Throughout this long IndyCar offseason, Open-Wheels will use various features to help fans and contributors alike get through these winter months. The newest installment is something I am really excited to be a part of, and it will be called “Voices of the 500.”
This series will recognize the elite fraternity of sportscasters that have been fortunate to call Indianapolis 500 mile races as lead commentator, both through television and the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. We will acknowledge figures such as Sid Collins, Bob Jenkins, Paul Page, Jim McKay and many more in between. For everyone here at Open-Wheels, we hope you enjoy our efforts in this project.
Say what you want about ABC’s recent coverage of the Indianapolis 500 and its additional IndyCar events, but one effort must not be ignored: the invaluable telecast contributions made by its most recent lead commentator, Allen Bestwick.
Since inheriting the title of Indianapolis 500 lead television announcer in 2014, Bestwick elevated the race’s play-by-play coverage after a rather uninspiring era with Marty Reid. Known for his contributions to NASCAR telecasts with ESPN, the Motor Racing Network, Turner Sports and NBC Sports, the Coventry, Rhode Island native has done a fine job carving out his unique call on the microphone.
The formative years
Allen’s career began at age 15 working at his high school’s radio club which eventually became a genuine FM radio station. “I started as a disk jockey and called football, basketball and baseball games before moving on to the local AM station, and then the rest of this crazy journey,” said Bestwick, now 56.
Using various stepping stones to reach professional status, Bestwick joined the Motor Racing Network in 1986 as a race reporter. He would subsequently become the co-lead announcer with legends Barney Hall and Joe Moore at MRN, and later succeeded the great Ken Squier as TBS’ lead NASCAR commentator.
A warm, soothing voice that has aged with the years, Bestwick used giants of the broadcast world to help hone his craft and become a primetime announcer for a number of prominent sporting events. “The list of people who’ve had an impact on my career is long,” Bestwick says.
He mentions Jim McKay, the long-time host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and the initial voice of ABC’s annual delayed telecast of the Indianapolis 500. “Hs enthusiasm for his subjects, smooth delivery and storytelling style became a role model (to me),” recalled Bestwick. “If there was an important sporting event on television, Jim was on it.”
He also makes note of two legendary NASCAR personalities: the previously mentioned Barney Hall and fan favorite, Benny Parsons.
“Barney told me, ‘there’s nothing wrong with having a little class and dignity on the air. BP taught me that the broadcast is much better if the people doing it are really good friends,” said Bestwick. “Benny was one of the best friends I ever had and I miss him every day.”
Additional role models for Bestwick included the former television voice of the Boston Bruins, Fred Cusick, along with Michael Waltrip, Johnny Benson and Ken Schrader. Recanting those last three names, Allen said, “we learned together that if you’re having fun making TV, people have fun watching.”
Next stop, Indianapolis
Following ventures at various networks calling NASCAR events through the 1990s and 2000s, Bestwick settled at ESPN for good in 2011 by replacing Marty Reid on the Sprint Cup Series play-by-play. After Reid was relieved of his duties in 2013, Allen was assigned as ESPN/ABC’s lead announcer for their Verizon IndyCar Series events. This fulfilled a dream of announcing the Indianapolis 500.
When asked what it means to him to call the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as the lead commentator, Bestwick finds difficulty in fully expressing his gratitude.
“I’m just a kid from a small town in the smallest state with no more than a public high school diploma. Now I sit in a seat (that) one of my idols sat in for years, (and) I get to call one of the most iconic sporting events in history each year. I’m still not sure I comprehend completely how that happened but I’m sure appreciative of being in that small group.”
Bestwick recalls his first memories of the 500 with McKay and those ABC Wide World of Sports tape-delayed broadcasts. While his father raced at the local short track through the 1960s, Allen did not have much opportunity to watch the week-old highlight package.
“In the late 60s, the race would be shown the following Saturday. In those days my Dad had a race car at the local short track, and for us that local racing was a bigger deal than the 500!,” said Bestwick. He states that once the race moved to the Sunday evening same-day format, the 500 became “appointment viewing in our house. I have never missed one since.”
Bestwick’s first visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in the late 1980s while traveling to a NASCAR Busch Series race at what is now Lucas Oil Raceway. On this trip he made it over to the “big track” and felt the same rush of emotion that each motorsport fan can relate to when seeing IMS for the first time. “The Speedway was every bit as majestic as I imagined.”
Preparing for the Greatest Spectacle
While a fan could assume there is an immense amount of preparation that goes into calling the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, that assumed value should be taken and multiplied by 100. That gives one an idea of how much work and effort is absorbed by this grand event.
“As a group, we begin preparing for next year’s race as soon as this year’s race is over,” states Bestwick. The production team at ABC will ask questions such as ‘what could we have done better?’ and ‘how can we take viewers to more new and interesting places next year?’ “Those ideas begin to be put into place over the fall and winter… the process never stops.”
During the month of May, Bestwick notes the importance of spending as much time as possible in the garage area, talking to drivers, strategists and engineers alike. Gaining multiple perspectives helps the seasoned broadcaster forecast storylines during a race. “While you can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen, you can be prepared for what’s likely to happen.”
In preparation for the race telecast, Allen will personalize a spread sheet with notes, stats and stories on each driver as well as the race itself. He will use this sheet in the booth from time to time, though repetition through studying often allows him to recite storylines by memory. “I’ve studied that info so much (that) I rarely look at the paper during the telecast,” says Bestwick.
Race day, a cauldron of intensity
For anyone who has attended the Indianapolis 500, you could agree that it is a morning like no other in the world. The mass influx of spectators, all converging on the 2.5-mile oval in Speedway, Indiana from 6 a.m. to mid-day. Various sights and sounds that should probably be shielded from youthful eyes. A flush of color as far as the eye can see. Race day in Indianapolis is the most energetic day of the year.
For the race’s lead television announcer, that excitement begins in earnest on the eve of the event. Bestwick will have dinner with ABC telecast producer, Jim Gaiero, to “rehash” all items the broadcast team has prepared and discussed. An early bed time leads to an early-morning police escort, with the on-air team arriving at the Speedway around 7:00 a.m.
After a quick equipment test in the booth, Bestwick finds time to visit pit road early in the day. “It is usually very quiet then, and I take time to appreciate the day and how much I love being a part of it.”
The team is normally back in the booth by 10:00 a.m., and they will not leave the Pagoda again until well after the race has been completed. Bestwick and his two driver-analysts, Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear, do a quick run-through of the pre-race show from 10-to-11 a.m. The telecast goes live at 11:00 a.m., and the madness ensues.
Once the race begins, Bestwick embraces this repetitive insanity with an ultra-focused state of mind. “There are a thousand decisions to be made each second. What is the most important thing to be showing right now? What do I say about it that gives it proper context and meaning? Am I missing anything?” While the environment is far from relaxing, Allen finds happiness in the stressful reality show that is the Indianapolis 500. “I’m in my element, focused by having fun. It’s my favorite thing to do – walking the tightrope that is live TV.”
As the telecast concludes, the team will tidy up some highlight packages and then head to a meeting point for the motorcade out of IMS. For Bestwick, the ride back to his downtown hotel room offers a chance at reflection and relaxation. “The ride downtown is filled with the first discussion of ‘how did we do’ and what can we do better next time?’ It also includes the big energy ‘crash’ when the adrenaline and focus of the past four hours takes a toll.”
The veteran sportscaster says dinner and a beverage with teammates gives a sense of accomplishment an opportunity to set in, before heading back to the hotel room to watch the race replay to see how the team performed.
Reflecting on time well spent at Indy
When queried about favorite memories from the 500, Bestwick savors the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and its thrilling race to the checkers between Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves. He also recollects a 2016 interview between the race’s only four-time winners – A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears – as an “unforgettable day.”
As lead television announcer for the race over the past four years, Bestwick asks fans to comprehend the massive effort it takes to telecast the race each year. “The Indianapolis 500 is one of the most difficult sporting events to televise. The sheer size of the facility and the amount of equipment required to cover it means more things can go wrong.”
He speaks of the crew of over 150 people that make the telecast happen for ESPN and ABC. This includes the technical crew, brave souls that arrive at the track each day in May before the sun rises and often leave after the sun has set. “Yes it’s their job but they are also ALL race fans who are so passionate about the 500. The energy, commitment and passion they bring to such a massive and difficult project is something I wish every race fan or Indianapolis 500 viewer could see.”
Again, ABC’s coverage of the event has seen criticism over the past decade or so and the public has their right to do that. Upon hearing the efforts and sentiment reflected in Allen’s words, a little compassion should be in order as ABC’s future with the race is in limbo. This includes the jobs of those 150-plus people.
A leader at heart, Bestwick closes with admiration and love for that team. “As honored as I am to be one of the few to ever call the 500, I’m just as honored to be a teammate of these women and men. It’s an amazing group, very worthy of an amazing event.”
If 2017 was indeed the final time that we hear Allen Bestwick on the call for the Indianapolis 500, then there will be some large shoes to fill next May. He carried the race telecast for four years and those efforts are not left unnoticed by the crew here at Open-Wheels. We thank you, Allen, for your dedication to the event and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and look forward to seeing you on race morning once again.