After 54 years, ABC ready to sign off on Indianapolis 500
The old television broadcast booth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was situated on the roof over the front straightaway, set back just enough that Paul Page remembers being able to see the start-finish line only if he pressed one eye to the glass.
Still, it was a great vantage point to see one of the greatest finishes in Indy 500 history.
Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear played follow-the-leader for the final few laps in 1992, tension building each time they passed in front of the booth. Page began thinking about how he would handle the ending, and a disturbing thought suddenly occurred to him: Longtime broadcast producer Don Ohlmeyer would almost surely cut to his favorite camera angle for a finish, looking dead-on down the front stretch – and leaving the broadcast crew watching monitors in the booth no idea who was actually in front in such a close finish.
”The lens foreshortened things,” Page recalled, ”and made it close, and I thought, `Oh my goodness, if he cuts to that angle I won’t have a clue who won!’ So I grabbed this huge monitor and shoved it to the side, and Bobby Unser is to my right and he’s helping me, and I get up against the glass and it’s so close. So I called it generically – `He’s done it!’ And I didn’t know what he!”
Unser, of course, won by the slimmest of margins. But the ABC broadcast and Page’s infamous lap-by-lap call would go down as one of the great moments in Indy 500 history – indeed, all of sport television.
Nearly three decades later, ABC is poised to bring the Indianapolis 500 into home across the country for the final time. The 103rd edition is headed to NBC next season, the first time it will air on any other network, as part of a sweeping new multimedia rights package.
It will end an era that began in 1965 with black-and-white, tape-delayed packages on the Wide World of Sports, and ushered in color a couple years later. An era that elevated broadcast icons such as Jim McKay and Keith Jackson, and produced innovations that are still a staple in motorsports to this day: in-car cameras, high-definition TV and second-screen experiences.
It will end a tradition that is just as much part of the Indy 500 fabric as the Borg-Warner Trophy, the yard of bricks, the celebratory milk in victory lane and the singing of ”(Back Home Again in) Indiana.”
”Every year it becomes one of those benchmark telecasts that I know our network has used to see where the next horizon is, and where we can push that limit of taking people where they’ve never been before,” said Allen Bestwick, who will handle lap-by-lap duties for the fifth time this Sunday.
”It’s almost like it’s part of the culture of doing television there,” he said. ”You go back as far as you want, but when you talk to some of the people that have been there a long time, they take such a tremendous pride in their work, in their pioneering spirit.”
Like so many others, Bestwick grew up watching the tape-delayed race on ABC at home. His favorite boyhood toy was a small diecast of Johnny Lightning, the car Al Unser drove to victory in the 1970 race, and it was listening to McKay that helped him decide to become a broadcaster.
He eventually began doing NASCAR races, and had even called stock car races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before an ABC executive tapped him on the shoulder to assume Indy 500 duties.
”It’s funny because it was the same track, same hotel, same booth. A lot of the technical crew was the same,” Bestwick said, ”yet it was different. It was the 500. The feeling of that race is different, and you just have a hard time understanding when someone is trying to describe the vibe.”
Yet that is exactly the task given to him, and before that Chris Schenkel and Bob Jenkins and Marty Reid. It’s the pressure-packed job that Jamie Little, the first female pit reporter in Indy 500 history, and Lindsay Czarniak, the first woman to host the broadcast, accepted with a solemn sense of duty.
Because in the end, the Indy 500 is more than just a three-hour race.
It is a Memorial Day spectacle, with the playing of taps and military appreciation providing a patriotic backdrop. It is a place where stars of sports, stage and screen show up to revel in the late-May sun. It is where college kids pack the infield, part of a teeming mass of humanity that annually counts more than a quarter-million strong – the exact figure, nobody is ever quite sure.
Kate Jackson’s family will be part of that crowd on Sunday.
Jackson grew up watching the race with her father, a sprint-car driver on local dirt tracks in western Iowa. She never got to spend much time with her dad, Jackson said, ”but Memorial Day weekend was guaranteed dad time, for several hours in a row, if you were willing to watch the race with him.”
Jackson never thought about doing anything else.
Much like Bestwick, she also went into sports broadcasting, only instead of spending her time in front of the camera she stays behind. Jackson became the first woman to produce the race in 2015, and she will orchestrate one more production when ABC comes on the air Sunday.
”I refuse to acknowledge it’s our last. I will only say we’re not doing it the next three years, but I refuse to say beyond that,” Jackson said. ”It’s without question the most heartbreaking company loss I’ve ever experienced. I’ve seen other things come and go, and that’s the nature of the business – there is a lot of competition. But this one stung in a way others haven’t for me.”
For so many years, the Indy 500 seemed insulated from the business side of sports television, like the Masters on CBS and a few other rare events.
But the way fans consume sports has changed dramatically over the past decade, and the multimedia deal that NBC was willing to put forward was impossible to pass up. The network and its cable outlet will become the sole home for the IndyCar Series beginning in 2019, making it easier for viewers to find its races each week, while the direct-to-consumer NBC Sports Gold product will allow even more options.
Fans will be able to watch Indy Lights races, ancillary programming such as IndyCar’s postseason celebration and qualifying sessions that are not currently televised live.
”I’m 51. I’ve never known a day that the Indy 500 wasn’t broadcast by ABC,” said Doug Boles, the president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. ”The Indianapolis 500 wouldn’t be what it is without those 53, and soon to be 54, broadcasts of the 500.
”At the same time,” he said, ”I can’t wait for NBC. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
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