Television: How Much, and How Soon? [1991]

To most hydroplane fans, the Gold Cup is a world-class event. Like the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, baseball's All-Star game, or the Superbowl, racing fans like to think that the Gold Cup is an important sports event worthy of a little respect.

The Gold Cup took place on June 9th [1991] in Detroit, the first race of the year. Four unlimited events have come and gone since that date. In fact, at press time, the boats are readying for San Diego. Yet how many of us have seen the Gold Cup on the tube? It was scheduled to air on July 12th on some broadcast called Sports Express. Check your local listings. Don't be surprised if your town does not get Sports Express on cable. Even the URC media guide (typically printed and released after the season is underway) lists no dates or air times for a single one of this year's seven racing events.

The point is the URC Commissioner, Don Jones, likes to talk about how unlimited racing under his direction has graduated into the all-important television age. "Our events play to millions, and it means that new sponsors will readily recognize the value of all this media and jump on board soon.

When is soon?

Unlimited racing isn't media news. I know that to those of us who arc proud fans the notion that what we love isn't exactly grabbing cable networks by the lapels must sting a bit. But let's face it, the URC has to pay to get anybody to air this sport. There are no sponsors chomping at the bit to get each of our races before the eager American sports consumer, and unlimiteds are a hard sell to get on the air under the best of circumstances, but then, IPI Sports does not constitute the best of circumstances.

Affiliated with "last minute, what's in it for me, what's in it for Budweiser" Jim Hendrick, how could it be otherwise?

To be fair, IPI Sports is a strong operation. They're not the bumbling producers Hendrick makes them appear to be. They have connections, precisely what saved them from being replaced this year by some other producers interested in taking over the hydroplane-racing coverage. IPI has syndication connections, and though they were forced to lower their bid price for racing events, (others had underbid them), their syndicating capability made them the best choice according to the URC.

Translated that means that since Bernie Little and Steve Woomer were going to have to underwrite the cost of getting the sport on the air this year (the URC couldn't to do it, and Eagle Snacks had not yet bellied up to the bar), IPI represented the best source of sponsorship funds to offset the risk. IPI also offered Jim Hendrick. The others didn't want his services.

The television plan was set in motion late in the spring, and thus was perhaps a bit hurried in its particulars. Nothing could be printed in the media guide, because things were being finalized at its press time.

Thus we return to the fact that the number one event inall of power boating, the APBA Gold Cup, will air on a number of obscure stations in a number of obscure markets. The URC Commissioner calls this big-time TV exposure.

Television for the unlimiteds is getting to be like the radio network. Only the die-hard racing towns have radio stations stupid enough to air such bush-league garbage and dare call it coverage. Driving through the wheat country on any fall night, you'll find rookie broadcasters with more talent than Hendrick doing high-school football on 10watt, cow-town stations. But he's "the voice of unlimited racing." If that's credible, then PeeWee Herman deserves to anchor all NFL games next year and Woody Woodpecker should be a dandy network newscaster! Both are just as articulate, both are as kinetic, and both have more native talent than Hendrick.

What a contrast: auto racing's premier event, the Indianapolis 500 with the incomparable Paul Page at the microphone; and unlimited racing's biggest bash with "way to go Markie!" Hendrick doing the play by play!

There's darn good reason why our sport can't get a seat on the bus. We look like a bunch of clowns to the rest of the world. Our best isn't even close to their worst! So how is it that an insufferable drone like Hendrick can hold his network assignment since 1966?

How is it that he is even considered competent enough to anchor cable network television coverage of any sport, let alone ours? The answer is simple: "Nothing beats a Bud!"

Hendrick sold his soul to the Bud Machine so long ago he can't recall where or when. He is programmed, like Pavlov's puppy, to sing "Budweiser" whenever the microphone is switched on. It's so traditional that even the Big Eagle itself doesn't recognize how embarrassing this display is to the broadcast profession.

Mark Evans wins his first race of a lifetime, and somehow sixth-place Miss Budweiser gets more coverage. It used to just stink; now it is a genuine threat to the health of the sport.

The dismal condition of hydroplane racing as a marketable sports package for television is like the geriatric who has a demonstrated need for a diaper, but nobody cares, so he just sits in it all day. Those who suggest to the rest home staff that some attention is needed are scolded for meddling. Eventually peace comes to the old fellow, and he dies.

— J. Mike Fitzsimmons

(Reprinted from Unlimited NewsJournal, August 1991)