When the checkered flags are waved over Sunday afternoon's 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500, they will also wave over the 54th and final (for now) airing of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing on ABC. It will mark the end of the second-longest marriage of a sporting event and television network, trailing only The Masters on CBS. From a handful of film cameras to video to on-board cameras to the 90-plus HD cameras that will be pointed at the track this weekend, the eyes of ABC have always been on the Speedway.
As the winning driver and crew weep tears of joy and gulp down milk, the production crew in the trucks and trailers of the massive television compound -- located not too far from Victory Lane -- will also weep, though not from joy, and that evening they too will gulp, though it won't be milk.
This is the part where I tell you that ABC and ESPN are owned by the same company. This is also the part where I tell you that I shall be among those selfishly sad that the ABC-Indy 500 partnership will end (for now).
Not that my friends at NBC won't do a great job. I know that they will because, like my colleagues in the ESPN/ABC truck, they care deeply for the event. They can't believe they get to be a part of it every May, a contributor to the sights, sounds and memories that make it the planet's greatest race.
That's why my emotions on Sunday evening won't really be about business or not being called to write feature scripts for next year's telecast. No matter your employer, if you are a sports fan, then ABC and Indy is all you've ever known. ABC is the only national network that has ever aired the race.
Because of that, the voices and graphics and music have become as much a part of the Indianapolis 500 experience as the Purdue marching band and "Back Home Again in Indiana." For most people, the only reason they even know about that band and that song is because ABC's cameras have brought them into our homes, like clockwork, to kick off summer.
Here are some of my personal favorite greatest moments during the 53 years that ABC cameras have been pointed at the Brickyard. Here's hoping that Sunday will gift us with a day great enough to be added to this list.
1965: The revolution will be televised
The first Indy 500 imagery that was broadcast into America's living rooms was of an event in heavy transition. The last section of bricks had been covered with blacktop only a few years before. The 1964 race, A.J. Foyt's second victory, was marred by tragedy during an auto racing season so bloody it spurred calls from Capitol Hill that the sport be banned altogether. But the '65 race marked a turning point -- actually, a bunch of them.
This was the year that proved to be the last stand of the old Indy guard, the ones who still raced and defended the honor of the classic front-engine roadsters. For two years, the Offey-powered old-school set fended off their fancier counterparts. They crowed, "Rear engine cars are for men who liked to be pushed around."
Dan Gurney, who helped bring the new cars to Indy in '63, talked of the inevitable "death of the dinosaurs." F1 legend Jimmy Clark, with the NASCAR legend Wood Brothers pitting his car, smoked the field by leading all but 10 laps and defeating Parnelli Jones by nearly two minutes. The front-engine dinosaurs had indeed been run into the tar pits. A kid named Mario Andretti also made his 500 debut, finishing third to grab Rookie of the Year. It all happened on ABC.
However, it didn't happen live. The network recorded the race with only three cameras and local broadcaster Charlie Brockman on the microphone. Brockman was a natural choice, having been the play-by-play voice of live, closed-circuit Indy 500 productions, which could be viewed by race fans who purchased a movie-theater ticket. ABC's Wide World of Sports aired the race one week later, edited down to an hour and intercut with the World Pocket Billiards Championship in New York. The man on the mic at that event was Jim McKay.
1967: In living color
McKay moved into the booth, replacing his longtime ABC colleague Chris Schenkel. Although Schenkel did only one year of play-by-play, he was hugely instrumental in the 500 being televised. It was Schenkel, an Indiana native, who talked his good friend and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman into doing the first shows with ABC. Hulman was convinced that TV would wreck his ticket sales. It didn't.
McKay called the action as Jones sent a new sound into the ABC microphones, the whoosh of his turbine-engine-powered machine. Unfortunately, that machine broke, handing Foyt his second win via what might still be the most dramatic, made-for-Hollywood Indy 500 call of them all. On the race's final lap, a multicar crash broke out on the front stretch right in front of Foyt. McKay looked into the spinning cars and wondered aloud if Super Tex could make it through. Then the red No. 14 Ford emerged from the smoke, with Foyt's hand waving to signal that he was OK.
"And there he is! A.J. Foyt will win the Indianapolis 500!"
"I think people who remember my wins remember them as much for Jim McKay as they do for A.J. Foyt," Foyt said. "What I like about Jim was that he really loved Indianapolis. You could really tell. He became part of the family around here."
McKay worked 20 Indy 500s in all, 18 in the booth and two as host.
1971: "Mario, what happened?"
As the years went on, the broadcast team grew. Roone Arledge, the godfather of Wide World of Sports and just-born Monday Night Football, took over as executive producer and expanded the on-air stable from McKay and legendary racing journalist Chris Economaki in 1970 to a whopping seven men one year later.
Schenkel returned as host, F1 champion and he of the great Scottish brogue Jackie Stewart was added to the booth, and Economaki was joined on pit road by Bill Flemming and Keith Jackson. Yes, that Keith Jackson. Looking back, even that legendary group is overshadowed by a local broadcaster listed as "Turn Reporter," though he overshadowed no one then.
"About a third of the way into the race, Mario Andretti spun," the reporter, David Letterman, recalled in 2014. The late-night TV icon has co-owned an IndyCar team since 1996. "So now, he's walking back toward the pits, and I was thinking to myself, 'Oh God, don't come anywhere near me, please God, don't let him come anywhere near me' ... So, bless his heart, he walks right over to me, and I'm thinking, 'He doesn't know that I don't know what I'm doing.'"
On the telecast (I just watched it on ESPN+), you see Andretti walk over as Letterman asks, "Mario, what happened?!" and then, "What about the traffic, the faster ones coming up to the slower ones now?!"
"Well, uh, that's the normal pace of the race," Andretti answers, politely but dismissively. "This you see everywhere. That's no particular problem."
Then he walks away as the just-turned-24 Letterman says, "Thank you very much, Mario Andretti ..."
"I was scared silly," Letterman confessed. "I was in production meeting with Jim McKay, for heaven's sakes. And on race day, I was dropped off nearly three miles from the Speedway, so I spent a lovely morning strolling through the drunken zombies in my navy ABC Sports blazer ... but I was on cloud nine for the rest of the summer because I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I've been on network television.' Now, nobody knows that really. A lot of people saw it, but nobody knows it was me. But by God, I knew it was me."
1975: Whoa, Nellie!
Jackson worked a pair of 500s, as a pit reporter in 1971 and play-by-play in '75, pressed into service when McKay sat out. There was nary a "Whoa, Nellie!" but the tenor of his voice certainly reached Rose Bowl levels when Tom Sneva went airborne on fire in Turn 2 and when Bobby Unser captured the second of his three 500 wins in the pouring rain.
"I wasn't there but for a minute," Jackson recalled of Indianapolis during a phone conversation in 2014. "But when you receive an assignment like Indy, there's a responsibility you feel. It's a place that was there long before us and will be there after we're all gone. When it's your turn to pass through, you just say thanks for the chance and try not to mess it up."
1982: Here comes the hammer
Forced onto pit road with mechanical issues, Foyt was captured by ABC's cameras climbing out of his car, yelling at his pit crew to get out of the way, asking for a hammer and fixing the car himself. As the crowd went crazy, McKay declared, "This man is a throwback to the days of Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma!" Many people recall that as their favorite Foyt moment at Indy, even above his four wins.
1987: Uncle Bobby and Big Al
In 1986, ABC's Indy 500 coverage went live flag-to-flag for the first time, and the broadcast team was shaping up into the group that most race fans still talk about today. McKay was working his final 500 as host. Jim Lampley worked play-by-play but would be replaced by Paul Page, anchor of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. In the pits was Jack Arute, in his fourth year, and in the booth with Lampley was Sam Posey, now the lead motorsports analyst for ABC Sports.
But the move that still resonates to this day was the addition of Bobby Unser alongside Posey in the booth.
"Hell, I never wanted to do TV. What did I know about TV?" Unser recalled in his motor home Thursday afternoon. "But I broke my leg, and I wasn't making any money sitting at home, so CBS called and wanted me to work some races. I did. And I wasn't half bad at it. I had just been in a race car, so I was fresh from the butcher. I had just been out there on the track with these same guys, and I could see what was going to happen. So ABC called, and I was like, 'OK, let's go to Indianapolis!'"
Roberto Guerrero dominated the day. Meanwhile, Bobby's little brother, Al, was scooting around in a secondhand ride, seemingly well off the pace. When ABC hit a commercial break, Bobby warned everyone in the booth and the production truck that his brother could win, especially if Guerrero made a mistake in the pits ... and when he was leading a race, Guerrero was prone to make nervous mistakes.
"They looked at me like I was crazy as hell," Bobby recalled. "Then, guess what? Roberto made a mistake. And guess who won the race?"
Big Al crossed the finish line to join Foyt as a four-time winner. ABC cameras immediately cut to the booth as Bobby received congratulations from Lampley and Posey. In Victory Lane, milk still in hand, Arute passed his headset and microphone over to Al. From the booth, Bobby said, "The family is proud of you."
1988: The Delta Force
With all due respect to the ABC Sports broadcasters, to many Indy 500 fans, the real star of every Memorial Day weekend show was a song. In 1986, the film "The Delta Force" was released, starring Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris as an elite military unit sent to rescue hostages from airline hijackers. It was not a box office hit, but someone on the ABC production team used a few seconds of the film's theme song, composed by Alan Silvestri (now the composer behind Marvel's Avengers movies), in the opening sequence for Indy 500 qualifying and again later that month in the race tease, centered around Rick Mears and his quest for a fourth win.
Director Don Ohlmeyer and Paul Page loved the tune so much that it became the music used for the Indy 500 broadcast opening every year, with the song ripped from a cassette recording of the soundtrack bought at a local Indianapolis record store. Recalled Page: "Don cut the video to the music each year, then handed it to me. I watched it a number of times, then wrote the copy. There was no preconcept. It was all done in the truck on linear one-inch tape. It usually took him two days to edit, and I took one day to write it."
To this day, those opens are a YouTube staple, and "The Delta Force" theme has worked its way into nearly every Indy 500 telecast of the past three decades.
1992: Little Al's turn
When Al Unser Jr. finally won the Indy 500 to join his father and uncle, he did so in the closest finish in race history, edging Scott Goodyear by 0.04 seconds. In Victory Lane, the normally ice-cold Unser's eyes filled with tears as he shouted into the camera, "You just don't know what Indy means!"
1993: Party in Turn 2!
That key broadcast unit was at the height of its powers in 1992. Viewers had become accustomed to Posey and Bobby Unser fighting in the booth, but producer Bob Goodrich decided to move Unser out above Turn 2 to provide some new perspective. Viewers immediately took to his eyewitness weather reports ("I can see clear all the way to Terre Haute!"). His perch was located atop the roof of some suites. When the Speedway's longtime caterer found out his friend Bobby was working up there, he sent up a whole party spread, complete with food, booze and waitresses to serve that food and booze.
"I think we were only supposed to have like three people up there," Unser recalled Thursday. "There was no camera with me, so I didn't think anyone would ever notice. But one day Bob had a camera pointed over there to us, and hell, there's like 20 people, and there's chairs and towels and drinking. That didn't go over so well."
1996: Civil war
When American open wheel ripped itself in half in 1996, ABC/ESPN still televised the 500, as well as the U.S. 500, a rival CART event that opposed it. Lost now to the politics of the day, the race was a thriller, as underdog Buddy Lazier won the race with a broken back after spending every caution period waving his hands in the air to try to get the circulation going in his hands.
2006: Sam I am
Page moved out of the ABC booth in 2004, having returned to the role after surrendering it to Bob Jenkins at the height of the open-wheel split. That same year, Jamie Little became the race's first female pit reporter. Brent Musburger was the race host, with a booth of Marty Reid, Goodyear and Eddie Cheever.
IndyCar series champion Sam Hornish Jr. was beloved by Speedway fans but wasn't able to win in front of them. That changed in a flash, when he passed Marco Andretti to win by 0.0635 seconds, taking the lead just moments before crossing the finish line.
"If it sounds like I was caught off-guard, it's because I was," Reid admitted the following year. "When they were on the backstretch, we all thought Marco's lead was too big. Instead, after all those years of watching Mario and Michael Andretti come so close and lose so many times, now I was trying to describe Marco in the exact same boat ... and I've got the one guy who knows how he feels, Scott Goodyear, watching it right next to me."
2011: Centennial celebration
Reid and company were back, joining forces to describe perhaps the most perfect race day in Indy 500 history, a day commemorating the inaugural 500 in 1911. It started with living legends such as Foyt and the Unsers taking laps in classic cars and ended with the most impossible of finishes. J.R. Hildebrand carried his lead into the final corner of the final lap ... but plowed the wall of that corner, allowing fan favorite Dan Wheldon to streak by for the win.
"He's got to get around the lap traffic ... Oh...no! He hit the wall! Dan Wheldon is going to win!"
Wheldon died in a racing accident five months later. It was horrific. But that's not the image people remember when they hear his name. They see that finish ... set to those voices ... captured by those ABC cameras.
"I think that's the part that means the most," explained Dr. Jerry Punch, who will be in the pits Sunday for his 27th Indy 500 for ABC, the most of any broadcaster since the event was first televised in 1965. Goodyear will log his 17th race in the booth, second only to McKay. Allen Bestwick will be the 10th and final ABC play-by-play announcer (for now).
"Whenever people look back on this race and look up the old broadcasts, we have been part of 54 of them," Punch said. "After 54 years, you've become part of the family. We're like your family scrapbook."