Danica Patrick feels like she’s at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an encore. After a seven-season break from racing in the IndyCar Series, she returned to her racing roots for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 as her career finale before walking away from race track.
But she’s back at the iconic Brickyard – the track she’s said feels like home, especially since she’s staying at her parents’ house this week — in a new role to experience the Indy 500 from a totally different perspective.
Patrick joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mike Tirico on NBC’s all-star team for the network’s inaugural Indy 500 broadcast. It will be the first Indy 500 broadcast for Tirico, Earnhardt and Patrick — although the latter two, as retired race car drivers, have a bit of personal experience on which to rely. And that means everyone will have a “fresh perspective,” Patrick said.
NBC outbid ABC for the rights to the Indy 500 and agreed to a new deal last year. The event, known as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, had previously been carried by ABC since 1965, making it the second-longest TV partnership behind CBS and The Masters (since 1956). IndyCar and NBC know the change to the world-renowned race will be watched closely — and that now is the time to build momentum. NBC can accomplish that with Tirico, arguably the most trusted voice in sports broadcasting today, as well as two recently retired drivers who transcend motor sports and can draw in fans.
.@miketirico @DanicaPatrick @DaleJr will be among 14 NBC Sports commentators providing coverage of Sunday’s #Indy500 which begins at 9 am ET on @NBCSN before moving to NBC at 11 am ET. https://t.co/EahsaBqgWK pic.twitter.com/iobFibWQUZ
— NBC Sports PR (@NBCSportsPR) May 23, 2019
“There’s going to be a lot of newness,” Patrick – who had seven full-time season in IndyCar and six in NASCAR before retiring in 2018 – told For The Win about the 103rd Indy 500 on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Everyone on pit road – myself, Mike Tirico and Dale Jr. — are all going to be announcing this race for the very first time, together, so I think it will also add an interesting perspective. We’re not jaded. We’re observing for the first time and hitting the high points.”
Tirico, Patrick and Earnhardt will provide pre-race, in-race and post-race coverage, while Leigh Diffey is on the play-by-play with the help of analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, who a combined 19 career Indy 500 starts.
After Patrick got some practice on air last weekend during a thrilling qualifying round, she joked that she “can’t call the broadcast stressful after having driven this race.” And she explained she loves when newly retired athletes show up on TV because they have such an informed viewpoint on the mindset and strategy of those still competing, and she believes what they say, hoping viewers will feel similarly about her.
She was just behind the wheel a year ago in her eighth Indy 500 start. She was the first woman to lead laps in this prestigious event (which she did as a rookie in 2005), she finished third in 2009 and she knows the intricacies of this race.
“[Tirico] keeps saying, ‘You’re going to show me how it goes,’ ” Patrick said. “And I’m like, ‘Uhh, that’s not gonna happen. You’re going to show me how it goes!'”
Tirico is, of course, the TV expert here, having hosted so many of NBC’s high-profile broadcasts like the NFL and the 2018 Winter Olympics. He’ll fill the same role Sunday at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval.
Patrick praised him as a “total pro” with a “beautiful, smooth” delivery. But he’s still new to racing – although he’s previously said this “was the one race as a family we’d sit down and watch” and gets chills thinking about fans tuning in for him.
He’s also a bit of a fan of the two newest Indy 500 analysts, both of whom also raced at Indy in NASCAR but never won.
“If you [ask] anyone in America, and say, ‘Hey, can you name two drivers in auto racing in America who have been popular and who you know?'” Tirico said Thursday during a media conference call. “They’re going to mention Dale Jr. and Danica, and I get to watch the 500 with them and experience that with them. So, couldn’t be luckier.”
No one is an expert in everything, but they’re all an expert in something, Patrick joked during the conference call. And while the newcomers are certainly embracing the novelty of their first Indy 500 broadcast, they’ll have to rely on each other.
However, providing a newcomer’s reaction to the biggest sporting events in the world is exactly what Earnhardt has been expected to do through much of his first year and a half on TV with NBC.
Sure, he’s in the network’s broadcast booth for the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series season from June to November (after FOX covers the first half). But when he’s not doing that, the network has enlisted him to cover major events for the first time, like the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby. In the role of an outsider, he’ll continue to be paired with Rutledge Wood on air as he explores the Brickyard’s jubilant and intoxicating race day scene for the first time.
“I’m going to be experiencing something new and having a genuine reaction to everything,” Earnhardt told For The Win. He’s also driving the pace car and leading the field to green.
“I really don’t walk into these situations with a script or any kind of planned notes or anything like that. I’ll just be taking it in as it’s happening, and when they come to me and need me to say something, I’m going to say whatever’s on my mind.”
I am blown away by my experience here @IMS. The entire @IndyCar industry has been so fun to get to know. My respect for the Indy 500 is immense, but this event is bigger than I imagined. Absolute bucket list item. It’s got something for everyone.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) May 24, 2019
But unscripted doesn’t mean he’s winging it. Earnhardt deeply cares about doing his job on air well, and he’s done his research.
He’s already caught up in the majestic history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, from the early 20th century days of the Indy 500 to the Yard of Bricks to it being abandoned during World War II. He respects the track’s and sport’s history and appreciates that he’s a guest in IndyCar’s world – though drivers have enthusiastically welcomed him in.
“Boy, are we lucky that [the track] is still here,” Earnhardt gushed. “Think about all the opportunities where it could have disappeared. … I know I’m going to see and feel and sense things that I’ve never felt or sensed at any other race I’ve been to.
“Even the most important races in NASCAR that are very dear to me, this is going to be unlike that.”
The goal for these newcomers is simply to be relatable as they break down the stories of the drivers, the track and past Indy 500s so they’re easily understood by diehard racing fans and viewers who don’t know who won last year. As one of the biggest motor sports events in the world, this might be the first or only race of the year some people watch, Tirico said.
Coverage begins at 9:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and then continues at 11:00 a.m. on NBC with honorary starters Matt Damon and Christian Bale flying the green flag around 12:45 p.m.
“In the pre-race show with Danica and Dale Jr. and the other correspondents on that show, how can we help connect the stories that matter at the 500 and the event that is the 500 to everyone at home?” Tirico said.
“If you’re not here, make you wish that you were. If you’re going to sit at home and watch the next three, four hours, let you know about the interesting people and the stories that matter.
“And if you choose to care and connect to them, then when we pass it off to Leigh, Townsend, and Paul to call the race, those guys will chronicle somebody who you may not have known about at 10:00 a.m., but by 3:00 p.m., you’re standing up in front of your TV rooting for them to take the checkered flag.”