I once interviewed A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty, at the same time.
Really, I did.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network is one of the most enduring media outlets in motorsports, bringing coverage of the Indianapolis 500 to people around the world since 1952. From sea to shining sea, across both hemispheres and to every continent, the IMS Radio signal has literally reached tens of millions of listeners.
I was fortunate to be a part of the Indianapolis 500 broadcast from 2004 to 2010 when I served as a pit reporter. It was a fun and exciting experience, particularly for a guy who grew up sitting with his parents each Memorial Day and listening to the race broadcast on the network’s flagship station WIBC in Indianapolis.
Although the broadcast landscape has changed in recent years, IMS Radio continues to reach a formidable audience each May. This was driven home to me one day when a man approached me at a dirt track somewhere.
“Hey, I heard you on the radio for the Indy 500!” he said excitedly. That kind of feedback was not unusual, and he continued. “It was a couple of years ago, and I was sitting on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. You were on the Armed Forces Radio Network, just as clear as if I was sitting in the grandstands at Indy!”
He looked wistfully at me for a moment. “Gee,” he said. “It sure felt good to hear those race cars. Made me feel like I was back home for a couple of hours.”
It was one of those moments when I was reminded that all of this media stuff matters to people more than we realize.
The radio coverage at Indianapolis began each May on the qualifying weekend prior to the 500, and by far and away the most rigorous production was race day itself. The broadcast team would arrive early that morning, riding in the service elevator to the top of the Pagoda that towers over the IMS landscape. There the entire group – a dozen on-air personalities and another dozen production people who make it all happen – sat down for a production meeting. Each of the pit reporters had a spotter to help us, and I was privileged to work with Linda Conti, the best spotter in the business.
One of the first topics for discussion is the two-hour pre-race show. During that period an assortment of interviews, features, and analysis is woven into a narrative that leads to the important pre-race ceremony and the start of the race itself. Some of the interviews and features are pre-recorded, but most of the content is delivered live.
In 2007 we crowded into the broadcast suite—a glass-enshrouded room on the ninth floor with a magnificent view of the track and infield – as executive producer Wally Leavitt and Mike King, the Voice of the 500, began going over a list of topics we wanted to include in the pre-race show.
The 2007 race was A.J. Foyt’s 50th consecutive appearance at the 500 as a driver or team owner (his 35 consecutive starts as a driver at the 500 is a record that might not ever be matched). It was a big story and we all knew that it needed to be a part of our pre-race show.
“Guys, we want something with A.J.,” Mike instructed.
This was not necessarily an easy assignment. Depending on his mood, Foyt could be as elusive as a fox and as prickly as a grizzly bear. But one of us – whoever saw him first – was supposed to get an interview. We all nodded solemnly and pretended to write something down on our notepad.
“Richard Petty is here today,” Mike continued. “He has to leave midway through the race to get back to Charlotte, so we need to get something from him pre-race. Okay, guys? We want to hear from Petty.”
Interview with the King. Check.
When the meeting concluded everybody set about getting into position. The pit reporters dressed in an IMS Radio firesuit, then donned an RF-radio set and microphone that allowed us to communicate and provide on-air content. We gathered our notes and rode down the elevator, disappearing into the sea of humanity that is truly unique to Indianapolis on race morning.
After a radio check to make sure the electronics were set, I walked back to Gasoline Alley to line up a couple of things. Soon it was time for the pre-race show to begin, and through my headset I could hear the engineers calling out to the affiliate stations that the feed would begin in three…two…one…
They cued the familiar bump music and jingles to introduce the show. For the rest of my days my stomach will flutter and my heart rate will increase whenever I hear that music. We are now, as they say, on the air. Live.
We were maybe 15 minutes into the show when I walked out onto pit lane and turned right. I had gone maybe 30 yards when I spotted A.J., talking with a couple of his crew members. I approached them but kept my distance, waiting until A.J. had finished and the other guys walked away.
Through the years I had interviewed Foyt probably a dozen times, but I had no illusions that he might recognize me. He looked at me as I stepped closer.
“A.J.,” I said. “Would you have a minute to talk with us on the radio?”
Sometimes you can look into a person’s eyes and see the wheels turning inside their head. At that moment I could sense that Foyt was making up his mind. Finally he said, “Okay, I’ll talk.” His enthusiasm was less than overwhelming.
“I’ve got A.J.,” I told my producer, Brian Livingston. “How quickly can you come to me?”
“We’re in the middle of a two-minute break, Dave,” Brian said. “Then we have a quick bit with Mike and we’ll come to you. Hold onto A.J. until we get there.”
Hold onto A.J.? Man, nobody holds onto A.J. When A.J. is ready to go somewhere, he goes.
“We’ll be about two minutes until they’re ready for us,” I told A.J., almost holding my breath. “Can you stick with me for two minutes?”
He stared at me. “I guess,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “Congratulations on 50 years, by the way. That’s pretty cool.”
“I guess,” he said again, and an impatient look was beginning to creep across his face. This was shaping up to be the most brief and forgettable interview in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
My stomach began to tighten. At any moment I expected A.J. to glare at me and say, “Piss on this, I ain’t got time!” But he stood beside me, unsmiling. The next 15 seconds felt like 15 minutes.
Just then I heard a commotion to my left, and I turned. There, sauntering along on those legs that look to be eight feet long, came Richard Petty. He was wearing THE sunglasses and THE big cowboy hat and was surrounded by an entourage of people.
Richard spotted A.J. and without missing a beat turned and walked toward us. His grin was a mile wide and I looked over and now A.J. was grinning, too.
They shook hands and exchanged a hearty and warm greeting.
Never in the history of motorsports broadcasting has a better – and more unlikely – scenario been presented to a reporter. This was gold, and it had fallen right into my lap.
“Richard,” I said quickly. “I’m about to talk with A.J. on the radio. Will you join us?”
“Yeah, I’ll talk to ya!” Richard said enthusiastically.
As he and A.J. resumed their greeting I keyed my mic.
“Brian!” I said quickly. “I’ve got Richard Petty! Get to me as quick as you can!”
“I thought you had Foyt?”
“I do! AND Petty!”
“Together? At the same time?”
“Yes! Please hurry or I’ll lose ‘em both!”
Almost immediately we were surrounded by a huge throng of onlookers. Listen, if you can’t draw a crowd with Richard Petty and A.J. Foyt, you’re hopeless.
In my ear I could hear our commercial break drawing to a close. Coming out of break Mike King quickly tossed it down to me.
Brian gave me my cue. “Go Dave!”
And thus began one of the most memorable moments of my professional life. Richard was wonderful, and his words were fun and sincere. A.J. responded in kind, getting into the exchange with warmth and humor. In a lighthearted way I played them off one another, and it almost felt like they were as excited as I was. It was truly a scenario that one couldn’t dare dream would ever be reality.
Thank God for good photographers. As I held the microphone I noticed several people with a camera – not a phone, but a real camera – focusing on us, including my friend Chris Jones of IMS Photo. In the back of my mind I knew this moment would live forever.
We wrapped up the interview and I thanked them both, then tossed it back upstairs.
Richard and his entourage headed up pit road, Foyt turned and headed for the garage area, and the throng of people evaporated. In a moment or two it was just me standing there, almost in shock, wondering if what had just happened was real.
In the booth they went into a pre-recorded piece and Mike immediately spoke to me. “Dave,” he said, excitement tinging his words, “that was awesome!” What made the moment all the better was the genuine excitement from everybody on the broadcast team. Even though I was the one who happened to be holding the microphone, this was a neat moment for all of us.
My most recent – I won’t say “last” because, who knows, maybe I’ll be able to be a part of the broadcast again someday – IMS Radio appearance came in 2010. My TV schedule had grown to the point where scheduling conflicts made it impossible to get back to Indianapolis in time for the 500 broadcast, so I was once again a listener along with millions of others.
But my years at the network brought many great memories. Memorable moments, interesting people, and always lots of drama as the race came down to the wire.
The most enduring memory is the day when, for a few exciting moments, I shared the stage with Richard and A.J., two of the greatest personalities in the history of the sport. I’m sure they’re both still telling people about it. Well…maybe not. But that’s okay. It’s still a big deal to me.
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