Thursday, April 23, 2009

Goin' Way Down South Baltimore...Virginia...and with apologies to Wyclef Jean (and all of you who might not have gotten my 1998 reference joke, which would be...probably all of you), now also Kansas. That's right, as much as I've truly enjoyed watching Versus' excellent coverage of the IndyCar series so far this season, it's time to get off the couch and go to my friendly neighborhood super speedway and catch the big boys (and girls! plural!) doing their best high-speed work. More on that in a second.

First, the Versus coverage. As I mentioned in my last post, I thought the coverage from St. Pete was fantastic. Long Beach was more of the same, I thought, though since the wasn't quite as good (read that: less passing), the show didn't seem to have quite the same zip as at Round 1. Others have pointed out that the coverage thus far has been a tad "package heavy" with a lot of pre-prep "who are these people and what are they doing here" types of stories, but I think that that's sort of a necessity at this early stage in the Versus Era. If we are, as I think we're all hoping, getting people over from Versus' many, many other sports (hockey, bull riding, MMA, cycling, full-contact badminton), a lot of folks aren't going to know who most of the drivers are, outside of Danica, that Dancing With the Stars guy, the guy who's married to Ashley Judd, and maybe that quiet guy who won the Indy 500 last year. If packages are what it takes to draw people into the coverage and give them a vested interest in what's going on for the next three hours, I'm all for it. If you find them boring (and mind you, I kind of do), that's what pause buttons on DVRs and refrigerators containing chip dip and beer were invented for.

The booth guys and the rest of the on-air crew, as I also touched on in my last post, are all doing top notch work. I've read many people who say that Bob Jenkins's style is sleep inducing. I personally disagree, but the main job of the play-by-play person in the booth is not necessarily to have you jumping out of your seat ever 30 seconds (that's Jack Arute's job, whether it's on purpose or not). It's to make sure that the other guy (or guys) in the booth are getting all the way through their points, everybody stays on topic, and nothing major (cars stopped on track, EJ Viso threatening other drivers with a 20 foot snake) gets missed during the telecast. Bob's great at all of that stuff. Good. That's what they're paying him for. Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis both bring their assorted backgrounds to the table, and both do a good job of interjecting their viewpoints into the flow of the telecasts. Buhl is a relatively recent driver, and now that we're getting into territory that he knows better (oval tracks), I think he'll be quite good at telling us what it's like out there. I believe someone also mentioned that he's a car owner or something, so maybe he'll talk about that down the road, maybe if his driver hits anything. Meanwhile, Jon is a student of the sport, in addition to his being an ex-driver as well, and does a nice job of keeping up with the technical and strategic developments, which are things that other people who have been in his chair in the past (naming no names, but there have been many) have been...lacking in grasp on. That's perfect. Three guys, three viewpoints, and all well spoken. Don't change a thing.

As for the pit reporters, other than the usual occasional non-sequitur by Jack Arute (like last week where he was talking about the "Late" Stirling Moss, when Stirling is very much alive and the anecdote was probably not about him in the first place), those three are doing a great job so far. Really, the pit reporters are kind of like referees in other sports: if you can't remember any major screw-ups, they probably did their job correctly. Through two races, other than a couple of word fumbles, I can think of no such problems with Lindy Thackston or Robbie Floyd.

Now, with all of the television stuff out of the way, it's time to talk racing. So far, the racing hasn't exactly been riveting, but it has been interesting. I'm one of those nut-jobs who actually think that street racing has its place in the sport, and not just from a sponsor entertainment standpoint. As a few people have written, minute car fine-tuning is not so important on street courses, and so a good driver can throw a mediocre car around and make it punch well above its weight. This is well worth something, as we've seen Justin Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Will Power on the podium, three guys who barely got a sniff of a podium on the ovals last year (though Ryan got close, and Will was driving for Penske last week). Also, I'm a firm believer that not every race has to feature tons and tons of passing, though race after race of no-passing-at-all will almost certainly kill a series (see F1, back around 2003 or 2004). The occasional race that turns into a high-speed chess game, where drivers are basically waiting for other drivers to make a mistake in order to make a pass? That's OK by me. Again, let me reiterate, I'm cool with 3-4 of these races a year (especially if the surrounding scenery is interesting to look at as well), but not much more than that. I'd say that IndyCar has struck about the right balance in the schedule right now.

Now, looking ahead to this weekend, we've got our first oval race of the year, and the only one that comes before the Indy 500. If last year is much of anything to go off of, we're looking at a Ganassi/Penske one through four formation, followed by a mixture of AGR cars, the Panther car, and a couple of other isolated guys in the top-12 or so. I think that this year will be around about the same, but now that the ex-ChampCar teams have had a full year to work on their setups, I think they'll be closer, and probably fully competetive for spots in the 7-10 range. Newman-Haas-Lanigan, with a rapidly maturing Graham Rahal and a lightning-quick-when-he-keeps-it-off-the-wall Robert Doornbos should be close-ish to the leading pace. Dan Wheldon, the best driver that Panther has employed since the days of that...Sam guy, should be right up there in the top-5 all weekend. Rafa Matos has been quick so far (when he hasn't been wrecking Danica), and I might be one of the few who thinks he can do the same on the ovals as well.

There are so many more questions. Will there be any repercussions from Dario for Justin Wilson implying that the Franchitti brothers are Britney Spears fans? How huge will Tony Kanaan's hair be, since it's grown out for a whole week? Will Will Power frame Helio Castroneves for some sort of crime, so that he can get his ride back? How will Our Girl Sarah fare this week, in her first outing of the year? How well will Nobody's Girl Milka stay out of the way, given that she's done basically no testing since last year, and hasn't sat in a Dreyer & Reinbold car since Chicagoland last year? We shall see.

And on that note, one other question: to anybody who's been to Kansas Speedway before, what should I be checking out there? We'll just be there on Sunday, in a nod to keeping Mrs. Speedgeek sane and racing-tolerant, but is there any must-see stuff that we ought to be fitting in between the Indy Lights race and the Big Car race? Drop me a comment if there is, or if you might be in the Big KS yourself this weekend.

Take it easy, everybody, and see you at the races!

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