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Idol of the Indy airwaves
William Taaffe
June 06, 1983
While Paul Page's radio coverage is the real stuff, ABC-TV's is theater
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June 06, 1983

Idol Of The Indy Airwaves

While Paul Page's radio coverage is the real stuff, ABC-TV's is theater

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Before anybody turns up his turbocharger and gives a boost to ABC-TV for its smooth coverage of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, two points should be made. First, a good 85% of the network's announcing, heard via tape more than five hours after the race had finished, was pure theater. Get this: Race caller Jim McKay and analyst Sam Posey knew almost the whole time that Tom Sneva would win. They were acting. Their voices were laid over the tape after the fact. Second, radio, not television, afforded the only timely comprehensive coverage of the race. Paul Page, the voice of the Indy 500, created word pictures that were vivid and authentic.

ABC has become so adept at faking in Indianapolis—this was the network's 13th straight 500—that the phoniness probably slips by most viewers. Only the first five laps and last five are covered "live," meaning that the voices of McKay and Posey are recorded at the moment those laps are run. The rest of the broadcast is ersatz. McKay and Posey camp themselves in a recording truck with cue sheets in hand. As the taped segments come up, and at the very moment they are aired to an estimated 40 million viewers, the announcers start talking. Lights, camera, voice-over!

The illusion can make for high drama. McKay to Posey, hours after a crash in which Mario Andretti wasn't injured: "Mario appears to be unconscious. His head is not moving. Let's hope his legs aren't pinned." Sometimes the announcers telegraph the outcome. Before Danny Ongais' crumpled body was extracted from the wreckage of his car after a gruesome accident in 1981, not a few witnesses thought he was dead. In his voice-over, Jackie Stewart, Posey's predecessor as the analyst, said Ongais appeared to have a badly broken leg. Hospital bulletin that evening: badly broken leg. And there was the 1981 furor when winner Bobby Unser illegally passed cars during a caution lap. With the benefit of hindsight, McKay and Stewart noticed it right off.

All the networks fake their coverage of things like cliff diving from Acapulco or mixed-pairs bodybuilding from Passaic. Further, ABC doesn't air a canned 500 by choice. For years it has badgered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to allow a live broadcast, but the track is fearful of jeopardizing its massive live gate. And the race is going to remain on tape for at least a while, which raises the question of what to do about Suspense Theater.

Chuck Howard, ABC Sports' vice-president for program production, defends the theatrics on unusual grounds—journalism. Here's his brief: Because ABC carries the race for only three hours and because the network has to make time for commercials and special interviews, only about 40% of the action ever sees the light of day. Say laps 65 through 92 are among those that wind up on the cutting-room floor. If McKay had been announcing live, important observations might have been lost. With the voice-over he can weave all the story lines into a nice, understandable tapestry.

The feeling here is that theater in the guise of journalism still amounts to theater. One alternative is for ABC to televise the 500 tape in its entirety, with the commentators working straight. Another is to fess up and superimpose something like "Simulated Live Announcing" on the picture every so often. ABC says that the former might bore some viewers and that the latter might embarrass the network. So?

On the surface, you wouldn't have bet on the radio guys to win the checkered flag. Last year ABC got four Emmys for its Indy coverage. As far as is known. Page didn't even get a free meal at St. Elmo's Steakhouse in downtown Indianapolis. The I.M.S. Radio Network can only guess how many people its 700 affiliates reach. Suffice it to say that the network, now 32 years old, reaches the likes of Chicago, Lewistown, Mont. and 10,000 service-station lube bays coast to coast.

For all of ABC's artistry—Posey has become a superb analyst, and director Larry Kamm's cameras caught all of the action—Page and his 13 cohorts stationed around the track accomplished what their TV rivals didn't. The radio voices were genuine, not staged. There's no substitute for authenticity. As they relayed the call around the track among themselves, a listener could see in his mind's eye the sun glinting off Al Unser's brilliant yellow No. 7 and hear the engines 20 yards away. It was vintage live radio. As Page said before the race, "If you want to feel the emotion of the event, then you come live it with us."

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