ABC Gears Up For Another Run At The 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 23 2009
The great Jim McKay (Photo courtesy ABC ESPN)

The great Jim McKay (Photo courtesy ABC ESPN)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Indianapolis – Casual fans of open-wheel racing may not be aware that the first three events of the 2009 IndyCar Series schedule have been carried – as they say in the TV industry – “on another network.”

Not so with the Indianapolis 500, which for the 45th consecutive year will be aired Sunday on ABC, continuing a tradition dating to 1965. What began as black-and-white highlighted coverage of Jim Clark’s historic victory in a rear-engine Lotus/Ford on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” has now morphed into a live, high-definition telecast featuring broadcast partner ESPN’s multi-platform coverage.

It’s the second-longest running relationship between a sporting event and a network, topped only by CBS’ 54-year run with The Masters. And we don’t do golf here.

“We treat this event with the kind of attention and care that it deserves and it is at the absolute top of our priorities each year in terms of what we bring to it,” Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, said while previewing the race’s 93rd edition. “And certainly, the announce team that we have assembled again for this year – with Marty (Reid), Scott (Goodyear) and Eddie (Cheever), and a great group of pit reporters – is a good testament to that.” 

Reid, who made his debut as lead announcer for this race in 2006, is the latest in a list of announcers whose names are nearly as familiar as the drivers who have competed on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s the legacy,” Reid said. “For us it’s 45 years and here we are celebrating the Centennial Era for the next few at the Speedway. When you realize you’re a small piece of the chain that started back with Charlie Brockman in ’65 through Chris Schenkel, Jim McKay and Keith Jackson, Jackie Stewart, Paul Page, Bob Jenkins…I mean, it’s a huge responsibility, and, as Jed said, we take it very seriously. And we still want to have fun, but it’s not just another race. It never will be.”

Goodyear competed in 11 consecutive Indy 500s beginning in 1990, with runner-up finishes in 1992 and 1997.

“As a driver you always get that feeling in your stomach, the butterflies when you go through the tunnel the very first time you arrive in May knowing that you have a chance to drive the track,” Goodyear said. “It became a new sensation for me when I started television in 2002, because I got a chance to see all the pageantry that went on for the Indianapolis 500 from the television booth up off in the grandstand, something that obviously went on all those years that I drove there but I never saw because I was so tuned into just driving the race car. So I think I have a better understanding and more appreciation for the Indianapolis 500 and the rich history that it has now that I’m involved in television, seeing it maybe through ‘television eyes’ or ‘spectator eyes,’ if you will, than I did when I was driving it.”

Cheever made 14 Indy 500 starts, highlighted by his victory on May 24, 1998, before taking his wit-and-wisdom to the booth last year.  

“It’s obviously different than driving it,” Cheever said, “but if you’ve been going long enough, watching how the whole TV show was put together and all the effort that’s put into it, it was definitely a different perspective. It’s an unbelievable event. And at the end of it, it really comes down to we will be celebrating a new winner for the Indianapolis 500 and every sports fan or definitely every racing fan all over the world will know who it is probably 5 minutes after the event is over. So it’s fun to be a part of that.”

ESPN will use 59 cameras to televise the race in high-def, including a 360-degree rotating on-board unit mounted behind the driver on multiple cars. Unique views will be provided by Track Cam, a high-definition unit running on a cable over pit road and the frontstretch that can move at more than 80 mph. All 33 cars will carry GPS boxes for the Sportvision RaceFX system to provide telemetry and pointers to help identify the cars for viewers – especially helpful for those casual open-wheel fans. ESPN also will use a radio replay system that can record, play back and edit radios from any of the 33 drivers.

A one-hour pre-race show will present four special features, including pole-sitter Helio Castroneves’ nightmarish six-month journey through federal tax evasion charges, culminating with the six-week trial that led to his acquittal last month. Also featured will be the special bond between superstar Danica Patrick and her father; Chip Ganassi’s “Super Team” of reigning Indy 500/IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, who earned both of those prizes in 2007, and the “Allure of Indy” – why drivers will risk it all to compete in this race.

Drake noted there is a fine line between catering to the casual fan – who may only know Castroneves from his winning appearance on “Dancing With the Stars” – and insulting the aficionado who may be rooting for the Brazilian to earn his third Indy 500 victory.

“There are multiple responsibilities that we have that fall onto the entire production and announce team,” Drake said. “And we recognize that there are casual viewers. And we will work to make sure that they are brought into the line of discussion, if you will, because inevitably we want to make sure that they can get to a level of understanding where they truly enjoy the race for what it is and not just the spectacle.

“One of the fascinating things about racing, particularly on an oval course, I suspect, is that it’s like soccer. And I know that may sound like a very obtuse analogy, but soccer is a very complex game that looks remarkably simple, and it is at various levels remarkably simple to understand. 

“And racing is a remarkably complex sport that can also look remarkably simple and easy to understand. And so I think, yes, it is a spectacle and that’s why people are drawn to it. They’re drawn to it because of the extreme danger. They’re drawn to it because we’ve televised it for 45 years and it happens on the same day and it happens to be a three-day holiday. You have all those things working for you in a very positive direction.

“I think if we’re truly successful with this, we’ll televise it on a variety of different levels and do so, if not simultaneously, at various times during the race. Where there will be time to explain things to those that are less than expert to draw them in. But at the same time to not talk under, if you will, the experts. It’s a fine line. It’s a fascinating line to draw.

“It can be done and I think we do a damn good job at it.”

Meanwhile, the Indy Racing League’s new TV contract with Versus has included exclusive live rights to all the drama surrounding two weekends of qualifications. How has the ESPN on ABC broadcast team been keeping in shape for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”

“Eddie and I have been doing SportsCenter hits,” Reid said. “We’re going to do a rehearsal on Friday during Carb Day. We won’t be on the air, but we’ll use it get everybody back in the flow. But the truth of the matter is it’s impossible for the company to spend to set up a crew and a truck and everything to another race that we aren’t televising. 

“If it would have been my first year and Eddie’s first year and Jack Arute’s first year, I think everybody might have reason for concern. But we’ve done this race. We know what to expect. And the one thing that is different that may not make a lot of sense to everybody out there at home is this is the first year we will have control of the world feed. In the past, we could be talking about something and because someone else had control of the world feed, they might jump and the viewer’s going, ‘What are those guys talking about?’ And you have to transition quickly. Now the world is going to basically follow us, and that’s going to help our broadcast immensely.” 

Drake said the entire team is ready to – in traditional Indy 500 fashion – stand on it.

“I have no concern whatsoever about this group doing this race as the first race of the open-wheel season for them this year,” Drake said. “Zero.”


ESPN on ABC – Indianapolis 500 Historical Notes 

The telecast of the 2009 Indianapolis 500 by ESPN on ABC marks the 45th consecutive year “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has been televised on ABC. Some important dates and milestones regarding the Indianapolis 500 on ABC: 

1965 – The relationship between ABC and the Indianapolis 500 begins when highlights of the race are shown on the Wide World of Sports program. Charlie Brockman is the lap-by-lap announcer.

1966 – Chris Schenkel handles the lead announcer duties.

1967 – Jim McKay works the Indy 500 telecast for the first time as lap-by-lap announcer, with former race-winner Rodger Ward in the new role of driver analyst on ABC’s coverage. Ward also works the 1968 and 1969 races for ABC. The race is shown in color for the first time after two years in black-and-white.

1971 – For the first time, ABC’s coverage of the Indianapolis 500 airs as a same-day, stand-alone, tape-delayed telecast in prime time rather than as part of the Wide World of Sports program. Chris Schenkel is host, with Jim McKay calling the action. Jackie Stewart makes his debut as driver analyst. Pit reporters include Chris Economaki, Bill Flemming, Keith Jackson and future Indy 500 winning team owner and late night talk show host David Letterman. The infamous crash of the pace car, in which Schenkel, astronaut John Glenn and Speedway owner Tony Hulman were riding, into a photographer’s stand on the race start occurred this year.

1975 – Keith Jackson handles anchor duties for ABC as Jim McKay misses the race for the only time between 1967 and his final race in 1987.

1981 – Jackie Stewart works his final Indianapolis 500 as driver analyst. Sam Posey replaces him the following year.

1983 – Al Unser and Rick Mears carry on-board cameras, the first used in Indy 500 coverage.

1984 – Jack Arute works his first Indianapolis 500 for ABC as a pit reporter, a role that continues in 2009.

1986 – After many years of airing tape-delayed because Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not want a live telecast, the race is televised live for the first time. The race was still blacked-out locally, a practice that continues to this day. Ironically, the race was rained-out on both Sunday and Monday, so it was run the following Saturday and televised live on ABC. Jim Lampley makes his debut as lead announcer with Jim McKay in the host position.

1987 – Jim McKay, who serves as host, works his final Indianapolis 500 for ABC. Jim Lampley is lap-by-lap announcer, with driver analysts Bobby Unser and Sam Posey.

1988 – Paul Page becomes anchor for ABC’s coverage after serving as lead announcer on the IMS Radio Network for 10 years. Page is lead announcer from 1988-1998, then returns from 2002-2004.

1989 – Dr. Jerry Punch starts an 18-year run as a pit reporter on ABC’s Indianapolis 500 coverage.

1999 – Bob Jenkins is lead announcer for the first of three years, with Al Michaels as host of the telecast. Jenkins becomes host in 2002 when Paul Page returns to lead announcer slot.

2001 — Vince Welch works his first Indianapolis 500 as an ABC pit reporter. He had worked as a turn announcer and pit reporter for the IMS Radio Network since 1996.

2002 – Scott Goodyear makes his debut as driver analyst after retiring from the cockpit following the 2001 Indy 500.

2004 — Several rain delays take the telecast to 8 l/2 hours, making for one of the longest single-event telecasts in history. A 180-degree rotating on-board camera was added to ABC’s coverage.

2005 – Brent Musburger becomes host of the telecast as Todd Harris fills the lead announcer role for one year. Jamie Little works her first Indianapolis 500 as a pit reporter.

2006 – Marty Reid makes his debut as lead announcer for the Indianapolis 500 with former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace joining Scott Goodyear as driver analyst. ABC introduces the “side-by-side” format, allowing viewers to continue watching the action during national commercial breaks.

2007 – The race is televised in high-definition for the first time. ESPN on ABC is the first network to use two women as pit reporters in coverage of the Indianapolis 500 as Brienne Pedigo joins Jamie Little on pit road.

2008 – Eddie Cheever Jr., the 1998 Indy 500 winner, makes his debut as driver analyst, joining Scott Goodyear. Coverage includes a 360-degree rotating on-board camera, the first of its kind in American motorsports. 

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 23 2009
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