By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
For 54 years, ABC was the main television home for IndyCar coverage, including the Indianapolis 500. During their roller coaster run, open wheel fans witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly side of racing, and its television coverage. However, that chapter is, for the lack of a better phrase; finally over and how it bid farewell on June 2nd was callous.
Knowing the second dual of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix ran past its allotted time, and local news, along with Game two of the NBA Finals were coming up later that night, my concern was how ABC’s IndyCar crew would bid farewell after all these years.
Would it be similar to 2000 when NASCAR said goodbye to ESPN for the first time, and Bob Jenkins had the last word? At a minimum they could have wrapped it up with a sentence-long thank you from Allen Bestwick.
Let’s just say it happened exactly as I’d feared it would happen, with no fanfare.
There wasn’t a proper sendoff by Bestwick, Scott Goodyear (who’s been covering the sport regularly since 2002), Eddie Cheever, Rick DeBruhl, no one. There wasn’t a three to five-minute video package highlighting ABC’s run.
What did the fans get from their fianl telecast?
A simple and vague thank you by an understandably emotional Bestwick, and a quick cut away to local news. Though no fault of any member of the broadcast team, it was a slap in the face for the long term and passionate fans of IndyCar.
The only proper tribute we got was Paul Page’s narration of the 54-year history of ABC and the Indianapolis 500. Sure, we all wished we got the “Delta Force” theme one last time, but it was a nicely done package with Paul Page’s narration. Couldn’t ask more than hearing his voice one last time on television.
Two months removed from the lackluster farewell, I’m still disappointed in how it ended. Knowing now that Mike Tirico will be hosting the 103rd Indianapolis 500, I simply said, ‘thank god NBC Sports has taken over full-time and are putting in a real effort.’
Fans know that ESPN, which has nearly been this bad since the ABC Sports days ended in 2006, doesn’t care about auto racing compared to the almighty NBA and NFL.
Look at the abomination that was their feed presentation of Formula One’s Rolex Australian Grand Prix early in the season. No in-house crew or smooth transitions when going and returning from break. If it wasn’t for Mothers paying good money to bring F1’s coverage commercial free and Nicole Briscoe being the in-house host, we’d be opening our pockets for F1 TV Pro.
Ever since the 1990’s, the network’s decisions on a lot of things were downright irritating. There were times they’ve abandoned telecasts (ex. 1996 Las Vegas 500K, notable for Johnny O’Connell’s un-televised violent crash), bum rush race winner interviews (ex. Robert Moreno’s first CART win at Cleveland in 2000), and put guys who didn’t transfer from pit reporter to play-by-play (ex. Todd Harris) and unqualified commentators (ex. Rusty Wallace) in the box.
Those negatives are some of the major flaws ESPN committed that left a bad taste on people’s mouths over the years. In comparison, NBC’s telecast is a breath of fresh air because they’ve been given the ball to run with it and draw new audiences without shoving it down the throats of knowledgeable fans. They’re not afraid to express their opinions, and that’s a Godsend when legends like Robin Miller and Paul Tracy are part of the telecast.
The network consistently shows that they care more about IndyCar and than having a ESPN like corporate filter and family friendly image. With F1 out of the equation, it’s destined to be the best open wheel telecast going forward.
U.S. racing fans tend to dwell on the negatives after years of disappointment, that we forget we are living in the golden age of Motorsports television due to technological breakthroughs we take for granted. The modern-day helmet camera NBC and Fox Sports adapted, began in IndyCar with ABC. Side-By-Side footage during commercial breaks also adapted by other networks came from ABC who didn’t let fans miss the action.
All great breakthroughs that gave us different and exciting points of view from our television screens. Fans want unlimited action, and ABC gave us that first glimpse of a future that is increasingly becoming standard operating procedure.
For a large number of years, ABC’s Wide World of Sports treated the Indianapolis 500 as the ultimate spectacle in sports. From 1965-1985, it was done on same-day tape delay, but were able to crack down the nuts and bolts of the beauty and brutal side of IndyCar.
You had Jim McKay humanizing the drivers during starting grids with great anecdotes about their lives. One that sticks out in my mind was 1982 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Jim Hickman. McKay stated that before he was a driver, he was a rancher. Sadly, Hickman died on August 1st that year in a qualifying crash at The Milwaukee Mile.
It would be nice to hear such factoids on grids during major races again. It something that is all but ignored by modern broadcasts, but it is something we could see NBC bringing back in the near future once they get more established.
McKay was elegant and simplistic at the same time, his always effective words lured audiences to care and see and understand what made IndyCar and the Indy 500 so important. During those years at ABC, it worked, it really worked.
Jackie Stewart, and later Sam Posey had mid-race segments talking about pit road configuration changes, running the proper line and the evolution of racing just to name a few. They were able to do that because their telecast wasn’t an hour long highlight reel. They brought instant credibility to the broadcast and Stewart’s strong Scottish accent imbued the broadcast with even more character.
When it comes to open wheel racing, ABC were the first to do in-race onboard cameras in 1983, first carried by Rick Mears and Al Unser. F1 didn’t catch up until the 1985 German Grand Prix with François Hesnault.
Love it or hate it, wife shots, especially during the closing moments of the Indy 500, were glorified on ABC because it added to the drama of racing and further humanized the drivers by showing their loved ones. It helped make them heroes in the eyes of the American public who want not just sport, but a good story too. Such ideas were extraordinary for the time, despite the fact that they annoyed many hard-line fans who only wanted to focus on the race itself.
It took untill 1986 for ABC to go live flag-to-flag for the first time, and once Page took over from Jim Lampley as play-by-play, the presentation shifted to a whole new level.
The primitive days were over and ABC really hit their stride, it was purely about racing. Page’s writing was tremendous, and it flowed with the stock footage to a tee. Those positive shifts led to both the 1989 and 1990 Indy 500’s telecasts winning the Emmy for Outstanding Live Sports Special. Imagine such a thing today.
Outside of Indianapolis, you still felt the network cared about racing. One season that comes to mind is 1989. Their intros, like the Road America 200 that season, were so good because we got bullet points of what led to a particular story-line or championship battle. It was great for the season long viewers, but also the casuals who might have known why that campaign was memorable.
Again, ABC nailed it with their starting grid coverage. What’s frustrating about today’s telecast is the lack of driver bios. Look at both 1992 and 1995 Indy 500 grids, and you’ll see the night and day difference compared to now.
In those days, we got shots of the car which we don’t quite see anymore. We even got to know about Raul Boesel’s horse riding hobby. Can you even name a hobby of one of the current drivers? And no, Juan Pablo Montoya’s RC cars and planes don’t count.
The split and the establishment of the IRL in the mid nineties that lead to confusion for fans and networks made it inevitable that the early 2000’s would be rough from time in the broadcast booth. It seemed each year we saw changes left and right, notably Page being let go in favor of Harris. Known forever in racing as that guy who showed his passionate bias towards Danica Patrick at every opportunity. Enough said.
In today’s world, an argument can be made that pre-race shows and social media have allowed television crews to skip to the meat and potatoes and that they don’t need to help the fans know the drivers, tracks or races. I’ve heard those statements, but it makes my skin crawl with how such a rich broadcasting legacy of doing so now lies dormant.
Will ABC be missed by race fans? Some have made it clear they won’t, others will miss them because of the many examples I’ve mentioned and the memories they cherish.
My view is that after 54 years, we should have gotten something special from ABC in their final IndyCar telecast, something nostalgic and meaningful, instead we got nothing. Yet despite that glaring mistake, ABC’s early innovation put IndyCar racing broadcasts a high pedestal over the years and their numerous contributions to the sport will never be forgotten.