For 54 years ABC has been the home of the Indianapolis 500 as well as other Verizon IndyCar Series races, but all streaks eventually end and this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix marks the end of ABC’s long-time coverage of IndyCar. It’s amazing to think that one broadcast network would make such a long term commitment to any one sporting event. To put that in perspective, ABC has been broadcasting the Indy 500 longer than the Super Bowl has been in existence.
But then again the Indy 500 isn’t some ordinary event, it’s the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. However, the 500 is more than just a race. It’s a celebration of the history of auto racing not only in America, but throughout the world.
While ABC has been broadcasting the Indy 500 since 1965, the network wouldn’t actually broadcast the race live until 1986. Instead prior to 1986 the race would be shown about a week later on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Throughout the last 33 years of live broadcasts there have been many legends of Indy car racing that have graced viewers with their insights and coverage. From former drivers such as Bobby Unser, Scott Goodyear, and Sam Posey to reporters and commentators like Paul Page, Marty Reid, and Allen Bestwick.
For someone such as Bestwick, who made a name for himself in NASCAR beginning with his work on the Motor Racing Network back in 1986 through the end of ESPN’s coverage of NASCAR in 2014. When ESPN ended their coverage of NASCAR, Bestwick was given the option of transitioning to covering IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.
Being the consummate professional, Bestwick worked hard to overcome the major challenges of Indy car racing. “Really the technology of the cars is just so different,” said Bestwick about his transition.
“The racing is the same, some people might not want to hear that. The racing people are the same, but some of the terminology and obviously some of the technology is different. Some of the racing rules between NASCAR and IndyCar are a little different.”
Fortunately for Bestwick, the transition to Indy car racing was made much easier with the support of the paddock. “I came out here, my first year and went to Ganassi,” said Bestwick.
“Mike Hull and Scott Dixon took me through their shop, took me through the race car front-to-back. I went over to Rahal’s shop and spent time with them, Roger [Penske] graciously welcomed me down in Mooresville, same with other teams. Every person I met was friendly and supportive and really made the transition easy.”
For driver analysts such as Scott Goodyear, making the transition from driving to broadcasting isn’t as hard as you may think. This year’s Indy 500 marked Goodyear’s 17th as driver-analyst, the most anyone has worked in that role (Sam Posey is next with 16). “There’s as much adrenaline doing television as there is driving the car,” said Goodyear when asked about the transition to television.
“When you’re live on television on air it’s ‘go-go-go’, and when you are in the race car under green you’re ‘go-go-go’ as well. Then under yellow in the car you’re strategizing with the pit lane, your engineers, and strategists about what you’re gonna do when you go green. The neat thing about television is that when you go yellow and go to commercial, you end up spending time talking to the truck strategizing about what you’re gonna do when you go back to green. So the similarities are there which makes it a lot of fun, just the adrenaline and you can get a natural high doing it. But if you make a mistake you don’t hit a wall so you don’t get injured, that’s pretty cool.”
However, not every experience in broadcasting is a good one and while driver deaths are rare compared to the old days, they still are traumatic for everyone involved in the sport. “If there’s one thing that I wish had never happened it would be the death of Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas on the last race of the season,” said Goodyear.
“Quite frankly he was a friend and it was so draining for me that if that wasn’t the last race of the season, I’m not sure I would have continued on broadcasting. I was mentally drained and we obviously had to start five and a half months later before the next event. I almost wasn’t going to come back and wanted to get away from motorsport at that point in time.”
While the depth of experience in the TV booth is expansive, ABC has been fortunate to employ the services of Dr. Jerry Punch. 2018 marked the 27th year that Dr. Punch has been covering the Indy 500, the most race telecasts worked by an announcer in any position. Jack Arute worked 25 telecasts between 1984 and 2009.
For someone who would use his prize winnings from short track racing to pay for medical school, Dr. Punch sure has seen a lot both in IndyCar & NASCAR. And while Dr. Punch has been involved with racing for the vast majority of his life, it’s hard for him to narrow down the list of great memories.
“I just feel so blessed,” recalled Dr. Punch of some of his best Indy 500 memories.
“Seeing Little Al be disappointed in 1989 and come back and win it in 1992 then saying ‘you don’t know what Indy means.’ Ryan Hunter-Reay standing in victory lane saying ‘I’m a proud American boy.’ Watching Danica [Patrick] lead the first laps while I’m standing beside her mom, and her mom is in tears knowing her little daughter has realized a dream.”
While many fans criticize ABC for their lackluster coverage over the last decade, it’s hard to dispute the fact that every member of the at-track production staff deeply cares about Indy car racing. And while the decisions and apparent lack of caring from executives at the top of ESPN/ABC trickles down into the broadcasts, you can’t deny the heart and effort that every production team member puts forth.
While it’s sad to see the end of IndyCar on ABC, the future of broadcasting is bright with a new television package with NBC that begins in 2019. Just like their ABC counterparts, the production crew at NBC cares deeply about Indy car racing and will be sure to carry forth the Indy 500 and every other race into a new era of broadcasting excellence.