Small Balls Part 3

Having read Janos Wimpffen’s marvellously crafted opinion piece (here) and Paul Truswell’s equally enjoyable response (here), a quotation in another article last Friday, October 21, (Roger Edmondson - “We are doing road racing in a little different way. As Scott Pruett mentioned a little while ago, the Daytona Prototypes provide entertainment that has not been seen on road courses in a long, long time. That's only three years in the making now”) got me thinking about how we define ‘entertainment’ and who is responsible for that definition – writes Mark Howson.

While I shall not be continuing the small/big/ovoid balls analogy to any great extent (I am still struggling with the Two Minute Regulations after twenty years of watching gridiron, while baseball is going to take me a long time to get into; and I stopped watching cricket, soccer and rugby years ago), I shall make one observation about the NFL.

Here we have a professional sport that has certainly been developed around the cathode ray tube, and every effort has been made to ensure close games and prevent dominance by one team – the Draft, salary capping, etc. And yet, despite a game refereed more closely than any other, the Patriots can turn up and win three Superbowls in four years; and rarely is a Superbowl a match of equals. In other words, assemble the right team (on and off the field) and you’re going to succeed. So is the NFL an argument for tight regulation and equivalence, or against?

Moving the focus back to the racetrack, I reflected on my own experience of covering races from the media box. Having spent years watching from behind the catch-fencing, breathing in the smells and feasting on the sight of cars at the limit, I now found myself following races with my back to the track.

For the past three years, I have been reporting on the GT3 (formerly Cup) class of the British GT Championship for dsc, and in that time have enjoyed witnessing some fantastic racing. I say ‘witnessing’ rather than ‘watching’ for a reason. Whilst having been a (silent) guest of David Addison in the commentary box on a number of occasions – the best view of a track available, for rather obvious reasons - more often than not I have used his eyes to watch the track while mine follow the race on the timing screen. This combination of his wonderfully entertaining (and scarily informed) commentary and a screen of ever-changing times has, if anything, enhanced my enjoyment of a race. Seeing a car move is just a bonus.

Okay, seeing the cars is actually a big bonus, but it got me thinking about what the sport currently offers the spectator. At Le Mans, you have a restricted view, but with excellent commentary and big screens. At other circuits (Donington, Brands Hatch) you have a better view of the circuit, but just commentary to keep you informed. I realised that I was getting a much better deal. Why? Because I could follow a race that was almost invisible to most people present.

Very often, at the chequered flag, the first question asked of and by my colleague covering GT2 is ‘so was yours a good race?’ This illustrates that there were two distinct races going on and that both could be enjoyed in their own rights. Does the spectator get this choice?

I generally write 1500-2000 words on each race and that is because there is a story worth telling. The combination of different cars, driver changes and abilities often leads to great racing and, yes, close finishes. But because GT3 is the slower class, it rarely features at the head of the overall race and it is this area that quite naturally gets the focus from commentary and TV.

The majority of BGT races last one hour, so perhaps it is unreasonable to expect any more focus from the traditional media; and in longer endurance races (Le Mans, LMES, ALMS) the ‘lesser’ classes do get more coverage. But I believe that there is an opportunity here to enhance the sport.

As Paul Truswell said, this is a minority sport; and while I don’t believe that there is room yet for folk music within it, there is certainly room for multi-media enhancement.

Imagine that you are (and indeed you may be) an avid TVR fan. How much more would you enjoy your racing if you were able to follow your car’s progress in its class at any point in the race, instead of waiting for a positions run-down or a brief mention? To know that it’s closing on the Ferrari ahead at two seconds a lap for position? If we can watch live timing in the media room or on the web, then it can’t take much to allow that same timing to be available on mobile phones, PDAs or even TVs in the grandstands.

The ALMS does it already, with its iCard system.

We live in a multi-media world and people’s expectations are growing all the time (just ask any journalist as he frustratedly tries to connect to the internet in the media centre) and it is up to motorsport to meet those expectations.

Of course, thanks to Embassy Radio, British GT events have had David Addison broadcasting straight into fans’ ears at the track – and straight into the computer of any fan around the world who wants to follow the action audibly (as we have become so used to with the ALMS Radio Web). The Embassy facility added immensely to the LMES race at Silverstone in August – but it was only available thanks to Embassy and the British GTs sharing the meeting. Other LMES events have commentary on the PA only, and with full grids, who can hear more than snatches of what has been said?

There is no one-answer to the entertainment question. So instead of obsessing on that one answer, the sport needs to consider what it can do to cater for both the thrill-junky and the anorak, so that both can watch the same race and come away happy, rather than endlessly sub-dividing to cater for an ever-smaller niche. Ours is a great sport, whichever branch you follow, and it’s about time it started winning-back some of the spotlight from the bat ’n ball brigade.


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