston, formerly of NASCAR, and F1 driver Romain Grosjean will be at Barber Motorsports Park next weekend and Hinchcliffe said he’s positive they won’t be strangers for long.

“IndyCar has always been a series where it opens itself up to people coming in,” Hinchcliffe said. “They are going to be welcomed with open arms and it’s going to be as exciting for us in the paddock as well as the fans at home to see how they do. There is curiosity as to whether Jimmie will take a shot at the “500” and I think you can never say never. If the right opportunity and circumstances are there, and he has the blessing of his family and his sponsors, he’s a racer and the greater would be his desire to do something around the 500.”

And what about James Hinchcliffe? Has he kept his edge?

“I think winning races is very possible, very realistic. The unfortunate thing is that there’s 12 or 15 guys who can also make that claim. There is genuinely so much talent in the series right now. I don’t think we’re going to see the same three guys on the podium every weekend, for instance.

“Can I win a championship? I’ve been off for a year. If we can be consistent, then we’ll do okay.

Paul Tracy

NEWS ‘N NOTES 

IMSA became the first of the Big Four racing series to pull the plug on Canada this year when it announced last week that it would not report to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July for the annual Sports Car Grand Prix, moving its two races to Watkins Glen, N.Y. We await similar bad news from Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR (trucks at CTMP). Although they might not want to say so, we know that none of those races are going to happen.

By the way, apologies to CTMP for something in this column last week. I said the track was selling tickets to 2021 major events. Not so.

Speaking of Ron Fellows, his old Corvette Racing teammate Johnny O’Connell has been named Grand Marshal of the Historic SportsCar Racing 43rd  Mitty at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta April 21-26. Corvette will be the Featured Marque.

The new Ontario-based Knights of Thunder Sprint Car Series has had to cancel its Spring Sizzler season-opening race at Merrittville Speedway on April 17 because of – guess what – the Covid lockdown. They will try again May 22 at Brighton Speedway.

A week doesn’t go by (it seems) without another sponsor announcement from Kyle Steckly, son of Canadian racing champion Scott Steckly. This time, 15-year-old Kyle is announcing that Tightline Anchor (tightlineanchor.com) has joined his extensive list of primary and associate sponsors that will support him driving the No. 24 Quick Wick/AW Millwrights Chevrolet Camaro in the Pro Late Model Division at Flamborough Speedway and during select appearances in the APC United Late Model Series. Other sponsors include Stewart’s Equipment, NAPA AutoCare, April Super Flo, Milverton Food Town, Lift Solutions, Schmidt Logging, Triple B Spraying, Iron Bridge Fabrication, High Fluid Products, Trailers by Jim Bray, REMAX Jim Bowman, Thomson Signs and Phoenix Electric. I really don’t know whether Kyle has enough room on his car to get every sponsor’s name on it . . .

Canada’s racing channel REV TV will broadcast the Indy Lights Series this season starting with the two races this coming weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Devlin DeFrancesco of Toronto will be making his first Indy Lights starts. REV TV will also broadcast races in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Series and the Indy Pro 2000 Championship.  Prior to each Indy Lights race, a driver profile hosted by veteran motorsports announcer Todd Lewis will be shown. REV TV is now available on most Canadian cable and satellite systems, except Rogers.

After 37 years, Skip Barber has sold his ownership stake in Lime Rock Park to a management group but will remain a significant investor.

Nico Hulkenberg has joined Aston Martin F1 as official reserve and development driver, just in time for next weekend’s Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. Now, with all due respect, why would they do that? Are there not any F2 or F3 drivers ready and willing in case of emergency? Hulkenberg, a nice guy (and maybe that’s the problem), has started 176 Grands Prix and has yet to score a podium. Of course, he could step right in and do the job adequately if called upon, such as if, or when, Aston Martin finds it necessary to fire Sebastian Vettel.

Juan Pablo Montoya will drive in his first Indy 500 since 2017 for Arrow McLaren and will use No. 86 that the late Peter Revson had on his McLaren when he stole the pole from Mark Donohue in 1971. Donohue was an Indy veteran at that point and I can remember the field coming down with Revson holding the inside and obviously braking to avoid jumping the start. Donohue had no such concerns, knowing they were never going to throw the yellow at the start of the “500” (except for a crash) and took off on Revson. Let’s hope if Montoya wins the pole, which is possible, that he remembers that lesson and is on it coming out of Turn 4. Otherwise, he’ll be snookered by somebody.

Jean-Eric Vergne won the first Formula Electric race in Rome, and Stoffel Vandoorne the second, if anybody cares.

Silverstone, site of the British Grand Prix, wants to be allowed to cram as many people into the place as possible for this year’s renewal. They, along with other British big sports leagues, have petitioned the government to allow people who have a vaccine passport (showing they have been fully vaccinated) and are willing to submit to an almost-instant Covid test, to attend the race. If that happens, watch for that scenario to become the norm at all Grands Prix going forward.

NASCAR at Martinsville: Lots of bashin’ and crashin’ – not to mention lots of rain delays – as Martin Truex Jr. finally won the Cup race and Josh Berry was first in the Xfinity race. For a full report on Cup, please click here, and for details on the Xfinity joust, please click here.

By Norris McDonald / Special to wheels.ca 

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