This is an open letter to Rich Feinberg, ABC/ESPN’s vice president of motorsports production, about whom to choose as the next play-by-play announcer for the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series.
I’m writing instead of calling because I figure Rich probably wouldn’t take my call and I understand that because I’ve been critical of ABC’s direction, production and booth talent ever since somebody told Bobby Unser he could no longer criticize Sam Posey and Paul Page.
Since then, my moniker for the only network that’s ever telecast the Indy 500 live has been Always Bad Coverage. It doesn’t sit well with Feinberg and really hasn’t changed anything so I backed off from the weekly criticisms in my Mailbag during the past year. Also, the fact I work for NBC Sports Network might make critical comments look like unfair favoritism, but I must point out that I was badmouthing ABC long before joining NBC’s IndyCar coverage three years ago.
Anyway, this is a professional plea to Mr. Feinberg to upgrade his team because I want to see ABC grow IndyCar and be embraced by the fans and praised for the product it puts on air. ABC is making a renewed commitment to IndyCar in 2014 and this is the chance to recapture an audience that’s tuned out of U.S. open-wheel racing in the last decade.
The key to success, in my eyes, is to make the telecast sound like a few hours of bench racing between friends who love and understand the product. And to make it FUN because, after all, it’s entertainment. Chemistry in the booth is the key and I’m not real sure it can be created, as opposed to having it naturally.
For example, when Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell joined Wally Dallenbach at NBC this season, they’d never worked together before but the chemistry was instant and obvious. They discussed, argued, laughed and made damn good observations during a race, but without stepping on each other.
The template for this goes back to Ned Jarrett, Bob Jenkins and the late Benny Parsons (with Jarrett, RIGHT) when ESPN put NASCAR on the map 30 years ago. Bob was the traffic cop while Ned and Benny called the races like a couple railbirds who happened to have lots of inside knowledge. Hell, they made me almost like watching stock cars.
A close second was SPEED’s Formula 1 trio of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett. Sure, they got a little carried away sometimes if a driver got sideways, but their enthusiasm was genuine and they always stayed on top of the action even though they were sitting in front of a monitor in Charlotte. When NBC took over F1 this year, Hobbs and Matchett were signed up but Varsha was still contracted to FOX so Diffey slid into his role and made a seamless transition.
Even though they’re a little too pro-NASCAR for my taste, Mike Joy, Larry MacReynolds and Darrell Waltrip always give FOX viewers good insight and stories and it always feels like three buddies sitting in the infield on top of a motorhome watching a race. ESPN’s trio of Alan Bestwick, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree often seem subdued but I suppose watching Texas or Talladega for three hours will do that to you.
My favorite NASCAR team is Kyle Petty, Adam Alexander and Dallenbach on TNT because it always sounds like a frat party and they never take themselves or those races too seriously. And they aren’t afraid to call out drivers, mechanics or the sanctioning body and that is SO REFRESHING.
ABC’s best Indy car trio was Page, Posey and Unser. It wasn’t by design but it was must-see, must-hear TV when Sam would blurt out that Michael Andretti was on fire and Uncle Bobby would quickly scold him: ?No Sam, that’s just a little turbo fire; how many of these things have you seen??
I gave Page a hard time for a long time because it seemed like he’d say anything. But knowing what I do now about the inner workings of television and live races, it was probably unfair criticism. PP knew how to follow a race and would back off when his analysts were arguing or making a point. And there was a presence in his voice ” he always made it sound like a big deal. And, after the last few years, we’ve all been begging for him to come back?.
It’s not that Todd Harris and Marty Reid are bad guys but they just couldn’t seem to grasp what was going on and keep up with the flow of the race. And their analysts often acted like they were in a mortuary instead of a racetrack, which is why Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear need to step up their game. Cheever did a brilliant job for ESPN as an analyst many years ago but now seems distracted or bored half the time, while Goodyear’s monotone and endless explanations of a car’s handling need to be tweaked. They’re both smart guys and can be wonderful storytellers off-camera, so they need to loosen up and have some fun.
But the anchor helps set the tone, so here’s my draft list in alphabetical order.
ADAM ALEXANDER: The former host of SPEED CENTER is now doing college football for FOX but he knows racing, he’s got a good delivery and he’s underrated.
DAVE DESPAIN: Sure he’s a crotchety old man who can’t hear and who hates street races but he’s got the BEST voice in motorsports and knows how to push the right buttons when that red light is on. I doubt if he’s interested but he’d be worth calling.
BRIAN TILL: Was excellent as the pinch-hit anchor for IndyCar on NBC the past couple years and the former Indy car driver is up to speed on all facets of the sport. Good reporter, passionate and very easy to listen to.
BOB VARSHA: Has anchored CART, F1 and sports cars coverage with equal aplomb during the past 25 years. He’s a student of racing who’s got many contacts and is well respected. Great voice.
VINCE WELCH: Longtime ABC/ESPN pit reporter, he’s deeply immersed in open-wheel racing with his son (Dillon, who runs well in USAC midgets) and he’s gone from a curious observer to a full-blown racer. Has a nice pace and presence in front of the camera, does his homework and he’s ready to branch out.
Not sure if it’s Feinberg who makes the final call for ABC but hopefully he’ll at least consider the guys above. Looking at age, commitment, contracts, interest and passion, I figure Till and Welch are the best candidates. Either one would be a major upgrade and a good choice.
THAT RADIO GIG
While the IMS Radio Network anchor job for IndyCar isn’t as important as television, being the voice of the Indianapolis 500 is still prestigious.
With Mike King out the door, the speculation is that it could be Jenkins, Mark Jaynes or Page but let me throw out two more names for consideration.
Channel 6 sports anchor Dave Furst, who has developed quite a passion for Indy car racing during the past decade, is polished, well prepared and easy on the ears. And Jay Baker made his name as the comedy sidekick on the Bob & Tom radio show but he’s a career Indy junkie who knows the players and the history of IMS as well as anyone. And he’s also got a great set of pipes.