Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: The 5 Best Indy 500 TV Openers Through the Years

For many middle-age Indianapolis 500 diehard fans, if someone mentions ‘Delta Force intros,’ they immediately get excited about the topic. 

No, this isn’t about some sort of secret military operation to gain entry into the hallowed grounds at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Or about the Chuck Norris movie The Delta Force which was the epitome of the 1980s action and military genre — and in its own right a very good movie. After all, Lee Marvin is in it. 

Instead the reference is to the classic opening segments that ABC broadcaster and lead Indy 500 commentator Paul Page narrated. From 1988 until the late ’90s, Page’s voice, previously one of the select few to be named the “Voice of the 500” for the IMS Radio Network, would immediately jump in after the ABC Wide World of Sports tease dissolved away. The forthcoming segment was a masterful combination of visuals and storytelling that set the stage for the 500-mile battle that was to be contested by the 33 drivers. Mixing the fast tempo of Alan Silvestri’s theme from the Norris movie, it was the perfect way to prepare the viewer who was settling in for the long, multi-hour broadcast. 

To this day those openers are requested to return and even fans take the time to splice the visuals of today’s machines and events with the narration of one of Page’s unique intros from over 20 years ago. Somewhere out there, an IndyCar fan is sitting at their breakfast table, sipping on coffee, searching YouTube for the perfect segment from various Indy 500s to start their day, to get their mind race ready for Memorial Day weekend. 

As the 1990s transitioned to the 21st Century, ABC’s openers were handled differently, but still hit the mark in creativity and emotional connection. Examples include actor William Fichtner walking on the Speedway in 2011, touching on the past and future of the race as the 100th anniversary spectacle was about to commence. Later in 2016, when the actual 100th running was on air, a mix of drivers and fans spoke about what the race meant to them as it was entering a new century in racing.

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Unfortunately, with NBC taking on the broadcast starting in 2019, these openers have seen very little use. There have been a few enticing moments, such as the military production for that first NBC race that was narrated by a National Guard division commander (here’s a little inside news for you – I’m in the segment as well). But none of the action-packed, storytelling segments have been used to such effectiveness, or been as memorable, since ABC lost the race after 2018. 

As this week heads into the 108th Running of the Indianapolis 500, let’s take a look at the top 5 best teasers through the years. 

2011 – William Fichtner and The Pursuit Of Immortality

The 100th Anniversary Indy 500 was going to end up being one of the most memorable after J.R. Hildebrand slammed the fourth turn wall heading to the checkered flag, watching Dan Wheldon storm by for what would turn out to be his final IndyCar win. But the race opener added to the impact that the race would have in the long history of it’s broadcast. 

With the well-known voice of Brent Musburger introducing the segment, Fichtner begins walking along the front straight away, detailing the various unique traditions and events that made Indianapolis special. Whether picking up a cold bottle of milk and setting it down as a musical score let go a triumphant sound, or walking past authentic racing machines while digital versions crashed in the background, it was a great lead into what was going to be a classic race. 

Perhaps the best part was the closing, as Fichtner stopped along the Yard of Bricks, leaving fans with the great line to take away: “But every year on Memorial Day weekend, comes the chance to cross these bricks and live forever. No votes, no politics, no ‘thanks to the academy.’ Just driver, machine, and the pursuit of immortality.”

Goosebumps. 

2006 – It Is Time with Kiefer Sutherland

There is a trend with some of the better introductions seeming to align with unbelievable finishes. Maybe the drivers are getting as motivated as the fans and viewers at home. For 2006, the 90th Running, it was Kiefer Sutherland’s turn to narrate. While the ’90s had Paul Page, several segments in the 2000s brought in star power with noticeable tenors and tones that helped raise the level of drama the openers elicited. In this case, Sutherland does just that. 

Using the theme “It Is Time” and relying on a ghostly mirage of Ray Harroun, the narration is one of the better-scripted teases for sure, and it even better with the voice-acting of Sutherland. More significant for this production was ABC committing to something this good after a massive leap in viewership in the 2005 race due to Danica Patrick’s run to the finish. All this lays a foundation for a great look at the various drivers and stories heading into the 90th running, to include Michael and Marco Andretti, the latter racing in his first Indy 500, the Team Penske duo of Helio Castroneves and eventual winner Sam Hornish Jr., 2005 champion Dan Wheldon and of course, Patrick. 

While it would have been nice for a look at some of the other drivers in the race, this one was successful in covering those who would win and round out the top three by the checkered flag. Using the eerie, spiritual theme of the competitors rising from the same ground that Harroun once wheeled over definitely connects the then and the now. 

Finally, it’s Sutherland’s stoic and steady narration that seals it. By segment end, his closer nails it: “The singular goal remains the same. Every driver wants it. One will taste it. Welcome to the only time and place where speed and desire will culminate in immortality. Welcome to the 90th Running of the Indianapolis 500. It is time.”

If you don’t feel like running through a wall to watch this race after that, then you have no motorsport soul.

2016 – The 100th Running

The most engaging segment to run by ABC was the one created for the race’s 100th running in 2016. Rather than use historical allusions and facsimiles, fans were brought in to narrate along with current and former drivers to interweave the impact the race over the previous 99 events. It was grounded by using fans to speak to the emotional connection they had with the race as spectators and long-time visitors. This unique approach ended up raising the profile of this incredibly historic legacy.

With many drivers included, the segment was top notch in story-telling, touching on personal mishaps and moments that defined each driver. But more than that, using the opinions of the fans of some of those events made it more relatable to the viewers. 

At the end of the almost four-minute opener, the transition from recalling moments to what it felt like to win, what the was goal for each driver in the field sealed the deal for what the end state of the tease was. Previous winners holding a bottle of milk, some drinking, others just grasping at the memory of holding that same one in victory lane, stirs the immediate reaction. Victory is the ultimate achievement. 

As Mario Andretti says while holding his bottle, “this works.” Indeed it does Mario. 

2001 – The Delta Force Theme Returns With A New Voice

The recurring theme skipped a few Memorial Day Classics at the end of the prior decade, but in 2001 it returned, with a slight twist that worked out pretty well. Instead of a full-segment narration, this time by the host of the ABC broadcast, Al Michaels, it was the drivers themselves speaking up. 

Granted, the 2001 opener only included each former winner still alive at that time saying the years they won, it was very symbolic to include past and present to showcase the exclusive club they were in. For the majority of the recording, it looks like most are all in a room together. While the Split continued on, as it was closer to its initiation rather than conclusion at this time, the sight of CART stalwarts Rick Mears and Andretti in the tease seemed to thaw the emotions over the ongoing war at the neutral battlefield of Indianapolis. 

Nothing narratively really stood out like the previous ones on this list, but just hearing each driver recite their year was enough. At the end, Michaels returned to touch on some of the drivers to watch for the current race. Then, as if the sight of all the winners together wasn’t enough, the segment concludes with four-time winner AJ Foyt stepping out from the shadows of the Borg Warner Trophy. His legend was built on this race, and there was no better driver to bring the run of Delta Force teases to an end. 

1992 – The Time Is Now

Every The Delta Force themed opener has its own special qualities about it. But the best one by far is the 1992 edit, which covers a lot of ground in its three-minute-and-21-second segment. Included are three interviews spliced with highlights of the recent runnings. The drivers used – Al Unser Jr., Foyt and Mario Andretti – all have significance in the upcoming race. Unser Jr. recently lost to Emerson Fittipaldi in the closing laps of the 1989 race, Foyt was believed to be possibly competing in his last 500 and Andretti still was riding a wave of snakebit luck at the Speedway since his dominant car failed in the 1987 running. Each voice carried a lot of weight to the challenges to run the Indy 500, and how it wasn’t just another race. Instead, it was the race, and each one knew it. 

As the segment first opens, it’s the instrumental music playing over the famed features of IMS, before a hovering shot runs down the straightaway, showcasing the pristine condition of the once-a-year used facility. The narration draws on the long wait for the next 500 to start, and what it means. This type of storytelling isn’t done in today’s sports, which makes this much more epic, even if the visuals clearly ignite unfond memories of day-glo colors and fanny packs. 

Overall, it’s a great mix of current events, story lines and history. Andretti’s summary at the end sells it to everybody: “This place, more than any other, will probably push you to the very limit. Because there is so much at stake. And there comes a time when you just got to say ‘man you got to go for it.’”

With dramatic zoom-ins of various drivers, there is a strong sense of men riding into battle, but instead of combat vehicles it’s sleek racing machines. As far as openers go, this is the best as far as showing what Indy means, and what each driver is up against in their quest for victory. 

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So that’s it: The top 5. Sure there are others. Honorable mentions include the 2013 version, with an actor playing Carl Fisher walking on the grounds of his “cathedral of speed” and the 1990 segment with its dramatic retelling of the 1989 battle between Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi. 

Hopefully whoever takes on the next media deal with IndyCar will have a broadcast director who was a young kid watching those ABC openers years ago. That person will know what it means to hype up the ensuing 500-mile contest, to detail every story in a frantic and action-packed way, to tell great stories and link back to the over century’s worth of history within the Speedway’s wall.

As a famous actor said during one of those segments, “It is time.”

About the author

Tom Blackburn

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. Besides writing the IndyCar Previews and the occasional Inside Indycar, he will hop on as a fill-in guest on the Open Wheel podcast The Pit Straight. His full-time job is with the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. After graduating from Purdue University with a Creative Writing degree, he was commissioned in the Army and served a 15-month deployment as a tank platoon leader with the 3d ACR in Mosul, Iraq. A native Hoosier, he calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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