In 1986 and 1987 I had the privilege of narrating the first two live telecasts of the Indianapolis 500 for ABC Sports. Think about that: more than thirty years into the live sports television era, more than twenty-five years after the first live national telecasts of the Kentucky Derby, the Masters, the World Series, the NBA playoffs, the NFL Playoffs, the Olympics, the Daytona 500 and every other major sports event within time zone reach, the Indianapolis 500 was being shown live on television for the first time.
It had taken that long for ABC Sports executives patiently to convince the Hulman family of Indianapolis, essentially mom-and-pop proprietors of the world's most heavily attended single-day sports event, that they could allow the race to be shown live without losing their cultural distinctions.
And there could scarcely have been a better moment to open the race up. The ultra-glamorous Kentucky playboy Danny Sullivan had just scored his unforgettable spin-and-win victory. The Andretti-Foyt-Unser hegemony that had controlled the race throughout the seventies was intact via two active generations. A true Formula One icon, Brazil's Emerson Fittipaldi, had completely forsaken higher-cachet F1 for the American open-wheel circuit and the holy grail of Indy. And the 1986 race among Kevin Cogan, Rick Mears and winner Bobby Rahal was the most closely contested in the history of the speedway.
Who could have known the entire sport was about to implode in a festival of irrational egotism, greed, and petty politics? By the early nineties, with star owner Roger Penske and most of the top teams and drivers having defected to Indy-exile in the CART Racing Series, the "World's Greatest Race" had become more of a curiosity than a major international event. Imagine the College World Series with 400,000 spectators on hand. The Indy Dark Ages lasted more than a decade.
Yesterday, amid the strongest race field in years, a 23-year-old Roscoe, Illinois native named Danica Patrick led the race with six laps to go and ultimately, on flagging fuel, held on for fourth. Race fans can debate all year whether her spin-out on a green flag and her brief stall in the pits cost her the race and stamped her as a pretender, or her resiliency in fighting past traffic to erase those setbacks and sieze the lead redeemed her to instant stardom. Maybe both are true to some extent, as Ms. Patrick herself deftly hinted in post-race interviews.
What's not debatable is the result in the public arena: the great American race was on the front page of dozens of major newspapers today including the staid New York Times. Danica Patrick put it there.
The point about women in motor racing has been made before, by Shirley Muldowney and Lyn St. James and Janet Guthrie, among others. Yesterday Danica Patrick again made that point, but for the moment she did something a few of us who've been to Pit Row might not have thought possible: she revived open-wheel racing in America. It's no small feat. Now let's see what the boys can do with it.
Oh by the way. It's come to my attention Greg Gutfeld plans to provide complimentary commentary this week on my twin attributes of being "pompous and disconnected". Just want to offer thanks in advance. Disconnected for sure, because if I were connected things would be different. And we all know nothing great is ever achieved without pomposity.