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Sturbin: Remembering A Great Racing Voice

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 16 2010

The great Jim McKay (Photo courtesy ABC/ESPN)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

It’s been said that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, and how they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

I was sitting at a desk in a classroom at Transfiguration School, a Catholic grammar school in my hometown of Rome, N.Y., where the news of Kennedy’s shooting hit particularly hard. Not only was Kennedy young and handsome and charismatic, he was the first Catholic elected to the nation’s highest office – an heroic role model to all in our parish.

That said, I knew something tragic was occurring when the typically unshakeable Felician Sisters stood crying, en masse, just outside our classroom door.

Then shortly after lunchtime, a portable TV was rolled into the front of the classroom. And I remember watching with my junior high classmates as legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite confirmed our greatest fears in a short and emotional few sentences.

The tears that started flowing then continued well into the following week, framing an event that marked the end of American innocence and the emerging power of the live television broadcast.

There is another moment from that time frame that conjures up similar memories, and it has to do with the man synonymous with the phrase “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Monday, June 7, marked the second anniversary of the death of sportscaster Jim McKay at age 86. To this generation of racing fans, McKay was a man in a natty blazer in mostly grainy black-and-white footage. But if you were a pre-pubescent kid obsessed with all sports, especially motorsports, during the 1960s, “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” was must-see TV.

McKay – born James Kenneth McManus – was its recurring star. A former newspaper reporter with the “Baltimore Sun,” McKay hosted “Wide World” from 1961 to 1998 – a period during which his dramatic voice-over of the program’s introduction morphed into American pop culture.

Decades before the advent of cable TV and ESPN’s 24-hour format highlighted by hour-long SportsCenter telecasts, ESPN2 and ESPN News – much less an entire Speed network devoted to motorsports – there was “Wide World.” For all practical purposes, the program was the only outlet you could count on for delayed highlights of whatever big race ABC chose to cover.

A typical 90-minute program, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the East Coast, never was fully devoted to NASCAR’s Daytona 500 or the NHRA’s U.S. Nationals or Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix. You likely would have to sit through three or four segments – from cliff diving in Mexico to barrel jumping on ice skates at Lake Placid, N.Y. – to enjoy a “Reader’s Digest”-style version of any race other than the Indianapolis 500.

“Wide World” was where I was introduced to Scotsman Jim Clark, who along with Californian Dan Gurney, had ushered in the rear-engine revolution at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1963 driving Colin Chapman’s tiny Lotus/Fords. A few months after winning the 1965 Indy 500 in the No. 82 Lotus/Ford with NASCAR’s Wood Brothers as his pit crew, Clark became a two-time F1 World Driving Champion. On the walls of my room, Clark already had replaced A.J. Foyt Jr. as my racing hero.

And so on the afternoon of April 7, 1968, at approximately 6 p.m., I was driving my dad’s ‘67 Mustang home from a friend’s house across town. Fiddling with the radio, I thought I heard a broadcaster say that “Formula One champion Jim Clark has been killed in a crash in Germany.”

Is that what I just heard? How can I find out if this is true? I was about a mile and-a-half from home and hurried to get there. I ran into the living room and turned the TV onto “Wide World.”

With about eight minutes left in the program, McKay appeared in-studio, and my heart sank. This did not look like part of the original programming. And then McKay somberly confirmed my worst fears, that Clark had died after crashing in a Formula 2 race at the Hockenheimring.

McKay truly was the man to deliver the sad news, as he previously had befriended Clark and traveled to his hometown of Duns to produce what was then a rare profile of the shy champion.

The dominant driver of his era, Clark was a sheep farmer by trade, a profession light years away from the glamour of F1. Over footage of Clark walking around his property, McKay eulogized the driver who, with 33 F1 pole positions and 25 victories in 72 starts, was dead at age 32.

Clark was the first, but unfortunately not the last, racing hero of mine to die on-track. And that is why McKay’s poignant reporting of that particular Saturday afternoon remains frozen in my memory.

McKay covered 12 Olympics and earned 12 Emmy Awards during his career, including one for sports and one for news for his coverage of the massacre of 11 hostages during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.

Ironically, the careers of McKay and Cronkite were linked as far back as 1960. According to Wikipedia, McKay originally was selected to be lead broadcaster for CBS’ coverage of the 1960 Winter Olympics. However, he was replaced by Cronkite after suffering a mental breakdown. McKay recovered and hosted the 1960 Summer Olympics from the CBS Television studio in Grand Central Terminal. His hall of fame broadcasting career was off-and-running.

Fittingly, McKay said during a 2003 HBO documentary chronicling his life and career that in spite of those two Emmys from the 1972 Olympics, he was most proud of a telegram he had received from Cronkite the day after the massacre in Munich, praising his tireless on-air work.

It was another of those heartbreaking moments you never can forget, similar to when Cronkite delivered the unthinkable news about JFK.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 16 2010