Versus May Have Some Explaining To Do

We’ve all had a couple of days to reflect on the events of Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series race in Toronto. There has been a lot of finger-pointing among drivers as well as fans. Who punted whom? Who cut across whose nose? Who was at fault? Who should be penalized? Who was just involved in a racing incident? It has certainly generated a great deal of buzz. The problem is, I’m not sure the buzz has transcended our own little online IndyCar community and entered into mainstream sports dialogue. Still, it’s been fun listening to it all.

One situation that hasn’t been as joyful is wondering if Versus got its facts tangled up when they reported that Dario Franchitti had been issued a drive-through penalty for getting into Will Power and turning him around in Turn Three. Then when Franchitti failed to comply with the so-called penalty, Versus reported that Al Unser, Jr. and Tony Cotman had reviewed the tape and decided to rescind the penalty. When Unser, Jr. was interviewed after the race, he said that no penalty was ever assessed nor rescinded against Franchitti. I’m sure that left the foursome in the Versus booth scratching their heads.

You can’t blame them. They just reported what they were told, yet ended up looking foolish in the process. Covering Motorsports is fast business. There is so much going on at a very quick rate, that the crew in the booth cannot take the time to validate reports. They have to trust what they are told to be true.By the time they get to the booth, they have to run with it. If they sit on it for a few minutes, it is no longer relevant.

If Versus did, in fact, play with the facts – then they need to be held accountable. When I first heard Little Al say this, I assumed he was either covering his tracks or else his boss, Brian Barnhart, had made a ruling on his own without consulting Unser, Jr. or Tony Cotman. Now it appears that what Unser, Jr. said was true. If Versus manufactured supposed facts, the result is a Versus network that had one of their largest audience ever for an IZOD IndyCar Series race, that ended up with egg all over their collective faces.

Assuming that Versus is the culprit in this debacle – and I stress that it is an assumption right now – how does this happen? Who along the food chain, decided that they should just go with what they thought might happen and report it up the line as fact? Then when no such penalty came, they decided to fabricate a story where the incident was reviewed and overturned by Barnhart’s subordinates. If this is the way it actually turned out, it is inexcusable.

Although I’m not a fan of the long-term deal with Versus that ties the series to a contract with a low-profile network that seems to be forever buried in obscurity – I’ve always thought they did an excellent job covering the races. They’ve done such a good job that ABC/ESPN has taken notice and improved their own coverage this season. The on-air team of Bob Jenkins, Wally Dallenbach, Jr., Jon Beekhuis, Lindy Thackston, Kevin Lee & Marty Snider is strong and all seem to mesh together well.

Remember the days before Versus, when ESPN would join the telecast with cars on the pace lap and sometimes would barely get an interview with the winner before cutting away to the LPGA? Versus has given us the luxury of a minimum three-hour window in which we get a lengthy pre-and post-race show. ESPN has countered with more generous amounts of time on each side of the races they cover.

But it’s a sign of the struggle the league faces with Versus when everyone is giddy with what is now being reported as a 0.5 rating for Sunday’s race. Yes, it’s an improvement, but shouldn’t we be further along than a 0.5 after two and a half seasons with Versus? Everyone points to the new association with NBC and their plans for Versus as to where they can take the IZOD IndyCar Series. The peacock network may indeed lead the series to much greener pastures, but Versus potentially suffered a black-eye on Sunday.

I agree with Curt Cavin that this is too serious to ignore. This wasn’t just a case of getting some information wrong, like saying a driver broke a half-shaft when the problem was in the engine. This was wrongly reporting something that was made up and never was true. It misled the viewers and had the potential to cause an outrage when it was reported that a driver was given a penalty then had it rescinded. It undermined the credibility of the league. It made Brian Barnhart appear weak, indecisive and inconsistent – all areas where Barnhart doesn’t really need any help. But in this case, it appears Barnhart was innocent.

This was a major gaffe of epic proportions and somehow it seems that they are getting away relatively unscathed. To take this to the potential extreme; this seems like it possibly could be a deal-breaker for the league to work its way out of the Versus contract. After this year, there are still seven years remaining on the deal. Can the league afford to gamble that NBC is going to suddenly make their new sports channel as recognizable as ESPN?

We can complain about the way the IZOD IndyCar Series has been treated by ESPN, but they have the power to make or break a sporting entity. I don’t see an NBC Sports channel gaining that type of power over the next seven years. Maybe this gives Randy Bernard the "out" he has been needing. That may sound a little far-fetched, but I’ve learned that anything is possible with a foul-up like this – if this is indeed what happened

In a perfect world, I would take all of the on-air talent from Versus and their production crew and try to put every race on NBC and hope that they can promote it as much as they do the Triple Crown, Notre Dame football and the Olympics. Before everyone points out that the Olympics are far and above IndyCar racing as far as revenue dollars – I already realize that. But they still would have the power to effectively promote the series.

But Randy Bernard should have some leverage in his pocket now, with this non-existent penalty against Franchitti. Some will call this me over-reacting, but I don’t think so (obviously). It gets back to what I wrote about last week – journalists need to stick to reporting the news instead of creating the news. Otherwise, you end up with a lot of confusion and some explaining to do. If this is what actually happened on Sunday, I think Versus might have some explaining to do on this one.

George Phillips

24 Responses to “Versus May Have Some Explaining To Do”

  1. The Versus announcers heard about the penalty from someone. Why would they just make it up? Maybe it was just announced before verifying. Or maybe Ganassi is running the series now…

    Speaking of the booth–four is one too many. They don’t need Weldon and Dallenbach, although I like them both.

    • Br!an McKay Says:

      You’re right; Dandy Dan or Wally D.
      Or keep out Jenkins on dates that Dan’s available.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      I hope everyone understands that I’m not pointing fingers at the Versus announcers or pit-reporters. I’m saying the fault lies in “the truck”. I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, and I’m not saying the misinformation WAS manufactured – I’m throwing it out as a possibility. Regardless, it was huge gaffe and Versus seems to not be getting much blame for it. Obviously from comments here and elsewhere, there are a lot of questions out there. i think fans are owed an explanation how and what happened. – GP

  2. The Lapper Says:

    This isn’t the “out” you would hope for. Not close.As for ESPNSports, the series got to the bottom of the ratings with them so any improvement is applauded. In the end, I had rather have great coverage on Versus than wind up on ESPN Classics because tennis ran over.

  3. Simona Fan Says:

    My thoughts exactly, George. I’ll be listening to Trackside this week hoping that Kevin can clear this up. Was it a producer in their ear giving them bad info? Can he at least cite the source of the “bad” information? Or was Al mistaken when he said it was never considered, issued, or rescinded?

    And maybe more importantly, why WASN’T there a penalty? There should have been 3 or 4 penalties for avoidable contact in that corner. Drivers need to get alongside well before 3/4 of the way through the corner. And no, one wheel isn’t “alongside”.

    • Exactly; why weren’t racers penalized for foulups? You’re right: one front tire near another’s rear tire or kickup is not sufficiently alongside. In CART, one had to be halfway alongside before turning.
      Power and Kanaan gave ample room, and suffered needlessly for it.

  4. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    As far as I can tell, this problem runs deeper than Versus. Team owners and drivers are telling us they heard the 10 was penalized and, apart from Lindy Thackston telling Chip Ganassi directly, I don’t know where else they could’ve heard that info. If ESPN had gotten the info wrong, they would’ve ignored it and hope that ignorance of the issue equates to it disappearing. To Versus’ massive credit, they went to Unser, Jr, to clarify what happened…

    …which brings me to this point: Unser, Jr, sounded completely useless during that entire interview! Every time he watched a replay of a car running into another car, he waffled on the answer and said stuff about giving other drivers room and sounded like he was stalling while looking for his script from Brian Barnhart. Tony Kanaan put it best on Twitter: “Next time I will pull over in to the parking lot to give him more room @AlUnserJr.” Egg gets all over Race Control’s face, as per the usual.

    • Al Jr was very consistent in my eyes. he said the lead car left a lane open and when they turned in didn’t leave enough room. The awkwardness part arose from the versus crew asking him about a race changing penalty that was never actually issued. Al Jr had no idea what they were talking about.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    You’re reading WAY too much into it. It was a mistake, it’s no big deal.

    • Journalists only have there credibility and versus lost a lot with such a major gaffe. I expect an apology to fans, the driver/team, and sanctioning body from versus with an explanation on the Edmonton broadcast.

    • Ben Twickerbill Says:

      I agree Ron, not that big a deal… And if there was a stronger, more definitive presence at “Race Control” this gaffe likely would have never occured to begin with. To be honest, there was fault on both DF’s and WP’s part in that shunt. WP just happened to wind up with the crappy end of the stick.
      Let’s also not forget that at least to a small degree the rage that George has put forth here has to do with the fact that he is dyed in the wool Penske fan. lol

      • I didn’t read any rage. (?!)
        And Power didn’t get parked by Franchitti. He was put in the wall by Tagliani.

      • Ben Twickerbill Says:

        You have taken the RAGE portion out of context, as it was meant in a humorous manner if you continue to read past the rage portion and yes, I know that DF only turned WP and that AT ultimately parked WP… But thanks for the recap just the same. You aren’t related to Bob Jenkins or Al Unser Jr. are you Brian…. ?

  6. Having sat in TV trucks, my guess is someone heard something about a penalty (perhaps the second half of a transmission, missing the “there should be” part) and relayed it to the booth. No big deal. It’s live TV. And no, Bernard doesn’t have an edge on NBC/Versus because of this. The next TV deal will be negotiated like every previous TV deal in history, based on money coming in and exposure for the sport in question.

  7. Put me in the “Communication Breakdown between Versus producers and booth” camp. That said, it’s very serious becuase suddenly it looks like Franchitti and Ganassi are thumbing their noses at the officials when, in apparent reality, they are just continuing to run their race like nothing changed-because nothing did.

    Is it likely/possible that the teams were watching/listening to the Versus/IMS radio broadcasts, and they got their penalty infor the same place we did? IF you were, say, a representative of Penske racing, and you suddenly heard from somewhere that the driver that punted you got a penalty, wouldn’t you repeat it, even if unsure of its source and quality?

    Does anyone have any real inside information about what information outlet the teams use during races?

    I read an anecodote recently about the Trans-Am race at Michigan International Speedway in 1969. Parnelli Jones won that race, but Mark Donohue was flagged the winner in a scoring error. Roger Penske (Donohue’s car owner) knew that Parnelli was the actual winner and had his scorekeeper/secretary get on an airplane and leave with the score sheets she had kept during the race. It was obviously all sorted out in the end, but the point is that, if someone is handed a victory or the means to get a victory, he isn’t going to throw that away.

  8. George, the main reason for all this mess was Race Control not doing their job. I want the Officials to call penalties. There were at least 6 non-calls that should have been made. As soon as Briscoe (I’m, a Penske fan) hit Kanaan the control was over. Drivers did whatever they pleased especially punting others. I will again write: get new officials on Race Control!!! (I was a BB fan before this!)

    • Let’s have an ‘iron hand of justice,’ not a ‘waffle house.’

      ‘Do you think we should penalize him?’

      ‘Well … we didn’t penalize Briscoe or Helio, so …
      Chip would be furious, ’cause Power wasn’t parked like Kanaan was …
      Let it ride. Power got restarted…’

  9. Whoa, whoa, whoa… George, don’t you think you’re reading a touch too much into this? I’m the *first* one to excoriate journalists for reporting untruths as fact, but I’m not one to condemn any and all mistakes. Only the sloppy ones.

    This was indeed a bad mistake – Versus was reporting the penalty as if it were a done deal when it wasn’t – but as far as “manufacturing” fact, I think that may be pretty severe. It could be that such a saction was being discussed among the lower ranked Indycar staffers as a possibility, and that accidentally got turned into something it was not. Or, it turned into an accidental circular feedback confirmation route, to where someone either in Indycar or on one of the racing teams said something about a penalty, someone on the other side talked about hearing it, and it circled until it got on some of the radios (but not the official channel from the Indycar officials themselves). That, too, is possible.

    My point is that it’s all well and good to hold any reporter to high standards, but it’s also advisable to allow for mistakes. I’m willing to call this a mistake. We don’t have to make a mountain out of a molehill here; there’s no evidence that the error was due to bias, or maliciousness, or to any desire to forcibly shape the narrative. If I thought those were the cases, I’d *DEFINITELY* be on board to push back, but I don’t think those are the cases.

    We don’t have a case of a Walter Duranty here. We don’t even have a Dan Rather. It appears to be nothing more than just the confusion of the immediate, and nothing more than that. That’s just something that comes with broadcasting live events.

    • If no Versus employee hears on “Race Control” radio channel that Race Control assessed a penalty, it ought not report that Race Control has assessed a penalty.

      If I do not hear on a police department’s radio channel that a police dispatcher is dispatching policemen to a locale, I will not report on a television station, “The police department is sending officers to the scene.”

  10. Would it not be possible to define a simple set of racing rules that the audience could understand? Then put the number of the offender on a big board or light up a Swift light on his/her chassis when the penalty is assessed? Then, immediately following the race, have a press conference where the officials explain the penalties?

    I watch NASCAR sometimes and I can pretty much immediately identify who screwed up. I watch a lot of INDYCAR and couldn’t begin to explain who is penalized or why.

  11. Ron Ford Says:

    To add a bit of needed levity to the situation, Marshall Pruett took the Toronto highlights (lowlights?) video, speeded it up, and added the Yakety Sax/Benny Hill Show theme audio. Pretty funny. Now if one were to use Audacity of a similar program to insert some “wanker” comments to the audio and perhaps throw in a few clown stamps, then folks you would have some serious comedy.

  12. […] Versus May Have Some Explaining To Do [Oilpressure]+5 Harry Potter Wizarding Levels to George for calling out Versus for creating a penalty out of thin air, but -45,000 HPWLs for not couching his headline in hilarious, racist Ricky Ricardo phraseology to appeal to fans of “I Love Lucy” (read: the very very very old). “I Love Lucy” and Harry Potter references in one paragraph?? That’s right – I’m the KING OF POP CULTURE (plus, I need a real life). […]

  13. After reading the Q&A with Robin Miller this appears to have become a non-issue. Suits me, too.

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