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Indianapolis 500

May 26, 2016


Perhaps no other sport underwent as much dramatic change in the 1970s as professional motorsport.  The Indianapolis 500 was the premier auto race in the United States at the time, and designers and engineers managed to let drivers increase competitive speeds from 170 to 193 miles an hour on the 2.5 mile concrete-and-steel ringed circuit.

The mix of speed and danger created an annual can’t-miss lure for television sports fans.  ABC began to broadcast the 500 on a same-day tape delay in 1971, after picking up the event for the first time in 1965.  The network chronicled some of the most arresting sports images of the decade as a result.

Having earned an award-winning reputation for spot sports journalism during the terrorism-interrupted 1972 Munich Olympic games, ABC’s team arrived in Indianapolis for the 1973 race highlighting the rapid increase in technology for the high-velocity open-wheeled cars.  A month of accidents and the death during practice of driver Art Pollard led to an ill-fated race day, which saw several cars involved in a start-line crash that injured drivers and spectators alike.

ABC’s Jim McKay, already a veteran of announcing sporting tragedy in Munich, captured the combination of shock and horror in the prime-time broadcast.  The network continued its coverage of the wreck- and rain-plagued event, which also included the death of a mechanic and a second driver, until it was mercifully ended a few days later.

It is interesting to note the tone of ABC’s Indy broadcasts during the decade.  The network portrayed the 500 as a mid-American tradition run amok, featuring inebriated fans celebrating a late 20th-century bloodsport. If anything, the scene in Europe was worse, with multiple driver deaths occurring in the ’70s.  Two survivors of the motor racing elite, America’s Mario Andretti and Scotland’s Jackie Stewart, successfully pushed through safety mandates that brought sanity to the sport.  Stewart went on to become a stalwart of the ABC Indy broadcasts later in the decade, preaching incessantly about the balance between danger and sports entertainment.  A voice similar to Stewart’s would be welcome for those who see the same conundrum facing American football in the 21st century.

ABC’s contract with the Indianapolis 500 continues to be one of the longest-enduring deals between a sports event and a multimedia producer.  The network’s ability to visually capture the odd pairing of spectacle and sport is still virtually unmatched in American media.

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