500 facts: broadcasting 

Radio and TV — and the personalities

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400. The first 500 broadcasts hit the air in 1922.

Two low-powered stations, WHO and WLK, carried limited descriptions that year.

401. WGN reported from the Speedway in 1925.

Chicago's legendary station updated listeners from the track during the 500, along with a local outfit, WFBM.

402. NBC broadcast the last hour of the race in 1928.

The anchor was Graham McNamee, a big gun-sporstacster of the era who'd called World Series games as well. Locally, WKBF carried the race.

403. A service station at Delaware and Michigan carried the race on radio via "special equipment" in 1929.

Carr Tire advertised a "radio party" in the May 29, 1929 edition of the Indianapolis News. The ad did mention you could just go ahead and hear the last hour "in your own home."

404. Bill Slater anchored 500 radio calls during the Mutual Era.

Slater handled live calls at the start and finish with periodic updates on the network from 1939 to 1950. (The track was, of course, dark during World War 2.)

405. The Indy 500 was actually broadcast in Indy on live TV for two years.

In 1949 and 1950 WFBM (now WRTV) showed the race as it happened, a practice stopped by the IMS in 1951. (Until 2016's sellout, that is.)

click to enlarge WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons

406. Sid Collins began his longest-to-date run as the "Voice of the 500" in 1951.

Although Mutual was no longer the official network, flagship WIBC-AM sent the signal to roughly two-dozen stations in the network. Wilbur Shaw tapped Collins after Sid had co-anchored the broadcast the year prior.

407. The IMS Radio Network was born in 1952.

All the gear and on-air talent came from WIBC. Donald Davidson, writing for the Speedway's official site, notes: "There has been a perpetuating myth, persisting for over 50 years, that the race was always broadcast in its entirety. In fact, the IMS Network's debut was with a virtual duplicate of Mutual's format of 30 minutes at the beginning, with a 15-minute lead-in to the 11 a.m. start, another 30 minutes at the end, and a series of 15-minute updates slotted in between regular programming."

408. The first "flag-to-flag" broadcast aired in 1953.

The coverage was heard on over 100 stations.

409. Tom Carnegie called the Milan game.

Carnegie was the game announcer for the Indiana Boys High School Basketball tourney, first broadcast on television in Indy in 1953. The "Voice of the Speedway" worked with Howdie Bell and Tony Hinkle during his time on the mic for the tournament. In 1954, he handled broadcast duties for the Milan upset of Muncie Central, the game that saw Bobby Plump sink the winner and would eventually inspire the film Hoosiers. Carnegie also had very fond memories of calling the back-to-back wins for Crispus Attucks high in 1955 and '56. Attucks was the first all-black school in the U.S. to win a state hoops title.

410. The phrase "The greatest spectacle in racing" was coined in 1955.

Marion native Alice Greene was a copywriter for WIBC in the '50s, and suggested the "spectacle" tag as an "outcue" for the network prior to commercial breaks. "Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing" has been in use since Sid Collins first uttered the phrase during the '55 broadcast.

Alice Greene, who suggested the "spectacle" tag as an "outcue" for the network prior to commercial breaks: "Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing."
  • Alice Greene, who suggested the "spectacle" tag as an "outcue" for the network prior to commercial breaks: "Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing."

411. Closed-circuit TV broadcasting brought about a rule change in 1964.

Prior to the 1960s, the drivers were permitted time to complete the full 500 miles, even if it meant remaining on the track for several minutes or over an hour after the winner crossed the finish line. In the very early years, completing the full 500 miles was even a requirement to receive any prize money. For a period of time, waiting until at least 10-12 cars completed 500 miles was typically the norm, although not a rule. The honor of joining the prestigious 100 mph Club was considered motivation to continue racing, even if the chance to win the race had was long gone. 

In 1964, when the race started airing live on closed-circuit television, the rules were changed which limited the time drivers were allowed to finish the race once the winner crossed the finish line. Roughly five minutes were allowed for the other cars on the track to complete the 200 laps. 

— Nora Spitznogle

412. Donald Davidson saw his first 500 in '64.

Davidson's expansive knowledge of the race and the track led to a brief appearance with Sid Collins on the official race broadcast.

413. ABC started televising the race in 1965 — kind of.

From 1965 to 1970, the 500 was part of ABC's Wide World of Sports. From 1971 on the race was a tape-delayed, edited affair that was blacked out in Indy. In addition to Jim McKay's lap-by-lap calls, race fans were introduced to names like Chris Schenkel and Chris Economaki with color commentary from racing legends such as Rodger Ward and Jackie Stewart. The race became a live television event in 1986.

414. David Letterman was a turn reporter for the TV broadcast in 1971.

Letterman — misidentified by Jim McKay as Chris Economaki — interviewed Mario Andretti right after a Gordon Johncock crash that collected Mario. After Dave's second question: "What about the traffic — the faster cars are coming up on the slower cars now?" Letterman probably wished that McKay hadn't corrected himself.

415. Paul Page took over as broadcast anchor in 1977.

The Evansville native was given the gig after Sid Collins took his own life — Collins had been diagnosed with ALS in April of 1977 and died May 2.

416. 500 TV broadcasts were tape-delayed nationwide through 1985.

Until the 1986 race, radio was the only place to hear the live broadcast — which is still the case in Indianapolis itself. During the 1970s and '80s, the number of affiliates carrying the race hit roughly 1,200.

417. Mike King had the second-longest tenure as the "Voice of the 500."

King's 15-year run followed stints by Page, Lou Palmer and Bob Jenkins. After King stepped away in 2013, Page returned to the booth. Page will hand the mic to Mark Jaynes after the start of the 100th running.

418. At last count, "The Indianapolis 500 race is broadcast in 213 countries and reaches over 292 million households."

So sayeth the IMS.

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Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.

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