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Johnny Esaw and the Indy 500

Published May 25, 2012

The 96th Indianapolis 500 auto race will be held Sunday afternoon and there are two Canadian drivers in the field of 33 — supernova James Hinchcliffe from Oakville and veteran Alex Tagliani of Montreal.

All of us who are interested will settle in front of our TV sets between 11 a.m. and noon to hear Jim (Gomer Pyle) Nabors sing Back Home in Indiana, watch the Purdue University All-American Marching Band play patriotic songs and listen as Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Mari Hulman George says the four words originally made famous by this race: “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!”

Follow Norris McDonald @wheelsca as he Tweets the Indy 500 Sunday

It was not always thus. People first listened to this race on the radio. Newspapers would put out extras when someone won. In 1964, the Indianapolis Speedway formed the Indy Television Network and started delivering a live telecast of the race via closed circuit to movie theatres and sports arenas in North America and Europe. In Toronto, the long-gone Glendale Theatre on Avenue Rd. north of Lawrence and Maple Leaf Gardens were two of the venues where race fans could go for their 500 fix.

Not until 1986 did ABC broadcast the race live, previously showing highlights on its popular Saturday afternoon Wide World of Sports program a week later or else showing it the same day but in evening prime time on tape-delay.

Not until 1986 did ABC broadcast the race live and for free — in the United States, that is. Canada was a different story. Starting in 1977, nine years before Americans got to see the race as it took place, Canada’s CTV network went live-to-air with the telecast that ABC was recording.

This story is about how that came to be and the man who pulled it off, the long-retired Canadian broadcasting legend, Johnny Esaw.

That first race in 1977, held on Sun., May 29, was interesting for a variety of reasons:

— The first woman driver to qualify, Janet Guthrie, would start 26th and eventually finish 29th in car No. 27 — the same number Hinchcliffe will carry in Sunday’s race.

— The Speedway’s owner, Indiana businessman Anton Hulman Jr., who’d rescued the now-famous race track from neglect following World War II, would join A.J. Foyt — who became the first driver to win four 500s that day — on a victory lap, something he’d never done before. Hulman was to die just five months later.

— Tom Sneva, an American who cut his racing teeth on speedways in Alberta and British Columbia, won the pole position (he eventually finished second behind Foyt) and was joined in the 500 by two Canadians he’d raced against on the way up, Eldon Rasmussen of Edmonton and Cliff Hucul of Prince George, B.C.

— The driver who led the most laps, only to drop out with 16 to go, was American Gordon Johcock, who’d frequently raced at Ontario speedways, notably Pinecrest in Toronto and Capital City in Ottawa.

— James Garner, fresh from starring in a move about F1 racing, Grand Prix, drove the pace car.

While ABC host Jim McKay and colour commentator Jackie Stewart were taping the spectacle for broadcast that evening, Esaw and Fort Wayne, Ind., radio personality Hilliard Gates were in a booth right beside them, broadcasting the race as it happened across Canada and into northern U.S. cities where aerials could pick up the CTV signals.

Now, Esaw was in tight with ABC because of a relationship he’d had with Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News and Sports, which went back to 1960 when they were both breaking into the big time.

“I’d been hired to be sports director of CFTO, which was just going on the air,” said Esaw, now 86, during a recent interview in his midtown Toronto condo.

“Roone was just starting his career at ABC. He wanted to televise the World Figure Skating Championships from Vancouver and wasn’t getting anywhere with the organizers. He asked if I’d help out.”

Esaw, a native of North Battleford, Sask., who was well known in western Canada for being the “voice” of both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders and who’d been lead announcer on several Grey Cup broadcasts, managed to buy the North American rights for CFTO and the ABC network.

“Roone was very appreciative,” said Esaw. “So appreciative, in fact, that we kept in close touch and when we launched the CTV network (in October, 1961) I was able to get Wide World of Sports weekly, three major golf tournaments a year, heavyweight championship fights and just about anything else I wanted from ABC and it didn’t cost CFTO or CTV anything.”

It was through Wide World of Sports that Esaw realized the popularity of automobile racing.

“I think the first race ABC covered was the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” he said, “Thousands of people were there. And then they showed the Grand Prix of Monaco. The great American driver, Phil Hill, chased Bruce McLaren and Stirling Moss at the end. It was very exciting. I saw some potential there.”

That potential was at Mosport International Raceway (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), which opened north of Bowmanville in 1961.

He was honest in our interview, admitting he wasn’t as familiar with auto racing as he was with some other sports. “But I had to learn in a hurry,” he laughed, “because I was soon out there negotiating for the rights to the races with, first, Imperial Tobacco, and later, Labatt’s.”

Esaw remembers vividly the first Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport (for sports cars), because it was the first race that CFTO broadcast.

“Early in the 60s, the Mosport track was opened,” he said. “It was the only track in Canada at the time that was big enough to handle the big sports cars and, eventually, the Formula One cars. We would drive out there and it was very exciting to be able to see world-class racing drivers in action.

“For that first Grand Prix, Stirling Moss came over, and the French driver, Olivier Gendebien. They went up against the great Canadians, drivers like Ludwig Heimrath and Peter Ryan (who won the race).

“We broadcast the race on CFTO and one or two other stations. It wouldn’t have been on the network because the network didn’t exist until a bit later. I can’t remember the details exactly but I would say we took three, maybe four cameras out there — great big things — and remember: that was our first year of television so we didn’t have that much equipment.”

CTV, under Esaw’s direction, broadcast races regularly during the 1960s and incorporated auto racing into Canadian segments of Wide World of Sports broadcasts in the 1970s. Canadian and U.S. Grand Prix broadcasts were a staple during that era and Esaw hired the late Toronto Star auto racing writer, Len Coates, to report from pit lane, something that fit into Esaw’s philosophy of announcing.

“I didn’t know as much as I’d have liked about racing,” he said, “but one thing I did know: I always had to have someone working with me who knew the sport, and the personalities. That’s how I got involved with Jackie Stewart, Len Coates and, later, Hilliard Gates.”

Gates, who died in 1996, was the best-known sports announcer in Indiana, a man whose voice was so distinctive he appeared as the announcer in the 1986 high school basketball movie Hoosiers. He was a legend in his own time and when Esaw went looking for a sidekick to do colour on his first Indy 500 broadcast in 1977, the selection of Gates was a no-brainer.

“I made the deal with ABC to go live with our coverage,” he said. “I didn’t see any reason to hold back. ABC was taping it. They would show it that night at 8 o’clock. They agreed to let me do it live. It was on our border stations across Canada, so some Americans were actually seeing it — but the vast majority had to wait till later.

“The guy who owned the speedway was Tony Hulman, who was one of the nicest men I ever met in sport. He treated us so well that first year. It was a great experience; there was 400,000 people there. Jim Nabors was singing, I never realized how good a singer he was, the marching bands would come along, and the Purdue University girls in their gold outfits . . .

“They played the U.S. national anthem and the cars would start up. My heart is pumping! I can’t believe what I’m seeing! The balloons would go off into the sky and the race would start. All those things were foreign to me, but I got so pumped up. . .”

In addition to Gates, Esaw also got to work with Chris Economaki, the editor/publisher of the National Speed Sport News weekly who Arledge hired to work on race broadcasts.

“He was the first colour commentator on ABC,” Esaw said, “and I knew him very well. He was a writer and then a commentator. Unlike a lot of today’s sports announcers and commentators, he knew how to ask questions. He and I were very alike in that way. Anybody who worked for me did it my way and my way was to ask pointed questions.”

Esaw, Gates and CTV did the Indy 500 live until 1986 when ABC decided to go live itself. It wasn’t part of any long-range plan, though. In fact, the network was forced into it when a sports break announcer in 1985 inadvertently announced the winner of the race in the middle of the tape-delay telecast and there was a national outrage.

“So when ABC decided to broadcast it live in the afternoon, there was no reason for me to continue doing it,” Esaw said. “I got the feed as part of the original Wide World of Sports deal, so I was happy.”

Esaw has great memories of those days — he calls F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone the toughest negotiator in all of sports (“tougher than any hockey or football executive”) and says he continues to admire Jackie Stewart (“he was the first driver to have commercial contracts, you know”) — yet doesn’t follow racing like he once did.

But when the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” comes on for the pre-race show Sunday, when the marching bands will be playing and Jim Nabors will be singing, he’ll be watching right along with the rest of us. And why wouldn’t he?

“James Hinchcliffe, who’s from Oakville, you know, could win the Indianapolis 500,” said Johnny Esaw.

“I wouldn’t want to miss that!”

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