(Eds: Updates.)By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer
NBC Sports Group kicks off more than 200 programming hours of motorsports coverage with this weekend’s Formula One season opener.
And that’s got the IndyCar community more than a little concerned.
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IndyCar drivers and former CEO Randy Bernard were openly critical of NBC Sports Network last season over ratings, promotion and marketing. Most felt the cable network did not do enough to promote the series or attract viewers to the telecasts.
Then NBC Sports Group snagged the U.S. broadcast rights for F1 away from Fox Sports Media Group, which had aired the globe-trotting, open-wheel series on cable channel Speed for 17 years. The addition of a second open-wheel series to the NBC Sports properties left many IndyCar insiders feeling more than a little slighted, something lead race announcer Leigh Diffey heard firsthand during visits to two preseason tests.
”There was some concern from the IndyCar side, from the IndyCar family, that having (F1) on the network would take away from them,” said Diffey, who will call both F1 and IndyCar races this season. He noted one network is now ”the destination” for open-wheel racing.
”I think they have since learned that it’s going to be a huge complement to the IndyCar family,” he said. ”So for people to know exactly where the destination is to go for Formula 1 and IndyCar is very convenient, and they’re both going to complement each other. There’s going to be quite a nice crossover.”
The sentiment was echoed by Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network.
Flood recently sent his F1 talent and production team to testing in Barcelona to prepare for the upcoming F1 season, and the IndyCar team spent the first part of this week in Alabama at the preseason test at Barber Motorsports Park. He believes all major open-wheel racing being covered by one network shouldn’t concern anyone.
”I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for IndyCar and for F1, both sides win because people are going to be paying attention to open-wheel,” Flood said. ”We’ll be able to drive audience back and forth and promote to people that are passionate about this form of racing. So there couldn’t be a better situation. There couldn’t be a better time for this, and there couldn’t be a better group to execute it.
”If anyone sees a negative in this, then they’re glass half-empty people. This is a glass full-full. There could be no better situation for open-wheel racing. And there could be no better situation for IndyCar racing. And there could be no better situation for F1. So if someone has got that empty glass, they can throw it away. There’s no need for it. We’ll fill it up.”
The dividends were already paying off Thursday when Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dario Franchitti and Charlie Kimball appeared live on NBC’s ”Today” show to promote the upcoming coverage.
F1, which makes its NBC Sports Group debut this week on NBC Sports Network with the Australian Grand Prix, will air four races live on NBC, 13 on NBC Sports Network, and two on CNBC. The Monaco Grand Prix will air live on NBC on at 7:30 a.m. May 26 – kicking off a day of motorsports that includes IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 – and Flood said his talent and production team would be on site to cover the race.
NBC Sports Network, which has been the exclusive cable home for IndyCar since 2009, will have a season-high 13 races this year with the addition of two doubleheaders. The network will also air 12 Indy Lights races.
NBC Sports Digital has also beefed up its coverage with the recently launched MotorSportsTalk on NBCSports.com, and will add live streaming of both F1 and IndyCar later this season on NBC Sports Live Extra via TV Everywhere.
The F1 booth will be Diffey, veteran analyst and former driver David Hobbs, and analyst Steve Matchett. The race reporter will be Will Buxton, a popular journalist who will report live from all 19 races in 19 different countries. All four worked together previously on the Speed telecasts.
The IndyCar booth has undergone a slight shakeup with the addition of Diffey, who will cover IndyCar for the first time. He’ll be joined in the booth by returning race analyst Wally Dallenbach, Jr. and newcomer Townsend Bell, who was a reporter last season and also ran the Indy 500.
Jon Beekhuis, an analyst with the network since 2009, will now report from pit road. Marty Snider and Kevin Lee return as pit reporters, and will be joined by Robin Miller.
But as NBC Sports Group prepares for this extensive season of motorsports, speculation has already begun about its interest in reacquiring some NASCAR rights.
ESPN and Turner hold exclusive negotiating windows for NASCAR’s media rights through this summer, but many believe NBC is waiting in the wings to take a crack at grabbing back some of the content. NBC last broadcast NASCAR races in 2006, choosing not to renew the contract it split at the time with Fox.
Fox has already renewed its portion of the deal.
Flood, who was part of the NASCAR production team through 2006, would welcome another racing series to the network.
”On a production side, I love NASCAR and I love racing, so any form of racing is good for me,” Flood said. ”The money guys make those decisions. I just get to play with the toys once they’re in the shop. So I like playing with a lot of toys.”