ABC Indy coverage transcends racing

INDY 500 on ABC (4:07)

A look back at the history of the INDY 500 on ABC. (4:07)

Bob Goodrich had no idea what he was getting himself into.

It was May 1970. Goodrich was an early 20-something-year-old kid barely three years removed from playing tight end for SMU in the Cotton Bowl. He was supposedly a few months away from enrolling in medical school. But in the meantime he was, on his own dime, following the traveling circus that was "ABC's Wide World of Sports," taking on any and all odd jobs as a gofer. The goal was to catch the eye of ringmaster Roone Arledge, ABC Sports president and creator of the already-iconic "Wide World" and a new project slated for that fall, "Monday Night Football."

"I showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway because that's where ABC Sports was," Goodrich recalled in mid-April from his home outside Atlanta, the one packed with 16 Emmys earned from coverage of auto racing to the NFL as a producer. "I would have done anything they asked me to. Get coffee. Drive people to dinner. Whatever. But I was lucky enough that they asked me help out with the telecast of the Indianapolis 500. I knew nothing about it. But by the time the race was over, I was hooked. I worked it for nearly the next 25 years. It was a genuine privilege."

Genuine privilege.

Goodrich didn't know it, but his sentiment shared during an early May conversation echoed a chorus being sung by former coworkers and colleagues throughout the spring weeks leading up to this year's Indianapolis 500. It will be the 50th televised by ABC, the third-longest marriage between a sporting event and network, trailing only the Masters on CBS and the Little League World Series, also on ABC.

In 1965, the 500 was carried live only via closed-circuit television in selected outlets. One lone trailer truck would record the race on film and video via a handful of high-angle cameras and one very rudimentary roving pit camera. Then the race would be edited down, adding commentary in post-production and delivering the finished tapes to be aired days later on "Wide World." It was moved into a prime-time slot in 1971, aired later that same day thanks to some seat-of-the-pants editing while the 500 was still in progress. The event wasn't presented live flag-to-flag until 1986.

In 2014, ESPN/ABC crews will use 92 cameras, mounted on grandstand roofs, pit walls and Indy cars themselves. All images will be captured in high definition and beamed across 197 countries, with an ultimate global reach of nearly 100 million households. All live.

Yet despite that 230 mph technical evolution, the voices of the people who have worked Indy, whether in the past or this very May, sound more like a family headed to a homecoming than a compound full of broadcasters on a business trip.

"I wasn't there but for a minute," says Keith Jackson, who worked as a pit reporter in 1971 and as the play-by-play voice four years later. "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."

Back home again ...

The 500 is such a part of life in the Hoosier State that to most residents, it is referred to simply as "The 500" or "Indy" and takes place at "The Speedway." Families identify themselves by section letters and row numbers. ("Hi, we're the Thompsons, we're in E, row 13.") They've camped together and cheered together, shared stories and sandwiches. They've paid their kids' tuition by parking cars in their front yards off Georgetown Road. They take their hats off when Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again In Indiana" and they cry during "Taps."

To them, they connect to the 500 as we all connect to our greatest memories. They do it through the senses. It could be a sound, a smell, or the sight of a familiar face. After 50 years, ABC Sports has become one of those familiar faces. And the voices, music and images that ABC has chosen to send out over the airwaves have become a piece of cloth woven into those senses-driven connections between the people and their race.

"My first race was in 1967 and, like Bob, I was a gofer," explains Don Ohlmeyer, who eventually became director of the race (as well as the Olympics, "Monday Night Football" and "Wide World of Sports") alongside producer Goodrich. "I will never forget the greatest sensory overload of my life, which was that first time standing on the grid for the starting of the engines. I was so overwhelmed by the colors, the noise, the smells, all of it. I spent the rest of my career desperately trying to bring that sensation into viewers' homes."

Among those viewers were the people who had been packed in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grandstands earlier that day.

"You might assume that the feelings about the broadcast and the broadcasters would be exclusive to the people at home, around the nation, not those attending the race," says Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. "It wasn't broadcast live to the nation until 1986. But here in Indianapolis, the television broadcast has continued to be tape-delayed, shown later that night. So even those who were in attendance come home to watch the race again on television."

In fact, a part of team owner Roger Penske's post-victory routine (he's won 15) became taking his entire team up into the Speedway's pagoda when the official celebrating was done, lining up McDonald's hamburgers and Miller beers to consume that evening while watching the ABC broadcast of their win.

Because of those double-viewings, the same voices and themes ingrained around the nation became equally woven into the Indianapolis community. And as the generations have changed, so have the voices and faces those generations equate with the race.

If you watched the first ABC telecast in 1965, then you were introduced the Greatest Spectacle in Racing by announcer Charlie Brockman. For those who watched the 500 in the 1970s and '80s, as they grew to love or loathe the likes of Al Unser Sr., A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears, they also got to know Jim McKay, Jackie Stewart and Chris Economaki in their yellow ABC Sports blazers. For race fans of the '90s, it was Little Al and Emmo, called by Paul Page, Bobby Unser and Sam Posey in the booth with the pit reporter trio of Jack Arute, Gary Gerould and Jerry Punch, all set to Alan Silvestri's theme to the movie "Delta Force."

"I think people who remember my wins remember them as much for Jim [McKay] as they do for A.J. Foyt," says Foyt. His dramatic weaving-through-the-wreckage victory in 1967 was McKay's first race as anchor and his call -- "Where's Foyt? I don't know whether he can get through or not ... There he is!" -- was always listed by McKay as one of the favorite moments of his legendary career. "What I like about Jim was that he really loved Indianapolis. You could really tell. He became part of the family around here."

"Those ABC broadcasters became just another huge part of the 500 experience for so many people," explains Indianapolis native Vince Welch, who grew up listening to Indy 500 radio broadcasts while cooking out with his grandfather, then catching the ABC broadcast that night. Since 2000 he's been a part of those productions as a pit reporter. "People are so passionate about this event, especially in Indiana. And when something becomes part of the tradition of the event, it's like they become part of the family."

A mutual feeling

"I like that description of it as a homecoming," Goodrich says, his smile coming through the phone line. In 1971, one year after his gofer experience, he caught on as a production assistant. Eventually he moved into the "big chair" as the longest-tenured producer in Indy 500 history, a streak that ran well into the '90s. "That's exactly what it felt like. Seeing old friends. Making new friends. It's just where you were supposed to be in May. If you were ever a part of the team, I think that's a feeling you adopted pretty quick."

Like the McKay-Foyt relationship, friendships that crossed over the line from track to truck have become commonplace. "We are professionals, so when the race begins we go to work," says Paul Page, play-by-play voice of ABC's Indy 500 coverage 14 times. "But these are my friends, too. So when you go off the air, you do allow yourself that moment of being happy, or in more cases, heartbroken, for your friend when the race is over."

For evidence of those connections, you need look no further than Ohlmeyer. Known for decades as a brilliantly creative director but equally hard-nosed broadcasting businessman, he was taken aback when talking about the 1973 death of Swede Savage. He was killed in one of the most violent one-car crashes in Indy 500 history. Even four decades later, Ohlmeyer became emotional when talking about his friend.

For those uninitiated in the ways of sports television production, such feelings are not standard operating procedure. The sports TV compound is an ever-mobile place of business, settling nowhere for more than a few days and zigzagging between different types of sporting events. Because of the annual long term residency in Speedway, Indiana (it is, after all, the "Month of May"), and because of the longevity of the ABC-Indy relationship, the sense of both place and importance is heightened.

"For me, it felt like being invited to stay over at someone's house," says Brent Musburger, broadcaster of nearly every stick-and-ball sport known to man before hosting ABC's Indy 500 coverage for eight years, beginning in 2005. "The first night you don't want to intrude. You have to figure out where the towels are. But once you get settled, once you become family, it really is a special place to be. That's a great feeling."

But that feeling comes with responsibility. A recognition of the duty that comes with being caretakers of an iconic place and race. It's the carrying of torch that was lit in 1909, the year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened. That would be big enough all on its own. But for a sports broadcaster, doing justice to the list of those who came before feels every bit as heavy as the Borg-Warner Trophy.

"Chris Schenkel, McKay, Jackson, Musberger, [Al] Michaels, Arledge ... in our business those names are the equivalent to Foyt, Mears and Unser," Goodrich says. "You want to do everything you can to do the best job possible, if for no other reason to respect those who came before you."

Again, the producer unknowingly echoed the praises of his old team, who, to every man and woman, steers the conversation of ABC and Indy away from tech specs and TV jargon, driving right back to talk about the honor of the obligation.

"There's a natural weight you feel about that event because it's hard to think of another sporting event that's more ingrained into the American experience than the Indy 500," says ESPN president John Skipper, who grew up watching the race in Lexington, North Carolina, just off Tobacco Road and within a quick drive of the NASCAR shops of Junior Johnson and Richard Petty. "It's Memorial Day. And the start of that race signifies the start of summer."

A Brickyard full of moments

"I remember standing there in the baking sun in a blazer -- headphones on and a microphone -- not knowing why I was there, or what I would do."

As David Letterman starts to tell the story, he shakes his head in disbelief, even now, 43 years after his lone stint as a pit reporter for ABC. It was 1971, the first year that the 500 was being aired on the same day as the race. Schenkel was the host, with McKay and Stewart in the booth. On pit road were Economaki, Jackson and Bill Flemming, all sports broadcasting icons. Joining them was a local reporter, hired primarily for his knowledge of the race -- and because he was cheap labor.

"About a third of the way into the race, Mario Andretti spun and -- so now, he's walking back toward the pits. And -- 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, you can see Andretti walk over the fence as the reporter leans over to ask, "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-year old Letterman says, "Thank you very much, Mario Andretti ..."

"I was scared silly," Letterman, now an IndyCar team owner, remembers about the experience, particularly when he walked into the production meeting with McKay and company. And again the next day when he was dropped off at the wrong entrance to the track and had to walk two and a half miles in his navy ABC Sports blazer to the catcalls of drunk infield fans. And again when McKay accidentally called him "Chris Economaki" during the telecast (though he did later correct himself). "But it changed my impression of myself. Because it was the first real indication that maybe I could make something -- out of my life. And it was all happenstance, it was all dumb luck, and mostly I owe it to Mario Andretti, because it was nothing I initiated. It was like catching a foul ball at a baseball game. You know, what are the chances of that? 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."

When asked to single out their favorite memory of working the 500, the safe assumption is that the members of the ABC Sports team would bring up their Emmy wins, including their back-to-back victories in Outstanding Live Event Coverage, one of only two times that's happened in the history of the awards. But they don't.

"I remember 1989 not because of the Emmy, but the finish," Page says. "Emerson Fittipaldi and Little Al, wheel-to-wheel, the way the tension built. Slow action into the most incredible finish between two champions."

That finish is easily mentioned the most among ABC'ers, among votes for the '92 finish, with Unser Jr. winning by inches over current Indy 500 booth analyst Scott Goodyear. Bobby Unser still gets emotional -- and apologetic -- about the tears he shed in the booth while interviewing Al Unser Sr. down in Victory Lane, mere moments after his little brother had won his record-tying fourth 500.

Other favorite moments are more subtle.

As a college student at Ball State, Vince Welch was told by his professor, the legendary Darrell Wible, that a sports broadcaster hadn't really made it until they had been a live reporter at the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, which Wible himself had done for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. Wible loved to remind his students that his most famous pupil, Letterman, had done his ABC stint in '71.

Eventually, so did Welch, who will work his 15th Indianapolis 500 for ABC this weekend.

"I worked for the radio network first and I'd written him a note saying, 'I made it.'" Then last year, not long before Wible's death in August, Welch took his teacher to lunch. The professor dug into his pocket and produced his student's note from years before.

"He said, 'Yes, Vince, you did it,'" Welch recalls, fighting a lump in his throat as he tells the story. Then he looks up, makes direct eye contact, and speaks for 50 years of ABC colleagues. "And that's what covering the Indianapolis 500 means to me."