Last year, for the first time since it began covering the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, ABC broadcast the race live rather than on tape delay. Of course, it rained on race day. Of course, Speedway officials dithered and ducked before finally deciding to postpone the race for a week. Which left ABC sitting on an afternoon of empty programming—the ultimate broadcasting disaster.
But hold on. The ratings show that from 11 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (EDT) on that Sunday afternoon last May, when the 500 was originally scheduled, ABC had a 23 share, making it the most watched sports show of the day. The rainout wasn't a ratings disaster after all, largely because Sam Posey effortlessly delivered 5¾ hours of racing reminiscence, insight, analysis and opinion that turned the delay into one of the most entertaining and erudite motor sports shows ever aired.
Who would have thought—particularly when the only action was the puddles in the pits growing larger—that an off-duty landscape painter with a lush New England prep school accent would be the man to enthrall a bunch of race fans? Actually, quite a few people from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from sportscaster Jim McKay to artist Frank Stella to champion driver Mario Andretti to Academy Award-winning actor Paul Newman.
A man of multiple enthusiasms, Posey has driven race cars that finished as high as fifth at Indy and third at Le Mans, had his oil paintings and lithographs exhibited in New York City and Connecticut, designed houses, written a book and even—shades of Thomas Jefferson—invented a chair. Yet the pleasure Posey derives from all these activities pales before the thrill he gets on a warm summer's night when he participates in his favorite race of all—the Mudge Pond Challenge, a 6.15-mile bicycle sprint against the clock. Posey first completed the challenge on his bicycle as a five-year-old. The course hugs the shores of Mudge Pond in his native Sharon, Conn. Clockings generally commence after midnight, and a plaque in Posey's kitchen honors the 10 fastest finishes of all time. He is sixth on the list.
June 7, 1987
But right now his ranking is in jeopardy. Seated behind the wheel of a pursuit vehicle, he is timing a cyclist who is churning forward at a rate that may be good enough to put him on Posey's kitchen honor roll. Shortly after the halfway point, Posey accelerates, drawing slightly closer to the rider to shout encouragement. Pacers are allowed to give only verbal assistance, and Posey is hoarse from giving aid. With a mile to go, he bellows to the rider that he is merely 10 seconds off the pace for a sixth-place clocking. As the bicycle enters the final straightaway leading to the gnarled oak that marks the finish line, it is all Posey can do to control the car, so happy is he that his own best finish is about to be pushed to seventh on the all-time list.
Curiously, considering the vast number of his avocations and the intensity with which he pursues them, it took the young Posey some time to become passionate about much of anything. It was during a trip to Europe as a pudgy 14-year-old that he discovered Challenge Me the Race, a book written by British motorcycle champion and Formula One driver Mike Hawthorn. Posey devoured it in one sitting. He has been hooked on motor sports ever since.
But at The Gunnery school near Sharon they taught Nathaniel Hawthorne not Mike Hawthorn, and Posey struggled as a student. Eventually he attended Rhode Island School of Design for four years. Yet the romance of race car driving wouldn't leave him, so in 1965 Posey set aside his brushes and palette, lost 45 pounds in eight weeks, convinced the officials at Lime Rock Park, a road circuit a few miles from his home, that he was 21, a year older than was true, and went to Sports Car Club of America Drivers School. After earning his competition license, he embarked upon a career of promising drives and frequent victories in everything from Formula Vee cars, powered by Volkswagen engines, to thundering Sports-Prototype and Indy Cars. He also experienced frustrating breakdowns, terrifying accidents as well as persistent disappointments.
Through the years of almost being the best—"Sam was always a strong contender in races," says Andretti. "He's an especially articulate man, and as a driver you could see those same qualities. He was a good, rational, heady driver"—Posey held on to his perception of car racing as the romantic endeavor Mike Hawthorn had made it out to be. If this view of the sport made losing especially difficult, journalists came to love him. Posey would tell them everything he could about a race, including candid observations on how he thought others had performed, be it good, bad or just plain dumb.
His reputation as a good interview led to Posey's most consequential performance at a race circuit. It happened in the tranquillity of an infield rose garden before the 1971 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For a feature on the tradition at Le Mans, ABC had McKay moderate a discussion among Posey and fellow drivers Phil Hill and Mark Donohue. Posey's repartee impressed the network more than his driving. So three years later, when the Grand Prix of Monaco was scheduled for the same day as the Indy 500—which meant that regular commentator Jackie Stewart would be unable to cover both races—ABC asked Posey to team up with McKay at Indy. "Le Mans was my screen test," says Posey. "The first thing I did on TV was the Indy 500."
Posey went on to do 10 years of tape-delay broadcasts of the 500. He also has been given non-motor sports assignments for ABC, including the 1984 Winter Olympics. But he did not really come into his own until last year's rainout at Indy. With no need to "get back to the action," Posey discussed everything from who will succeed A.J. Foyt as the king of Indy drivers ("when the dust settles on this era of automobile racing, Rick Mears will have rewritten the record books") to permitting women in Gasoline Alley ("the greatest leap forward in Indy history") to the Al Unsers and Mario-Michael Andretti multiple generations of drivers ("you're really taking a big chance when you start bringing the kids to the races with you") to his tie, which he had just received in a one-for-one trade with Stella at the artist's birthday party. That revelation led to a discussion of 1985 Indy champion Danny Sullivan's interest in Stella's paintings, which gave viewers a fresh perspective on the reputed playboy.
Says Posey of the heaven-sent showers, "We were all so busy, but for a few moments I did think, This is great; we're getting to introduce America to the whole scope of racing emotion and strategy. It bodes well for the analytical commentary rather than the rah-rah stuff. I'd like to see more awareness of history. Indianapolis is an intriguing show because it's part of the American love affair with cars and danger. Things swirling around out there, noise and fumes. It all touches people deeply."
McKay, who called his 23rd Indy 500 this year, agreed: "It was a chance for us to get at some of the things that frustrate you because you can never find time to get to them during the running of the race."
McKay has nothing but praise for his loquacious partner. "He not only knows the sport very well, but he can communicate it," says McKay. "He's so interested in the English language, and he's always coming up with new ideas that show a willingness to go beyond simply working as an expert commentator [such as the time Posey appropriated his wife Ellen's hair dryer to help demonstrate the way Indy Cars employ 'ground effect']."
Another fan is Posey's former endurance-racing teammate Paul Newman. When a caller to Newman's house asks about Posey, the owner, who knows a few things about elocution himself, says, "It's so refreshing to find someone who serves as a spokesman for the sport on TV and has such a command of the English language and also is so knowledgeable. That's a nifty combination. He enjoys expressing himself accurately, and there is a sense of relish in the things he says."
As Newman pauses, his wife, Joanne Woodward, shouts from the kitchen, "You must be talking about Sam."
Posey quit racing five years ago when his son, John, was born (he also has a one-year-old daughter, Judy). When Posey tries hard to persuade someone that driving is no longer in his blood, he only succeeds in sounding wistful. "I'm 43," he says, "but I've still got 20/15 eyesight." Then, all in a rush, he adds, "I could be doing it now." Or he might say brightly, "Gone are the days I could slip gracefully into a cockpit." But then he'll muse, "There is nothing like the oil and fiberglass smell of a race car."
Posey's love of the sport pervades his commentary. "Before races I get just as nervous as I did when I was driving," he says. "This has nothing to do with television. It has to do with identifying with the drivers sitting down there in the cockpit, their nerves shaking. Sometimes in sport we forget how neat the doing is, and how difficult it is."
Posey works hard for his one May day in the sun or rain. "I prepare all year long," he says. "I read everything, including my mail. Viewers' perceptions of how we have done are often so different from what we think. During the month before the race, I talk to designers, mechanics, drivers, everyone. I haunt the pits. During the year, at midnight when I can't sleep, I get out of bed and jot reflections on a pad. It's neat to have that constant—sort of a novel you're always writing."
In addition to the 500, Posey's television work load this year includes five CART races, the Monaco Grand Prix, a TV essay on Foyt and a feature on Hemingway for ABC's new late-night program, Monday Sportsnite. The Hemingway piece will take him to Spain to see the bulls run in Pamplona and to Key West for deep-sea fishing. Somehow, Posey has found the time to finish the blueprints for his dream house in Sharon, and he is supervising the design of several buildings at Lime Rock Park. He's also completing several magazine writing projects. "Right now I just don't have the motivation or the energy to turn off all the spigots running in me," he says.
Over the long haul, Posey looks to painting as the means of filling the void that opened in his life when he took off his crash helmet. Says Stella, "I like his landscapes very much. He has a good sense of what to do. I wish I could drive as well as he can paint." Posey's Boca Grande, Fla., house, which he also designed, is teeming with fresh canvases.
As with so much of what he undertakes, Posey likes to draw parallels between painting and the racetrack. "The studio and the cockpit really are enough alike that things have not changed so much," he says. "It all seems to me to be a search for a visual order. During the race, you go from chaos to a point where you've mastered the precise number of inches you use turning into a curve. With painting you're negotiating the canvas and waiting for the painting to speak to you. By the end, if you succeed, it does, and it's just like the racetrack."
But surely there are disparities. Certainly, says Posey, and he is more than happy to point them out as well. "Of course the racing day is over with the end of the competition," he says. "It's a wonderful release. The driver's life is terrific—simple, immediate gratification, a highly structured existence. It kind of extends your childhood. Painting isn't at all like that. It always makes me wonder why I'm not up at 3:00 a.m., trying harder."
Posey grows atypically quiet for just a moment as he considers his myriad passions. "I'm an amateur at all these things, a kid in some ways," he says. "But I'm an enthusiast."
Posey pauses again and continues, "You know, my real dream was to grow up to be a great Ping-Pong player. I'm really passionate about Ping-Pong."