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Legendary Announcer Jackson Made Memorable Call as Indy 500 Pinch-Hitter

There have been many legendary “voices” that have called the Indianapolis 500 over the years. From Bill Slater on the Mutual Broadcasting System to the legendary Sid Collins to Bob Jenkins and Paul Page to today’s booming voice of Mark Jaynes on the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network, these are the men who painted a verbal picture of the 500-Mile Race.

Earl Townsend was the first television “voice” of the Indianapolis 500 when Indianapolis television station WFBM (now WRTV) put the “500” on live television in 1949 and 1950. Charlie Brockman was the voice of the “500” on MCA’s closed-circuit telecast of the Indy 500 from 1964-70 when fans around the country could watch the race in movie theaters.

ABC put the Indianapolis 500 on TV as part of its famed “Wide World of Sports” anthology series from 1965 to 1970, shown weeks later after the Memorial Day race. Brockman hosted the ABC coverage in 1965 with native Hoosier Chris Schenkel with the call in 1966.

Beginning in 1967, the great Jim McKay served as the host and play-by-play announcer. McKay’s run at the microphone at the Indy 500 included the first “same day coverage” of the “500” in 1971 and lasted through the final year the race was shown later that night, in 1985. He was famous for the line, “They’re racing at Indianapolis!” when the green flag dropped to start each race during his helm as play-by-play man.

When the Indy 500 was finally shown live beginning in 1986, McKay served as the host for that contest and again in 1987.

But there was another legendary broadcaster that called the race in 1975 for ABC, a man considered by many as the greatest college football play-by-play announcer in history. He called the Rose Bowl 15 times in his career, was part of 10 Olympics telecasts and was also the original play-by-play voice of ABC's “Monday Night Football” in 1970.

It was the great Keith Jackson, who passed away Jan. 12 at 89. Jackson was famous for calling football linemen “the big uglies” and had his unique Southern catchphrases after an exciting play including "Whoa, Nellie!", "Fum-BLE!" and "Hold the phonnnnne!" (following a penalty flag). They were often the subject of comedic imitation.

Jackson was front and center at the microphone for ABC’s coverage of the 1975 Indianapolis 500.

Jackson had served as pit reporter at the “500” in 1971 and had called several NASCAR races for ABC on “Wide World of Sports.” He was scheduled to be a pit reporter for ABC on Race Day in 1975, but McKay came down with a bad cold on the day of the race and could not serve his role as lead play-by-play man.

ABC moved Jackson into the booth, where he worked alongside two-time Indianapolis 500 starter and three-time Formula One World Champion Jackie Stewart to call the race.

During that contest, Jackson gave the call of one of the most spectacular crashes in Indy 500 history when the rear wheels of Tom Sneva’s car climbed over the front wheels of Elden Rasmussen’s machine and launched into the Turn 2 fence. The car erupted into a fireball.

Here is Jackson’s dramatic call:

“Oh, we’ve got an accident! Sneva is on the wall and goes into a terrible flip, and we have a fire! The engine is ripped off the back of the car and comes tumbling across. A.J. Foyt was right behind him and was able to avoid it somehow. But Tom Sneva is in the car, he is moving around trying to get out … What a spectacular flip, and the fire crew will hopefully protect young Tom Sneva as he is trapped in that car.”

Sneva climbed from the car unhurt. He remembers going into a “dream-like” state of mind as his car was flipping on fire. He would go on to become one of the big-name IndyCar stars of the 1970s and 1980s, winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1983.

Later that day, a torrential downpour soaked the Speedway with Bobby Unser leading on Lap 174. With cars hydroplaning through the deep pools of water, the race was called official, and Unser had won his second Indianapolis 500.

Jackson continued his outstanding career as a broadcaster, but that was the last time he was part of the Indianapolis 500 telecast. He focused on college football, the Olympics and the NASCAR races that were part of the ABC schedule at that time.

After more than 50 years in broadcasting, Jackson retired in 2006.

"For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football," said Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company. "When you heard his voice, you knew it was a big game. Keith was a true gentleman and a memorable presence. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Turi Ann, and his family."

And for fans of the Indianapolis 500 who remember the old “same day coverage” of the race on ABC, many of them will remember Jackson’s description of Sneva’s spectacular crash.

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Keith Jackson
Legendary Announcer Jackson Made Memorable Call as Indy 500 Pinch-Hitter
There have been many legendary “voices” that have called the Indianapolis 500 over the years. The great Keith Jackson was front and center at the microphone for ABC’s coverage of the 1975 race, who passed away Jan. 12 at 89.
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