Unlike many of you out there across America and Canada, we didn't just automatically get Speedvision (now called Speed Channel), the auto racing cable channel, when we signed up for cable television service. We fought to get it for four years.
We found ourselves in a safe, sane, affluent, and comfortable Midwestern city, surrounded by communities less so, but no matter how many times we called in or wrote to our cable service (which has now changed its name and ownership five times in 10 years) we couldn't get Speed on our two TV sets. We climbed up the slippery cable ladder as high as the regional vice-president, who simply could not explain to our satisfaction why every single community around our town had Speed, but we didn't have it and couldn't have it. The last guy we talked to mumbled some inanity about bandwidth, and the fact that we have two Arabic-language channels that the surrounding communities don't have. It was beginning to look like we'd have to move in order to get Speed Channel.
Then, without warning, on December 20, 2003, just in time for Christmas, Speed Channel suddenly appeared on Comcast Channel 68. We checked both TV sets, rubbed our eyes, made sure it wasn't just a test offering, and then called the cable service to thank them, after four years of constant badgering, for finally getting Speed into our house.
The timing was both good and bad. All the racing seasons were over at that point, and we were six weeks away from the start of the first of many 2004 racing seasons, forced to watch one season-wrap-up compendium show after another for weeks, until the 2004 season-preview shows started to air.
NASCAR, of course, would be split between NBC and Fox on broadcast TV. IRL would bounce around between ABC and its wholly owned subsidiary, ESPN. CART was, at that time, on its way out of bankruptcy, under new ownership (Jaguar multi Trans Am champion Paul Gentilozzi and partners), and didn't announce its season or its TV coverage until February.
Speed would be bringing us Formula One, Formula 3000, FIM MotoGP, AMA and World SuperBike, SuperMoto and AMA Motocross racing, and the American Le Mans Series, or ALMS, including the 12 Hours of Sebring to start the season off. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, for our money the greatest race in the world, would be coming on a full-coverage basis in June. Hah! Finally!! Speed!!!
Before Speed, we had gone through four seasons of Formula One without seeing any of the races save the American round at Indianapolis, which was broadcast by ABC. We tried to keep up with the latest developments, driver movements, technical issues, and sponsorship scrambles via websites, the automotive weeklies and the newspaper on Monday morning, but it was a wholly unsatisfying pursuit.
Now that we can finally see every one of the Formula One races, including several repeats each week, on Speed, we are having a hard time figuring out why we were so jazzed in December when Speed first excited the electrons in our cathode ray tubes.
On the face of it, Formula One simply MUST be the pinnacle of racing, mustn't it? Brutish-looking, needle-nosed cars that weigh only 700kg or 1,540 lb. Ultralight and ultra-compact 3-liter V10 and V12 engines using pneumatic valve actuation and screaming to 19,000 rpm. The most expensive manual transmissions ever built. The stickiest tires ever devised by mankind. Young, but deeply experienced, go-kart drivers from all over the globe. Participation by some of the world's greatest car companies, to include BMW, Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Toyota. All the ingredients are there for an enjoyable television experience, every two weeks, all summer long. But....
At this writing, the amazing Michael Schumacher, the world's only six-time Formula One World Champion, has won every race we have watched on Speed with his Ferrari, and won them by enormous, obscene margins over his only real threat, teammate Rubens Barrichello in that other red Ferrari.
On any Sunday, you can watch Schumacher cross under the checkered flag, go into the kitchen, make a sandwich, pour a beer, amble back, and sit down, just in time to see Rubens or Montoya take the checker for second. Then, go water the lawn for a while, or pay your bills, or clean up the yard, and come back in to see third place, usually one of the BMWs driven by Colombian Juan Montoya or Michael's brother Ralf, get the last available podium spot.
Yeah, sure, fine, Michael's facing the end of his unequalled career, with more poles, more wins and more championships than any other driver in the history of the sport. He has pushed champions like Senna, Prost, Graham and Damon Hill, Lauda, Mansell, and Hakkinen into the shade with his brilliance and bravado. The Ferrari team, under Jean Todt and Ross Brawn, have crafted the winningest cars ever built over the past seven seasons or so, spending a reported $300 million a year to get there.
But it must be truly disheartening for all those other guys out there, scrambling for points in fourth through eighth, with no hope of seeing the world from that exalted podium unless something awful happens and takes out both Ferraris, both BMW Williamses and maybe a McLaren Mercedes or a Renault, Feh!!! This is not what we were waiting for.
At Sebring this year, the heavily financed sports car cream rose to the top to start another season of the American Le Mans Series, featuring two classes of open-top prototype cars, a GTS class for the big-engined stock-bodied sports cars, and a GT class for the small-engined sports cars.
This great old race, run on a much-improved but still bumpy airport course, was dominated in the Prototype 1 class by the five-year-old Audi roadsters that won Le Mans twice in a row, passed on from the factory team into privateer hands. Nobody else was even close.
The Pratt & Miller Fellows-O'Connell-Papis Corvette with its powerful, reliable pushrod V8 engine, made mincemeat of the Ferraris in GTS, finished an astounding 22 laps ahead of their closest competition, and finished fourth overall behind the three Audis. Alex Job Racing, using the new Porsche 911 RSR, started this season where they left off last year, with another dominant performance in GT. The brand new factory-sponsored Pratt & Miller Cadillac CTS-V team finished 1-2 in the SCCA Sped GT bracket, first time out.
So, what are we bitching about? We finally got Speed, we've watched every one of the opening races in every series except the late-starting CART, (which is a kind of spec series anyway, since all the cars will have Ford Bosworth engines). We've avoided doing dozens of household chores because we were so professionally engrossed in the racing, right?
The thing is, the racing so far has left us with that empty, hollow feeling. Something is missing, and the missing ingredient so far has been real, gritty, hold-your-breath competition at the top. There's not a thing anyone can do about it, of course, except those teams that all need to work harder, test more, think harder, design better, hire quicker drivers, and, of course, spend more money. We don't want to see goofy weight penalties, engine restrictors, or small tires dictated for the dominant teams, and we don't want to give undeserved advantages to the second-tier teams, either. Now that we can finally watch all the racing there is to watch, we just want better, closer racing than what we have had in the first quarter of the 2004 season. Come on, you guys!!! We know where the Goliaths are. Where are the Davids?