ABC/ESPN Should Take A Page From Its Past
A couple of weeks ago, ABC/ESPN released the lineup of the broadcast team for the five Izod IndyCar Series races they will broadcast in 2010, beginning with the second race of the season at St. Petersburg. My reaction was ambivalence, at best. The lineup features very few changes – Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear in the booth, to be joined by Eddie Cheever at Indianapolis; along with the recently demoted Dr. Jerry Punch, Jamie Little, Vince Welch and newcomer Rick DeBruhl on board as pit reporters.
Vince Welch is as solid as they come. Ditto for Jamie Little. Rick DeBruhl is a former Phoenix TV reporter with a motorsport broadcasting background that includes Champ Car, IMSA and the Nationwide series. Jerry Punch came under fire for being too boring for the booth at NASCAR events, but personally – I’ve always liked him. The fact that NASCAR fans rejected him speaks highly of him.
A noteworthy absence from the lineup is the name of Jack Arute. It had been rumored since late last season that Arute was going to move exclusively to Versus, although I had never seen a confirmation. I guess this serves as confirmation. Say what you will about Jack Arute – he sometimes seemed to consider himself one of the stars of the show and his “emotional” interviews grew tiresome – but there was never any questioning his passion for the sport. This will be the first ABC telecast of the Indianapolis 500 in almost twenty-five years that won’t feature Arute in the pits. Something seems a little unnerving about that.
My problem with the ABC/ESPN lineup is in the booth. The tandem of Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear is one of the best cures for insomnia that I can think of. Goodyear is OK, but is just very dry. He would do well when paired with someone that is not as humorly challenged, however he does NOT do well when paired with Marty Reid. There is a noticeable lack of chemistry beyond those two, which is perplexing since they are headed into their fifth season together. If it hasn’t developed by now, it probably isn’t going to.
The only thing that really made Marty Reid an attractive choice as lead announcer for the Izod IndyCar Series races is the fact that his name was not Todd Harris. Harris was a one-year experiment in 2005 that proved disastrous for ABC/ESPN. In the name of going after younger viewers, Harris was chosen to replace Paul Page in the booth. In defense of Todd Harris, he himself recognized that he was woefully unprepared for the role – his background included the X-Games and the World’s Strongest Man competition – and he feared long-term IndyCar fans would reject him. His concerns were well founded as he alienated most fans with his overall lack of knowledge and his over-the-top fawning over anything that involved then-rookie Danica Patrick.
If it were left to me (which for some reason, it isn’t), I would choose to bring Paul Page back to the ABC/ESPN booth. To me Paul Page is the quintessential broadcast voice of the Izod IndyCar Series. As much as I admire Bob Jenkins and the presence he brings to Versus – Paul Page is THE most representative living voice out there for the series.
Although he grew up as a military “brat” in Stuttgart, Germany; Paul Page is considered a Hoosier by most. After his freshman year at the University of Tulsa, too much fun caused his GPA to drop low enough to make him eligible for the draft. He beat them to the punch and signed up and spent six years in the U.S. Army.
Page began his broadcasting career in Indianapolis at WIBC in 1968. In 1974, he joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network as a pit-reporter. Longtime IMS Radio anchor, Sid Collins, was diagnosed with ALS in April of 1977 and took his own life the next month – just weeks before the Indianapolis 500. He and Paul Page had become good friends. It was Sid Collins’ desire that Paul Page assume his role as the chief anchor on the IMS radio network.
So when the green flag dropped for the sixty-first running of the Indianapolis 500, it was Paul Page assuming the role that Sid Collins had held since 1952. Page did a masterful job at filling in with little notice. He did such a good job, he held the post as “Voice for the Indianapolis 500” for the next eleven races before moving over to the ABC broadcast booth in 1988. It was there that he began working with Bobby Unser and Sam Posey where they formed the unlikeliest trio on the air.
The Unser-Posey on-air squabbles were legendary. In the meantime, Page was at his best calling the race and interjecting his own passion and enthusiasm for the sport, while also trying to maintain some sanity in the booth. If the racing was ever dull, at least you knew that the trio in the booth would be entertaining.
When the split came in 1996, it affected the broadcast booth as well. Page stayed with the IRL for the first few years, while Bob Varsha called the CART races. Then, Page was moved back over to cover the CART races in 1999 leaving Bob Jenkins to handle the IRL duties. The 1999 Indy 500 was the first time that Paul page had not had a hand in broadcasting the race since 1973.
For the 1999 CART season, Paul Page was paired with whom I consider one of the worst analysts ever – Parker Johnstone. Page continued on as the true professional he is, despite the bad pairing. He was behind the microphone when Greg Moore was fatally injured. Although you could sense the tremendous loss in his voice, Page never wavered.
By 2002, Paul Page was back at the Speedway covering the IRL. That stint lasted through the end of the 2004 season. That’s when ABC inexplicably gave Page the hook, in favor of the young and inexperienced Todd Harris who lasted just one year before yielding to Marty Reid.
While Reid is a massive improvement over Todd Harris, he is no Paul Page. The best way I know how to describe Page’s style is “controlled passion”. His passion and enthusiasm for this sport oozes through his delivery, yet he has never been “over the top” as is the case with younger sportscasters who are always trying to convey that whatever they are calling is the ultimate event…until next week’s.
Instead, Paul Page is usually under control. He can shout a bit, but it always seems to be appropriate. Like so many of us, he has lived and breathed the Indianapolis 500 his entire life. Over time, he has learned to merge his love of the sport with his trained profession. Lately, he has been seemingly shoved to the side calling NHRA, snowmobile races and hot-dog eating contests for ESPN. The executives at ESPN will tell you that the NHRA was their top-rated motorsports programming before they got NASCAR back in 2007. I know they will because that’s what they told me after I wrote a disparaging article about them last May, but I digress.
Regardless of the ratings, NHRA is not where Paul Page needs to be. His love and passion falls with the IndyCars and most importantly, the Indy 500. My seats at Indy are directly behind the number-two pit stall. A couple of years ago, I saw Paul just milling around behind the Ganassi pit during the race as if he really didn’t know where to go. He hung out there for a while and then wandered off down pit lane. It struck me how hard it must be for him to spend race day at Indianapolis with nothing to do. Fortunately, Mike King was gracious enough to have Paul Page join him in the IMS Radio broadcast booth in 2009.
To have such a talent to be sitting idle on race day, while Marty Reid rambles on up in the booth is almost criminal. Marty sounds like he doesn’t really want to be there, while you certainly know that Paul Page wants to be there. He is only in his early to mid-sixties (as is Bob Jenkins) and has many good years left. Most fans I talk to really miss Page in the booth. Did Page make someone mad at ESPN? That’s the only explanation I can come up with as to why a talent like Paul Page is allowed to be misused on NHRA broadcasts.
The broadcasts on Versus are excellent and Bob Jenkins does a great job. The problem is that no one sees them except for us die-hards. With the five races on ABC, that’s about the only real opportunity the Izod IndyCar Series has to shine to a potentially large audience. It’s a shame the series can’t put together a one-two punch of Jenkins and Page. Instead, Marty Reid is heading up the showcase while Paul Page wastes away in the ESPN doghouse.