The Indianapolis 500 celebrates its 100th anniversary today. It’s not the 100th race (thanks to the world wars), but the first race was run in 1911. There are two other another anniversaries associated with the race this year—it’s the 40th anniversary of the first time the race was broadcast on TV in its entirety on the same day it was run, and the 25th anniversary of the first live TV broadcast. From 1965 through 1970, ABC aired taped, edited highlights of the race as part of Wide World of Sports. From 1971 through 1985, the race was delayed into prime time. Not until 1986 could you see it as it happened.
Before 1986, if you wanted to follow the race live, you had to listen to it on the radio. When I was a little baby disc jockey, KDTH carried broadcasts from the time trials on the weekends leading up to the race, and the race itself on Memorial Day weekend. I’d never heard auto racing on the radio, but I was impressed from the start at the way the broadcasters made the race come alive. And by 1979, my first year engineering KDTH’s broadcast, they should have had it figured out—the first network broadcast of the race had been in 1952.
The radio network was owned and operated by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself, and it had some quirks that made it unique. The format was very rigid—they tended to break for commercials by time and not necessarily when race action dictated. And it didn’t take long as a listener to realize that there was a strict hierarchy among the announcers. When one left the crew, everybody else moved up one spot around the track, closer to the finish line. One year they made a big deal about how new announcers used specially labeled microphones to set them apart from the veterans. When the first female announcer joined the crew, none of the others could mention her without saying that she was the first woman ever to work the Indianapolis 500. The radio announcers also seemed to venerate the race, almost as if it were a religious observance. Not for nothing was the top color commentator on the race also the official historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The local stations’ cue for commercial breaks was, “Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing.”
Quirks aside, when the race was in progress, the broadcast ran like a Swiss watch, and it could represent the best that sportscasting can be. Get a taste on the flip.
In 1982, Gordon Johncock won by 0.16 second, the closest race in history up to that point, and the finish remains the most dramatic sports broadcast I have ever heard. Announcers in every turn and on each straightaway followed the cars around the track, consumed by the drama but performing flawlessly. The video below puts the radio call over the TV video and, for some reason, edits out much of the final lap, but you’ll still get the goosebump-inducing nature of it, particularly as the announcer in the last turn hands the finish over to longtime race anchor Paul Page.
But by 1982, the delayed broadcast was growing increasingly anachronistic. The radio broadcast was so widely heard that you almost certainly knew who had won by the time you watched. Sometimes, if you tried to avoid the result, you’d find out anyway. In 1984, our local ABC affiliate ran a teaser for their late local newscast featuring their sports guy, who breezily announced, “Rick Mears wins the Indy 500, details at 10,” thereby spoiling the telecast for thousands of us. The late local news opened that night with the sports guy apologizing.
Spring can be a wistful time for an old-school sports fan, watching as two of the great traditions, the horse racing Triple Crown and the Indianapolis 500, continue to go to seed. The Indianapolis 500 committed near-suicide in the early 90s by requiring entrants to compete in other races under the banner of their Indy Racing League, thereby driving away all of the top names in the sport. At the same moment, NASCAR’s popularity exploded. Today, it’s arguable that the NASCAR Brickyard 400, held at Indy in August, is a bigger deal than the Indianapolis 500 itself. And tonight’s NASCAR race, the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte, North Carolina, will likely draw far more viewers. The Indianapolis 500 scored its lowest ratings in history last year, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll be any better this year.