August 24, 2020
Promotions Heading into Race Day
Ask any racing fan, and they will tell you there’s absolutely no substitute for being there, in the stands, on race day. This year, though, has closed many of those stands to live spectators, making TV and the internet the only way to watch their favorite drivers compete in their favorite races.
Indy 500 Producers Take Different Approaches to Race Day
This was certainly not the situation NBC hoped for when they acquired the broadcast rights for one of the most storied annual events in all of auto racing, the Indianapolis 500. However, that’s how things are shaped up in the run-up to the “big one” in Indy. Preparing for the event, which was moved to August from the typical Memorial Day weekend time slot due to COVID, broadcasters and racers were both optimistic and a bit misty about the changes this year.
CBS analyst Mike Tirico said everything felt “new” as he prepared to host his very first Indy 500. Tirico said his team was focused on “taking stock of the things we do professionally and personally… We will miss those fans incredibly, but the Indy 500 is still the Indy 500… We’re documenting the history and sharing it with fans at home.”
And that was the message headed into race day, a “we’re making the best of it” approach that has been very common in sports PR since the pandemic came and threatened to close off live sports entirely. Now, baseball, hockey, basketball, and racing are back. Without fans in the stands, but they are back to live competition.
But that doesn’t mean it was business as usual for the production or broadcast crew of the 500. Heading into race day, they were facing the reality that this year’s event was simply not going to have all the usual pomp and circumstance of the typical Indy 500. There was no Last Row Party and no Festival Parade. The Purdue Marching Band, which played host for nearly a century, will not be playing on pit lane this year.
Gone, too, were the military parade and the vintage car parade, and so many other things that made up what so many called the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing…” and yet, producers and broadcasters still had to get the fans pumped for the event and ready for race day.
Danica Patrick, a former racer and first woman to lead in the 500, who was tapped to call the event with Tirico, said there was some sadness when she thought about how the 500 would play out this year. “It’s sad that there won’t be that energy and ambiance we’re so used to with the parades and the pomp and really bringing the energy up as it does before every race… Being a driver, there’s the canon, the song, and dance… so many people flooding in…”
Given those realities, producers had to focus on other things to get people paying attention. These plans included special performances of the national anthem and the return of racing favorite Jim Cornelison singing “Back Home in Indiana,” as well as an unexpected treat for race fans, a flyover appearance by the US Air Force Thunderbirds, who can’t ever make the 500, because it’s usually run Memorial Day weekend when they are booked elsewhere.
Promoting the event prior to race time, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles focused mainly on what would be happening, rather than what was missing. “The elements that you would expect that are really important are back… I often say the most magical moment is the 30 minutes leading up to the green flag… the tradition (is) something you can count on year after year… It was important for many of those elements to remain…”