Versus Should Show Classic Races

My cable system had some new HD channels added recently. One of them is the MLB Network, which sometimes shows some classic baseball games from yesteryear. I used to be a fairly big baseball fan. It was always a distant third behind racing and football, which were kind of tied for first. But when they lost the World Series with the strike in 1994, they lost me as a fan. I didn’t consciously boycott them when they came back. I just found I had lost interest. Now I am just a lightly casual fan, at best. I sometimes follow the standings and watch some of the playoffs, but that’s about it. It’s much the same with how a lot of open-wheel fans became shortly after the split in 1996.

The re-runs of classic games remind we of why I liked baseball. It was good seeing a replay the other day of a 1976 game between the Yankees featuring one of my favorites, Thurman Munson; against the Tigers with one of my least favorites, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

Anyway – before I get off on a baseball tangent – it struck me that Versus could possibly rekindle some IndyCar fans by running “classic” races in their entirety, during the offseason. I realize that most of the footage is property of ESPN/ABC but perhaps something could be worked out. I don’t know since I’ve never worked in any type of media except by blogging away as a fan, but I know they’ve shared footage for the broadcasts this year.

Not all of us that live outside of the state of Indiana are huge basketball fans. The winter months can be fairly dry for me after football season is over. Unless Tennessee basketball is on TV – I’m usually flipping the dial. If Versus were to run a weekly classic IndyCar race every Wednesday night in January and February, for instance; I would certainly make it a point to tune in. I don’t think I’m alone.

I sometimes lose sight of the fact that some of the younger IndyCar fans of today never saw any of the legendary drivers race. My son is twenty and was only three when Rick Mears retired. Unless you are nearing forty, you really don’t remember when AJ Foyt was a great driver. Your only recollection of AJ is a fat old man with a nasty disposition that ran around the back of the field and slapped other drivers into the bushes. Fans in their twenties don’t recall when Mario Andretti was a threat to win every week.

The only exposure to the history of this sport comes around once a year in May, when ESPN Classic shows a few classic Indy 500’s. As much as I love and respect the Indianapolis 500, there are so many other races that add to the lore of IndyCar racing that they could show us. I don’t know that they could dig up much footage of Wilbur Shaw running the board tracks at Altoona, but they could go back to the eighties and nineties to show races from the earlier days of CART.

One of the more intriguing races out there was the 1985 CART season finale at the street circuit of Tamiami Park in Miami. The championship had come down to a battle between Al Unser, Jr. and Al Unser, Sr. All Little Al had to do was to finish two spots ahead of his father and he would win his first CART championship. Late in the race, Al Jr. was running in third place, Roberto Moreno was in fourth and Big Al was in fifth. If everything remained static, Little Al would have been the champion. But with three laps to go, Big Al passed Moreno for fourth place securing enough points to win the championship away from his son. To make the broadcast even more interesting was that the analyst in the booth with Paul Page was none other than Bobby Unser – Big Al’s brother and Little Al’s “Uncle Bobby”.

I mentioned earlier this week that another one of my favorite races to watch was the 1991 race at Road America. It was late September with fall foliage on the trees. The weather was cold and overcast. It was quite the contrast from the 95-degree weather we were experiencing in Tennessee. Another race from the 1991 season that featured many lead changes and sub-plots was the late season race at Nazareth. That was one of the original bullrings and things changed quickly there.

Just about any of the races at Michigan from the eighties or nineties would be entertaining and educational for younger fans. It was at Michigan in 1984 that a much slimmer Chip Ganassi had a violent crash with Al Unser, Jr. that pretty well ended Ganassi’s driving career. He would drive again sporadically until 1986, but that race in Michigan pretty well dictated a career change for Ganassi. The 1995 race between Little Al and Scott Pruett was another classic as Pruett nipped Unser at the line. Don’t forget about any of the Hanford Device races that CART had in the late nineties.

Some of the earlier IRL races should be included too. The 1999 IRL race at Atlanta was an infamous classic as Dr. Jack Miller ignited a fiery pile-up, which thankfully injured no one. Most of the early races at Texas could be included, but a must would be the 2003 season finale at Texas. Five drivers had a legitimate shot at the championship. Gil de Ferran won the race – the last race of his career, but Scott Dixon won the championship.

There are so many ways that Versus could go with this. I would suggest they show a race in its entirety rather than a condensed highlight package. They could gather some of the aging stars of that night’s featured race to discuss the race and basically reminisce. They could focus on the CART era or maybe go back to some of the old USAC races. Maybe even go way back to the old AAA days and explore names like Rex Mays and Ted Horn – names that were never etched onto the Borg-Warner trophy, but won a lot of races elsewhere. It could draw in old-timers as well as younger fans eager to learn more about the sport and what made it so great.

There is still a schism within the IndyCar fan base. There is a perception – right or wrong – among the fans of the Champ Car series that the IRL is purposely ignoring CART’s legacy to this sport. With almost thirty years of CART/Champ Car races in the books, that is way too significant to ignore. Bringing some of those races back to life for all of the fans may be somewhat of an olive branch for those Champ Car fans that currently feel alienated.

Showing classic races on Versus could serve as a two to three month lead-in to the first race of the season in Brazil. Versus is leveraging the IndyCar Series to build their own brand identity. This could give them a different audience than the hockey fans they get in the winter months. They could also use this programming to attract more fans to the IndyCar season in the spring. Versus is doing an outstanding job with their broadcasts. Now they just need to get people to watch them.

George Phillips


16 Responses to “Versus Should Show Classic Races”

  1. Hi George,
    The BBC do the same thing here by showing classic races approaching every race weekend.
    However, have some vintage races on their website (although not many yet…) and they are fairly decent quality full length ones, but yes, it would be great if they did broadcast them.

  2. While I’d like to see entire races for sure and I enjoy the original gangsta stylings of Paul Page, SPEED did a *really* good job with F1 Decade a few years back (I think ’95 was the last one, so it must have been 2005). It’d be more production, but condensing the races and having modern commentary providing a modern interpretation of the historical context could work really, really well.

  3. Regarding the poll, I’d say start pushing vintage races about one month before the season in the lead up to Brazil.
    In reply to Will, I think they should have the original commentary track, but have someone from the Versus crew do maybe a 2-3 minute intro for the race with an overview of the championship and personalities at that time.

  4. George,
    I’ve often wondered the same thing. I do believe that the rights to a lot of these races actually belong to the IRL now. I know that they have posted a few on the website. (There’s an 80’s Long Beach race there at least).

    I know Vs. is trying to fill out its lineup with other programming, but I also notice that they run a lot of sports themed movies, so they apparently have some airtime to fill. I hope someone at 16th & Georgetown reads your post.

  5. THat’s really a good idea. If they get the IRL involved in promotion via website and email blast of what is special about each race then they might have something. Unfortunately ESPN isn’t known for how easy they want to share archives. But since a few races still air on ABC it seems it could be in their interest. The REAL question is whether airing a classic race would generate more ad revenue and better ratings than a movie.

  6. Here’s the link to the vintage races on the Indycar website. They’ve added quite a few since the last time I checked.

    A good mix of CART and IRL races. Even if Vs. doesn’t show em, at least we can watch em on line, IZOD & Go Daddy commercial free. There’s something to be said for that.

  7. I agree. Run everything. My DVR would probably burn out.

  8. […] way in which the League is packaged to (and perceived by) the masses, but rather through the re-broadcasting of old races. During the off-season. To people who aren’t necessarily IndyCar fans. The […]

  9. Interesting idea, but I don’t think people watching them much. I wouldn’t, and I’m a fairly into it fan. Too many new, fresh, never-been-seen things competing for my time and attention. I think at best you’d get the hard-core, long-time fans who are already fans to watch these.

  10. I have to agree with Pressdog on this one, although I used to have VHS tapes of every Indy 500 broadcast from 1978 – 2007 (with the exception of 1985, when I ran out of tape two laps from the finish.) I find that when I’d get fired up for Indy, I break them out of hiding and watch a series of them. Now, sadly, most of them have degraded to the point that they aren’t much worth watching.

    It might, however, give Versus a way to acquiaint viewers with the earlier days of the series, particularly if they were interspersed with current day interviews with some of the participants like Foyt, the Andrettis, the Unsers, Mears, Luyendyk (not with Foyt) and the like.

    There’s a lot of history to the series (under whatever banner) of which younger fans have no cognizance.

    With the gaming generation taking over, maybe a more productive idea would be for Versus to co-sposor development of a new IndyCar rracing video game….

  11. P-dog may have a point about the ratings. I forget sometimes that we get a little geeked out for old racing. More so that the average channel surfing schulb.

    Still, it’d be nice if Vs. could do something in the off season to maintain visibility. It would help with the ratings once the season began. I’m thinking either in house produced stuff like they did leading into the season this year, or some of the older IMS produced documentary stuff that they sell on DVD. I have to give credit, IMS did a bang up job with those short promotional video history clips they ran on the Interwebs back in the spring. Put Donald Davidson in front of a camera, and use some of that old footage. Get the old timers like Foyt, Johncock, Andretti Sr., the Unser’s etc. to tell stories. 30 min or 1 hr a week is all I’m asking. Just give me something to watch other than Taxi-cabs in the off season.

    • I like the idea of the 1 hour show..If Vs is going to do this look at it as a multi yr project.. In yr 1 I would use Donald Davidson extensively and let him do a “talk of Gasoline Alley” kind of show with veteran drivers and reintroduce them..and then run a could prob get around the ownership of the rights by not using the commentary..use the VS guys and redo the don’t need to run the entire race but give deep color and background into the race and the personalities…you can even use some of the current drivers to talk about what a certain driver in the race meant to them growing up

  12. I totally agree with your column, George. Not only does MLB Network air classic games, but so does the NHL Network, and NBA TV. It would absolutely great to see some classic racing in the off-season. It would be even better if VS. could gain the rights to some of the races Speed Channel no longer shows-which is everything except NASCAR.
    OH! You’re my new favorite blogger fyi

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  14. […] way in which the League is packaged to (and perceived by) the masses, but rather through the re-broadcasting of old races. During the off-season. To people who aren’t necessarily IndyCar fans. The […]

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