Having just spent a fortnight touring round the Midwest of the USA, I managed to squeeze in a couple of NASCAR races and an IRL event on the TV. After all, when you have a 24 hr motor sports channel in your hotel room, Mount Rushmore pales in comparison.
Now while I will never be a fan of oval racing, the way in which it was presented by the TV networks put F1 coverage to shame. Cameras caught every major incident and replays were almost instantaneous. The commentators were kept informed of what was going on and – get this – all the drivers and key team personnel were happy to give interviews all the time, raising a smile and not looking at the reporter as if they were carrying the plague.
In short, the TV coverage of US motor sport, was from the competitors onwards, about entertaining the fans. Formula One could learn a great deal.
Take NASCAR. NASCAR is the USA’s most prominent racing series by a considerable distance, everywhere you go NASCAR shirts are to be found. From watching the coverage of the races this popularity is the result of a few different factors.
Firstly the racing is entertaining, being the only motor sport series in the world where notorious tin-top thrasher Jason Plato would appear to be a ‘clean’ driver. Accidents are frequent, but then given the fact that the cars run so closely this is hardly surprising (and perhaps even by design). Better still, when the field does begin to spread out the organisers throw out a ‘competition yellow’ (i.e. the race has got boring) to make things interesting again. Effectively, boring races are not allowed.
Coupled to this, everyone in pit lane is open for an interview; crew chiefs, team owners and drivers are happy to be interviewed at any time. Imagine if both Ferraris retired from a Grand Prix and Louise Goodman could shove a microphone in Luca Montezemelo’s face immediately afterwards. This happens in NASCAR, and as such there are few egos and the fans love it.
Then, the Monday after the race, I found a show whereby three of the drivers sat in a studio and talked through the highlights of the race. Furthermore this wasn’t done in a Kimi Raikkonen ‘I’d rather be at a funeral’ tone, but was in fact frequently hilarious as the drivers involved appeared to actually tolerate each other’s company. F1 would benefit immensely from such a show, it would allow the fans to get a better understanding of the racing and make the drivers seem less aloof.
Unfortunately this good work was undone by the many shots of the drivers mingling with the fans, even of on race day. NASCAR has got to stop having an open paddock and allowing autograph opportunities for supporters. This is supposed to be a professional sport, not an entertaining and enjoyable day out for all involved. Otherwise, heaven help us, the spectators and paying public may actually feel welcomed and valued.
Consider also the Indy Racing League (IRL). Open wheel racing is very much a minority sport in the USA: dog jumping (live on ESPN) received a similar level of coverage and was more entertaining than the French Grand Prix. I never feel particularly comfortable watching IRL races live as I have the feeling deep in the pit of my stomach that someone is about to get badly hurt – it isn’t regarded as the Injury Racing League for nothing.
Last Sunday I was right, as Tomas Enge got carted off to hospital and Alex Barron and Darren Manning were very lucky to walk away from their respective shunts. Unlike F1 you got to see the incidents in their full multi-angle glory and appreciate just how hard those concrete walls are.
Once again the TV coverage gets you to the heart of the action. For example as Alex Barron was doing his best impersonation of being unconscious, team boss Eddie Cheever was being interviewed about whether the incident was Barron’s fault, and did he think the subsequent safety-car period improved team-mate Carpentier’s chances? Cool.
Likewise, following their collision Tony Kanaan and Darren Manning were interviewed at the medical centre. Distressingly, both managed to raise a smile for the cameras, were witty, and actually gave answers comprehensible to casual fans. They did not push the camera aside, lament their missing puppy, or monosyllabalise about ‘big steps forward.’ All the drivers interviewed throughout the coverage seemed to be enjoying their racing and were happy to talk about it.
The only major downside was the disproportionate amount of coverage given to Danica Patrick, even when it was glaringly obvious that Patrick’s pit strategy meant I stood more chance of winning the race watching it in my hotel room. As a result we got interviews with her fiancÃ©, mother, crew chief, manicurist and some guy who served her in McDonalds once (probably).
That aside the IRL coverage was awesome and once again put F1 into the shade. If Grand Prix racing were able to introduce even half the features of US motor sports coverage I guarantee that viewing figures would rise overnight.
No one is suggesting that something as contrived as ‘competition yellows’ would be right for the pinnacle of motor sport that is Formula One. But the bottom line is that in the US all sport is primarily about entertainment, egos are allowed, but only if they add to, rather than detract from the spectacle. As such the competitors make a good living and the fans have a great time. Everyone is a winner.
We may sniff and sneer at the perceived lack of challenge and greater artificiality in oval racing, but Formula One needs to learn from NASCAR and the IRL how to better present itself to the fans.