On Friday, January 12, the sports broadcasting world lost an industry icon as five-time National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association sportscaster of the year Keith Jackson passed away at age 89. Jackson, who worked for ABC from 1966 to 2006, covered events from the World Series to the Olympics.
Although he made his legacy as a football broadcaster, first as the play-by-play announcer on Monday Night Football and then becoming a mainstay of ABC’s college football coverage, Jackson did get a chance to leave his mark on the IndyCar world.
In 1975, ABC had scheduled Jackson to report from pit lane during the network’s broadcast of the Indianapolis 500. When regular lap-by-lap announcer Jim McKay had come down with a bad cold, ABC tapped Jackson to fill in as lead announcer for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
As true a professional that one could find, Jackson opened the tape-delayed broadcast with his trademark tone that boomed across the heartland to all of those watching at home. On a typical May overcast day in Indianapolis, the legendary sportscaster set the scene for an exciting afternoon of racing.
The 59th Indianapolis 500 would turn out to be one of the wildest in the race’s storied history. A.J. Foyt started on pole in his quest for a record fourth Indy 500 victory. The Texas native weathered early challenges from 1973 and 1974 race winners Gordon Johncock and Johnny Rutherford to dominate the early portion of the race.
By lap 59, Wally Dallenbach had stormed from 21st on the grid to take the lead from Foyt and in turn lead 99 of the next 103 laps in the race, opening up a 20-second lead in the process.
On lap 126, a frightening crash occurred in turn two when Tom Sneva was clipped by rookie Eldon Rasmussen, sending the 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner flying into the catch fence. Amazingly, Sneva climbed from his car and survived the wreck with burns to his face, hands and legs.
On lap 162, as Dallenbach seemed well on his way to his first Indianapolis 500 victory, a burned piston on his Wildcat-SGD ended the Patrick Racing driver’s day early. Up front, Rutherford made his way back to the lead but relinquished the top spot to 1968 winner Bobby Unser when he made a pit stop two laps later.
The yellow flag would fly for a light rain on lap 171, prompting Unser and Rutherford to pit. That light rain would turn into a downpour three laps later, and the red flag displayed.
A major wreck broke out on the front stretch, as several cars spun and slid through the rain. Unser was declared the winner, his second win at Indianapolis, and the first for car owner Dan Gurney. Interestingly enough, Gurney had finished second during Unser’s first win at Indianapolis in 1968.
When it was all said and done, Jackson had completed his first and only appearance on an Indianapolis 500 broadcast. Following 1975, Keith could be found on a bevy of influential productions, including three Olympics, Reggie Jackson’s three home run game in the 1977 World Series, and even the 1990 Formula One Monaco Grand Prix won by Ayrton Senna.
Jackson would ride off into the sunset following the epic 2006 Rose Bowl National Championship Game as Texas and the University of Southern California played in front of a dramatic television theatre with millions watching.
As always it was Jackson’s voice that provided the background, the base, and the intensity that lifted the game’s highlights even higher than the realm of sport itself.
The media world has lost one of its greatest treasures in Keith Jackson, a Georgia native with the power and vibrato that commanded attention in a room the same way it commanded a television audience.
If you listened to a major sporting event on ABC during the 1980s onward, most likely you have become familiar with the legendary voice. If you haven’t, we recommend a trip to YouTube and an hour or two dedicated to enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
Much of the Indianapolis 500’s lore in the American sports scene can be attributed to the ABC broadcasts over the past 53 years. Although Jackson was the network’s voice for just one Sunday in May, the legendary announcer will have his distinguished career forever linked to the great race for his work in 1975.
With all due respect to Jim McKay and the cold he encountered in May of 1975, we are all very lucky to have witnessed Jackson leave his own mark on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, if only for one Sunday afternoon.
Open-Wheels offers its condolences to the Jackson family at this time, and we ask that all of our readers remember Keith now and in May when we visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Images courtesy of IndyCar and video courtesy of ABC Sports.