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ESPN a bit thick with the right stuff

Observations from ESPN's broadcast:

By JOHN SCHWARB
Published April 4, 2005


Listening to the opening minutes of ESPN's broadcast of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, one almost wondered if the entire 21-driver field would disintegrate upon making that first right turn. Yes, it was the first Indy Racing League event on a road course. But no, sorry, we weren't buying that professional drivers would not handle this event just fine.

Well, maybe everyone outside of A.J. Foyt IV. Last in the starting grid and first to cause trouble, Foyt wrecked on Lap 14 with Penske driver Helio Castroneves, drawing the ire of analyst Gil de Ferran. He said Foyt "should have got off the throttle way before that turn." Team Penske president Tim Cindric said Foyt was "a good guy but he needs a little more time under his belt."

Castroneves' wreck gave ESPN a chance to run a poignant piece on his having met the late Pope John Paul II, and sharp pit reporter Jerry Punch added a note about the driver having worn the Pope's crest on the back of his helmet during the race. But anchor Todd Harris added one comment too many, saying "unfortunately that crest came in way too soon" with the accident.

Throughout the broadcast Harris tried way too hard to get in cutesy lines. His green-flag quip, "St. Petersburg's finest has put away the tickets, street racing is legal," sounded scripted, and telling the drivers at Lap 50 to "take a bow, you have completed half the laps of the first street course in IRL history" was silly.

Anyone else get the impression that the word "Tampa" was strictly off-limits to everyone with a microphone? There wasn't even a reference to Tampa Bay. And if St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker catches the reruns he'll hear his name a few times but not see any feature pieces on the city.

ESPN's "side-by-side" is a great feature for any sport that doesn't lend itself to commercial breaks. Sure enough, three times during the split-screen breaks, there were incidents on the track. Alas, viewers still had to sit through the ads and wait for the broadcast to return to the full screen for the incidents to be explained. It would help if the name of the wrecked car was immediately put on the screen.

De Ferran is a John Madden-like analyst, prone to all sorts of random comments. He said before the start that we'd see "a lot of adrenaline, a lot of testosterone" (as if that's lacking from any other auto race) and that when Tomas Scheckter "puts the helmet on something happens, he turns into, grrr, I don't know what." But he can also be sharp and informative, explaining the gear-shifting during a moment with Alex Barron's in-car camera and noting that Dario Franchitti had to remain calm while knowing he was driving with fuel-capacity problems.

Ryan Briscoe did not take on new tires during his last pit stop, a hot point of discussion within the broadcast team. Pit reporter Jamie Little said a Firestone rep noted that Briscoe's tires still had life and that the team would not change them, but de Ferran and Scott Goodyear quickly rebuffed her, claiming that fresh tires were a necessity. In the end, everyone may have been right. Briscoe didn't take tires, and the analysts' call that it was a bad choice appeared correct when Briscoe tangled with Tony Kanaan and ended up in the tire wall.

Obviously champion Dan Wheldon was happy. We saw his victory doughnuts on the track. But the postrace interview wasn't important enough for ESPN to delay SportsCenter. Then again, he probably was speechless after all those right turns.