As Jim McKay aptly put it, ABC's new theme song last week was Back Home Again And Again And Again in Indiana. But after some back-room maneuvering to reschedule the race, TV's first live telecast of the Indy 500 was worth the wait. Despite a somewhat green crew and a flagrant intrusion during the climax of the race when ABC tried to chitchat during a yellow flag with Kevin Cogan, this was a boffo live debut.
For one thing, ABC's Sam Posey proved to be as fine an analyst as there is in any sport. A former Indy racer, Posey is lucid, intelligent and consistently insightful, and he speaks with an exactitude that is just right for the sport. Then there were the mini-race-cams in Danny Sullivan's car and in two others. They offered a sensational new view of the race. Finally, ABC had committed Donna de Varona to another assignment this time around. Donna D, who knows as much about auto racing as, say, Lynn Swann knows about horse racing, had been a member of ABC's Indy crew the previous weekend. She wasn't missed; her absence meant there were no ozone interviews with drivers' wives or color reports from the souvenir stands.
ABC, of course, was coming off Black Sunday, the longest "pregame" show in TV history—a 5-hour-and-43-minute clinic in vamping during intermittent showers on the original race day. Thanks to McKay, Jim Lampley and Posey, the fill was actually bearable (it got a surprising rating of 6.6), although when McKay asked Posey where he got his loud plaid tie, you knew that rigor mortis was beginning to set in.
When it rained again on Memorial Day, the Speedway was left with two options. It could reschedule the race for a weekday, knowing that ABC would tape it for showing at some later date rather than preempt its precious slate of soap operas. Or the Speedway could reschedule the race for Saturday, when ABC would again go live. The Speedway eventually opted for Saturday, not for the live coverage so much as to assure the presence of a large crowd.
June 8, 1986
A Saturday race, however, meant that a 200-mile Indy-car race outside Milwaukee scheduled for the following day would have to be pushed back a week. And that would mean money. To the rescue came execs from ABC and the Speedway, both of which had a big stake in racing on Saturday. They were each reliably reported to have funneled at least $50,000 to CART, the Indy-car sanctioning group, with the money to be passed on to the Milwaukee organizers.
It was money well spent, because the live TV coverage from Indianapolis proved far more compelling than the taped replays that ABC had been airing since 1971. Instead of announcers sometimes making believe that they were speaking live on tape, we received thorough and sometimes prescient reporting from McKay, Posey and Lampley. Lampley and Posey predicted, for example, that the race probably wouldn't end under the yellow flag, meaning that Bobby Rahal would have a chance to beat Cogan in the dramatic final two laps.
It wouldn't have been too surprising if Cogan had taken a tire iron to the ABC truck after Posey, following orders from producer Chuck Howard, pestered him over his car radio with some 3½ laps left. "I'm kind of busy right now, Sam, I'll talk to you afterwards," Cogan said, as politely as a schoolboy. Lampley immediately tried to exonerate ABC, saying that Cogan's crew had authorized this nonsensical prattle under the yellow. No matter: It was atrocious timing.
Still, from the shots of Rick Mears kissing his mother before the race to the images of Rahal embracing his boss, Jim Trueman, at the end, wasn't this memorable? And to think that, like all first-time drivers in the 500, Lampley and pit reporter Al Trautwig were wearing rookie stripes.