Calling Indy

Inside The Broadcasting Booth With Sam Posey

Tony Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway shortly after World War II. A wealthy patriarch, he plowed all profits back into the track, making it the finest in the world. Attendance at its signature event, the Indianapolis 500, was over 300,000. The purse was the biggest, the speeds the highest. Hulman correctly felt that he and the Speedway held a leadership role in American racing and that TV was essential to the growth of the sport. But when ABC approached Mr. Hulman in the mid-1960s, he wasn’t at all sure he wanted his event on network TV. A live show would compete with him for attendance at the track, and he feared that if people across the country saw one of the era’s particularly violent crashes in their living rooms, it could lead to a public outcry, even a ban on racing. In a compromise, ABC agreed to film the race and air it as a three-hour special in the evening. They got the show, but it was a technical nightmare. Fitting the race in the time slot meant cutting half the laps — but which ones? We didn’t have much time to decide before the editing had to begin, and every year the tension was palpable as minutes ticked away to the show.

My first job in television, in 1974, was on the Indy show, as what was known as the expert commentator, or color man. It was the role that Jackie Stewart, ABC’s main man for racing, had expected to play, but Indy conflicted with the Grand Prix of Monaco, and Jackie chose Monaco. He had planned to do both races on the same day in an exploit that involved the Concorde and some helicopters, but at the last minute ABC decided that the risk of a missed connection was too great and they should find someone else. I had finished 5th at Indy a couple of years before and had done some interviews at Le Mans that they liked — slim credentials — but next thing I knew I was in Indianapolis with a seamstress fitting me to one of ABC’s signature gold jackets.

With that jacket on, I was suddenly welcome at every garage (except A.J.’s) and motorhome. Interviews were scheduled at my convenience. Best of all, I got respect from the dreaded “yellow shirts,” the Speedway’s traffic cops, who waved me through with a salute or even a little bow. I was used to having the exalted status of a driver; now I had it without the risk.

ABC arranged its trailers into a compound, circling the wagons, so to speak, and there was a sense of them out there and us inside. “The truck” was filled with more than 30 monitors, plus graphics people, timers and the brain trust — legends in the business such as producers and directors Don Ohlmeyer and Bob Goodrich. The red “Roone Phone,” an open line to ABC Sports grand supremo Roone Arledge, was never out of reach. Everyone in the truck shouted, and when you went back outside, the silence was deafening.

The 1970s and ’80s were the golden age for ABC Sports, and Indy was ABC’s biggest show outside of the Olympics. We flew in private jets; limos waited curbside. I got to work with some of the best announcers in the business, and in Jim McKay, the best of the best.

Roone Arledge invented Wide World of Sports, but Jim gave the shows a special warmth that came from his fascination with people in general and athletes in particular. He had been a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and he knew how to tell a story. It became a tradition for Jim and me to have dinner together the night before the race. We’d go over my notes and then we’d try to talk about something else. Couldn’t do it, couldn’t think of anything except the race. Indy, Indy, Indy.

In my first years, I had been the only color man in the booth, working most often with Jim but sometimes with the likes of Keith Jackson and Al Michaels — seasoned announcers who did a variety of shows. Eventually, track management granted ABC permission to air the race live, which changed the essential character of the show. For this new format, ABC decided to make some big changes in the booth. Exit McKay, say hello to Paul Page.

Paul lived in Indianapolis and had been a 500 fan all his life; he was an expert’s expert, this was the job he had dreamed of, and he intended to make the most of it. Meanwhile, for 1987, ABC signed Bobby Unser, three-time winner of the race and a man who personified a dying breed — the tough guy who was as ready to settle a dispute with his fists as with a fast lap. I was at a dance when Bobby cut in, sweeping this very pretty girl’s hapless date aside and saying, “Hi, I’m Bobby Unser, the fastest man on Earth.” Five minutes later he was steering her toward the door.

ABC assigned roles to Bobby and me. Bobby’s was to handle the technical stuff, while mine was to know something about all 33 drivers and their wives. I knew about Bobby’s aggression in the car from racing against him, and at first he was the same in the booth. Almost anything I said was immediately contradicted. “Sam, you’re wrong, dead wrong.” Fans across the country began taking sides.

And then a strange thing happened. Bobby and I began to like each other. Close observers noticed a hint of humor when he said I was wrong. Our “feuds” were only for the moments when the racing was dull, and they ended abruptly at Paul’s signal of action.

The pageantry before the 500 distinguishes it from almost any other race. Two and a half hours before the green flag, high school bands are marching up and down the front straight, virtually unheard in the general clamor. Fighter jets blast by in formation, so close to each other their wing tips seem to touch, and Jim Nabors caps off these rituals with an emotional rendition of Back Home Again in Indiana.

Our announcer’s booth reminded me of a leaky old submarine. It was part of the main grandstand, jammed between the eaves and the top row of seats. It was clammy and claustrophobic. The only people in the booth were the technicians, the stats guys, and our announcing team, which for years was Jim and me.

Our most exciting race came in 1982, when we witnessed the battle between Gordon Johncock, of the older generation, and a young Rick Mears. Near the end of the race, Rick clearly had the faster car, but Gordon, leading, deftly blocked every move Rick made, finally winning what was then the closest race in Indy history.

Unwilling to break the spell, Jim and I stayed in our seats for a while after the show was over. It was dark by the time we started back to the compound, our flashlights like fireflies in the empty stands.

When we arrived a party was well underway, featuring Moët that Jackie had had delivered to the track, doubtless expecting he would be enjoying some himself. It had been a very good day for ABC, and people were anticipating a haul of Emmys.

Today, the booth is a trailer-like white box perched on the front edge of the main grandstand. It has less character but a much better view. Ground effects have made close finishes like Johncock-Mears almost commonplace, and fears for the future of our sport are past.

It’s been more than 100 years since the first 500, and to me, the true character of the race lives on as decades roll by.

“Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!”

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