MARTIN: The Indy 500’s 54 Years On ABC

SPEED SPORT’s own Chris Economaki was a big part of ABC’s Indianapolis 500 coverage for many years.
Bruce Martin

INDIANAPOLIS — For those of us who were youngsters in the 1960s, grew up in the ’70s, came of age in the ’80s and were adults in the ’90s, ABC introduced us to the Indianapolis 500.

From that first black-and-white telecast of the 1965 Indianapolis 500 featuring Charlie Brockman at the microphone and shown weeks later on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” this was how America discovered The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

By 1966, Hoosier-born Chris Schenkel called the race for his old Indiana friend, speedway owner Tony Hulman, but it was the combination of the great Jim McKay, legendary Jackie Stewart and Chris Economaki that made the Indianapolis 500 appointment television.

When the green flag waved to start the Indianapolis 500, McKay would make the legendary call, “They’re racing at Indianapolis.”

Interest in the highlights package on “Wide World of Sports” surged to the point that in 1971 ABC offered same-day coverage of the Indianapolis 500 during prime time.
The same-day telecasts drew huge ratings and ABC devoted its A-list of talent to the broadcast. All of the major names at ABC Sports wanted to be a part of Indianapolis 500 telecasts, including Keith Jackson who did the play-by-play in 1975 when McKay came down with a cold the morning of the race.

Others to call the race included Bill Flemming, one of the most versatile sportscasters of his day, Detroit sportscaster Dave Diles; and sports car racer Sam Posey.

During the tape-delay era, television viewers saw Mark Donohue give team owner Roger Penske his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1972, and witnessed the horrific crashes that claimed the lives of driver Swede Savage and crew member Armando Teran, while leaving Salt Walther badly burned and a dozen fans injured in 1973.

What followed were years of incredible glory and achievement. Johnny Rutherford won the race in 1974, ’76 and ’80. A.J. Foyt became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1977 and the race telecast that night drew a 15.6 Nielsen rating — unfathomable by today’s standards — but the year before the race drew a 17.9 rating.

In those days, ratings of 15 or higher were commonplace — that’s just how big the ABC telecast of the Indy 500 was in America.

Al Unser won his third 500 in 1978 and Rick Mears gave Penske his second Indy 500 victory in 1979.

During the first half of the 1980s, ABC viewers saw Bobby Unser score a disputed third victory in 1981 that saw him pass nine cars leaving the pit area under caution. Mario Andretti was awarded the victory the following morning, Unser’s team owner, Penske, protested and Unser was reinstated as the winner that October.

Fans were thrilled to watch the incredible battle between Gordon Johncock and Mears in what was then the closest finish in Indy 500 history with Johncock winning by 0.160 seconds in 1982.

Tom Sneva won in 1983, Mears again in ’84 and Danny Sullivan’s famed spin-and-win in ’85.

What happened later that year would change television coverage of the Indianapolis 500 forever.

ABC officials convinced Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Joe Cloutier and speedway Chairman Mari Fendrich Hulman to televise the race live. Prior to that, IMS officials were afraid live TV coverage anywhere in the United States would affect its ticket sales because fans come to the speedway from around the world.

ABC aired the first live coverage of the Indianapolis 500 in 1986, but the race was rained out and run the following Saturday.

It was a dramatic broadcast as Bobby Rahal got the jump on  leader Kevin Cogan on a restart with two laps to go and gave his dying team owner, Jim Trueman, the victory. Trueman died of cancer 10 days later.

At that time, it was the closest 1-2-3 finish in Indy 500 history with Mears third.

History was made in 1987 when Al Unser became the second man to win the Indy 500 four times and ABC was there with a tearful Bobby Unser interviewing his brother in victory lane.

“The Unser family has a four-time winner,” Bobby proudly proclaimed on ABC.

Mears won his third Indy win in 1988 with Paul Page calling the action on ABC. The following year saw the incredible Emerson Fittipaldi-Al Unser Jr. duel that ended with the two cars touching and Unser spinning into the wall.

During the 1990s, the ratings for the Indianapolis 500 were among the best of any sports telecast and there remained many magical moments, including Al Unser Jr. defeating Scott Goodyear by .042 seconds in the closest finish in Indy 500 history in 1992.

But when CART and the Indy Racing League split in 1996, it began a ratings decline that was difficult to stop.

Today’s television landscape is cluttered with cable and streaming video channels that offer thousands of entertainment options. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 drew a 3.6 rating.

In March, IndyCar officials signed a new television contract with NBC that will include the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in 2019.

This year’s Indianapolis 500 will mark the end of a 54-year run on ABC.