IndyCar Has Come A Long Way On Television

When the IZOD IndyCar Series visits Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio for the Honda 200; it will be a unique experience for TV viewers. Due to NBC needing to utilize all of their outlets for their ongoing coverage for the Olympics; the usual broadcast team that most of us prefer from the NBC Sports Network will be carried over the airwaves of ABC. I have to admit that I cannot ever recall such an arrangement, but I see it as the best of both worlds – assuming the race fits in the allotted time window. We get the announcing crew that most of us die-hards seem to enjoy the most, being carried on an over-the-air network with the potential of a much-bigger audience than NBCSN is likely to reach.

Some will say that the Olympics will trump anything else on any other channel and that may be true, but not everyone is a fan of the Olympics. Put the ever-grumpy yours truly in that category. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate the Olympics; I just don’t get wrapped up in all the hype that comes with it. And if I had to choose which Olympics I had to watch – it would be the Winter Games. Track & field, swimming and gymnastics just don’t really stir my passion. I like watching the basketball to some extent, but the US is supposed to win. It’s only compelling if their games are close, which they shouldn’t be. If I’ve found myself in front of the television these past few nights, I’ve watched some of the events – but if I can find a good baseball game on, I’ll watch it over the Olympics. I realize this is a most unpopular and unpatriotic stance, but I’d be lying if I said otherwise. That’s why I think there may be more than just the usual die-hards tuning into this weekend’s race at Mid-Ohio.

It’s not uncommon for IndyCar bloggers to critique the television broadcasts of the races. On each Monday morning re-cap following a race weekend, I’ll always devote a couple of paragraphs to that specific broadcast. Now keep in mind, I have absolutely no experience in televised sports other than the fact that I’ve watched a ton of sports on the tube over the years. With the advent of high-definition, I’ve become somewhat of an HD snob and will rarely go down to the analog channels anymore – but those are the only credentials I have that make me feel that I can pass judgment on a sportscast.

I think I share the opinion of most fans by saying that I prefer the broadcast crew of NBCSN to ABC. I’ll give a huge edge to the guys in the booth at NBCSN over Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear at ABC. Vince Welch at ABC really helps to close the gap with the pit reporters, but I think I’ll still give the nod to the NBCSN pit crew. But as much as I have ripped ABC/ESPN these past few years, they are still head and shoulders above what we used to have. I’m not talking about twenty years ago when Paul Page would team with Bobby Unser and Sam Posey on ABC, or when Derek Daly was paired with Page on ESPN races. No, I’m talking about races in the seventies and eighties. Have you gone to YouTube to sample many of those lately? Once you get past the novelty of the old cars and the nostalgia of the drivers in those races, the broadcasts are actually painful to watch.

As I mentioned, I have spent probably way too many weekend hours in front of a television. As a result, I’ve grown accustomed to many of the national sportscasters and their different styles. One of my favorite NFL announcers was Pat Summerall, because he always followed the “less is more” approach to how much verbiage and hype to fit into a telecast. On the other hand, I always found Jim McKay to be way too wordy. I’ve been accused of being morbidly verbose on this site, but at least the reader has the option to simply click away if they find my wordiness too annoying. It’s not so easy when such verbosity is accompanying something you really want to watch.

In the seventies and eighties, the networks didn’t have announcers that were dedicated strictly to motor sports. They simply pulled their star announcers from other sports and sent them to the track to cover a race. For years, Jim McKay was tabbed to call the Indianapolis 500 as well as USAC and then CART races for ABC. McKay is a Hall of Fame broadcaster, but he knew very little about open-wheel racing. He did his best to disguise it with his propensity to talk every second. Unlike Pat Summerall, Jim McKay seemed to always follow the motto of “a half-second of silence is a sign of defeat”.

To me, the television voice of college football is, was and will always be Keith Jackson. No announcer brought out the pageantry of college football better than Keith Jackson, but when he called the 1975 Indianapolis 500 for ABC – it was brutal. Likewise for Jim Lampley in the eighties. Lampley was an excellent boxing announcer and a fairly decent play-by-play voice for college football. But when he covered CART and the Indianapolis 500, he was way out of his element.

I’ve never understood why networks would turn over a novice to covering a race. Being an all-around sportscaster doesn’t qualify you to cover every sport. If an announcer couldn’t decipher that third and long was normally a passing situation, do you think they would be calling network football games? Hardly. Yet, networks didn’t think twice about turning someone loose to call a race in those days. You could argue that with Brent Musberger currently acting as host of the Indianapolis 500 – that they still don’t. I understand that Musberger’s presence brings credibility to an event. If he is on the telecast, that tells the viewer that this event is a big deal – especially when he begins the telecast with his trademark “You are looking live…”. But after he introduces the broadcast, Musberger should step aside. Instead, he mispronounces names and rambles on about things he clearly knows nothing about.

When Paul Page moved to the booth in the late eighties for ABC/ESPN, his name may not have resonated with the casual mainstream fan; but he raised the IQ level in the booth exponentially. Suddenly, the “expert” analyst wasn’t forced to dumb down his comments to the announcer and they could both converse on-air as knowledgeable participants. Consequently, the listening audience could learn a lot more from listening to people that actually knew what they were talking about. What a unique concept!

There was a time in the mid-to-late nineties when Page did the IRL broadcasts, while the eloquent and extremely knowledgeable Bob Varsha handled the CART duties for ABC/ESPN. Both were extremely competent and capable. Then Page was moved to the CART broadcasts and Bob Jenkins covered the IRL. Again, whichever series you chose to follow, you were treated to an excellent announcer.

Then CART moved around to CBS and Spike TV, so Page went back to covering the IndyCar Series (as it was beginning to be called). Then in 2005, Paul Page was inexplicably removed from the IndyCar telecast and replaced with the unbearable Todd Harris. Mercifully, Harris lasted only one season before being replaced at ABC/ESPN by current announcer Marty Reid.

Marty Reid at least knows his craft, but I always get the impression he would rather be covering just about any form of racing other than the IZOD IndyCar Series. Scott Goodyear has come under fire in recent years as being incredibly dry. Quite honestly, I thought Goodyear excelled when paired with Paul Page but he has never seemed to gel with Marty Reid. Their broadcasts always come across as very sterile, with no personality.

I will credit Marty Reid for a job well done under very difficult circumstances when he and Goodyear were covering the season finale at Las Vegas last year, when Dan Wheldon was fatally injured. As Wheldon’s fate had become very apparent but not official, they both treated the situation appropriately and they should both be commended.

But when you go back and watch broadcasts from the seventies and eighties – you realize how spoiled we have become to have any complaints about today’s telecasts from either network. The announcers, the camera angles and the technologies have come so far from those days; it baffles the mind to watch what we accepted back in those days.

So when you watch the Honda 200 from Mid-Ohio this Sunday on ABC with the NBCSN crew – enjoy it. It’s the best of both worlds and a world away from where things used to be.

George Phillips

Note:  Speasking of bad TV, One Take Only makes a return to the blogosphere tomorrow. This is a special episode (to us anyway) for several reasons. It’s our one-year anniversary since our forgettable debut. It’s also the first show from my new digs and it’s the first time John and I have gotten together for a taping since the episode we did from IMS this past May. If you have time to waste, check it out tomorrow. – GP

13 Responses to “IndyCar Has Come A Long Way On Television”

  1. My Favorite all-time INDYCAR announcer is retiring at the end of this year. I feel that it was my good fortune to be around with Bob Jenkins behind the mic. That says a lot, too, because Paul Page is as good as they come and he has me watching the NHRA.

  2. Carburetor Says:

    I must be one of the few that actually enjoyed Jim McKay; I thought his enthusiasm was good for the event or sport he was covering and I enjoyed his Indy 500 broadcasts. I’ll never understand why Paul Page was removed–to me the glory days of open wheel broadcasting was having Paul Page referee between Sam Posey and Bobby Unser. I know Posey received a great deal of criticism–but I thought he did a good job of sharing some of the emotions that drivers must have been feeling inside the cockpit–while Bobby was great at explaining the workings of the car. I enjoy the NBCSN guys a great deal, but sometimes mute the tv on ABC broadcasts in favor of Mike King on the Indy Network radio. I concur–Reid seems like he would rather be covering a life insurance convention than broadcasting IndyCar…..and someone needs to check Goodyear periodically to see if he even has a pulse, let alone dare he show any excitement whatsoever.

  3. Gurney Eagle Says:

    As of this writing, Todd Harris has more votes than Bob Jenkins. Inexplicable.

  4. Brian from NY Says:

    The very best team for CART was the Eurosport team of Ben Edwards and Jeremy Shaw. Edwards who does F1 now brought a huge amount of excitement and knowledge to the braoadcast. Jeremy was an expert in the world of CART (he wrote the Autosport yearbook for CART), and brought a nice balance to Edwards passion. Go to Youtube and watch Edwards call of Tracy spinning at Vanacover or of the Michegan race with Andretti and Montoyo dueling at the end of the race and you can’t help but get goosebumps.

  5. I liked David Letterman as a field reporter at the Indianapolis 500. You could see his passion for the sport.

  6. Savage Henry Says:

    As a kid in Indy, before I was old enough to be allowed to go to the 500, my mother would always listen to the race on the radio. As a result, Paul Page is the voice of the Indy 500 for me just as Keth Jackson is the voice of college football. It is inexplicable why Page isn’t doing Indycar coverage at any level anymore.

    It was always fun to listen to Bobby Unser diss Sam Posey several times during every broadcast during the 80’s. I liked when Jackie Stewart was on the broadcasts before that, he brought a lot of knowledge.

    Although I like the current NBCSN crew, they still have a long way to go. The Speed crew of Varsha, Hobbs, and Matchett that does the F1 races put on an absolute clinic every week. I have never heard a better race broadcasting crew. They are able to make even the most boring F1 races interesting by providing detailed information about the different strategies playing out without being boring or too technical.

  7. Seems like I remember Robin Miller saying that P. Page had some sort of falling out with either T. George or family members back in the day. Too bad, if true.

  8. Mike (15daysinmay) Says:

    Paul Page…Indy 500…Delta Force intros. That’s all you need to know about my vote!

  9. billytheskink Says:

    Should it concern me as much as it does that someone is stuffing the ballot box for Todd Harris?

    Personally, I never thought ABC’s old system of pairing one of their “star” broadcasters (McKay notably) with a knowledgeable goofball (Rodger Ward, Chris Economaki, Jackie Stewart, Sam Posey, Bobby Unser) was all that bad. I think McKay deserves credit, at least, for his excellent calling in the final laps of the 1982 Johncock-Mears duel.

    I think the biggest marker that IndyCar has come a long way on television is that every single race is televised, and televised live. No tape delays, edited-out laps, or non-televised races that were prevalent into the 1980s.

    The current ABC booth is like a bad SCTV sketch that stars the actual Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear instead of Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas as Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear.

  10. Too many young & dumb people voted for Todd Drama Queen Harris.

    I recently found the 1987 Michigan 500 with Al Trautwig (?) as the announcer. He showed no signs of the most basic knowledge of racing. He was just there because he had name recognition for people who most likely wouldn’t watch anyway. So you’ve been a Superbowl broadcaster; big whoop! A motor race is far too different to use the same announcer.

    I never got the impression that Jim McKay didn’t know what he was talking about. Maybe in his early years, but he later said the Indy 500 was second only to horse racing in terms of his favorite sports.

    Rick Benjamin (Champ Car and USAR Hooters Pro Cup stock car racing) is also a top-notch commentator. He can announce anything and sound authoritative.

    Apparently I’m seeing a different Vince Welch than everyone else is. I’ve never been impressed by him, and though Jack Arute has taken loads of criticism, I’d much rather have him on my broadcast team than Vince. I find him annoying; he’d much rather stay with the tin-tops like Mousy Marty.

    Hell, since the SPEED F1 crew is that good (the best, IMO), why not put some IndyCar races on SPEED?

  11. Page was my favorite play by play guy. This is going way back but I loved Jackie Stewart who briefly did ABC color commentary. Sam Posey was awesome, and I do think Dallenbach and Beekhius currently do a very good job.

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