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The state of racing on TV: the digital revolution is here 

Formula One, NASCAR are on TSN but who cares about IndyCar? 

By Norris McDonald Wheels.ca

Feb 6, 2022 5 min. read

Article was updated 4 months ago

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It all started with ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” A week after the events, we got to see condensed versions of Formula One races, NASCAR Grand National and U.S. Auto Club (USAC) championship car (Indy car) races. Not every week, but often enough to make us happy. Roone Arledge, who invented Wide World in 1961 and executive-produced the show for years, also loved USAC sprint car races.

For several years in the early Seventies, rather than filling dead air with meaningless chatter before the running of the Kentucky Derby, Arledge would send host Jim McKay to Terre Haute, Ind., for the sprint-car feature there. It was a fabulous 90 minutes: an hour of car racing (total – sometimes they went back-and-forth), followed by 30 minutes of horse racing.

Arledge was a broadcasting genius, working with other geniuses. Among other things, he invented Monday Night Football. Arledge also commissioned the late pop singer, Dan Fogelberg, to write “Run for the Roses,” to publicize ABC’s coverage of the Derby.

McKay was the guy who came up with the “Wide World of Sports” phrase: “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat.” He was also the voice of the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He was on the air for 14 hours, straight, and won an Emmy.

In the late 1970s, Arledge was named president of ABC News and things started to change in the sports world.  For the first time, CBS televised the 1979 Daytona 500 from flag-to-flag and the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, got into a fight with Cale Yarborough on the last lap. The race and the coverage of the fight was front-page news. Indy cars started to have some of their races televised (Milwaukee, Phoenix) and by 1986 the Indianapolis 500 was live.

There’s a good story behind that decision to go live. A two-hour or three-hour edited version of the race was shown during prime time on ABC from 1971 to 1985. People usually avoided finding out the winner so as to enjoy the race like they were watching it live. In 1985, an ABC announcer, forgetting the 500 was on tape-delay, finished a commercial/news break by saying, “And the Indianapolis 500 was won today by Danny Sullivan.” ABC’s switchboard was jammed by irate callers. After a quick negotiation with the race owners – Hulman & Co. — the network announced that, from then on, the race would be shown as it happened.

Norris

Much like the 500, F1 races were shown on tape-delay by the CBC on Sunday nights. One time, I was visiting relatives in Nova Scotia, swearing them to secrecy so far as the winner was concerned. I tuned into CBC Halifax, expecting a short sportscast as it was early in the season and there wasn’t much going on elsewhere. The sports anchor, at the time, was champion curler Colleen Peterson, who opened her report with these words: “Well, they had a real barn-burner tonight over in Shubenacadie . . .” She then went on to report on every curling match in the Maritimes that weekend and I was tearing my hair out by the time she was finished.

We have progressed to today, when most auto races are available for viewing, live, one way or another. The digital revolution is responsible for much of what’s happening. If you want to watch the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals from Tulsa in January, it is not a big deal because, for a fee, you can call it up on Speed Sport TV. Same for races like the Knoxville Nationals and the Oswego Supermodified Classic, which are now available on Speed Sport or other digital services.

Which takes the pressure off, in case you find out one day that one of your favourite races is no longer available on TV, as was the case with the Rolex 24 at Daytona last weekend.  In an email exchange recently with Dave Sonsky, director of marketing and communications for IMSA – which sanctions the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and other sports car series – he said that even though the IMSA races were shown last year on Discovery Velocity, they were also available on IMSA.tv.

“Canada was not geo-blocked last year and (will not be) blocked this year either.”

This means all the races in the WeatherTech championship will be available this season, as will all other IMSA-sanctioned races. This includes the Michelin Pilot Challenge, where Canadian Robbie Wickens is making his comeback.

This doesn’t mean that IMSA telecasts might not have a broadcast partner – at time of writing, Canada’s REV TV was reportedly in the running – but digital TV is available to everybody who wants to go looking for it while REV, for instance, isn’t on Canada’s biggest cable system, Rogers.

Meantime, TSN will televise all the F1 races this season plus the pre-race and post-race extras we are all now used to watching. Ditto with NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series championships. Which leaves – ta-da! – IndyCar.

I put in a call to IndyCar recently but, at time of writing, hadn’t heard back. Out of 17 races, all but three – and one of those is the Honda Indy Toronto – will be televised by NBC.  In addition to Honda Indy Toronto, the race in Detroit a week after Indy and the oval race in St. Louis won’t be on TV in Canada, unless Sportsnet comes through.

You can bet, however, that the Honda Indy Toronto will be on TV in Canada somehow. While it pains me to write this, IndyCar ratings in Canada stink. We’re not talking many eyeballs at all. U.S. college basketball is more popular. But the Honda Indy Toronto is very popular and that’s why, come hell or high water, it will be on the air.

There’s a solution to this ratings dilemma, however. Bring back the IndyCar race in Edmonton, promote a race in Calgary, return to Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal and revive the race in Halifax. Counting our race here, that would total five IndyCar races in Canada. If the ratings are as strong as they always are for the Honda Indy Toronto, no self-respecting Canadian TV network could turn its back on them.

The late American journalist-racer Robin Miller suggested on several occasions that Canada could handle more than one IndyCar race. What say you?

Norris McDonald, a past Wheels editor in chief, covers the Canadian automotive and global racing scene for the Star. He is a member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.  nmcdonald@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter @NorrisMcDonald2.

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