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Live Indy 500 TV Broadcast Is Rare But Not Unprecedented for Central Indiana Fans

Central Indiana race fans can watch the Indianapolis 500 live on local television for the second time in five years, but such a broadcast from Indianapolis Motor Speedway is anything but commonplace.

Before the 2016 race was offered live locally due to all tickets for the 100th Running being sold, it had been 66 years since the “500” aired in real time on Central Indiana TVs.

The 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge airs live Sunday, Aug. 23 on NBC, with Indianapolis affiliate WTHR-13 having the local broadcast. The pre-race show begins at 1 p.m. with the race at 2:30 p.m.

Challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic led to extraordinary changes related to this year’s “500,” including no fans being admitted for the first time and the live local airing of the TV broadcast.

“Under these unique circumstances, we felt it was the right thing to do,” Penske Entertainment Corp. President and CEO Mark Miles said when the live local TV airing was announced July 21, two weeks before the decision was made to reduce fan capacity from 25 percent to no fans.

The “500” was first televised by Indianapolis’ first television station, WFBM (Channel 6), in 1949. The motivation for the broadcast was based on WFBM trying to encourage TV sets to be purchased as most Central Indiana homes didn’t have one. The station aired about 40 minutes of the final day of qualifying, with most of the shots of the crowd.

On Race Day, WFBM opened with a 1946 Firestone documentary about the “500” entitled “The Crucible of Speed,” then offered flag-to-flag coverage of the race using three cameras. Earl Townsend, a noted local trial lawyer, was the lead announcer, and he had two color commentators. With WFBM having regular programming in place by the time the 1950 “500” was held, local viewers had to be satisfied with occasional live updates.

For nearly seven decades thereafter, IMS officials used the lack of live TV of the race to encourage local ticket sales. It worked as the “500” grew into the largest single-day sporting event in the world with an estimated 350,000 people attending the 2016 race.

A sellout of the 2016 race led IMS to allowing a rare live local broadcast. Continuing with tradition, a re-air occurred that evening, giving Central Indiana race fans two same-day opportunities to view the race on TV. Such a double will happen again this year, with WTHR-13 having both broadcasts.

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