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Revisiting 50 years of Indianapolis 500 on ABC

It's a Memorial Day weekend tradition. The Indianapolis 500 on ABC. Today, ABC will televise the Indianapolis 500 for the 50th consecutive year. "Fifty years. For me, that starts with a wow!" said Rich Feinberg, ABC and ESPN vice president of motor sports/production. "What a run." It's one of the longest active relationships between a sporting event and a television network, following in the footsteps of two other great traditions. CBS has been carrying the Masters golf tournament since 1956, and the Little League World Series has been on ABC since 1963. Here are some of the highlights of ABC's 50 consecutive years of covering the Indianapolis 500.

The start

The first time the Indianapolis 500 appeared on ABC was in 1965 with the network showing black-and-white highlights on the legendary Wide World of Sports. Charlie Brockman, a local media personality in Indianapolis who called closed-circuit broadcasts of the race in previous years, was the lap-by-lap announcer for the debut telecast.

From 1965 to 1971, the race was only shown in highlights, and it wasn't even shown the day of the race. The 1965 race was shown on a Saturday, six days after the race. For the next few years, the race was shown a week later. In fact, the 1968 race was delayed being shown for two weeks, partly because the original broadcast was postponed to air the funeral of Robert Kennedy.

In living color

It wasn't until 1967 that the race was shown in color for the first time.

The real first time (well, sort of)

After six years of being shown on Wide World of Sports, it wasn't until 1971 that ABC's coverage of the race aired the same day in a standalone broadcast. It still wasn't shown live. The race was edited and shown on tape delay in a tight two-hour window. Incredibly, this is the format ABC used until 1986.

The real first time

Finally, in 1986, the Indianapolis 500 was shown live from flag-to-flag in its entirety. Isn't it remarkable that it has been that recent?

On the call

Veteran ABC broadcaster Chris Schenkel took over for Charlie Brockman and called the race in 1966, but in 1967, another icon took over the play-by-play duties. Jim McKay called the first of a record 18 Indy 500 broadcasts. After that he spent two years in strictly a hosting role. McKay called the race every year from 1967 to his final race in 1987 except for one time. In 1975, McKay decided to take a break. Some say he was bothered by tragic accidents from the 1973 Indy 500. Keith Jackson filled in for McKay, who then returned in 1976.

After McKay's final race as play-by-play man in 1985, the race has been called by Jim Lampley (1986-87), Paul Page (1988-98, 2002-04), Bob Jenkins (1999-2001), Todd Harris (2005) and Marty Reid (2006-13).

Allen Bestwick makes his debut today.

"It's beyond bucket list," Bestwick said. "It's a little overwhelming to think about how fortunate I am and how honored I am to be part of this."

ABC's coverage over the years also has include the great Al Michaels and Brent Musburger.

Analyze this

Chris Economaki, known as the "Dean of Motorsports Journalists," was the first Indy 500 pit reporter starting in 1967, and he continued to work on ABC's Indy 500 coverage until 2008. Economaki died in 2012 at the age of 91.

Jackie Stewart, with his cool Scottish accent, is probably the most famous color analyst for the race. He joined the broadcast in 1971 and stayed until 1984.

But others also have made their marks as race analysts, including Sam Posey, Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan, Tom Sneva and Scott Goodyear, who has been calling the race since 2002. Today, Goodyear and Eddie Cheever will call the race together for the seventh consecutive year.

"I can certainly remember the very first time I went to Indianapolis in 1973 with my father," Goodyear said. "It was a bit of a surprise visit because I was racing a go-cart and he surprised me on the Saturday night and said, 'We're not racing tomorrow, we're going to drive all night and go to the Indianapolis 500.' It has been a part of my life for a long time."

Female firsts

Jamie Little became the first female pit reporter in 2004. And she got plenty of air time. Several rain delays took the broadcast to nearly nine hours, making it one of the longest single sports-event telecasts ever. Brienne Pedigo joined Little in the pits in 2007 as ABC became the first network to use two female pit reporters.

In 2013, ESPN anchor Lindsay Czarniak became the first woman to host ABC's Indianapolis 500 coverage.

Side by side

In 2006, ABC introduced the "side-by-side" format. What's that? The television screen was split in half with commercials being shown on one side and the race continuing on the other. It makes for great viewing, but when are we supposed to go to the bathroom?

Blacked out

The first time the Indianapolis 500 was shown on television was in 1949 on WFBM (now WRTV) in Indianapolis. The race was shown again in 1950. But starting in 1951, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway decided that the race would not be shown live in the Indianapolis area so as not to hurt ticket sales.

When was the blackout lifted? It hasn't been. The race is still not shown live in Indianapolis. It airs tonight on tape delay.

This year's coverage

Here is a sample of some of the features that can be seen either during the race or on ESPN's SportsCenter:

Chris Connelly tells the story of Tony Kanaan's lucky charm, a medallion that he also shared with a girl who endured brain surgery.

Ryan McGee contacted more than 30 current and former ABC employees to recount the most memorable Indy 500 moments on television.

The tradition started by Helio Castroneves of climbing the fence to celebrate victories.

An interview with Kurt Busch, who is expected to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway later tonight.

You've come a long way

It started as a highlights show in black and white in 1965. This year, ABC will use 92 cameras to bring the Indianapolis 500 to more than 92 million homes.

"My personal memories of the Indy 500 and ABC's coverage of it date back to when I was a kid,'' Feinberg said. "Memorial Day weekends with my family, appointment viewing. Those days it was on a tape delay at night. To see it come around now to the 50-year anniversary is just amazing."

tom jones' two cents

Revisiting 50 years of Indianapolis 500 on ABC 05/23/14 [Last modified: Saturday, May 24, 2014 6:46pm]
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