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Toronto action proves popular with viewers

12 July 2011

The on-track incidents during the Honda Indy Toronto may have brought scathing comments from drivers and experts about double file restarts, the street course, the officiating and the standard of others' driving abilities, but it all proved a hit with television viewers all the same.

The US cable channel Versus reported a 0.5 rating for the race, which made it the second-most watched IZOD IndyCar Series race ever shown on the network after the June Firestone Twin 275s that were held in prime time on Saturday night.

In all, Versus says that there has been a 21 per cent increase in ratings so far this season compared with the 2010 season average.

The race was also extremely popular in Canada, where Canadian sports cable channel TSN carried the Versus coverage and reported that the race had received the biggest audience for any IndyCar race on the station with more than 1.2 million unique viewers over the course of the race, peaking at 735,000 during the closing laps of the race.

It was the largest audience recorded for the Honda Indy Toronto since 1997.

Versus have certainly been putting a lot of work into their coverage in recent works, with their signing up of Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon for three races as an expert contributor/commentator being hailed as a particular master stroke.

During the Toronto race, fellow racer Tomas Scheckter tweeted that "I can't stop thinking how much sense and how good its to have [Dan Wheldon] calling the race. He [is] as good a driver as commentator," adding that Wheldon's contributions in the booth were "the most impressive performance of the race" while attaching the hash tag #newmurraywalker.

Wheldon's contribution certainly seemed to bring something of a British F1-style feel to the American coverage, echoing the expert 'colour' approach of the likes of James Hunt and Martin Brundle pioneered on the BBC when they partnered Walker for Grand Prix coverage in the 80s and 90s. Wheldon was also key to the staging of the channel's first "F1-style gridwalk" prior to the Iowa Speedway race in June.

However, Versus' attempt to launch a weekly IndyCar TV magazine show faltered after the Indy 500 on cost grounds, and Versus have also been forced to pull live streaming of races for website subscribers.

Versus' efforts come as TV rights for IndyCar are coming up for renewal, with the series keen to not only get the best financial terms but also to negotiate a deal that gets the best cross-network publicity and promotion for IndyCar as a whole as the series attempts to rebuild its popularity to the levels it enjoyed before the highly damaging ChampCar/IRL split in the 1990s.

The series appointed PR and marketing specialist Randy Bernard as chief executive officer 18 months ago with a brief to raise the profile of the sport, which has led to various high profile initiatives to raise the sport's appeal including the introduction of twin-header events and the controversial double file restarts.

Currently - under a contract imposed during the series' darkest split-hit days under former CEO Tony George - broadcasting rights in the US are divided between the major ABC network which carries five races during the season including the main attraction, May's Indianapolis 500, while Versus carries the remaining 12 races of the season. Each contract brings in between $4 and $6 million to IndyCar, according to sources.

ABC has carried the Indy 500 for 47 consecutive years and will do so again in 2012, and many of the series' old hands would be aghast if the race were to move from its television "spiritual home" after that. But IndyCar organisers are disappointed with ABC's sports news coverage of other series races outside the Indy 500, which is almost non-existent as ABC is unwilling to promote events held on Versus that is now owned by its network rival NBC.

IndyCar is currently in the middle of contract negotiations for all races, although ABC's rights to the Indy 500 have one more year to run. An integrated deal that puts all IndyCar coverage within the NBC family of channels would arguably get more cross-promotion between races, but at the expense of any coverage of the sport on the highly influential daily sports news show SportsCenter which airs on the ABC-owned EPSN cable network that has far greater penetration into homes than Versus. It would also put IndyCar in uncharted territory with regard to NBC's level and quality of support for its most important races previously in ABC's "safe hands".

Once ABC's contractual period as "preferred bidder" status expires, other potential players in the negotiations could include third US broadcast network CBS and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation that owns Fox Broadcasting and motor racing specialist Speed Channel on cable.

Another factor at work is that Randy Bernard also wants to expand the number of races on the IndyCar calendar and has said he would go to 22 races as soon as possible if he could, but that the main delay is in ensuring that the television coverage would be in place for any increase in the number of events during the year.

The importance of the television ratings to the sport can't be understated, with estimates that the series lost in the region of $22 million in 2009 and $15 million in 2010 and desperately needs an upturn in fortunes and popularity soon. Last year's IndyCar Series finale at Homestead-Miami got a miserable 0.3 rating on Versus, and this year's reformatting of the race as the world championship at Las Vegas with its $5 million challenge prize will this year be shown instead on ABC.

Bernard had nailed his colours and his very job firmly to the mast: "If we do a 0.3 rating on this, I'll quit," he said. "Right there on the spot. I'll literally quit on the spot. If we do a 0.8 rating, I will quit. On the spot."

Stakes in the casino town are high indeed, not just for Bernard but for the future of IndyCar itself.

Grand Marshal caught speeding to the race

One off-screen glitch in the weekend's Honda Indy Toronto occurred when actor Dan Aykroyd was pulled over by police for speeding on his way to the event, where he was serving as the race grand marshal.

"You know when you see these races, you want to get into your vehicles and drive home and you do it trying to imitate the driver. That won't be me this afternoon," he said, adding that he'd been let off with a warning by the officer after explaining that he was "racing to the race."

As there was no official ticket, there's no record as to exactly how fast the Canadian-born comedian, musician and actor was doing when police pulled him over, but Aykroyd said that the officer "pulled me over for 20 over in a 50 ... and let me off with a warning."

"They let him on his way; no ticket was given because he promised not to speed on his way home," Constable Hugh Smith of the city's Traffic Services department said. "He didn't promise never to speed again, he just said he wouldn't do it on his way home!"

59-year-old Saturday Night Live, Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers star Aykroyd gave the command "Drivers, start your engines" at the start, and presented race winner Dario Franchitti with the trophy following the chequered flag.


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