Broadcast mixes speed, technology and an 'anything-can-happen' attitude
T he Indianapolis 500 is part party, part race and all spectacle. This is such an event in Indianapolis that many thousands of people go just to be seen by their friends and neighbors, and to enjoy a weekend in the fine spring weather.
Of course, ABC expects that there will be some fine racing and that the television coverage can bring some sense of the events-on and off the track-to viewers at home and in countless sports bars.
Like many sporting events of international interest, ABC's broadcast of the Indy 500 begins with a company that provides "pool" coverage for any broadcaster that buys the rights to the event. At the Indy 500, this host broadcaster is IMS Productions, which is the production arm of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"We originate the world feed," said Dave Gass, director of field operations and engineering for IMS Productions. "We put the facility together, we crew it and we give [ABC] the world feed. They add to it and that's what's broadcast."
Although the actual broadcast of the race is on a single afternoon-in this case, May 25-IMS Productions provides feeds to the local Indianapolis TV stations for most of May, showing warm-up events that are both racing and social in nature.
"We have TV coverage anytime there are cars on the track," Gass said. "We do qualification shows on ESPN and ABC, and have a pool feed for the rest of the month [of May]."
To capture the event, the host broadcaster has more than 40 cameras around the racetrack, some of which are mobile RF units. This year's broadcast will be in standard definition, although Gass is considering the changes necessary for HD production.
IMS Production's facilities include two mobile vans that will be augmented with a third truck supplied by ABC for the race-day broadcast and time-trial events. IMS's primary video switchers are Grass Valley Kalypsos, anchoring an all-SDI system that includes digital post-production facilities.
IMS uses a large complement of Sony cameras and has acquired a truck that has Philips (now Grass Valley) cameras. The Sony cameras include BVP-700s, BVP-750s and BVP-90s, most fitted with Canon lenses, including one camera with a Canon 100x lens. Several of the BVP-90 cameras are equipped with RF equipment supplied by Broadcast Sports Technology (BST), a vendor that specializes in wireless systems for sports broadcasting.
This is a lot of expensive equipment and the IMS trucks do not sit idle for most of the year waiting for the Indy 500 race.
"We do the entire IRL Series for ABC," Gass said, "and we do other stuff as well. We've done some American Le Mans races, some AMA motorcycle races, Superbikes and we do the host feed for Formula 1 [auto racing]."
Gass said that there is no immediate pressure to produce the Indianapolis 500 in high definition; but the possibility is out there and the HD threshold may have to be crossed sooner rather than later. His personal hunch is that there may be some HD for the 2004 Indy.
"ABC said that it wasn't going to do [HD] for three years," he said, "but after going to NAB2003, with all the interest in high-def, I feel it's a lot more imminent than people think it is."
The host broadcaster crew for the Indy 500 broadcast consists of about 60 people. Some are on the staff of IMS Productions but most are free-lancers that have experience with sports in general and auto racing in particular.
About 12 of the Indy 500 cars will each be fitted with two in-car cameras, which bring a track-level perspective of what it is like to be in a car on the famous oval. BST also provides the in-car cameras and their wireless systems, including the ability to pan while the car is on the track. A helicopter is used to capture the microwave signal from the in-car cameras and relay it back to the production trucks.
The director for the pool feed will be Steve Beim, a free-lancer who has directed the Indy 500 broadcast since 1994 and also lists ABC's NCAA football, various golf tournaments and even the recent "I'm A Celebrity-Get Me Out Of Here!" reality series among his credits. Beim works closely with the ABC crew, including Drew Esocoff, the director of ABC's broadcast, to get the shots needed to capture the excitement of cars that reach speeds in excess of 220 mph.
Beim promises that there will be a few new twists this year, including improved locations for the in-car cameras and on-track virtual graphics that show the position of the cars.
"We will debut our new sidepod camera that can pan 180 degrees," he said. "They created a new bubble on top of the car for the camera that should give us a really good look."
He also has some plans to better illustrate the Indy 500 experience.
"We're gonna do some fun stuff to show just how big this track is," Beim said, noting that each of the two straightaways is a mile long.
In addition to the work of the host broadcaster, ABC will bring a production truck, several additional cameras, a crew and its own commentators to the race. Esocoff, the director for ABC's broadcast, will blend the feed from IMS Productions with additional programming tailored to ABC's audience.
ABC's commentators for the race will be Bob Jenkins, Paul Page and Scott Goodyear. Both Page and Goodyear have racing experience and will provide color and analysis. Three pit reporters will cover the action in pit row and a roving reporter will add spice (such as celebrity interviews and garage commentary) to the broadcast.
Bob Goodrich is the producer of the Indy 500 broadcast for ABC Sports, and his credentials with this race go back more than 30 years. Goodrich said that the actual race day broadcast, while it is the premiere event, is just part of the network's Indy 500 coverage.
"We do two weekends of time trials," he said. "We go in on Monday of the first week of trials and we're on the air that Saturday."
Prepping for the big show
Between weekends during the time-trial weeks, Goodrich prepares material that will be used on race day, all leading to the pre-Indy 500 event called "Carburetion Day." ABC brings a crew of about 50 people to work on its broadcast, in addition to the crew that is working for IMS Productions.
"During race week, everything is available to use on Carburetion Day, because that is our only rehearsal with all of our equipment, with cars on the track," Goodrich said. "And that goes for the world feed and [ABC's] feed."
Goodrich has worked on every Indy 500 broadcast since 1970, except one, and has been ABC's producer since 1986. Along the way, he has seen Murphy's Law exhibited in its full glory, including several times during the broadcast. A wayward toy balloon caused the worst incident.
"Just prior to us going on the air one year, we lost the feed from the power company," he said. "Someone had one of those [aluminized] balloons and it was one chance in a billion. It hit the transformer wires and shorted it out-we didn't get the power back on until after the race had started."
The power failure affected the crew that was covering the pit action, so the main broadcast started without the pit feed and without ABC knowing if it was going to be restored.
"When the race was over, we laughed about it but it was a hairy time," Goodrich said.
Local residents and race fans consider the Indy 500 to be a fun event, with a party atmosphere that is one of the social and sporting highlights for the Indianapolis area. The video crew sees another side of the event and can't relax for a moment until the broadcast is done.
"There's no party atmosphere for us until it's over," Goodrich said. "It is a difficult, serious event to do, with guys risking their lives at 230 mph."