ABC Coverage Of 500 Turns 50 Today

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 25 2014

The great Chris Economaki interviews Al Unser after the 1971 500 for ABC. (Photo courtesy of ABC/ESPN)

INDIANAPOLIS – ABC-TV will celebrate its landmark 50th consecutive year of Indianapolis 500 coverage today with 92 cameras, timely driver features and a nod to the “appointment viewing” era that made iconic broadcasters Jim McKay, Chris Economaki and Paul Page invited house guests nationwide every Memorial Day Weekend.

Pre-race coverage from Indianapolis Motor Speedway will begin at 11 a.m. (EDT), with the 33-car field scheduled to take the green flag for the flying start shortly after noon for 200-laps/500 miles.

”Fifty years on ABC. For me, that starts with a ‘Wow.’ What a run,’ ” Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports, production, said during a teleconference interview. “My personal memories of the Indy 500 and ABC’s coverage of it date back to when I was a kid. Memorial Day weekends with my family, appointment viewing. Those days it was on a tape-delay at night. To see it come around now to the 50-year anniversary is just amazing.”

Today’s telecast continues one of the longest-running active relationships between a sporting event and a TV network. The Masters has been on CBS since 1956, and the Little League World Series has been on ABC since 1963.

In 2011, ESPN and IMS announced a new, six-year agreement beginning in 2013 that will keep the

Jackie Stewart became an essential part of race coverage after his driving days. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives)

Indianapolis 500 on ABC through 2018, including the 100th running in 2016, and make ABC the exclusive broadcast network partner of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The Indy 500 first aired on ABC in 1965, with highlights appearing in black-and-white on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” anthology program. Charlie Brockman, an Indianapolis media personality who had called the closed-circuit broadcasts of the Indy 500 in previous years, was play-by-play announcer for that first telecast.

“Our team looks at it like it’s a privilege to produce the Indy 500,” Feinberg said. “It always has been. It always will be. It’s a cherished assignment that everybody embraces. Our goal is quite simple, and that’s to uphold the tradition of excellence in coverage that’s been established by our ABC colleagues over the past 49 years.

“That may sound a bit cliché, but it’s a fact. We do that by focusing our coverage on the drivers and their stories, their team’s race strategy. Perhaps the most intriguing thing for the casual fan, that’s the speed. When you’re talking about cars doing over 230 miles an hour, that’s an off-the-charts number. Through our coverage, we want to make sure our viewers feel like they’re not only enjoying the race but thirsting to be there. I look forward to being a part of it as I do every year.”

ABC veteran Chris Schenkel called the 1966 race telecast. The 1967 telecast featured a pair of milestones _ the race appeared in color and McKay called the first of what would be 18 Indy 500s. McKay was joined by two-time Indy 500 champion Rodger Ward in the new role of driver-analyst.

The race aired as a same-day, stand-alone, tape-delayed primetime telecast for the first time in 1971. Four years later, Keith Jackson handled anchor duties as McKay missed the race for the only time between 1967 and his final event in 1987.

In 1983, Team Penske’s Al Unser and Rick Mears became the first drivers to carry onboard cameras at IMS. Finally, after years of tape-delayed telecasts, the race was televised live for the first time in 1986.

Of the 92 cameras on the grounds today, Feinberg said 36 are aboard race cars. “We will have a complement of 12 different teams,” Feinberg said, “including Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter, all carrying on-camera systems. All 36 are on-track, if you would.

“The remaining cameras include some specialty things. We will have a helicopter-cam for the entire race. We have several ultraslow motion cameras that we have strategically placed around the track. We have wall cams. We have grass cams. We have hand-held cams. We have robotic cams. I think we got the place pretty well wired-up.

“The unique thing about this race, racing in general, is the size of the playing field is gigantic, so it takes more. We’re always watching multiple things. A lot of our camera systems allow us to focus on multiple battles on the track to make sure we can document as much of the action as we can for the fans.

“It is a very large production, one of the largest that we do every year. Tremendous credit to our technical and engineering staff to put together this system and ultimately I think our fans are the benefactors of it.”

One of the noticeable changes since last May, Feinberg said, is the addition of Allen Bestwick to the broadcast team as lap-by-lap announcer. Bestwick, certainly familiar to motorsports fans for his work on NASCAR telecasts, will be joined by 1998 Indy 500 champion Eddie Cheever Jr. and two-time race runnerup Scott Goodyear as analysts.

“Allen and I have worked together for many, many years,” Feinberg said. “I know not only he’s excited about doing the project, but I’m just as excited to have him along. He’s one of the best in the business, and I think our fans will really enjoy his call.

“We have some new graphic elements we’re using. We have some good feature stories we’ll tell before we get going with the race. As I said earlier, our ultimate job is to tell the stories of the drivers, and to the best of our ability, through the pictures and through the sounds, create that thirst for our viewers to want to be there and enjoy this very special sporting event.”

Bestwick said appointment television for him as a kid in Seekonk, Mass., centered around the Indy 500. “Watching this race every year sparked my fascination with the broadcasting business,” Bestwick said. “As I continued to follow, watching Jim McKay, the role he played, the variety of sports he did, the excellence with which he did them, and how much you felt like even though you never met him, he was a friend through the television. So for me all these years later to get a chance to sit in that seat on this occasion, it’s not just bucket list, it’s beyond bucket list.”

In 1987, McKay worked his 20th and final Indianapolis 500 for ABC as host. The voice behind “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” logged 18 years in a play-by-play role and two years as host.

NASCAR star Kurt Busch’s attempt at “Double Duty” beginning here and continuing later in the day in the Sprint Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway easily has emerged as the hot story of the Month of May. But Cheever and Goodyear also noted the returns of 1995 Indy 500 champ Jacques Villeneuve and 2000 race-winner Juan Pablo Montoya to the field will be major topics during “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Goodyear competed in 11 Indy 500s beginning in 1990, logging his second-place finishes to Al Unser Jr. in 1992 and Arie Luyendyk in 1997.

“Now that I’ve stepped away from it, I honestly believe that you can be trained to be a very good, proficient driver that can compete at IndyCar level,” Goodyear said. “But I think the ones that are winning and are just a little bit faster have something different. I think it might be something that you’re just born with. There’s been that question for years and years, especially when we talk about different generations of drivers. I think it’s training and then I think you have to have a little bit of a gift.

“With that, I think I am more impressed now than I was when I was doing it. When you’re doing it, you eat, breathe and sleep it. You expect to be good. You expect to be competitive. You don’t feel that you’re doing anything different than anybody else ’cause you’re getting up, going and doing your job.

“It’s only when you step away from it like I have, and maybe Eddie feels this way, you truly understand how different your occupation was when you’re sitting in a race car.

“The last comment I’ll make on all that is when you’re doing it back then, it seems like it’s in slow motion. It seems like the straightaways are long, and I guess that’s what I guess they call being ‘in the zone’ in other sports. When you’re getting ready to retire, you notice that life is going by a little quicker in the race car than it did before. That’s probably the first indication it’s time to go find something else to do.”

Cheever competed as the lone American in Formula One, the worldwide pinnacle of motorsport, for a decade before arriving at IMS in 1990 for what became a 14-year stint of exclusively turning left.

“I don’t say this trying to make a joke of it,” Cheever said, “(but) I think you have to be a little bit crazy when you’re racing on the limit at the Indianapolis 500. It is, I would say by far-and-away, the most dangerous and most intoxicating race that I have ever been a part of. When you have to throw a car into a corner at 235 miles an hour, two feet behind a car that’s doing the same speed, another car that’s trying to pass you, do all this and stay away from that horribly hard wall, you have to be a little bit ‘different.’^”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 25 2014
One Comment

One Comment »

  • waus says:

    The absolutely worst end of race coverage ever.

    For almost half of the final four, exciting, thrilling laps of two competitors going back and forth, we are treated to a split screen, with a significantly smaller view of the race, so we can watch their significant others react in the pits.